Insights from “What Does It Mean to Be Black-Led? - Going Beyond Demographics”

Wednesday, June 21, 2023

Insights from “What Does It Mean to Be Black-Led? - Going Beyond Demographics”

The session

In a 90-minute interactive session with over 60 funders, Service Never Sleeps co-founders Whitney Parnell and Samson Girma shared their yet-to-be-published findings from their latest research “What does it mean to be Black-led?” They deepened their understanding of what it means to center Black leadership, and how structures can evolve to become truly Black-led through the creation of a culture that prioritizes partnership and liberation for all communities.

Key Takeaways 

Leaders discussed and shared the following insights and takeaways: 

  • Black leadership involves a pro-Black approach where a majority of Black people are able to show up authentically and exercise decision-making power in alignment with that authenticity; 
  • Supporting Black-led organizations cannot simply rely on measures like demographics or basic statements of commitment to DEI values. It needs to consider the obstacles Black leaders face and the unique experiences they bring to their leadership;
  • Supporting Black leadership includes examining norms and the ways they do/do not uphold white dominant culture;
  • Black leadership understands that community care is integral to the success of an organization and cannot be disregarded for the sake of impact;
  • Building Black-led organizations requires relationships grounded in trust between funders and grantees; funders are not able to explore the possibilities for authentically Black-led organizations if they do not have trusting relationships that allows the grantees to operate authentically;
  • For funders for whom this message is resonating, we encourage you to examine your institution’s systems and practices, including ways in which you might inadvertently be placing further burdens on grantees. 

While more funders have committed to center and invest in DEI and organizations serving and supporting racial equity, a lack of understanding of what it means to be a Black-led organization has led to practices that are frequently performative, rather than purposeful. 

The journey to becoming Black-led will not be linear nor will it be perfect. In becoming Black-led beyond just changing demographics, there is a perpetual unlearning of norms which occurs as leaders learn how to embrace and bring their authentic selves to work. Even so, it is important not to become attached to unrealistically high expectations, as the struggle for perfectionism is a characteristic evident in the competitive nature of the white-dominant structure that we are striving to dismantle. 

In propelling that forward motion, it is crucial to understand that some board members, staffers, and even supporters may not want to take that journey along with you. 

As evidenced often by organizations traveling along this journey, declaring yourself a pro-Black organization or taking the definitive stance of being Black-led beyond demographics may result in people leaving and taking their support with them, however it is important to remember that both the quantity and quality of support often increases after time. 

Funders’ Response

Throughout the 90-minute session, funders’ provided robust and positive responses, and expressed a curiosity to learn more. Many named the learning and intentional peer exchanges as powerful and thought-provoking with one funder noting that Service Never Sleeps’ presentation was one of the most powerful sessions they attended. Others noted that they felt better equipped to reflect on their own funder practices and behaviors.

One funder raised a question around the practice of asking prospective grantees, “How does anti-Blackness show up in your organization and community, and how is it being addressed?” Our Service Never Sleeps presenters cautioned that while it is important and sometimes easier to ask this question of grantees about their organizations and their communities, it is even more important for funders to extend the same questions to themselves: How are they supporting their grantees to assess their internal and community needs to counter anti-Blackness? How are they doing this work within their own grantmaking organizations? The self-work is as critical for all of us to be doing as individuals and as individuals within our institutions.