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Sam Chenkin wants the nonprofit sector to embrace conflict, not avoid it

January 24, 2020 Category: FeaturedMediumPeople
Call Sam Chenkin an instigator, not a disruptor.

The term, disruptor, is loaded,  the founder of Reclaim the Sector told Generocity. “The image is of someone with a brand new idea, who’s going to blow up what’s come before, negating actual living experience.”

Chenkin’s long association with Tech Impact, a provider of technology services and solutions for nonprofits (which she will be leaving March 2 for her new venture), has given her ample opportunity to really connect with people working in the nonprofit sector.

“I feel tenderness and appreciation and respect for nonprofits — and for the care and passion that people at nonprofits bring to their work,” she said. “My goal is not to disrupt, but shift the focus.”

As an instigator — a word Chenkin says is more constructive — she sees her trauma-informed, race-, gender- and class-aware approaches as tools to share with nonprofits, funders and individual leaders who know they need to build more equitable organizations.

Those tools include everything from eschewing extractive practices — for example,  when nonprofit or funding staff convene community stakeholders for a meeting at which they ask questions, but don’t thereafter maintain an ongoing dialogue and exchange with the community — to compensating participating community members for their expertise.

It extends also into equity in recruitment and retention which, she maintains, “can’t just be a numbers game.” Chenkin’s toolbox on hiring includes ways to interrogate the language used in job descriptions as well as the screening criteria for applicants.

“It is important to lower administrative barriers that favor white and middle class applicants,” she said. For example, because resumes are cultural artifacts that reflect a narrow understanding of professionalism — one that is both “racialized and gendered” — Chenkin prefers to use phone calls to screen candidates.

When it comes to retention, “it’s not about here’s the rules you follow,” she said. “As a trans person who is often the only person [in the room] who looks like me, I don’t assume a space is safe for me. You have to talk with your staff about creating a safe culture” for staff members to want to stay.

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Another tool in Chenkin’s toolbox? Helping nonprofits get comfortable with conflict.

“You have to allow conflict to come up and find healthy ways to address it,” Chenkin said. “You can’t approach conflict as a PR problem, or a situation to be managed. You have to establish healthy dialogue where everyone is talking to one another, and there is a place for dissent and conflict.”

“Flame-outs are hard for organizations, but this is a healthy moment we are in. People are taking equity seriously, and people feel empowered to speak out — those are signs of progress.”

The 32-year-old West Philly resident, who grew up in Swarthmore and studied at Drexel University, has also started the Radical Nonprofit Leaders Collective — described on her website as “a movement of individuals working from within to make the nonprofit sector a major force in the fight for a just world […] we share our vision and build momentum for a sector that directly challenges injustice.” While there are only a handful of members so far, she believes that shared values and a sense of purpose will help grow the community.

Striking out on her own with Reclaim the Sector is a leap of faith for Chenkin, but her hope is that she can help make the sector “a leader in inclusive, power-aware, and trauma-informed change making.”

“[A year from now] I will feel successful if there is a network of nonprofit leaders in Philadelphia thinking critically about the sector and collaborating together to push the sector to pursue systemic change,” she said. “I know that I have often felt lonely as an agitator in my organization, and I’m sure others feel the same way. I would like us all to have community and support as we pursue a just world.”

“Longer term,” Chenkin added, “I will feel successful if the nonprofit sector is embracing conflict rather than avoiding it. Recent blow-ups at nonprofits prove that avoiding internal tensions isn’t an effective strategy. Building the skills to tolerate conflict and listen across barriers of power, race, class, gender, ability, etc. is what is going to make our sector a force for change.”

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