Sam Davidson shares a great quote he saw at the National Civil Rights Museum:
“Truth comes from being involved, and not from observation and speculation.”
Amen to that. The pursuit of truth is really why many of us came into the nonprofit sector. Most of us were looking for something real, something meaningful happening in this big bullshit world. But the question is, do most of us find it when we get here, or do we just find more spin, just as much posturing as we see coming from our politicians? As Jeanne Bell will tell you, we pay a price for the stories we tell about ourselves. Because the problem with many nonprofits today is that we are supposed to be in the business of making social change—the kind that can be funded, measured, replicated, and tied up in a pretty red bow. The kind of change that can only happen in air-conditioned offices with receptionists screening our calls, that doesn’t need to speak out against anything because the good work speaks for itself. We think we know what the community needs even though we’ve never set foot over on the east side of town. We have our protocol and our fears about getting too political, and we think we’re doing some good if we get a little mentoring program up and running without addressing the piss-poor state of the school system.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the inauthenticity of keeping quiet. I moved to DC in 2004 after participating in the March for Women’s Lives, a huge march on Washington and a real protest to secure reproductive rights for women in the face of the Bush administration’s actions. I helped organize one of our bus groups of women’s studies students from Richmond to DC and it really felt like I was doing something, for once in my life. My grandmother thought I was insane to be involved with such an event, and was convinced I would forever be on the “government’s list.” And the college feminist radical in me really wished I was indeed on some watch list. I was proud to be identified as a dissenter. I wanted it to be on the record that I did not agree with the political decisions that were being made on my behalf as a woman. I got involved because NOW (National Organization for Women) along with the Black Women’s Health Imperative had provided me with some real knowledge I wouldn’t find in the history books or on primetime TV. And they showed me what it meant to take action, armed with that truth, to drive change. Yet somewhere along the way I traded in my protest signs for business casual and board meetings. I’m not really sure how I feel about it now, I’ve been wondering if this is the same sector I discovered in 2004. I mean, we can’t be all about protest and dissent 24/7, right? Someone has to pick up the pieces. But maybe this sector dichotomy is just a representation of the way we’re being trained to toe the line. As Elisa, one of my readers, comments:
It doesn’t help that our educational system and the organizations we work in don’t encourage us to do this kind of try and fail experimentation. I don’t know about anyone else, but where I went to school, toeing the line was going to get you farther all the time. Then you transition to a work place that is the same way and it becomes in your best interest (at least in terms of staying ‘comfortable’) to again toe the line.
And I have to be honest here, a lot of my idealism from four years ago has since waned because I’ve seen how nonprofits really work. But I’ve been thinking about what my responsibility is to the Rosetta of four years ago, the one who found out what was really going on and told everybody about it. What is my contribution if I forgo seeking truth in order to avoid getting into some kind of trouble? Where are we going as a nonprofit sector if we lose our drive for the pursuit of truth at all costs? And what good are we as independent organizations if, when we find it, we are too afraid to speak truth to power?
Am I the only one that’s lost a little of my college idealism? What’s been your experience?
Rosetta Thurman is an emerging nonprofit leader of color working and living in the Washington, DC area. She holds a Master’s degree in Nonprofit Management and blogs about nonprofit leadership and management issues at Perspectives From the Pipeline.