I Was the Only POC at My Nonprofit Job, and I Felt Like a Token
As we largely served communities of color, this was problematic on many levels
Ilooked around at a table of upper-middle class, White women, eager to make a difference in inner city Los Angeles. Keyboards clicking away. Coffee cups overdue for refills. Ideas flying for the next big event. This was my day-to-day as an employee of a nonprofit that serves teen girls, who are mostly people of color. I was the only person of color on staff, and every day I went into the office, “Would they come for me today?” was a constant, anxious thought.
I got started in nonprofit work during my second year in L.A. I was searching for a way to connect with like-minded people and to give back to the community. This particular nonprofit stood out to me in my online search because it combined creativity with empowerment towards children. After volunteering as a mentor for two years, and after living abroad in 2018, I was intrigued. The company was hiring for a staff position so I submitted my application the same day I found the job opening.
I thought my love for creative arts and writing, my teaching experience abroad, and my type A planner personality would make me a great fit for nonprofit work. The initial interview was in-house with two staff members, the CEO, and the Communications Manager. I did not, however, meet the entire team. Within two weeks, I received a call letting me know I was selected for the position. I was stoked. I had a passion to work with youth, especially teen girls. What else could I need?
After weeks of training, I quickly noticed the team’s leadership all looked the same. Upper class and upper-middle class, middle-age White women. I did not readily think that this was problematic, but in the nonprofit world, this homogeneity is actually commonplace. According to Community Wealth Partners, people of color make up a mere 18% of nonprofit staff, while they make up 30% of the American workforce. Leadership in the nonprofit and foundation world is overwhelmingly White, with 80% of the industry’s top positions held by White people. These findings show that despite minorities’ equal credentials and the desire for promotion in the nonprofit sector, bias in the interview process benefits White candidates. In other words, Whiteness breeds more Whiteness.
“Feedback” was served on a harsh, cold plate in front of everyone in the office to humiliate and put you in your place so that you didn’t mess up again.
I never experienced feelings of “otherness” from colleagues. My coworkers were hardworking, humorous, busy bees. Everyone wore multiple hats because there was much work to be done. On any given day, you could find the team creating social media campaigns, securing food donations, doing outreach for in-kind donations, leading volunteer training and correspondence, creating curriculum, or editing and publishing students’ writing. My coworkers and I were in it together, willing to pick up the slack for a team member or stay late if an errand needed to be run. We made jokes and used sarcasm to pass through the harder days of nonprofit work.
My experience with the leadership in the office, however, was disheartening. I was reluctant to ask questions for fear of what the response would be. “Feedback” was served on a harsh, cold plate in front of everyone in the office to humiliate and put you in your place so that you didn’t mess up again. I was given tasks, only to be micromanaged and have those tasks taken away, like a rug pulled out from under me.
If I made a mistake on a task, then I was severely punished without any possibility for recourse. Last winter, I scheduled a social media post one day too soon, and was never allowed to work on social media again. When I asked to be given another chance to work on social media, I was always given different reasons why the team didn’t want to overload me with work. When I brought this up in a one-on-one with leadership, I was told to let things go.
In meetings, my opinions and suggestions were constantly discounted. Part of the work with this particular nonprofit involved facilitating workshops for teens in juvenile halls. Once I suggested to leadership to focus on building a stronger foundation of volunteers for the program before acquiring more teaching sites. My suggestion fell on deaf ears. Another time, in a team brainstorming meeting, I suggested a celebrity to speak at an event, and was quickly met with a biting response on why that suggestion would not work. Slowly but surely, I watched as my passion and fervor ultimately turned into passivity and apathy in the workplace. I cowered at my desk in hopes of “keeping my head down and getting the work done.”
I was tokenized when asked to be in team photos or to model a partners’ products for a social media post but then silenced when I came forward with an opinion in meetings.
The toxicity of the work environment was something I noticed very early on. But just like an unhealthy relationship where you ignore all the red flags, I chose to stay. At first, it was about the stability of the paycheck. The longer I stayed, however, it became more about proving something to the leaders of the company. I wanted them to see that I was valuable. Once, I came in early for a volunteer training to make copies for the meeting. No one asked me to do this, but I wanted to get a jumpstart on the days’ tasks. Once the leaders arrived, I was told that I was not doing it quickly or efficiently enough. I froze in that moment with frustration.
Slowly but surely, I stopped trying; stopped engaging. I kept my head down and did the work to avoid getting lashed out at.
As a Black woman, I now know that surface-level inclusion can be just as dangerous as overt prejudice. I was tokenized when asked to be in team photos or to model a partners’ products for a social media post but then silenced when I came forward with an opinion in meetings. On paper, the nonprofit was diverse and inclusive. Check the stats: diverse. Scroll through the social media accounts: diverse. Look at the wall of plaques and awards and the huge framed, photo of Michelle Obama presenting the company’s CEO a medal: diverse. Well-meaning White people are trying to save “at-risk,” inner-city kids. They are showing organizations and mission statements that look diverse without actually being diverse in the voices and ideas brought to the table. I was fruitlessly trying to be seen and valued while balancing speaking up for myself and not being viewed as the “angry Black woman.”
In order to truly make an impact in nonprofit work, I think it’s important to not lose sight of the people you serve. When serving kids of color, have some people that look like them and some who don’t, as long as they are people who have a heart for the work and people who the kids can look up to. Bring in a man of color who comes from their neighborhood and who has walked through similar circumstances, but also bring in the single, white mom from the suburbs who loves working with youth. Both have valuable experiences and opinions to bring to the table, but if you don’t have someone who the kids can see themselves in, you risk painting a picture of the “White savior” motif. Kids need to see people who look like them doing the “saving” work too.
After months of deliberating, scheduling meetings with leadership to discuss my frustrations, and weighing the pros and cons, I finally decided it was time to step down. When I brought my notice in, it felt as though they had been waiting for me to pull the plug. No one seemed surprised or bothered by me leaving. In the 30-minute sit-down with the CEO, we talked about everything under the sun except my leaving (about my summer plans and about volunteers who showed the greatest potential). Back to the smoke screens and facades.
It was not until I brought my two weeks’ notice and walked out that I felt like I could breathe again. Finally, someone was choosing to value me, even though it was only me.