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Built on Solid Rock: Moving Equity Work from the Margins to the Center

  • Post published:March 7, 2023
  • Post category:Blogs

And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock.

Book of Matthew 7:25

Building resilient organizations: a love letter

In a stellar article entitled “Building Resilient Organizations,[1]” seasoned organizer turned nonprofit leader Maurice Mitchell grapples with “the internal workings of progressive spaces,” and how so many organizations dedicated to social progress feel “stuck” in the work.  In what he calls “a love letter to organizing,” the article is an invitation for social justice nonprofits to move from the personal and introspective to the structural — and to think differently about how to build resilient nonprofits challenging unjust structures. 

The article highlights the historical roots of movement building, and how by their very perilous place in society (i.e., in the crosshairs of the establishment), movements developed to be anti-leadership, anti-institutional, and predominantly interpersonal – rather than organizational.

Mitchell especially shines in his discussion of “unanchored care” inside social justice organizations, which he defines as “the assumption that the onus is on the organization to deal with the harm, burnout, or psychological stress one may experience through the work” and that “[work] can and should be interrupted in service of this priority.”

The article lays bare many of the challenges inherent to social justice movements that erode organizational sustainability. In both the article and a Nonprofit Quarterly interview[2], Mr. Mitchell invites nonprofits to think creatively about solutions facing organizations doing this important work.

In my role managing an incubator[3] of such initiatives, I have repeatedly seen this erosion, resulting in much organizational damage, as the very values that fuel equity work can cannibalize the organizations that hold the work.  While I cannot comment on the challenges of community organizing nor campaigning because that is not my journey, I can attest to the following: some of the most catalytic social movements I have been privileged to support have had the most difficulty building sustaining organizations.

This is not a new challenge for those working toward equity in our communities. It does feel, however, as if we are entering a new era, where nonprofits are beginning to challenge the constraints under which they have historically been forced to fight for change.  I, for one, am all for it.

The challenge

Working towards justice is not easy.  It starts at the local level, raising awareness, building community power, exposing unjust policy, healing harm, and directly serving the community – a broad spectrum of effort that requires an array of skills not every organization can afford. The work is intensely personal, undercapitalized, and worthy of more investment. 

The challenge, though, is not just under-investment, but also in how nonprofits can over-identify with the problem (condition) and process (dismantling), and not enough on building structures that can hold emerging solutions.  Too many grassroots efforts either fade away, stall out, or morph into other work when they reach the $1M revenue mark.  Why?

We cannot ignore that in pursuit of addressing inequities – racial, social, economic, gender – change is fueled from the margins, through honing collective agency and experience.  It makes the work of social justice both personal and immediate.  Yet, as catalytic as personal experience can be in helping to dismantle inequity, the focus on experience can take on a life of its own.  And therein lies the danger: when organizations exclusively focus on condition, they often have no energy left to build the structures needed to hold emerging solutions.  

A personal story

I learned an early lesson on the power of the personal to shine a light on structural inequity.   

When I was in college I took a Radical Feminism course, taught, ironically, by a man.  It was an exciting class, mostly filled with women and one, brave, young male, grappling with cutting-edge texts on gender, politics, separatism, and change.   I was a good student, so I was surprised to receive an essay back with a big F on the top.  It was an essay on a radical separatist theory of feminism, which I happened to disagree with, and wrote my essay accordingly.

“I don’t want you to tell me why you aren’t oppressed, or why you disagree with this frame,” my professor told me. “I want you to take a moment, grapple with the text, and then explain to me how you ARE oppressed, inside of this system.”   He offered to regrade the paper once I had reoriented to the book.

What was he teaching me?  That a part of the marginalized condition was a perpetuated lack of awareness of when you were oppressing yourself, speaking the language of the oppressor even as you claimed freedom.  He asked me to pause and reconsider the text from my own experience.  And that the first step to fighting oppression was to identify the condition of oppression, and from there, to break down the structures that kept me in place.

I got the point he was making.  Before the term “woke” was co-opted as an insult to progressives, it was a call to stay alert to the conditions of brutality and injustice in the Black community.  To literally “wake up” and see the system. 

Why am I telling you this story?  Clearly, getting an F in a gender politics course is not an act of oppression, but the lesson stuck with me; even then, I gravitated toward structural solutions more than relational ones. (Which probably explains why I launched a nonprofit incubator!) Thirty plus years later, as I have grown in my own understanding of how inequities permeate our day-to-day interactions, I am struck anew between the need to balance the lifting up of condition, the tearing down of unjust policy, and the building out of new structures to hold change.  This time, I’m working for more than just a grade.

Balancing the personal, the political and the structural

I want to ensure that I am not coming across as a critic of identity politics or the role of personal experience in driving social change, as I advocate for more attention to sustaining structures.  Stories are powerful.  People are resilient.  We must lift up those who use their own voice and journey to shine a light on the deep harm systems can cause, and the emerging understanding that implicit biases can be as harmful as explicit ones. 

In her article Identity Politics: Friend or Foe, Other and Belonging[4] contributor Alicia Garza makes a stronger case than I can that “identity politics” is not only widely misunderstood, but intentionally distorted to erase how “identity” shapes economic and social outcomes.  “Critics of identify politics are correct when they caution that a focus primarily on experience can detract from building alliances or developing a plan,” she states. “[But] demanding that anyone divorce their lived experience from their participation in political action is not only dangerous, it serves to reinforce power dynamics that are bad for the collective.”

I agree with that. 

My question is this: how do we continue to lift the power of the personal (i.e., “diverse lived experience”) to effect community change without neglecting or eroding the organizational development required to hold it in place – and the corollary commitment to “the common good,” to best practice, and to sustaining structures?

Building resilient organizations that don’t go away

In my career, I have been privileged to support nonprofit leaders raising awareness of social challenges and structural inequities.  I have witnessed an important evolution away from direct service and intervention (still necessary and important), to activism, advocacy, and the structural change needed to address upstream conditions. 

What has not followed this evolution is a correlating investment in the structures holding the work. Structural investments into HR, governance, finance, IT, legal, insurance and the skills to manage complex contracts and nasty politics. Into facilities and leases and buildings in the heart of communities.  Into lines of credit, loans, and reserve funds. Into staff with expertise in advocacy, policy and research and government relations.

This lack of investment implies that we expect social justice nonprofits to act, literally, as accelerant to critical issues, flaming out like a Molotov cocktail thrown against a brick wall.   We don’t expect them to last.

If we want the important work of justice and equity to serve as centering principles of our society, we must move the work from the margins to the center of the nonprofit sector, and to the foundation of how we invest in the work.

If we want to help grassroots leaders to hold the line on progress made, we must give them a place to stand and fight.

We cannot build this house on sand.  The pursuit of justice deserves more than just temporary shelter.



Anne Olin
Charitable Ventures, President & CEO

[1] Building Resilient Organizations, The Forge.

[2] Interview with Maurice Mitchell by Cyndi Suarez of Nonprofit Quarterly.

[3] For those who don’t know us, Charitable Ventures is an incubator of social innovations and initiatives in Southern California.

[4] One of our valued partners who has supported the work of our initiatives in Southern California. The Other and Belonging Institute is a think tank under the directorship of john a. powell located at UC Berkeley, that grapples with these issues as they relate to achieving equity in society, and we continue to be grateful for their leadership and work.