Editor’s note: Elicia Gonzales, the executive director of the Women’s Medical Fund, wrote this open letter and posted it on her Facebook page after reports yesterday that the Attic Youth Center‘s board of directors had suspended the LGBTQ+ youth nonprofit’s executive director, Carrie Jacobs, and director of programs, Christina Santos, pending investigation of alleged discrimination by former staffers. It wasn’t the Attic allegations alone that prompted Gonzales to write the piece.” Mazzoni Center, FIGHT and others … near and dear to my heart,” she told Generocity via email, also informed the open letter to nonprofit leadership, reprinted here with her permission.
Open letter to fellow executive directors, CEOs, presidents:
I feel compelled to speak up as a person who sits in a position of privilege — as a current executive director of Women’s Medical Fund, former executive director at GALAEI, light-skinned queer Latinx with myriad other privileges that allow me to be where I am today. Though I am taking a risk in speaking out now, doing so pales in comparison to the pain and dehumanization expressed by far too many black, brown, indigenous, trans*, femme, young and elder folx in our communities. Staying silent is an act of complicity.
To my fellow executive directors, CEOs, presidents running organizations in Philadelphia — particularly those nonprofit organizations receiving funding to support folks most impacted by systemic oppression — what are we doing? Really though. I know many of you, I work with some of you, I believe in each of your hearts. And I ask you, from a place of genuine concern, with all due respect, and with the utmost faith:
WHAT ARE WE DOING?
What are we doing — when we ignore the many concerns, cries and complaints expressed by black and brown people we claim to support and want to see thrive? What are we doing — when we bring in consultants and trainers to address oppression in the workplace and racial bias — yet fail to hold ourselves accountable to our own anti-blackness, transphobia, and adultism? What are we doing — when we cannot own up to our blind spots and actively work to dismantle white supremacy coursing through our veins? What are we doing — when we refuse to step out of our leadership positions because we cannot fathom that the role belongs to a person of color?
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These words are for us all. It is on each of us to examine our own power, privilege, and propensity for perpetuating violence in our communities. Yes, we are all works in progress. But can we, at least, start being honest? I’ll start. I have caused harm. As a leader in this community, I have made mistakes large and small that no doubt were rooted in white supremacy. And I still have a long way to go. We all have a long way to go. But we must do better. Not because people are watching, not because your funding depends on employing black and brown bodies, not because you fear being called out. We have to do better because it’s the right thing to do.
And it’s not easy. This I know. We live in a capitalistic society where cash is king. Until that system is dismantled, many of us must rely on funding to keep the doors open. I want to believe in my heart of hearts that we believe we are doing the right thing, the just thing, the humane thing. I mean, clearly if our organizations don’t exist, folks will go hungry, homeless, naked, unloved. What would they do without us??
This is complete nonsense.
Though well intended, this mentality has a name: white savior complex. I learned all about this in my social work program and, admittedly enacted it in various roles. The idea is that “we” have to figure out how to help “them” — the poor, black and brown folks. They need us. We are doing God’s work by helping the less fortunate.
Let’s be clear: Doing our job well actually means our organizations would be needed no longer. Resources should be so abundant that everyone in our communities not only survives, but thrives.
Liberation is not a career path. It’s not something to add to your resume or to talk about lightly over cocktails at a fundraising event. People are dying. People who work in organizations claiming to be about community are dying. This non-profit industrial complex is designed to keep some of our folks impoverished, paralyzed, fearful, and hopeless. People who work with us are literally telling us that this work is killing them. And we penalize, push them out, and pit their peers against them.
What are we doing?
It is not the time to assume this isn’t happening in your organization. It is. To some degree, large or small, it is. Now is the time to be self-critical and examine what role each of us plays in perpetuating violence against the most vulnerable among us. Now is the time to reflect back on our roles as leaders in our respective organizations and own up to our mistakes, name our fears and anxieties.
But it’s unacceptable to merely say sorry. We MUST commit to intentionally decolonizing our work spaces, ensuring racial equity, affirming trans* folks. We must know when it’s time to step aside and relinquish power.
Read a book. Form a white caucus. Meditate. Resign. Publicly pledge to dismantle white supremacy. Do. Something.
And have compassion — for yourselves and for folks working with and for you. We really are, I want to believe with all of me, doing the best we can with what we have. I want to believe that we are all fighting for liberation. I truly do. But we have to fight for it like our lives depend on it. Because what’s the purpose of life if all of us are not free?
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