Blame Barack Obama for my nonprofit career. His first run for presidency during my college years transformed me into a political junkie fixated on hope. Examining his life path convinced me that activism and community organizing were the keys to making social change.
Obama’s first campaign coincided with the Great Recession, and I watched cable news nonstop as banks got bailed out and the rest of us got sold out. The election of the first Black president and the worst financial crisis since the Depression both pushed me in the direction of nonprofit and social justice work.
I was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed when I decided to serve as an AmeriCorps member after college. I normalized having to survive off food stamps and less than minimum wage. Also, I started believing that doing social justice work meant sacrificing a life of comfort.
I dedicated my 20s to a string of organizing collectives, unions, political parties and community-based organizations. I gave them a lot of free labor, and when employed, I was consistently underpaid and undervalued. I frequently experienced burnout, and toxic work environments harmed my emotional and mental health.
What frustrated me most about my nonprofit workplaces were their refusal to uphold their alleged values. How could they serve primarily Black people but have majority-white leadership? How could they fight for economic justice but pay their own workers less than a living wage?
From talking to friends, I realized I wasn’t the only one enduring nonprofit nightmares. I was relieved when I learned a term to describe the beast I was dealing with: The nonprofit industrial complex (NPIC).
According to INCITE!, the NPIC is a system of relationships between the government, the owning classes, foundations and nonprofits “that results in the surveillance, control, derailment, and everyday management of political movements.”
My misadventures within the NPIC made me wonder if nonprofits could ever truly be liberatory.
Despite my skepticism of nonprofits, the Rainier Valley Corps (RVC) fellowship job posting peaked my interest this past winter. It stood apart from other nonprofit jobs because RVC’s led by and for people of color (POC), which is rare in notoriously white Seattle. RVC builds the capacity of other POC-led nonprofits in Seattle by matching them with a fellow for two years.
The RVC fellowship also drew me in because I knew some of the queer and trans POC in its first cohort. Feeling safe enough to bring all of my identities to work is essential to me as a queer Black nonbinary woman. I crave POC community spaces that don’t force me to choose between my Blackness and my queerness, which is what I was hoping for when I applied to RVC.
While I was optimistic upon being hired, I felt apprehensive as I embarked on a four-day retreat to Tacoma with the other fellows, 11 POC from diverse backgrounds. Would they be turned off by my Pan-African tattoo? Would they freak out when I told them I used “they/them” pronouns?
Thankfully, the other fellows were more concerned with bonding over dance, music, and wine than with judging me. It has been a pleasure getting to know them over the past two months.
During my brief time as a fellow, I’ve witnessed RVC living out its organizational values: Community, equity, integrity, action, and transformation.
Our cohort genuinely feels like a community. We learn about nonprofit leadership together from mostly POC instructors and peer coach each other through our nonprofit woes. RVC gives us time and space to build authentic relationships with one another.
Other ways RVC enacts its values include offering affordable, comprehensive health insurance; regularly asking for feedback and implementing suggested changes; funding professional development opportunities (i.e., conferences and trainings) for fellows, and connecting us with mentors. I’m 30-years-old, and this is my first time having a formal mentor!
RVC believes that I deserve nice things, which makes me feel appreciated. I’m unsure whether nonprofits will win liberation for POC, and I’m still wary of the NPIC.
However, I now believe some nonprofits are trying their hardest to create good jobs for folks who are committed to social justice. RVC is a rare unicorn of a nonprofit where this jaded nonprofit worker feels cared for, seen and valued.
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