Because We CAN Breathe: A Guide for White Leaders to Move Beyond DEI Statements in Social Sector Organizations

June 19, 2020


Tracey K. Allard

Director of Culture & Equity Strategies at CRE


Juneteenth, 1865

June 19, 1865, Galveston, Texas: Union soldiers shared the Emancipation Proclamation with 250,000 slaves who had never been told they were freed two and half years prior 1 . Today, “Juneteenth” commemorates this marker, offering an opportunity to reflect on and celebrate this last stage of emancipation in Confederate states. 

Juneteenth also is an opportunity to acknowledge that freedom, justice, and equality in the U.S. have long been blocked or delayed for Black people and that anti-Black norms, structures, beliefs, and behaviors permeate all aspects of our society still today. The 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution abolished slavery all together; however, the Amendment enables a new form of enslavement and remains a residual stain of anti-Black 2 racism. 

As we move through a growing collective examination of injustices against Black people 3 , — from the health impact disparity of COVID-19 on Black communities to the dubious crime of Birding While Black, to horrific acts of police terror and violence against Breonna TaylorGeorge Floyd, and on so many more Black bodies — it is gut-wrenchingly clear: the anti-Black sentiment that bred the institution of slavery in the U.S. remains 4 deeply-embedded in structural and institutional racism 4 that perpetuates anti-Blackness today.  

For those of us who work in organizations committed to social change, unconscious anti-Blackness in our own programming, grantmaking, decision-making, hiring, promoting, compensating, and recognizing are residua of this peculiar institution and the rootedness of social change organizations in colonization and oppression 5 

Change Starts with You + Your Org

In my 20+ years of work to increase capacity in social change organizations, including nonprofits, foundations, and government agencies, I have observed that sometimes, the very organizations that exist to eliminate racism, alleviate poverty, and offer the opportunity for historically disenfranchised populations struggle to foster an environment of race-based equity and opportunity within their own organizations. 

The societal problems these organizations seek to solve are often seen as “out there.” Missed are the inequities and bias simmering “at home.” As a result, some social change organizations unconsciously espouse harmful beliefs, policies, and practices that are stacked in favor of white dominant norms, and of white and other people who support those norms. Racial blind spots and structural inequities propagate workplace toxicity — including emotional, financial, and positional harm — against Black team members who often reflect the historically excluded communities organizations exist to serve.

My upcoming guide, “Because We CAN Breathe: A Guide for White Leaders to Move Beyond DEI Statements in Social Sector Organizations,” will be an offering to White leaders and other colleagues who seek genuinely to embark on or accelerate a journey to achieve a greater racial equity mindset in their personal and professional lives. 

As a preview, here are three actions you can begin to take, starting with yourself:

ACTION ONE: Conduct A Self-Audit

Recognize and admit that if you are not Black, you live with privilege 6 . Peggy McIntosh documented 50 examples in her 1988 essay, Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. Be honest about the ways that you personally and professionally benefit from anti-Blackness and the systems set up to block access and opportunity for Black people. And if you think you are a good White person who would never support racist systems, check out this National Public Radio interview of Robin DiAngelo speaking to ways in which “nice White people can still be complicit in a racist society 7 .” White people especially benefit; yet, non-Black people of color also benefit from a level of privilege built off of White supremacy 8 and anti-Blackness. For more on how people of color can address their own anti-Blackness, read this post from Vu Le of, and more on what you can do to dismantle racism from DoSomething. To be clear, behaviors and systems that are anti-Asian and Pacific Islander, anti-Latinx (not to mention anti-LGBTQIA, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, anti-Semitic, etc.) also perpetuate unjust harms in the U.S. And, the Black experience in the U.S. is far different, because of almost 250 years of race-based Black enslavement, followed by more than 150 years of compounded, enduring, race-based systems meant to sabotage opportunity and progress.  

ACTION TWO: Make a Holistic Effort

Be courageous in your stance against anti-Blackness and for anti-racism 9 , and, be consistent in that stance both in and out of the workplace. Don’t act bravely in the closed and relatively safe container of say, a work-sponsored workshop, and then sit back in silence while Pop-Pop and great Aunt Shirley make racist (xenophobic, misogynistic, homophobic, etc.) comments at the family reunion. Share what is helping you to understand the circumstances of anti-Blackness and share successes of other racial and ethnic groups that are working to address anti-Blackness. The National Museum of African American History & Culture’s “Talking About Race” is a rich compilation of resources to support knowledge-based conversations with colleagues, family, children, and others.

ACTION THREE: Embrace this as a LIFELONG Journey 

(and hold yourself accountable every step of the way)

Embark on the deeply personal — and lifelong — journey of examining and dismantling your biases and specifically, your-anti-Blackness. Find a variety of ways to learn, reflect, share, practice, evolve — repeat. Layla Saad’s Me and White Supremacy is a powerful personal anti-racism tool for people who hold White privilege “to begin to examine and dismantle their complicity in the oppressive system of White supremacy. 10


Recognize the extreme privilege and formal and informal authority you hold. Use your power for transformative change — inclusive, anti-racist, culturally responsive, community-centered. Create and sustain paths for Black people and others who have been systematically blocked from the opportunity to lead, inform, decide, belong. Be mindful that your most deeply-embedded beliefs about race might be causing you to unintentionally leverage your power as a barrier to inclusion — to intimidate, to keep people in line, to assure other White people that they will not lose power, or to impose decisions that are not informed by the communities closest to the issues you are addressing. Find ways to open up courageous conversations, and work to influence a bold dismantling of anti-racism inside of the organizations where you invest your time, thinking, effort, and money, and direct trust, regard, and resources to community-led and community-centered organizations. 

I believe that sustained organizational social change can happen — when leaders bravely enter raw, messy spaces, anchored in knowledge and understanding of how America’s ugly history shapes its current state. When leaders courageously own racial inequities within our teams, and the structures, policies, spoken and unspoken norms that reinforce them. When we end the deafening silence and begin to name the root causes of inequity and our organization’s role in it. When we center the voices of team members and stakeholders who are closest to social injustices as those best positioned to help resolve them — and when we diminish our and others’ conscious and unconscious “acts of exclusion” 11.


At Community Resource Exchange (CRE), we are entering our fourth year of internal racial equity learning and integration. It has been a tough, uncomfortable, rewarding, bountiful ride. In the midst of the current societal crises, we are pushing through on the work — taking our team’s Racial Equity Activation and Learning (R.E.A.L.) community virtual, and holding each other accountable for emphasizing practices that support equity. We maintain our commitment from a shared understanding that: 

  • Continuing to reinforce and model racial equity from the inside out — especially in times of crisis — allows our team to authentically and credibly contribute to our own racial equity commitments.
  • Our ongoing, racial equity-centered practices — especially when they feel like too much to also deal with — ensures that the organization can deliver impact and manifest CRE’s mission.
  • Equity-centered field leadership and incorporation of racial equity across our work — especially when it feels like just a “nice to have” — can help build the field’s capacity to understand, embrace, and integrate racial equity.


Cited References

  • 1.,8599,1815936,00.html
  • 2.
  • 3. From Anti-Blackness [is] a two-part formation that both voids Blackness of value, while systematically marginalizing Black people and their issues. The first form of anti-Blackness is overt racism. Beneath this anti-Black racism is the covert structural and systemic racism which categorically predetermines the socioeconomic status of Blacks in this country. The structure is held in place by anti-Black policies, institutions, and ideologies. The second form of anti-Blackness is the unethical disregard for anti-Black institutions and policies. This disregard is the product of class, race, and/or gender privilege certain individuals experience due to anti-Black institutions and policies. This form of anti-Blackness is protected by the first form of overt racism.
  • 4. From Institutional racism is the normalization and legitimization of an array of dynamics – historical, cultural, institutional and interpersonal – that routinely advantage Whites while producing cumulative and chronic adverse outcomes for people of color.
  • 5.
  • 6. From Privilege is Unearned social power accorded by the formal and informal institutions of society to ALL members of a dominant group (e.g. white privilege, male privilege, etc.). Privilege is usually invisible to those who have it because we’re taught not to see it, but nevertheless it puts them at an advantage over those who do not have it.
  • 7. There Is No Neutral’: ‘Nice White People’ Can Still Be Complicit In A Racist Society June 9, 2020 Heard on All Things Considered.
  • 8. From White supremacy is a historically based, institutionally perpetuated system of exploitation and oppression of continents, nations and peoples of color by white peoples and nations of the European continent; for the purpose of maintaining and defending a system of wealth, power and privilege.
  • 9. From Anti-racism is the work of actively opposing racism by advocating for changes in political, economic, and social life. Anti-racism tends to be an individualized approach and set up in opposition to individual racist behaviors and impacts.
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