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Unacknowledged Trauma: Being Black While Working in Nonprofit Education

black communities

As a black man working in nonprofit education, I have heard and experienced a lot, particularly from the students that I’ve served. Working in the North Lawndale Neighborhood on the Westside of Chicago, I had a 4th grader, an amazingly smart girl, tell me that she didn’t want to work with the white volunteer, or any of the other volunteers, because her mom told her not to trust white people. The school population was nearly 100% black. I think there may have been one or two non-black students. My team and I were there because the school had just been taken over by a nonprofit that my nonprofit worked closely with, to help schools “turnaround”. I, as the only black person, had to explain to this young black women how, logically, she should work with my co-worker because she was actually better at math than myself so it was really in her best interest to get help from her and also had to explain, without telling her that her mother was wrong, that not all white people are untrustworthy. I had to mask my beliefs, I don’t completely agree that white people are untrustworthy, but looking back I wish there was some way that I could have validated her suspicions and had a deeper conversation without just handing her over to my white co-worker. At that time, the majority of my team was white, there were only 3 other people of color. We had a debrief at the end of every day, but I didn’t exactly know how to articulate what I was feeling to my team and it just went unaddressed. 

After one year of volunteering, I was accepted to a second year of service and was able to work at the same school. Our model changed a bit and we transitioned to working with middle school students and I didn’t interact as much with the 4th grade, now 5th grade student, from the previous year. The administration and teachers heavily disciplined the students. There was an incident, and I happened to be present for the aftermath. The principal, a black woman, sternly asked the student, “Would you rather talk to me or the police?!” and the girl whimpered, “The police.” I thought to myself, what world do we live in where students would rather talk to the police? This showed me just how bleak the education system was in the U.S and it terrified me. After hearing that, I become just as afraid of my principal as the girl did. I tried my best to do for the students what I could to help support them and I knew I’d never want to be so far removed from students that they would choose the police to talk to over me. It also put into perspective how systemic racism can also be perpetrated by black educators. Even with more black people and people of color or my team, I didn’t know how to articulate what I had experienced without depressing the team and their spirits but also not feeding into the angry black woman stereotype. Now I use that story to illustrate the type of school environment both I and my students experienced and to summarize the culture of the school.

My work later took me to San Antonio to work on the Eastside, a more mixed population of students than my experience in Chicago. There were some ups and downs but nothing as jarring as my experience in Chicago. That brings me to my current work at a Jesuit High School in San Jose, California. I’m working with a much different student population, nearly all of our students are LatinX. I can count the number of black students on one hand. When I was hired I was only 1 of 2 black male staff members, now I’m the only Black staff member out of a staff of about 70. My second year, I helped start the debate team and the topic was on immigration. That, of course, opened up discussions about race, colonialism, oppression, white privilege, etc. At one of the tournaments, an Asian student told me that until he met me, he didn’t know black people could be civilized. I responded to him by first telling him that civilized was a strong word choice but thanked him for sharing that with me and told him I was glad to provide him with a different perspective of black people. That was about all I could muster and for the rest of the tournament and the night, I was messed up. This was a Saturday and after many deleted drafts, I sent an all-staff email at 1AM to alert my community of the experience that I, as the only black staff, member experienced. I was not angry, it was actually a good thing that this student was able to recognize his bias and share what most people would be afraid to admit, this is actually the kind of conversations that should be happening. What did make me angry is that I was the only person that understood my experience as no other staff member would know and understand what it is like to have someone comment on their civility and I needed my coworkers to know. I needed my coworkers to know not only what this student said to me but share my unique position as the only black staff member and my relationship with students. 

The president of our organization wanted to talk to me about the event and started to apologize and asked if I were okay. I had to stop her and tell her, unfortunately, this is not my first experience with racism. The conversation then led into what she could do to support, but her apologizing and asking if I was okay illuminated the point that black people and other people of color have no one to understand their experience in the workplace. Am I okay? A student basically commented on my civility as though it were a nice outfit and although that was a positive interaction, it was still jarring. No, I was not okay. But I was at work, doing my job, while also carrying the burden of now discussing and reliving the situation with some co-workers. 

This is the added burden that I, a Black educator in nonprofit education, experience and nonprofits need to do better at addressing the traumas of their black employees and employees of color. Structurally that could be additional mental health days, subsidizing mental health options, having a DE&I position in the leadership structure, inviting people of color on the board, and providing spaces for employees of color to feel comfortable enough to share their experience and feel they will be listened to. If we want to get really radical, pay black employees and employees of color more money for their lived experience. I highlighted three traumatic experiences but there are daily microaggressions that black educators and educators of color have to deal with like talking to a student about how his or her teacher isn’t a racist or debriefing experiences with students that, because we are non-white, students are willing to open up and share more. This current moment is pushing the nonprofit educational community to acknowledge the inherent white privilege in nonprofit work of ignoring systemic racism while simultaneously attempting to address issues of racism and discrimination. White privilege and systemic racism must be a part of the nonprofit educational dialogue in order to adequately address racial inequality in the US education system. This is more than simply giving voice to black employees and employees of color, but recognizing that there is an underlying trauma that is a direct result of the systemic racism that educational nonprofits are trying to dismantle. Nonprofit educational organizations are in a unique position, to move the national conversation around education and center their work, not on the effects of systemic racism – a student being afraid to work with a white person because he or she believes they are racist or a student making the choice to talk to the police vs. a school administrator – but the systemic nature of white privilege, white fragility and racism in the nonprofit education space. 

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  • Coron

    Thank you so much Mr. Woods for sharing this valuable narrative that is oftentimes ignored and misunderstood. I too, have led almost a parallel life as you and would love to connect with you! I'm in Oakland and have been playing a huge role in the Black Teacher Project, which has really good programming for and by Black educators. Check us out! Being a black male teacher in school or non profit is not an easy space to maneuver. I like the solutions you offered up, especially additional mental health days and subsidizing mental health options. Keep writing and let's collaborate and support each other!
  • Dania Miwa

    Mr. Woods, Thank you for sharing your experiences. My hope is more organizations can take an honest look at their own internal bias, not only as individuals in the organization, but the systemic cultures set up (usually well meaning) that can perpetuate racism. I know that I have definitely perpetuated unhealthy systems or been part of upholding organizational norms that were at best unhelpful, and at worst deeply harmful. I'm listening and I really appreciated this article.
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