The social sector, I mean the charitable sector, excuse me, the third sector, wait, the plural sector, errrrh… our sector, is experiencing an existential dilemma when it comes to what we call ourselves.
Don’t get me wrong I believe in the power of language. It can bring clarity or cloud, include or exclude, build or tear down. What is troubling about our inability to come to terms with a name that identifies our sector points to a deeper, more troubling issue — our sector is searching for its identity and purpose in a society and world that has changed dramatically.
Many of these changes are due to societal trends, systems and issues not created by and larger than our sector. Aside from these societal shifts, perhaps our sector’s biggest struggle comes from trying to define our identity in relationship to the public and private sector.
As a Black person in America, I understand the struggle of trying to define yourself in relationship to others and the challenge of claiming your identity in the midst of forces larger than you. The more I thought about my personal experiences with claiming my identity and the challenges faced by our sector in claiming its identity I noticed some remarkable similarities.
In fact, I came to the realization that if all the sectors that make up our economy were a human family our sector, based on how other sectors view it, would probably be a person of color. If you doubt this conclusion here are a few quick questions we can ask to test if our sector’s lived experiences matches the lived experiences of people of color.
- Do you find you are the only sector like you in the room when you go to a gathering of other sectors?
- Are you not invited to sit at the table of the other sectors when they are discussing really important issues even though those issues affect you?
- Do you feel the pressure to represent a diverse sea of beliefs, ideas and actions of others even though you don’t personally know them because the other sectors think of you as different?
If our sector’s answers would be, and I believe they are, yes to all three questions then our sector would definitely be a person of color. Furthermore, I believe our sector would be Black, but I admit that’s debatable.
Let me offer a couple words of caution. First I am in no way saying our sector’s identity crisis remotely compares to the ongoing systemic and institutional racism and oppression faced by people of color. Although if the comparison does elicit more empathy from our sector to the plight of people of color then great.
Second, when you are dealing with something as complex as coming to grips with self-identify and figuring out what to or not to call yourself there are so many ways to go astray. So maybe our sector can learn from the experience of people of color who have also struggled to claim their identity and name. After all isn’t one of the benefits of diversity the ability to gain new perspectives and insights.
Here are a few lessons, mostly advice, from my family, friends and Black culture that have helped me on my journey of self-discovery. I hope they help our sector in its quest to find its identity.
Lesson 1: You are allowed to feel some kinda way
Feeling some kinda way is both a feeling and expressive phrase. It offers the opportunity to acknowledge your feelings but gives you the space and time to explore them more deeply to understand where they come from and what they mean.
So the next time you hear someone say, “Why can’t you operate more like the other sectors?” or “We keep giving you money but where is the societal impact.” know it’s ok to feel some kinda way.
Give yourself a moment to feel the emotion and recognize that you are not just imagining that micro aggression that was just hurled at you. Once you have composed yourself then you can start the hard work of figuring out what that exchange was all about and what, if anything, you are going to do about it.
Lesson 2: Baby, it doesn’t matter what they call you. It matters what you answer to.
Let me be clear- as a sector you will be called out of your name. There are people who either out of ignorance or intent will refer to you as one of the names listed previously. You will have a gut reaction so just refer to Lesson 1.
If the offense is really egregious or if it is leveled by someone from the public or private sector remember this- you have control over how you react. No one or other sector can define you. So instead of worrying about what others call you focus on your best self and act accordingly. If you are referred to as not innovative, then go innovate; if you are referred to as simple charity, then go invest in systemic solutions; and if you are referred to as less than, then become more.
In so doing you will define yourself.
Lesson 3: Don’t look for a fight but if they start one- finish it.
Another way to say this is, “If they put their hands on you, break’em.” Because as a sector you should never condone violence or act violently please take this advice figuratively.
There are plenty of issues giving you a black eye — scandals and abuse by bad organizations, lack of support for a raise in the minimum wage and dark money flowing into politics. In case you haven’t noticed you are in the middle of all these fights and you are getting pummeled. In life you are known for what you stand for and what you fight for so throw a punch for goodness sake the whole world is watching you.
As a sector you didn’t start these fights but you should finish them.
and one of the most important lessons of them all……
Lesson 4: Never, ever use the “n” word in mixed company
Let’s face it as a sector you have a very tumultuous history with the “n” word. You should never and I mean never, ever use the word not-for-profit, or its derivative, nonprofit, to refer to yourself or others in mixed company.
Let me define mixed company because it can be confusing. There are two types of mixed company- the first consists of organizations who look like you but don’t really identify as like you and the second consists of the other sectors who know for a fact they are definitely not like you.
The first type of mixed company consists of foundations, churches, superpacs and social enterprises and they in no way want to be associated with the “n” word. If you make the mistake of referring to them using the “n” word they will absolutely take you to task.
The second type of mixed company consists of the public and private sector. They know that they are not like you and the “n” word does not apply to them. Please refrain from using the “n” word to describe yourself or others like you in their presence. The last thing you want to do is give the public or private sector the idea that it is ok to use the “n” word because if they use the ”n” word around the wrong group or organizations they could end up in some serious conflict.
Now, whether you use the “n” word to refer to yourself or those like you in your personal conversations is up to you. As a sector you have that right. But if you do use the “n” word know that if others hear you using it they can and will judge you.
Judging from how well the lessons above apply to our sector I’m thinking our sector would definitely be Black. If you are a little confused and shocked that our sector is a person of color and Black that’s a natural reaction to being seen as the other. I must admit you never really get use too it.
There are way more lessons and questions to consider then the ones I have offered here. And to be honest the lessons at best are just survival and protest tools to navigate the daily challenges of life as a person of color.
The true secret to maintaining your sanity as you search for self-identity and what to call yourself is to not let it consume you to the point that you miss the most valuable lesson of all – it’s not about how others see you but about how you see yourself. Like all lessons in life this one has to be learned, mastered and relearned.
If as a sector we can do this, then we are truly a step closer to finding and claiming our identity, name and power.