“On June 10, 1946 Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion of the world, was refused service at a diner in Franklinton, NC. As he left the diner he lost control of his car and crashed causing life threatening injuries. He was brought to St. Agnes Hospital in Raleigh as it was the closest hospital that would serve blacks in the vicinity. It was here that he died from his injuries at 68 years of age. The technology existed to save his life, however it wasn’t available at St. Agnes. It was available at the whites-only Rex Hospital just a few miles away.”
I feel connected to Jack Johnson’s story, because 70 years later my wife and I moved into a home just down the street from St. Agnes, starting me on a journey to learn the untold stories of our community. This story also hits home for me, because as a Raleigh native, I was born at Rex Hospital, so learning this story connects me to the disconcerting truth that the doors of opportunity that have always been opened to me–down to the doors of the hospital that welcomed me into this world–have literally been shut in the face of others.
Social impact is the buzz word of the day in the nonprofit community. But the reality is, you can’t talk about impact without talking about injustice. Because the truth is, social impact work exists in our communities largely because justice does not.
A working definition for justice is “to give people their due”. One side of that is negative – when people do something wrong, they need to be stopped. The other side is positive – to lift up and care for those who have been marginalized. Justice is both retributive and restorative. It is also both individual and social.
So how just is our region? Bryan Stevenson, Founder of the Equal Justice Initiative is quoted as saying “the true measure of our commitment to justice, the character of our society, our commitment to the rule of law, fairness, and equality cannot be measured by how we treat the rich, the powerful, the privileged, and the respected among us. The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned.”
At ReCity, our mission centers around building more just communities. During my time in this work, I’ve seen three problems that consistently stand in the way of justice in our communities revolving around proximity, power, and partnership.
We Have A Proximity Problem
Many of us can go throughout our days completely removed from poverty & injustice. I experienced this first hand living in Southeast Raleigh. We’ve literally built roads to enable us to drive around certain sections of town instead of through them.
Stevenson goes on to say how “we must get “proximate” to suffering and understand the nuanced experiences of those who suffer from and experience inequality. You can’t understand most of the important things from a distance. You have to get close”
Otherwise, we draw conclusions about communities where we’ve never been present and people whose stories we don’t know.
We Have A Power Problem
Creating more diverse tables is a great place to start. But we also have to ask, who owns the table? Because the owner of the table chooses who gets a invitation. Ownership matters. So who owns social impact?
A few statistics to help paint a picture:
A 2014 study showed that nearly 70 percent of nonprofits state diversity as a core value, and over 60 percent of nonprofits offer services that impact people of color almost exclusively. And yet, only 7 percent of nonprofit executives, 18 percent of nonprofit employees, and 8 percent of nonprofit board members are people of color.
Perhaps most telling of all, foundation funding has never exceeded 8% for organizations led by people of color.
The point here is not to make people feel bad for the power they have. Power is just a charged word we use for the ability to make something of this world. Sadly, that power is often abused. But the point here is not to say that people with power are evil. The point is, if you’ve been given power or privilege, you have a responsibility to multiply it, to share it, to do everything in your power to give it away.
Because the reality is that the people closest to the problem are closest to the solutions, but farthest from resources and power. If we are to build a more just region, this has to change.
We must amplify voices that have been historically marginalized, because just communities are ones where everyone is empowered to pick up a pen, because everyone gets to co-author part of their own story.
We Have A Partnership Problem
Many are proximate to the need, but often justice efforts still remain fragmented and siloed from each other, diluting our impact.
Durham has 4,700 nonprofits, five times the national average, yet one in four residents is still in poverty, too many of them people of color. Why? It’s not because these nonprofits are doing shoddy work. Many are doing INCREDIBLE work. But they often come to their own limits and have a hard time knowing who else might be able to step in and help.
A community is at its best when each of us is empowered to cook our signature dish and serve it to our neighbors so we all can flourish. We don’t just need more people at the table. We need people to know there’s a table to begin with. We need to lock arms and do this together. 4,700 nonprofits, working together, won’t just accomplish what 4,700 nonprofits can do, they will MULTIPLY their effectiveness. I know it’s possible. I’ve see it happen everyday at ReCity. So how do we move forward?
Ask yourself a few questions:
1. How homogeneous is my network, my community?
Who are the last ten people you texted? Who are the last ten people you had at your kitchen table? Do they all look like you?
Get proximate to the “other”. Audit your networks and work to diversify them. You can start small. Read a book or subscribe to a podcast on a topic you care about written by a person of color. Being a regular at a restaurant or gym where you are the minority will put you in a position to build relationships with people with different lived experiences and perspectives.
2. Am I willing to lean in and listen?
Listen. Our communities need more people humble enough to be quick to listen and slow to speak.
3. What’s my social mobility story?
Learn your own story and the story of your community. I have to take an honest look at how I got to where I am so I can know how to help my community get to where it needs to be.
4. What’s already working in my community?
Simply put, don’t reinvent the wheel. Most likely there is already someone doing the work you’re passionate about. Seek to partner whenever possible before starting something new.
5. If I have power, where can I give it away so others can flourish?
Power isn’t evil in and of itself, its what you do with it that matters. Sadly more often power is used for self-advancement instead of being used as a tool to lift others up, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Find ways to empower those closest to the problem who are best positioned to lead us towards the solution.
Martin Luther King, Jr. said it best when he said “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”
The story of our community is a shared story. Let’s pick up our pens and write a new chapter, together.
ReCity Network is the Triangle’s hub for social impact. Based in downtown Durham, ReCity is home to a rapidly growing network of almost 100 community leaders from over 40 organizations, all committed to pursuing a shared vision of building thriving communities that are rooted in justice.