The past twenty years I have worked in the nonprofit sector which, if it wasn’t a business entity, would provide a classic illustration of a misnomer, because many entities and people profit in this sector, some much more than others. I have worked with grassroots nonprofit organizations where budgets consisted of whatever we, the working board of directors, were willing to pull out of our pockets to pay bank fees, make copies, and send out mailings, until we developed a track record and history and learned how to play the game. I have also worked for medium-sized nonprofits with revenue of $20 million, as well as a larger nonprofit with revenue in excess of $220 million. At the medium and larger nonprofits, I saw something similar in the institutional structure. The majority of the CEOs, Presidents, and Executive Directors, are white. In Fiscal, this held true, too, as well as in Development, though in Fiscal, Asians would also be represented.
As you went from top to bottom, that is, as you went down the organizational chart, you would start to see people of color as managers and mid-managers. When you reached the line workers, where the magic really happened – what made the magic possible – people of color would dominant. The people they serve, by and large, look like them, too.
There are some obvious reasons why, especially in the reentry nonprofit world, these organizations are white at the top and mostly black and brown on the bottom. Many at the “bottom” are, as one formerly incarcerated individual said, former “consumers of correctional services” – a phrase I abhor, for the record.
A number of years ago, a colleague whom I respect, said that one of her fears was that the reentry world would become just another institution, a post-prison industrial complex (reentry industrial complex), if you will, not an institution that was looking to put itself out of business because it was successful and thus shrinking because the demand for such services would not be as great instead of expanding. When you look at the movement to #CloseRikers, the impetus and energy comes from the line workers I mentioned earlier, the formerly incarcerated. For the most part, you won’t see those CEOs, Presidents and Executive Directors on the front lines – I know, they have more pressing business – which nonetheless makes you wonder….
When I look at the structure of the reentry industrial complex, and I know a lot of good people doing great work there, I still wonder about the redlining and the political games and the extent of exploitation of those formerly incarcerated working in reentry, as well as children receiving services from these organizations because they are impacted by the prison industrial complex. This exploitation often comes in the form of a narrative, similar to the slave narratives – a tale of how horrible the jail and prison systems are, even in its treatment of innocent children with incarcerated parents, and how this or that organization helped them during this time. I have been at a number of fundraisers and when people reached into their pockets and purses for their wallets or checkbooks, they gave because of these narratives, not the eloquent speeches of keynotes, of CEOs, Presidents and Executive Directors. They just provide the setting where more magic is allowed to be on display.
I started writing this blog intending to write about a redlining experience I experienced working for two grassroots nonprofits, but was moved to write about the above instead. I still plan to write about that experience, because I think it illustrates some of the things in this blog.