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Are We Really Facing Race?

main.jpgThe following blog is by James Faghmous.

On the night of May 1, 2011, hundreds of people stormed the streets of New York and D.C. They waved the US flag and chanted our national anthem. They were celebrating the death of Osama bin Laden. Although such celebrations did not take place in the Twin Cities, I find it ironic and timely that the Saint Paul Foundation hosted its  5th Annual Facing Race Ambassador Awards at the Saint Paul River Center just two days later.

It is important to realize that extremist nationalism–systematically self-aggrandizing while ignorantly diminishing others—breeds racism. In fact, racism disguised in nationalism is even more dangerous, since it provides some seemingly legitimate excuse for racist thoughts and behavior. Whether it is “Latinos are taking our jobs” or “Muslims are terrorists” the result for individuals of the non-dominant culture is the same; they are marginalized, discriminated against and placed under heightened scrutiny.

As nonprofit professionals, our work frequently involves service. And whenever one speaks of service, the topic of racism is inherently present. After all, many communities would not need many services had the systems of racism (and its aftermath) been nonexistent. 

The most valuable lessons at the Facing Race Awards came during the keynote speech by Mohammad Bilal, a diversity consultant, on the 12 Steps to Appreciating Diversity. These steps, in particular, are critical in being a truly effective nonprofiteer:

  1. Admit to being a homogene. A homogene is anyone who is uncomfortable with someone who is different. Everyone is to some degree a homogene because we are all uncomfortable on some level with what we don’t know and understand. There is nothing wrong with this innate discomfort, it is our actions resulting from it that make us who we are. 
  2.  Learn and teach. In the nonprofit sector—especially in service-oriented organizations—we are asked to “teach” those we serve, as in teach a person to fish rather than give fish. Yet, a true servant is someone who helps others by educating themselves while learning about the individuals she is assisting. 
  3. Learn to distinguish between prejudice and true dislike. As Bilal explained, prejudice is hating something without truly knowing that “thing”. Therefore prejudice really limits one’s life experiences if we are to judge people by our limited impressions of them.

This event reminded me that those of us working in this field have to recognize not only the beliefs and motivations of the populations we serve, but also our own. It is harder for us to fulfill our mission when we don’t recognize the things that make us uncomfortable, what we have to learn from those we are helping or our hidden prejudices. 

On the organizational level, pushing for inclusivity has to go beyond having a diverse board and staff. True inclusivity must provide meaningful and accessible programs and services that are in tune with a community’s needs. As CEO of MuslimBuddy, Inc.—a nonprofit dedicated to closing the accessibility gap between underserved and affluent communities—you would be surprised at how many organizations are completely disconnected from their constituents. Disconnected organizations tend to exist for the purpose of serving, rather than to genuinely address the problems their communities face. 

So how can we be more in tune with our constituents’ needs? Well, we can start by adopting a few of Mohammed Bilal’s steps. Or even better, you should make a new friend from within the community you serve. Your life and career will be better for it. 

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