Tools to build our equitable future

“I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.” Maya Angelou

I spent the better part of the first two decades of my professional life as the Executive Director of direct service organizations. During that time I witnessed a commitment to improving services, often returning from trainings with a new best practice or working to make program adjustments based on client feedback. The nonprofit community has often been ready to interrogate its assumptions, adapt and move into action—we lean into change.

Not surprisingly, as we wake up to how systemic racism functions in our organizations, nonprofits are responding with a determination to tear down oppressive structures and to build new, liberating systems in their place.

Maddox’s partners are no exception. I’d like to celebrate the tools that our partners are picking up to dismantle white supremacy. Each organization is finding its own starting place, knowing that liberation requires collective reimagining and action. We can all learn from our partners’ experience and take the crucial first step in the life-long journey of becoming anti-racist.

Using Dismantling Racism’s dimensions of racism as a framework, I would like to lift up a few examples of how Maddox’s nonprofit partners are leading their teams and boards forward.

Individual-Internalized Dimensions of Racism

Big Brothers Big Sisters of Middle Tennessee has embarked on a two-year professional learning curriculum focused on racial justice, including the study of implicit bias, cultural humility and microagressions. Understanding how we have absorbed the ideology of white supremacy is an essential building block for transformation.

Other nonprofits are diving into Layla Sadd’s book, Me and White Supremacy: A 28-Day Challenge to Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor. Organizations have also formed affinity groups – white affinity groups, designed to hold their members accountable for dismantling racism while ensuring space for BIPOC (black, indigenous and people of color) affinity groups to focus on healing.

Edgehill Neighborhood Partnership is having a board “book club” offering either Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility or Ibram X. Kendi’s How To Be An Antiracist and hosting conversations around those topics.

Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition has formed a“Liberation Committee”to combat anti-blackness, while other organizations have engaged justice coaches for supervisory staff members or hired local consultants to bring anti-racism training into the board room.

Organizational Dimensions of Racism

In the past, we have thought of racism as an individual moral failing and stopped short of interrogating how racist assumptions are woven into the fabric of our organizations. Tema Okun’s work on White Supremacy Culture reveals the ways that our organizations reflect white biases.

A good first step to understand institutional/organizational racism would be to atttend the 2.5 day Crossroads Anti-Racism training. Thank you to the YMCA, Nations Ministry, Oasis Center, Nashville Teacher Residency, Tennessee Educators of Color Alliance, Crossroads Campus, Project Transformation and Center for Nonprofit Management for making this commitment to learn. 46% of the Maddox board has attended the same training. In-person workshops have been postponed due to health concerns, but you can check out CNM’s equity offerings and plan for the year ahead.

Horizons afterschool program led by people of color aims to hire BIPOC educators with the intention of providing students with ample representation and role models that are reflective of their diverse identities. This past summer, 30% of Horizon’s staff identified as Black and 48% identified as POC. Having race-matching teachers is especially important for students of color – research documents higher math and reading scores on standardized tests, lower high school dropout rates, and a higher likelihood of applying to college if students have race-matching teachers in early grades (Carver-Thomas, 2018).

Cumberland River Compact is also starting with self-examination as they seek to create a more welcoming environment. The staff team has dedicated meeting time to wrestling with everything from anti-racism readings to examining personal values and organizational culture. Resources are available on the Maddox website as a starting point for this learning.

Systemic Dimensions of Racism

Impacting larger systems and unjust policies can seem daunting but our nonprofit partners are engaging in this change-work as well.

Nashville International Center for Empowerment learned that Comcast required a state-issued ID to apply for service. This restricted their undocumented clients from participating in the free internet program. NICE advocated for their community and got Comcast to eventually amend their practices to accept consular cards and passports issued by foreign governments – making internet services more accessible.

Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, Conexión Américas and TN Justice For Our Neighbors continue to build movements amplifying the voices of marginalized immigrants and changing local, state and federal policy. Even now, they are strategizing for safe implementation of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and challenging Immigration and Customization (ICE) practices.

Shortly before the pandemic shutdown, American Baptist College and Gideon’s Army led community meetings for the purpose of lifting the voices of youth living in zip code 37208. Movement-building and systems-change start with listening and learning from people with lived expertise.

Finally, if you missed the YWCA’s 21-day Racial Equity and Social Justice Challenge, you can still access it online for a self-paced introduction to systemic racism. Thank you YW for requiring us to create new liberating systems for everyone.


Each organization, and person, enters their anti-racism journey at a different place. The first step is making a commitment to learning.  Only when we know better, can we do better.

Maddox Update: The Maddox anti-racism journey in 2021 will focus on a self-assessment (some call it an “equity audit”) of all our practices, from HR to grantmaking, from board development to vendor engagement. We will interrogate our old systems and aspire to create liberating traditions to carry us forward. We look forward to knowing better so we can do better.

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