To sound out real change, get un-com-fort-a-ble

Angie Remington on why nonprofits working for societal change must leave their comfort zones to truly fulfill their missions.

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Her name was Liza. She was 8 years old and a second grader at Burton Elementary on the south side of Grand Rapids. We met on Thursdays at 1 in an unused classroom that smelled, as schools often do, of rubber erasers and citrus floor polish. I was in college, her reading tutor, and coaching her through vowel teams and diphthongs.

I asked her questions about her life, prompted by an innocuous and upbeat list the tutoring supervisor had distributed. What do you want to be when you grow up? (A teacher.) What’s your favorite TV show? (American Idol.) I told her she would have to stay in school and work hard, and it would be challenging, but wouldn’t it all be worth it someday when she has achieved her goal?

She wasn’t enthusiastic; she disliked school. I ached to connect with her and say the thing that would unlock her potential, ignite her ambition … and open the world for her. I wanted to change her life.

I asked her one day, “Who lives in your house with you?” She breezily listed off relatives: her mother; her brother, her brother’s girlfriend and their child; her cousin and her cousin’s baby; and her sister, who was also expecting.

“Wow,” I said, “that’s great.” I was suddenly aware of how generic my words sounded. “Stay in school,” I said to a young black girl at one of the lowest-ranked public schools in the state. “Work hard,” I said to a child at a school where 96 percent of students received free lunch because they live at or below the poverty line.

I felt ashamed of my judgment of Liza’s circumstances — a confluence of generational poverty and teen pregnancy. Here I was with my deck of flashcards, hoping to “change her life,” when statistically speaking her fate was predetermined by her ZIP code. Providing Liza with supplemental tutoring was important, yes, but who was addressing why she and so many of her classmates were failing to learn basic reading concepts? Who was doing something about it?

I didn’t know what to say. So I smiled and moved on to consonants.

When asked why I went into nonprofit work, I recall this as the moment I was first compelled to work toward deeper societal change. I was uncomfortable benefiting from my position of privilege while not doing anything to address racial inequity. I was uncomfortable helping Liza learn phonics without acknowledging the gaps in educational opportunity that likely held her back.

I am 15 years into my nonprofit career and I am still uncomfortable with not doing more.

Like others who have chosen nonprofit service, I envision a “perfect” world where social issues are corrected at a systemic level. When pressed to engage in power-building activities such as grassroots lobbying or voter contact, however, many organizations get uncomfortable. Their board doesn’t have an advocacy policy. Their supporters believe nonprofits should just stick to their missions of providing direct programs and services. Nobody is comfortable being perceived as taking a political stance, especially at a time when issue advocacy and political partisanship are often inseparable. Better to just let lawmakers figure it out.

By doing so, we have silenced the voices of people most affected by policy-making decisions. By buying into the belief that nonprofits should just stick to direct services, we have allowed organizations to fear backlash instead of building long-term grassroots power in their communities.

The groups most underrepresented in the electorate in terms of representation and voting power are the same groups disproportionately more likely to experience poverty, hunger, homelessness, unemployment or underemployment, and violence. Nonprofits have a tremendous amount of expertise in these and other areas, and they have built deep and trusted relationships with underrepresented groups. We need their voices.

There is a false belief that nonprofits either should not or cannot participate in issue advocacy or voter engagement, but these types of activities are both permissible and desperately needed.  It is not only legal for nonprofits to speak out or to encourage others to vote, but it should also be seen as an integral part of fulfilling their mission.

To create lasting change, we’ve got support work that makes us uncomfortable. We have to support those willing to ask why whole groups of people have been silenced by institutional racism and systemic oppression because of where they live, their race, their religion, or their gender and sexual identity. We need to feel the discomfort of not doing something about it.

There are organizations dedicated to alleviating suffering, providing education, advocating for better public policy, and encouraging voters to take back their power by engaging in elections and policy-making decisions. Please support these nonprofits in lifting voices long-silenced. Even if — especially if — it makes you uncomfortable.

Here are some ways you can support nonprofits:

  • Donate money. 
  • Volunteer for phone banks.
  • Call your senator when asked to take action.
  • Use social media to share the work they are doing.
  • Send a note to say thank you for daring to ask why, and for doing something to create systemic change.
  • Let them know you see them, you support them, and you value the work they are doing.

I’d like to think I was a positive, albeit brief, influence in Liza’s life. But I was more likely just one of many nice people who helped her for a moment. The people who truly had the lasting impact are the people she never met – the people who advocated for funding for early childhood education, smaller class sizes, or comprehensive sex education, to start.

I don’t know where she is now, or whether or not she is a teacher. I only know that I went into that classroom every Thursday for a year, hoping to change Liza’s life. I wish I could tell her now that she changed mine.

Angie Remington is deputy director for the Nebraska Civic Engagement Table. She believes deeply in helping communities build power to effect systemic change through organizing, leadership development, and collaboration.

For more Civic Nebraska Writers Group columns, click here.

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