Fighting Racism Requires Nonprofits and Foundations to Learn How to Talk Openly About Injustice

January 06, 2021 11:39 PM | Philanthropy Delaware (Administrator)

(December 16, 2020 by Tanya Barrientos and Norris West - Anti-racism is trendy. Organizations of every size and stripe have communicated their commitment to equity, inclusion, and justice through emails and public declarations on social media and on their websites. And that’s a good thing, isn’t it?

Yes and no.

Yes, it’s essential for nonprofits and foundations to communicate about racism — clearly and courageously. But without a strong understanding of how to authentically communicate about diversity, equity, and inclusion, there is a danger that the terms will become nothing more than hazy principles and hollow values.

For far too long, foundations and nonprofits have avoided the difficult work of creating communication practices aimed directly at dismantling discriminatory obstacles that harm the people and communities they serve. And scrambling to hop onto the anti-racism bandwagon now by sprinkling a few empty buzzwords into institutional messaging is not the answer.

Knowing how to honestly talk about race and racism has vexed leaders and communications professionals of the almost always white-led social sector. Foundations and nonprofits with admirable missions to do good, to be allies, and to help communities thrive have for decades communicated in ways that convey the opposite.

Communicators in our field have the power and the responsibility to counteract inherent bias in our society. But we’re not really sure how to do it. Or we never have worked hard enough to combat the flawed thinking that hinders our efforts to forge the future we wish to create.

The words and images we use matter. Throughout American history, language and images have shaped public opinion in overt, subtle, and divisive ways, projecting negative portrayals of Black people and other racial groups.

Need for a Shared Vocabulary

The reactions to protests for racial justice across America this year have underscored the deep discomfort our society has in addressing race and racism. Some of that discomfort comes from the polarization we experience across identity, belief, and geography. More comes from the absence of a shared and useful vocabulary to discuss what is arguably the most persistent and important issue facing our nation.

What if organizations aiming to do good used communications in ways that advanced narratives and images of the society we want to see?

What if we committed ourselves to communicating with words that are less incendiary and more illuminating, telling stories that honestly examine our history and propel us to make our nation’s future better?

What if our communications practices could be effective in conveying facts while also recognizing the shared humanity and aspirations of all people?

Two years ago, the Communications Network accepted that challenge and began to develop a tool kit to guide everyone interested in improving how they communicate about diversity, equity, and inclusion. We embarked on this project to help leaders, communicators, writers, editors, designers, developers, planners, producers, and speakers treat every racial group with respect in their meetings, and their messaging without falling into the traps of bromides and jargon.

We believed it was essential to build these tools on a firm foundation of academic research and to make them easy to use.

First we needed to know what resources already existed. Gramercy Research Group scanned the landscape for DEI literature and resources and examined the current state of racial-equity communications among foundations and nonprofits. We surveyed our 2,000-member organization online, conducted interviews of leaders in the social sector, and reviewed the practices our members’ organizations were using.

What we learned was informative but not particularly surprising: There was a dearth of specific guidance available and lots of confusion.

According to our survey, 56 percent of the communications professionals serving at foundations or nonprofits said diversity, equity, and inclusion were not significant components of their organization’s communications strategy. Nearly six in 10 said they did not have a strong understanding of DEI concepts.

Our research also found that organizations’ definitions of DEI were all over the map. And there’s a serious lack of data and metrics on the effectiveness of communicating about racial equity.

Why ‘Colorblind’ Approaches Fail

Even more troubling, many organizations have adopted “colorblind” framing that avoids pointing out, or even mentioning, obvious differences in culture and experiences in an effort to avoid tension instead of acknowledging and celebrating the qualities of every culture.

To help, we produced a new, evidence-based report that examines the current state of communicating equity. And we built a web-based tool kit that includes guidance and case studies to serve as inspiration and a resource.

The tool kit offers plain-spoken tips such as:

  • Take a closer look at your branding. Do you portray your organization as a savior, a partner, or a bridge?
  • In your messaging and imagery, are you showcasing the strengths and aspirations of the people you serve, or are you highlighting their deficits?
  • Do your promotional materials reflect reality, or are they a cherry-picked version of your organization’s racial identity? Orchestrating a facade of diversity is a glaring example of tokenism.
  • Communicating data that only emphasizes disparities and poor outcomes to donors may increase contributions, but it advances biased stereotypes and does not portray people honestly.

Of course, we know this project is not the final word on how to bring the practice of diversity, equity, and inclusion into communications work across the social sector. But it is a modest and, we hope, a solid starting point.

It’s time for all of us to stop feeling uncomfortable with — or perhaps more accurately, to face the discomfort of — communicating about the systemic injustices baked into our society. So let’s educate ourselves and start flexing new muscles. Because at this point in our nation’s history ignoring the need for real change is irresponsible. And neglecting to act is simply malpractice.

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