Digging In With ONN

Anti-Black Racism and solutions for change

Episode Summary

Over the last decade, Rudayna Bahubeshi has tirelessly advocated for racial justice and equity. In this episode, we unpacked systemic and interpersonal realities of anti-Black racism and racism within the nonprofit sector, while exploring formal and informal solutions for change within the sector. BIO: Rudayna Bahubeshi is an advocate for advancing equity and justice and has nearly ten years of experience in nonprofits, charities and government. She is Black and Arab, of Eritrean and Yemeni descent, and lives in Tkaronto. She has led programming, communications, and stakeholder engagement strategies at various nonprofits and charities, and has worked on a number of political campaigns. Recently, she completed her Master of Public Policy at McGill University’s Max Bell School.

Episode Notes

Over the last decade, Rudayna Bahubeshi has tirelessly advocated for racial justice and equity. In this episode, we unpacked systemic and interpersonal realities of anti-Black racism and racism within the nonprofit sector, while exploring formal and informal solutions for change within the sector.

BIO: Rudayna Bahubeshi is an advocate for advancing equity and justice and has nearly ten years of experience in nonprofits, charities and government. She is Black and Arab, of Eritrean and Yemeni descent, and lives in Tkaronto. She has led programming, communications, and stakeholder engagement strategies at various nonprofits and charities, and has worked on a number of political campaigns. Recently, she completed her Master of Public Policy at McGill University’s Max Bell School. 


Over-scrutinized, underfunded, and unsupported: How systemic anti-Blackness affects who gets grants and sector workers' well-being

Tema Okun: White Supremacy Culture

Vu Le: 20 subtle ways white supremacy manifests in nonprofit and philanthropy  

Episode Transcription

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Yami: Welcome to Digging In With ONN. A podcast that focuses on issues that matter to the nonprofit sector. I'm your host Yami and my co-host Kavita will be joining us for future episodes.

For those of you who are tuning in for the first time, ONN the Ontario Nonprofit Network is an independent network of 58,000 nonprofits in Ontario, focused on policy, advocacy, and services to strengthen the nonprofit sector. Our vision is a strong and resilient nonprofit sector, thriving communities, and a dynamic province.

Last week, we had Pamela Uppal who beautifully broke down the ins and outs of Decent Work. If you haven't checked out that episode, go take a listen. This week, we will be digging into racial justice and equity within the nonprofit sector with a specific focus on anti-Black racism. And this week, we are so excited to be chatting with Rudayna Bahubeshi about racial justice, anti-Blackness in the nonprofit sector, including the philanthropic sector. Welcome to the show. Rue.

Rudayna: Thanks so much for having me, Yami. It's great to be here.

Yami: And would you mind, for those folks who don't know you, if you could give you just a short intro about yourself? I'd love to know a bit about your work.

Rudayna: Yeah, absolutely. So I've worked in the nonprofit sector and charities and a little bit with the government for about the last 10 years. I'm really passionate about work that advances equity and justice. In the last several years, I worked at a couple of philanthropic foundations. The last year I focused, actually, on going back to school to do a master's of public policy which I just completed at McGill University. So I reside in Toronto. I was born and raised on unceded Algonquin territory, and I'm Black and Arab of Yemeni and Eritrean descent.

Yami: She has also authored an amazing article, which I encourage you to read and it will be linked in the readings for this week's podcast called Over-scrutinized, underfunded, and unsupported: How systemic anti-Blackness affects who gets grants and sector workers’ well-being.

So let's dig in. So we use, at ONN, a framework for Decent Work that has seven indicators of employment. That includes things like employment opportunities, fair wages, health and retirement benefits, stable employment advancement in the workplace,  equality at rights, culture, and leadership. So based on your article, you named explicitly anti-Black racism as impacting stable employment opportunities, the ability to support being able to move up the ladder in workplace promotions, overall more morale, health, well-being as well as the ability to experience equitable workplaces. So I wanted to ask based on the stories that were shared with you, what are some ways that systemic and interpersonal experiences of anti-Black racism show up in nonprofits and foundations? Let's start there.

Rudayna: Yeah, absolutely. That's the true, rich question. Thank you for that. It's interesting. I think Nonprofits and Charities struggle with a lot of the same challenges as every other sector. So for instance, the way you generally see racial and gender diversity in the junior rungs of an organization, I think we see those types of realities across sectors. But with mandates focused on advancing justice, be it in housing, and food security, if people in the organization haven't worked to develop their own understanding, and a meaningful equity lens, it really shows. It's like the gap has a spotlight on it, whereas in other environments, perhaps you don't speak as much about addressing inequalities, and so the gap and understanding are not as visible. And given that we're accountable to and seeking to build relationships with communities pushed furthest to the margins, if workers and leadership haven't done the work that we're talking about, the stakes of the risks for those communities are so high. 

So all in the nonprofit sector, I know I've been in workplaces where, you know, it felt safe and comfortable to raise challenges to push for change and there was a really shared commitment, a deep and shared commitment to be doing better, and I know I've worked in and volunteered in spaces like this, but I also know that they're not necessarily the norm. I think discrimination can happen really quietly, in ways that I would say you're almost harmed twice. So you're harmed first by the transgression, and then again by people who don't acknowledge the transgression or trivialize it in some way and seek to move on. And that harm, I don't think, I'm not sure if some people believe it does, but it certainly doesn't sit at your desk at five o'clock when you go home, it comes home with you it furrows in your brain, it makes you anxious to return to work. And then it swallows your time and it's doubly draining for those individuals from marginalized communities who have so many obligations to the communities and you know, after five or six, or whenever they leave the office have a whole host of other responsibilities in that community. 

Yami: Right. 

Rudayna: I think it's also important to note that the burden on Black, Indigenous, and racialized workers is not only in instances where they experienced discrimination, but it's also the way in which the work hits differently for people from these communities. So a community sees your presence, and that might increase their trust in your organization, you might feel more invested in the work success or the organization's commitment. So it becomes really important that the organization has resourced the work and follows through with its intentions as well. 

And I also think it's important that those who don't come from these communities, observe how the sticks are different for us, and then invest more intensely and deeply to share that burden. And that pattern, I think, is also evident when there's EDI work to be done in the organization. So often it's individuals who are Queer or Disabled, who are Black and Indigenous, who do this work, and they are really invested in the work because they're concerned with the well-being of workers who come up behind them for bettering the conditions for themselves, perhaps. And then again, if it's not, like wildly invested in it fails and harms sort of doubles in a way. I feel like I have so much to say about this question. 

Yami: Keep going, I could keep listening.

Rudayna: I could speak a little bit about mental health as well.

Yami: Yes, please do.

Rudayna:  I've had a few peers in the sector reach out to me and I think it's in part because I have written quite publicly about experiences with mental illness, and so individuals approach me for work like this article, and as well as about mental illness, to sort of speak about their experiences in the sector, because, again, I think mental illness and mental health can be strained in conditions that we were just describing. 

And then these individuals are also so invested again, on behalf of their communities that they don't necessarily feel like there's a way they can just pause their work. And so they're just giving and giving and giving. And, of course, we know what that leads to in terms of spiraling or burnout and those sorts of things. 

But one story, if I could share an anecdote that really concerns me, as of late from a peer in the sector who told me that. I have to be thoughtful about how I share this story because there is obviously a risk to privacy. But this individual shared with me that they were asked to do something they believe to be unethical in their job. And I can't speak to the details of what it was, but when they shared this with me, I thought their concern was extremely valid. So they were asked to do this thing that they were not comfortable doing, they sought to hash it out with their supervisor. Eventually, the matter escalated to HR, and HR acted in the interest of that person’s supervisor, sort of doubling down on the pressure to do this thing that they didn't, that they weren't comfortable doing. And they were just treated very badly. 

What ended up happening is they brought up a conversation that this person had with their supervisor several months before in the context of the pandemic, where they had shared in passing, but they were experiencing mental strain in lockdown, like so many of us. But then this thing that they had shared about their mental well-being was used in this instance, to say, oh, this person is mentally unfit, and they're acting in ways that are not appropriate, and they are unfit for this job. And so, and that just really concerned me because it's a brave thing, you know, to share that you're struggling and that you need help. And for that, to be used to stigmatize you further, and especially as a Black person, to be told, like, oh, this person is not well, which is something that, you know, Black folks get told, and it is a tool for racism and anti-Blackness all the time. 

It's really disconcerting. And I think there are so many instances where, you know, in the last couple of years, we've seen stories of people raise the alarm about discrimination at work and I would just insist that the instances are so many more than the ones we've heard about whether individuals have signed NDAs, whether they're concerned about future prospects of their work. I think we can assume that there are so many more instances of abuse and maltreatment in the workplace than we've heard about.

Yami: I think when you know, I hear you speak about this individual coming forward and sharing an experience around mental health and the intersections of race, it really draws attention that there's a cost when folks speak up about the injustices that are happening in the workplace in order to rectify it. 

What's also interesting as you talk about the pandemic and mental well being, and how discrimination and racism and anti-Blackness specifically, is traumatizing, experiencing racism in the workplace and experiencing, you know, as you talk about being at the desk, you don't get to leave it at the desk, because these experiences happen within and outside of the workplace. So there's this constant flood, quite frankly, of experiences that are linked to discrimination in the world. And so it is important that employers recognize that.

I'm curious if you could speak more, leaning into  the article that you wrote around systemic anti-Blackness and well-being in the nonprofit sector and the philanthropic sector. What is the cost, the emotional and physical cost, when folks do speak up? What were some of the things that you noticed in the sharing within that article, specifically around antiBlackness?

Rudayna: Yeah, I think that's a great question. I mean, we sought to take many steps to preserve the privacy and the identities of the people involved. I think the last thing you want to do is when people are courageous to speak about their experiences of anti-Blackness, to see that hurt them once more by them being punished by the organization. I think it's interesting because there have been a couple of instances where a person in leadership at an organization that I've heard of has been dismissed or asked to move on because of their contributions to an unsafe workplace, specifically with discriminatory a differential treatment. 

But in those instances, it's quiet. And sometimes the person who speaks out is made very visible. But then, in the couple instances of talking about where a senior leader moves on, those stories are not widely known. And I'm not speaking about an interest to shame or ruin a person's reputation, but what is the way that we ensure that that person has invested deeply into becoming an anti-oppressive leader before they simply slip into another leadership role? 

Yami: Right. 

Rudayna: And that is really unclear to me. But it is interesting, too, when we, and I've had this experience in conferences and academic spaces in nonprofit spaces where, you know, you say something, and when someone approaches you and says, like, thank you so much for saying that. And often, when that's the case, it's a white person, a man, a person who wouldn't experience likely as much scrutiny as I would. And I don't know what to say/. I thank them for their support, but I say I need you to back me in public and not back me in private. Because if you're not willing to take that risk, and then as people who look like me, or who might face even greater forms of stigmatization, or stereotypes or racism, yeah, it's just not terribly useful to me to just let me know that you agree in private because its power in numbers. It's diluting that risk by more people speaking up, and it's people who have less to lose because they’re simply not going to be received in the same way, with the same level of scrutiny. We need to be in it together.

Yami: Mm-hmm. I think that raise- making it visible, making that sense of allyship or solidarity in the workplace visible, I'm curious if you have an idea of some of the conditions that you feel are needed to support folks speaking up and to support organizations that want to center racial justice and equity, nonprofits that want to lean into what I like to say is “failing better”, continuing to try. What can folks tangibly do to alter the conditions of workers so that they are thriving in the workplace? There is well-being centered, there is equity at the center. 

Rudayna: Yeah, absolutely. I think in so many instances, and among the individuals, I spoke to for the article, there was movement and organizing from employees to state what was needed, and often it's a reluctance or a lack of readiness. I'm not even suggesting simply maliciousness, but for whatever reason, it's not always acted upon. And so I would say that there are so often solutions for people within the organization and it's about getting that movement and, and having that acted on. 

I think there also needs to be really safe channels and clear channels made in advance of a crisis or something difficult happening. And I think this is especially important in the nonprofit sector because we're so often these very small teams and it's not clear where you can channel your concerns. I don't know if it could be an external person who is contracted out by the organizations or what have you, but I've seen people in instances where they're bringing up an issue in the organization, and they're doing it to their supervisor or their CEO, whoever it may be and that does not necessarily feel safe and that doesn't encourage someone to feel like they can escalate a problem. 

And it's especially important with the person who's maybe making what is not as a very high or comfortable range in their salary, who might have dependents at home, and so it just becomes really unrealistic to ask somebody to take a risk that could harm their livelihood, because that's going to radically impact their life. So I think there just needs to be- all of these things need to be thought out in advance as well, as opposed to, okay, something terrible's happened, where do we go from here?

Yami: Absolutely. And what I'm also hearing is a sense of proactive infrastructure that allows people to speak their truth, allows people to invite dialogue that isn't always punitive, and because it isn't always safe.

Rudayna: I like that. Proactive infrastructure. 

Yami: Yeah, no, it's real. Because you're right, we are often operating from our retroactive standpoint. And that was so obvious in June 2020. And also again, in June 2021 with the unearthing of children's bodies, and then in 2020 with the resurgence of conversations around equity and racial justice in the world because of, you know, the visibility of Black death. 

Just thinking about leaders and thinking about, as one of the pillars of Decent Work is about people and culture. What can leaders do? Take, for example, June 2020, I guess I'm curious about what leaders can do to really support, what power? Because sometimes I think that there's this sense of like, well, I don't know what to do, I'm a white leader  or I don't know what to do. I feel powerless, or I'm scared because I am afraid I'm gonna say the wrong thing. I'm sure you can insert a multitude of other things. I'm curious about what folks with power can do to shift conditions as well, in the nonprofit sector, in organizations.

Rudayna: I think just staying the course, really is the most substantial thing that sticks out in my mind, because like you mentioned in terms of, you know, of course, the murder of George Floyd was not the first time someone, a Black person has been killed at the hands of police. Those children who were murdered in residential schools were clearly discussed in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's report. There are ways that we should know and be very clear on what the injustices are and so it's it doesn't help to simply look to act and do something at the moment, but I'm just interested in the long-term vision. Because even from so many organizations that we've seen release those statements, I like to also see them release the roadmap. What have you done since then? How are you following up? What are the accountability mechanisms? So for me, it's just really about staying the course. Because these things don't happen in a moment. Many people seek to act on them in a single moment, it just sort of  undercuts what really the work takes. So yeah, I'd love to see more organizations thinking about how they stay accountable and what they're doing, and what they've done since those particular highly visible moments. 

Yami: I'm curious. So this past summer, I spent hours conducting a literature review on BIPOC workers’ experiences. And I found a common theme of barriers in terms of equitable conditions that are directly linked to white supremacy. And it's something that, more recently, is becoming more popularized in the discourse around equity, diversity, inclusion in anti-racism. But I was wondering if you could speak to how cultures of white supremacy impacted those stories that you told within the article, and, or, things that you've witnessed in the sector.

Rudayna: I think an extension of a little bit of what I was touching on before when you say something that that you feel needs to be said, and then some folks sometimes in private come up to you and say, I feel that way, too, as opposed to letting their voice be heard, even if they experience less risk. I think another piece of that is how ideas are received differently depending on who they come from. And this was also something I heard from folks I interviewed for the article you mentioned. If we’re, for instance, pushing for granting to a community that or an organization doing great work in the community, and that absolutely needs that funding, and all of their outcomes are aligned with what our strategy is seeking to accomplish, I have experienced, and I've also heard of others experiencing, that could be received differently coming from someone who looks like me versus a white person who is determined to have no bias or be neutral or whatever those words that are not real in total, everyone has bias. 

It’s just unfortunate, because there's an urgency that our work requires, and rather than sharing an understanding of that urgency, it's sometimes received as, I don't know if it's a lack of due process, which is not the case, because the folks who I've interviewed in my article were talking about going through the same channels in order to direct funding to organizations. But it's just felt and read differently when it comes from a white person. 

So I think that is one of the most frustrating manifestations of white supremacy. We are at once told that our lived experience matters. And then an organization is seeking someone with lived experience of whatever issue or whatever community that the organization might be concerned with. But then, at times, that exact characteristic, that exact part of us is undercut or questioned or used to dilute our voice. And that, to me, is a really frustrating and terrible experience.

Yami: Thanks for sharing that. And, you know, I think that white supremacy is insidious. And for folks who are wanting to learn more about the different ways that white supremacy shows up in the nonprofit sector, we'll link some resources, so that you can do your own unpacking within your organizations and ensure that you're not perpetuating more, and if you are that you can find ways to course correct. We'll link a couple of articles on Tema Okun's characteristics of white supremacy, as well as Lee wrote an article around the 20 subtle ways that nonprofits perpetuate white supremacy. So definitely check that out. 

So I'm gonna move into more of a personal question. Four years ago, I had just moved to Toronto, and I was on Twitter and I saw that tweet that you had posted, circulating around the experiences and striving to create space for Black women and nonprofits. I think I saw it retweeted hundreds of times and I remember how profound it was for me in terms of just like, someone asking, what to Black folks, specifically Black women and black fems in nonprofits, let's create something like informal support. And it was the first time that I had seen anyone really emphasizing that specifically around nonprofits. Of course, that's from my perspective, I'm sure folks have done it, but that, for me, was a pivotal moment. 

I just wanted to pivot and ask, we talked about informal channels, we talked about leadership, taking accountability, ensuring that it's not just only when large events happen, that there's a way in which organizations and individuals within those organizations can lean into meaningful practices of equity. I was curious about this other lens and wanted to invite you to speak to the ways that you have witnessed, specifically Black, Indigenous, folks of colour in nonprofits creating informal systems of care in the workplace, that don't rely on institutions, because sometimes that goes south. Maybe you could even start off with how you arrive there. Because I know, it's been a gift for me, and many others.

Rudayna: That's so kind of you to say, I mean, I really appreciate that you feel away. It's been such a gift to me, I've met so many amazing friendships from thought tweet, I can't even recall what the impetus was, I mean, other than just seeing brilliant Black and women and non-binary folks exiting the sector, frankly, I think I was seeing a fair amount of that when I tweeted it.

And again, I know there are spaces in the nonprofit sector that have been enriching and I'm indebted to the brilliance of so many Black folks in the community that it was sort of like, how do we do this work together? I mean, not at the cost of our wellness, but also to try and create a healthier sector for those who are younger than us to try and advance the causes that we so well understand that are affecting our communities and the needs.

And then yeah, it became such a nourishing place for- at first it was really about thinking about some of those big questions and then it was also all just about supporting one another in the work, getting feedback from one another, as I mentioned, sometimes when something happens that is bad in an organization, you're often looking over your shoulder like isn't everyone else feeling what I'm feeling? Or sometimes you don't get that confirmation. And so to go to a space and be like, this was bad, right? People will just be like, yeah, here's what I've done in my organization and then sort of just get support from one another that way as well. 

It also was interesting, because, in that first meeting, there were, I think, a good few, if I'm not mistaken, people from one organization who hadn't chatted about joining, and then it sort of became, okay, this is not a place that we should all go to work. Because it does become like an informal network also to hear about where some of the places are that you might not want to seek out a career because unfortunately if there are many people who look like us who experience a negative experience, of course, we're not going to want to go work there. 

I think those channels exist also so far beyond the group that you and I participate in, as well. I think it's about advancing outcomes for our communities. I think it's about also finding healthy spaces for us to work in. And for those younger than us that we want to support or be a mentor to.

Yami: That validation is often what- in my experience doing this work within the nonprofit sector, as well as my role at ONN as network Engagement Manager and speaking to different networks and nonprofits that are striving to embark on work around racial justice and equity that folks, especially BIPOC workers are really looking to be validated and that's the point of departure to say yes, this is your experience. Because often I think that it gets super complicated and being dismissed has a larger role. And so having those informal spaces where folks can be like, this is my reality, and getting that validation is so incredibly important that it exists outside of the institution, because as you spoke earlier, at times there are issues of liability that impact how employers are able to, whether it be within human resources, able to really validate the experiences of employees. 

So we're coming to the end of our chat. There are so many nuggets of gold that I'm leaving with today. One of the core pieces for me that really stood out is that the answers are within us, right? Like the takeaways that I'm leaving with are the answers are within the organization, right? Often folks will look to outside consultants to support a process, which is fine. And also, you know, what I'm hearing is that people within the organization have the solutions, it's about creating the conditions where they can speak their truth to create better senses of belonging and equitable working conditions. That it's important that if you are someone who's going to be acting in the spirit of allyship or solidarity, that you do it loudly rather than quietly because there is power in representation. And that peer-to-peer networks and peer-to-peer supports whether within the organization or outside of the organization, are so incredibly important around mentorship and sustainability within the sector. I wanted to invite you Rudayna, to share any last words that you want folks to walk away, and to really sit with it.

Rudayna: I think one of the things the peer-to-peer networks have been useful for and important for is helping bridge a gap of a bit of a lack of transparency that exists in some nonprofits with regards to salary. Even though we really understand how much there is pay disparity and how much that affects in particular Indigenous women, Black women, disabled folks, and other communities experiencing marginalization and we won't talk about it, we still see amongst so many nonprofits and foundations even, a lack of transparency with what the pay ranges, what the pay band is, and still don't connect the dots between creating a more equitable workplace and conditions with clarity on that. And something the peer-to-peer network has been useful to me is just to get us to speak openly about those types of things. About hiring, contracts, and things like that, that I don't always understand and I think a lot of us don't always understand. And I think the sector could easily fill that gap by being more transparent. I think that's a really simple low-hanging fruit as well.

Yami: Yeah, pay transparency. Pay transparency. Because, yeah, that’s a really great point. And I think we're gonna dive into that in future episodes, around the importance of equitable realities of pay transparency and how it's inherently racialized and we often find those at the margins are the ones that are most impacted by a lack of it. So thanks for finishing us off on that note. 

Thank you again Rudayna for joining us. Again, folks, we want to invite you to read Over-scrutinized, underfunded, and unsupported: How systemic anti-Blackness affects who gets grants and sector workers’ well-being. It's an amazing read. We also want to invite you to share some of your experiences. If folks are looking for more information or want to connect with us, you can reach us at theONN.ca. 

Thanks for tuning in to this episode. I'm your host Yami and as mentioned previously Kavita will be joining us in future episodes. We hope that you'll join us as we continue to dig into issues that matter to the nonprofit sector from a Decent Work perspective. Make sure to share, rate, and subscribe so you know when episodes are live. Thanks for digging in with us.