When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. - DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING
America’s Promise was founded nearly 25 years ago when all the living presidents at the time called on all Americans to fulfill the promise of America for every young person. Our founding chair, General Colin Powell, understood that generations of youth have faced systemic inequities in many communities and that non-profit partners serve in a critical role bridging young people’s environments and needs.
Racism is a persistent and pernicious aspect of young people’s lives. In our own qualitative research and others’ quantitative research, young people have consistently named racism as something that harms their health and well-being. In summer 2020, our Board member Michael Powell shared his reflection that racism is fatal to the mission of America’s Promise Alliance and that “a Black child cannot grow and thrive in a society that will cancel their worth solely because of the color of their skin.”
Our response has come in the form of a partnership space for us and our Alliance partners to identify actions to critically improve the way our organizations work internally and with youth and in communities of color. In time, the Anti-Racist Alliance launched as a collective of 14 organizations engaged in deep inquiry and exploration and articulation of new ways of working.
In this first blog of the series, we share a few lessons from our experience preparing to lead the Anti-Racist Alliance.
While it appeared that more Americans were finally waking up to the reality of racial injustices in 2020, history has also shown that the public has a short attention span. Lasting change requires a strong foundation.
When designing this partnership, we asked ourselves three critical questions: What is within our locus of control? Where should we begin? Who is needed to take this idea from conception to implementation?
We are not the first to engage at the intersection of dominant culture and change management, so we looked to experts and facilitators in racial equity for guidance on what to do and what to avoid. As we moved towards co-creation, we were encouraged to be careful listeners and synthesizers, make space for relationship building, and meaningfully partner with youth.
Terminology and definitions were another brick in our foundation. We intentionally chose the language of anti-racism and dominant culture so as to take an active stance and to deliberately foster dialogue on issues of race-based oppression and power dynamics.
Finally, we had goals for the journey to actionable commitments but no prescription or set calendar. This was a difficult posture to take and made some of our partners uncomfortable. We will share more in a later blog about what this looked like in practice.
Once ARA was green-lit, we gathered a team to stand up the initiative, which we affectionately called the Tiger Team. Borrowing from other sectors like technology and the military, a tiger team is a specialized, cross-functional team brought together for a time-limited period to solve a problem or address an issue.
The ARA Tiger Team included members of our finance and communications teams and individuals with partner relations, program design, and research skills. Jahari Shelton, one of our youth Board members, and Calvin Tran, a young person on our Trustees group, also joined the team. We credit them with educating and encouraging us to use the language and principles of anti-racism and unpack ideas and mindsets around White dominant culture and the non-profit industrial complex, rather than diversity, equity, and inclusion.
For many of us, the Tiger Team was a first-of-its-kind professional experience. In the early days, we took time to build trusting relationships by checking in with each other as full humans and celebrating and supporting each other however we needed. This gave way to a safe space to discuss what it means to be an American, White fragility, performative versus substantive equity, and the characteristics of White dominant culture.
Working on anti-racism for the last 18 months has been emotionally taxing and empowering. We have received subtle and explicit messages that we will fail. Creating an anti-racist environment requires individuals to learn and unlearn “the way things have always been” and examine who benefits from prior practice. With our colleagues, we have learned to cede power, admit when something is wrong, and evaluate how White dominant culture shows up in how we work. Regardless of race, ethnicity, or other identities, these topics require us to leave our comfort zones.
Rachel reflected stating, “as a black woman this work could be triggering at times because I was now able to understand how systemic patterns of behavior and institutions are often rooted in racism and had direct impacts on the experiences that I had growing up, people that I knew, and my community at large. The more that I learned the truth of how the youth-supporting sector could be perpetuating harm, the more I felt energized to tell others the truth and be part of the movement to create a better future.”
Monika reflected on her experience stating, “I’ve been able to sustain myself because of habits I developed earlier in my career. I stay curious about people and issues. I go to therapy when I need it and I make time for the things that fill me up. These habits have helped me to care for myself while also working towards the ultimate goals of the Anti-Racist Alliance (ARA), especially when things get challenging – and things have been really challenging along the way.”
Many who are engaged in this kind of change management work call for radical self-care because to start and stay on this journey, burnout is not an option.
Stay tuned for our next blog, which will share our experience in making this partnership action-oriented and joyful. The authors are leading the Anti-Racist Alliance at America’s Promise Alliance in collaboration with 13 national youth-supporting organizations.