Where did the allies go? Or, the DEI rollback

Back to the not-so-good old days…

For over a year now, I have taken notice of the gradually shifting anti-racism and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) landscape. I don’t know exactly when things shifted but it was subtle—well, at least until it wasn’t anymore.

I occupy a rather unique space in this landscape. I am an anti-racist writer and speaker, but I am also the executive director of a 54-year-old anti-racism organization. That allows me to see things at both a macro and micro level. 

The first shift that I noticed after the great Racial Awakening of 2020 was that giving for my organization, Community Change Inc., went down notably in 2021 and 2022. After a record-breaking fundraising year in 2020 that allowed us to hire the staff to properly launch programming that we never quite had the resources for—including staffing in both Maine and Massachusetts—that surge promptly went away.

It’s a shame, too, because we need that support to do the work. We don’t have some deep well of deep-pocketed corporate sponsors or angel organizations.

Since the summer of 2020, when Americans “re-discovered” racism, my organization has organized educational and community organizing symposiums that are designed to move people into actively fighting white supremacy. Having dedicated staff members in communities we are working in has allowed us to be in community with people directly and build along with other activists. Given the current racial rhetoric, that is paramount moving forward. 

As I write this, we are working on a spring series devoted to confronting white supremacy in communities across New England. In short, we are putting boots on the ground, rolling up our sleeves, and doing the hard work. 

I just received our closing financial statements for 2022, and it was our worst year for fundraising in almost a decade. We are literally working with more people than ever and growing substantive movement work, but the personal donors that are critical to maintaining this work are gone. Already, the foundations that in 2020 were throwing money at us have shifted direction. They’ve moved on to other causes, after only covering the starting point of us meeting that challenge of our cause. And they’ll do the same to those other causes, I guess. Give hope and then withdraw support, because I guess it’s too boring to stick with a single or a few causes until real progress and momentum is forged.

By the way, I am in regular communication with executive directors across the country and many of us have seen the same shift. Funding dried up; donors no longer engaging. 

On the personal side of this work, in the last year before COVID entered our world, I had over 20 speaking and training engagements, including the work that I do with author Debby Irving. In 2021, for the first time in years, my bookings dropped below 10 engagements in a year. In the world before the Great Racial Awakening, I could easily do four to six engagements a year with Debby Irving alone.

This year, outside of three long-term external consulting projects, the only booking I have picked up was one with an organization I used to be affiliated with, and I offered a deep discount because. to be honest, the fact they are even trying to do this work is huge. January and February used to be my busy season of speaking engagements, but no more. 

Despite hearing murmurings and seeing data points that organizations were quietly pulling back on their DEI efforts, I assumed maybe what I was seeing was more of a “me” issue. After all, I have been doing this work as a full-time job for almost 10 years; maybe I was just not so new and shiny anymore. After all, this work has grown and there are a lot more Black folks and other people of color doing this work now. Even here in Maine, people have options other than me for training and speaking work. 

However, a few days ago I stumbled into a conversation with several other Black and brown anti-racism/DEI trainers and speakers and it seems we are all having the same experience—including Black folks with books that just a few years ago were selling like hotcakes. Very few of us booked more than one or two engagements in February and we are noticing a marked downtown in Black History Month activity. Instead, increasingly, people are noticing that the DEI-style work, when it happens, is going to white women—which is unsurprising when you understand that the largest beneficiaries of affirmative action are white women. 

For over a year now, white nationalist activity has been growing, often under the radar. Book bans are hot, and many books by Black authors and authors of color are the target or among the main targets. Local school boards across the nation are pushing back on what they wrongly believe is critical race theory (CRT). To be honest, increasingly it is just the banning of learning about Black and brown people. Even colleges are not immune from the truth becoming controversial—if you listen to the way those right-wing tell it, America is about to be completely hijacked by Black and brown folks. 

As if.

By the way, if you live in Maine, are you aware of LD123, “An Act to Eliminate the Educational Purposes Exception to the Prohibition on the Dissemination of Obscene Matter to Minors.” If so, here’s an action you can take now. 

Oh, and the police, regardless of their race, are still killing Black and brown folks. Also, racial healthcare disparities are still very real as are racial economic realities. 

In short, nothing has actually changed except that white people who were passionate about the work just a little while ago have disengaged. I understand burnout and that life happens, but as a Black woman, I don’t have the privilege to disengage when I am burnt out. Nor do other Black and brown folks. As I have written over the years, there is no area of my life that cannot suddenly be impacted by racism. Whether I am working or not, racism lurks in the shadows to destroy and dehumanize. I have gone on desperately needed vacations only to have racism rear its ugly head and sour them. There is no escaping it for me. 

The thing is, breaking the chokehold that racism has on our society requires a multiracial coalition of dedicated people who can stay present in the work.

It requires white people who do not need Black and brown people to coddle them and make them feel special in order for them to stay engaged.

It requires white people who are willing to lean into their fears—whether they are fears of physical harm or fucking up—but who understand that this is complex, messy, and relational work. 

It requires white people who understand that no matter what they experience, they are always safer and more privileged than even the most famous Black and brown people on the planet. It requires white people who understand that building trust across racial lines might look different than what they are used to.

This movement needs white people who will sacrifice that spare $5 to keep the movement going and not assume someone else will pick up their slack. We need brave voices who will speak up beyond social media and who will live their anti-racist values , including checking their inner voice of white fragility on a regular basis. 

The thing is, white nationalist types are not afraid to live or die for their beliefs, but white anti-racist types, many of whom are white progressives, often lack that same commitment to their beliefs. The state of America in 2023 reflects that lack of commitment. Why are we not taking on the school boards and the libraries? Where are the anti-racist candidates? Why do so many of you think “supporting” the leadership of color is a passive act? 

Seriously, where did the allies go? Or were they just killing time until something better came along in some twisted version of Kony 2012.

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Image by Mitchell Orr via Unsplash