by Rob Shields, Executive Director of ReCity Network, — May 28, 2019 .
Editor’s note: WRAL TechWire Live! hosted a discussion last week that centered on social impact, and how Triangle nonprofits are working like startups to devise innovative solutions to problems facing our region and neighbors. We are reprinting the talks delivered by two of the keynotes. The first is from Rob Shields, who serves as the Executive Director of ReCity Network, the Triangle’s hub for social impact. Based in downtown Durham, ReCity is home to a rapidly growing network of over 40 organizations, all committed to pursuing a shared vision of building thriving communities that are rooted in justice. His presentation follows:
“On June 10, 1946 Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion of the world, was refused service at a diner in Franklinton, NC. As he left the diner he lost control of his car and crashed causing life threatening injuries. He was brought to St. Agnes Hospital in Raleigh as it was the closest hospital that would serve blacks in the vicinity. It was here that he died from his injuries at 68 years of age. The technology existed to save his life, however it wasn’t available at St. Agnes. It was available at the whites-only Rex Hospital just a few miles away.”
I feel connected to Jack Johnson’s story, b/c 70 years later my wife and I moved into a home just down the street from St. Agnes, starting me on a journey to learn the untold stories of our community. This story also hits home for me, because as a Raleigh native, I was born at Rex Hospital, so learning this story connects me to the disconcerting truth that the doors of opportunity that have always been opened to me–down to the doors of the hospital that welcomed me into this world–have literally been shut in the face of others.
Today we’re here to talk about social impact. But the reality is, you can’t talk about impact without talking about injustice. Because the truth is, social impact work exists in our communities largely because justice does not.
A working definition for justice is “to give people their due”. One side of that is negative – when people do something wrong, they need to be stopped. The other side is positive – to lift up and care for those who have been marginalized. Justice is both retributive and restorative. It is also both individual and social.
So how just is our region? Bryan Stevenson, Founder of the Equal Justice Initiative is quoted as saying “the true measure of our commitment to justice, the character of our society, our commitment to the rule of law, fairness, and equality cannot be measured by how we treat the rich, the powerful, the privileged, and the respected among us. The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned.”
At ReCity, our mission centers around building more just communities. During my time in this work, I’ve seen 3 problems that consistently stand in the way of justice in our communities:
The problem of Proximity
The problem of power
and the problem of partnership
Proximity problem: We’re disconnected from the need
Many of us can go throughout our days completely removed from poverty & injustice. I experienced this first hand living in Southeast Raleigh. We’ve literally built roads to enable us to drive around certain sections of town instead of through them.
Stevenson goes on to say how “we must get “proximate” to suffering and understand the nuanced experiences of those who suffer from and experience inequality. You can’t understand most of the important things from a distance. You have to get close”
Otherwise, we draw conclusions about communities where we’ve never been present and people whose stories we don’t know.
Power problem: We’re disconnected from our own stories
Creating more diverse tables is a great place to start. But we also have to ask, who owns the table? Because the owner of the table chooses who gets a invitation.
So, let me ask us this morning, who owns social impact?
A few statistics to help paint a picture:
A 2014 study showed that nearly 70 percent of nonprofits state diversity as a core value, and over 60 percent of nonprofits offer services that impact people of color almost exclusively. And yet, only 7 percent of nonprofit executives, 18 percent of nonprofit employees, and 8 percent of nonprofit board members are people of color.
Perhaps most telling of all, foundation funding has never exceeded 8% for organizations led by people of color.
The point here is not to make people feel bad for the power they have. Power is just a charged word we use for the ability to make something of this world. Sadly, that power is often abused. But the point here is not to say, ‘People with power are evil.’ The point is to say, ‘If you’ve been given power or privilege, you have a responsibility to multiply it, to share it, to do everything in your power to give it away.
Because the reality is that the people closest to the problem are closest to the solutions, but farthest from resources and power. If we are to build a more just region, this has to change.
We must amplify voices that have been historically marginalized, because just communities are ones where everyone is empowered to pick up a pen, because everyone gets to co-author part of their own story.
Partnership problem: We’re disconnected from each other
Many are proximate to the need, but often justice efforts remain fragmented and siloed, diluting our impact.
Durham has 4700 nonprofits, 5x national average, “Yet 1 in 4 residents is still in poverty, too many of them people of color. Why? It’s not because these nonprofits are doing shoddy work. Many are doing INCREDIBLE work. But they often come to their own limits and have a hard time knowing who else might be able to step in and help.”
You see, a community is at its best when each of us is empowered to cook our signature dish and serve it to our neighbors so we all can flourish. We don’t just need more people at the table. We need people to know there’s a table to begin with. We need to lock arms and do this together. 4,700 nonprofits, working together, won’t just accomplish what 4,700 nonprofits can do, they will MULTIPLY their effectiveness. I know it’s possible. I’ve see it happen everyday at ReCity.
HOW DO WE MOVE FORWARD?
Connect to the need, to each other, and to your story and the story of your community?
Ask yourself a few questions…
How homogeneous is my network, my community? (Who are the last 10 ppl you texted? Who are the last 10 ppl you had at your kitchen table? Do they all look like you?)
Get Proximate: audit your networks and diversify them
You can start small. Read a book on a topic you care about written by a person of color. Be a regular at a restaurant or gym where you are the minority.
Am I willing to lean in and listen?
Listen. Our communities need more people humble enough to be quick to listen and slow to speak.
What’s my social mobility story?
Learn Your Story & the story of your community: Become a student of your story and your community’s story. There are so many lessons waiting for you.
What’s already working in my community, how can I support it?
Partner whenever possible.
If I have power, where can I give it away so others can flourish?
Empower those closest to the problem.
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly”