Moving from “Not Racist” to “Anti-Racist” as an Organization

The first steps Ei is taking to become an anti-racist organization

Aaron Wilson-Ahlstrom

Director of Programs

In the past few weeks, as protesters have taken to the streets to demand an end to police brutality and racism, we’ve been reflecting on what it would mean for us as an organization to respond to those demands, and to join in this broader movement for racial justice.

These are our initial thoughts, reflections on where we’ve been as a country, and how we might, as an organization, be part of the change that is happening.

We Acknowledge That There Has Always Been Racism in This Country

Since Europeans landed on these shores, racism has been part of this country. And by “racism,” we mean white supremacy. Because there has never been a time when the systems of this country functioned in a way to advantage any group other than whites, and because “white supremacy” does not just mean overt, Aryan Nation/KKK-style bigotry, but the much more insidious, much more entrenched set of systems (economic, social, political, cultural) that rig the game in favor of white people.

And We Affirm That There Has Always Been Resistance to That Racism

As long as there has been racism in this country, there has also been resistance to racism. And every anti-racist movement is an opportunity for all of us to both learn about racial injustice, and to choose to become more engaged in anti-racist action ourselves. Too often the majority of white people ignore these opportunities or, worse yet, dig in and defend the status quo.

This is a Time to Step Up

The recent, massive outpouring of outrage at the murder of George Floyd is connected to a deeper, broader critique of the ongoing racism in our country. People are in the street condemning injustice and demanding a new world. This is an opportunity for all of us to decide where we stand on issues of race, justice, freedom, opportunity, and fairness. This is a time of reckoning — as individuals, communities, companies and organizations, as a country — a time to take a hard look at how we operate, and whether we are supporting the status quo, or actively working for change.

Why “Not Racist” is Not Enough

Racism is not primarily about individual feelings and beliefs. It is about systems and structures that stack the table in favor of white people, and to the disadvantage of people of color. Being “not racist” (or “color blind” or nice to black people) does not change those systems; it does not help end racist redlining, or redistribute wealth stolen through centuries of slavery, or disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline.

Can Experience Institute Become an Anti-Racist Organization?

The protests against police brutality, and the broader Black Lives Matter movement present us with an opportunity at Ei to follow the leadership and calls coming from people of color to do the work of racial justice where we are, in our own organization.

We have always been against racism. We have always worked to be inclusive in our programs, to be welcoming, to create spaces that honor people and who they are and what they bring. But what would it mean to not just be not racist, but to become actively anti-racist?

We work at the intersection of higher ed and work. We know that racism has impacted and continues to shape both of these spaces. Here are just some of the ways:

Higher Ed

  • Black and brown youth are more likely than white youth to grow up in poverty and attend low-performing, under-resourced schools.
  • Black and brown students are more likely to be first-time college students, without the parental and family experience and financial resources that can be so important to being successful in college.
  • Black and brown students are more likely than white students to have to work when they are in college, and to need to find a paying summer jobs. This can limit their opportunities to get an unpaid internship or participate in the activities in college that we know can be most transformational (clubs and student organizations, study abroad).

Workplace

  • Racial bias still plays a role in hiring. People of color often face the choice of having to downplay their culture and background in order to be perceived as a good “fit” with the (predominantly white) company culture.
  • In areas of DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion), most organizations stop short of equity, opting instead for the easier work of diversity (improving the number of POC in the org). Not doing that equity work means that it falls on employees of color to address a workplace climate that can be tone deaf or outright hostile to employees of color.
  • Most organizations do not use mutlicultural/anti-racist competence as a hiring criteria and are under-equipped to create a welcoming environment that supports the grown and development of black and brown employees. Most organizations fail to address the micro- (and sometimes macro)- aggressions that black and brown employees face every day.

 

What we know about becoming an anti-racism organization:

  • The work is long and difficult. It takes deliberate, ongoing, strategic work. It means working in a counter-cultural way, swimming upriver.
  • We can’t do it alone. We need to identify and leverage relationships with individuals and organizations who are also committed to anti-racist action, and with whom we can both give and receive support and accountability.
  • We need to follow the leadership of People of Color, especially black people. There are People of Color who have been working for decades to push organizations to be actively anti-racist (one leading organization in this work, CrossRoads, is here in Chicago). They understand the resistance that happens, they have experience knowing which levers to pull and when, they have built communities of support and accountability around this work that allow them to continue forging ahead in the face of adversity, setbacks, and hostile resistance to change.
  • We have assets that we can leverage. We are good at building relationships. We have open hearts and are willing to learn. We know how to create and hold space for people to learn, grow, and do their best work. We understand the importance of creating welcoming spaces and organizations that help people thrive, not just professionally, but as whole people. We are willing to admit when we are wrong, when we’ve made mistakes. We know how to work hard, and to follow through on ideas.

At Experience Institute, we don’t have immediate “answers,” but are committing ourselves now to making changes over the coming months and years to make Ei an actively anti-racist organization. We will be building a team of advisors to help guide this work and provide accountability as we move forward. And we call on our friends in other organizations to do this work as well.

May we work together to build a network of anti-racist organizations.

 

Image credit: Kenny Cousins

posted by

Aaron Wilson-Ahlstrom

Director of Programs

As Director of Programs, Aaron provides leadership and coordination for Ei’s college and workplace programming, and advises on K12 programming.

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