Action Steps for Anti-Racist Work in your NGO

By Liz Hensler
July 1, 2020

In building an anti-racist organization, it’s important to remember that change does not happen overnight. We are in this for the long haul, as we should be. Change management is key – as is remembering that all individuals, including your leadership, are at different stages of learning and unlearning. Making lasting change requires tenacity, flexibility, and patience. As a White person, my role in DEI work has been to use the privilege afforded to me and a careful analysis of my individual strengths and position in the organization to act with intention. In practice, this has meant being a sounding board to BIPOC in my organizations and helping to craft, plan, and deliver on next steps together. In some cases, this has meant building the resources to disseminate, securing or managing the meetings, stepping back to ensure I am not centered in spaces I don’t need to be and using my voice in spaces that are unsafe for my BIPOC colleagues.

Similar to the mission of this site, there are three major components in delivering solid anti-racist initiatives within an NGO. First, learning is vital. Take in as much information as you can – both about anti-racism and about the inner workings of your organization. The learning is done, not only for personal growth, but to inform the initiative development. At a baseline, you want to ensure your initiative does no harm. In pushing out initiatives for the sake of proving that you have “done something”, you run the risk of placing staff of color in even more vulnerable positions than they already are. To that end, performative action is just that: performative. While it is crucial that your organization should publicly and internally align with anti-racist movements and should celebrate your BIPOC staff, anti-racist work must be infused in every aspect of your work – including your HR practices, IT, Finance, and other foundational limbs of your company. Without addressing white supremacist practice and ideology in the foundations and structure of the organization, you risk your employees of color being unprotected or being exploited as mascots.

As you’re learning and developing, make sure you are also connecting with your coworkers. Talk to the people you work with. If you identify as a BIPOC, find allies (POC and White) to back you up and contribute to your plans. It should not be on you alone – you shouldn’t have to put yourself in the vulnerable position of being the lightning rod for change when your livelihood could be at stake. If you identify as White, connect with your BIPOC colleagues. Bring ideas for change or found resources, not platitudes, and be open and receptive to feedback. If your BIPOC colleagues are not okay with one of your ideas – don’t push it forward. If your BIPOC colleagues call out your language, take the note and make the change. If your BIPOC colleagues already are putting forward ideas to leaders, don’t circumvent them, but seek to contribute. In addition to your colleagues, identify leaders in your organization and seek to understand their sensibilities and comfort levels with anti-racist work. Identify leaders who are likely allies, and share introductory resources with those who are newer to anti-racist work.

Finally, do the thing. Talking and learning is great, but it also requires action. When developing action plans, I like to create a menu. I categorize by “organizational engagement level”, meaning: level of buy-in needed from those at the top, investment of financial resources, and amount of time needed from all levels of the organization. By creating a menu and offering several potential steps forward, it can be harder for decision makers to say a flat no and demonstrates foresight and commitment to the work.
(Caveat: sometimes, a simple single step forward is easiest to move forward and does not overwhelm, but presenting one idea can be risky if it is not received well.)

Here are some examples of actions your organization can take:
  • Staff-led brown bag learning sessions
  • Weekly resource email blasts
  • Inclusion of anti-racist workshops in team trainings

  • Anti-racist training sessions, led by outside consultants
  • Create Employee Resource Groups
  • Create DEI Working Group
  • Include anti-racism in partnership due diligence
  • Update job postings with equitable language, responsibilities, and requirements
  • Ban unpaid internships
  • Hire a Chief Equity Officer
  • Hire HR roles specifically for equity
  • Commitment to diversify Leadership and Board roles
  • Partner with an independent consultant to assess all departments of your org

(*this is, by no means, a comprehensive list)

What are some steps your organization has taken to create a safer, more equitable, anti-racist space? Share with us in the comments below!

Liz Hensler, MPA (she/her/hers) is the founder of Do Good, Better. She works in philanthropy in the humanitarian aid sector and has a background in NGO program management, corporate and community engagement, volunteer management, and communications. She is based in Brooklyn, NY.

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