Centering Black & Indigenous Communities, During & After COVID-19: Part I

The onset of COVID-19 has reaffirmed the need for our government, communities, and institutions to center those among us who are most vulnerable and marginalized. This means strategically identifying resources and support systems relevant to Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) in our response, recovery, and the rebuilding of an equitable society.

In a previous blog post found here, we proposed taking advantage of this disrupted time by applying an intentional and comprehensive equity and justice-minded analysis to our efforts moving forward. This will keep us from perpetuating the pre-COVID-19 “normal” – a status quo that has historically fostered inequitable and disparate outcomes. Instead, our collective work, including internal practices and external advocacy, must redefine normal in ways that affirmatively promote equity and inclusion. To do this, we need to center Black and Indigenous communities in our language and in our efforts.

You may be asking, “Why center Black and Indigenous people?” The imperative arises out of the unique lived experiences – both historical and present-day – they have had to endure. We use the term “BIPOC” to lift-up the Indigenous and Black (African American) experience in the United States, marred by white supremacy-based US settler colonialism.

To understand the concept of settler colonialism we examine two distinguishing characteristics: the intentional destruction of existing peoples and the enslavement of Africans brought against their will to build white-dominated colonies. Unsettling America, an organization committed to helping the US re-Indigenize its land, says, “All people not indigenous to North America who are living on this continent are settlers on stolen land. It was founded through genocide and colonization of indigenous peoples – which continues today and from which settlers directly benefit.” This means that everyone who is not Indigenous is a settler, even though not everyone is here because they chose to be a settler.

Unsettling America also notes that “all settlers do not benefit equally from the settler-colonial state, nor did all settlers emigrate here of their own freewill. Specifically, we see slavery, hetero-patriarchy, white supremacy, market imperialism, and capitalist class structures as among the primary tools of colonization. These tools divide communities and determine peoples’ relative access to power.” The tools of colonization they are referencing have been and continue to be used to minimize power for Black and Indigenous people. One way we give power back is by centering Black and Indigenous people in our conversations, learning, organizations, and equity work.

How can we apply these principles to our work? As community leaders and their partners throughout our law and justice systems, course-correcting 500 years later can still be meaningful. Our Black and Indigenous communities deserve that we do better, even if it can sometimes seem like “too little, too late.” We can collectively work to eradicate a settler colonial mindset and build a new way together. This will require each of us to reflect deeply, evaluating the ways in which we have been complicit in basing our organizational cultures on settler colonialism-centric values that prioritize time, productivity, hierarchical power, large organizational charts, an eye on the bottom line, and how we connect. Even more importantly, we must understand how settler colonialism has caused us to develop behaviors that are anti-Indigenous and anti-Black.

Anti-Indigeneity & Anti-Blackness

While increasing our awareness and understanding of anti-Blackness and anti-Indigeneity is a step in the right direction, it is just a start. Next, organizations need to think about the ways in which the two have taken root in organizational structure, processes, programming, and other practices. One could argue that all organizations have been built and sustained with white supremacist and inherently anti-Indigenous or anti-Black practices, but that does not free us from the imperative of working toward eliminating such practices from our workplaces.

Here are some reflection questions for deeper learning for your team to help determine where anti-Indigeneity and anti-blackness is showing up in your organization:

  1. Do you post the salary range in your hiring practices? Black and Indigenous people do not have time to waste applying for jobs that are not financially feasible, and providing salary transparency reduces bias that can emerge in hiring processes. Please post salary ranges in your job postings. See more here.
  2. Do you perform meaningful land acknowledgments? And, if so, do you pay rent to either a tribe or an Indigenous not-for-profit? Doing a land acknowledgment alone is tokenism and therefore problematic. Your organization should incorporate ongoing learning opportunities about the current contributions and experiences of local Indigenous communities and commit to supporting tribal entities and Indigenous-led organizations. One resource for doing a meaningful land acknowledgement can be found here.
  3. Does your conflict resolution policy require a third party? Often conflict resolution with a third party creates an imbalance of power in favor of the non-Black, non-Indigenous person, because instead of dealing with the issue as a racialized one, it can be minimized and contained as a personality conflict between individuals.
  4. In community engagement, does the success your organization achieves with certain communities depend on the relationship being carried by your Indigenous and/or Black staff person? This can be both tokenizing and detrimental to your employee and the community, since it relies so heavily on the racial affinity between the staffer and the community. What happens if your organization fails to fully attend to that community and harm is created? This can make the staff person unfairly vulnerable to taking the blame.
  5. Does your leadership team and board welcome honest feedback from their BIPOC staff? Your organization should be an environment that welcomes feedback about possible missteps or racist behaviors that all organizations inevitably make. It may seem counter-intuitive, but if you have black and brown staff who are willing to tell you or your leadership about racialized problems, that can be a sign that you are headed in the right direction.

Below are some strategies for centering BIPOC in your work; we encourage you to share yours as well:

  1. Intentionally build in connection and relationship-building and sustaining as primary goals in your staff meetings, community partnership meetings, and client meetings.
  2. Pay BIPOC a stipend for joining your DEI committee and for doing any organizational equity work. Their emotional labor and lived experience are unique and valuable assets, and you and your organization are benefiting from that labor.
  3. Actively invest in relationships with leaders of BIPOC communities, but do not expect your BIPOC employees to shoulder that responsibility (tokenism). If your organization’s relationship hinges on your BIPOC employee, when they leave, you will no longer have a relationship with that community.
  4. Aggressively add DEI work to your annual budget. If you are not investing human and financial resource in DEI efforts, then you aren’t demonstrating that you value the work.
  5. Build in regular discussions with your staff and community about White Supremacy Culture.
  6. Invest in professional coaching for BIPOC staff so they have someone outside the organization who can help them process conflict and experiences of racism, and who can also help them build their careers and come into their own.
  7. Pay rent to tribal people in the form of a donation to the tribe on whose land you live and work or through a nonprofit that serves Indigenous people. Pay reparations to Black people by supporting Black organizations or Black foundations. A list can be found here, but don’t be afraid to do your own research for local organizations.
  8. Support BIPOC-owned businesses in every facet of your organization.

2 thoughts on “Centering Black & Indigenous Communities, During & After COVID-19: Part I

  1. Thanks for your work here. I am so excited to see it. Down the line I wonder if there is space to avoid calling African Americans and other BIPOC settlers. It helps to keep the intrinsic nature of settlers and colonialism distinct from enslaving/trafficking and colonizing. It is triggering in a healing context to be lumped in with abusers that way. Maybe we can be in dialog collectively to see how the Seattle area can create deeper spaces of belonging and inclusivity between BIPOC communities including creating tools for cultural preservation that fit Native American, African American, Black Diasporic/Pan-African (North, Central & Latin America, Caribbean, African), Latinx, Pacific Islander, Asian, Middle Eastern and other communities of color since BIPOC kind of flattens us out of our roots and traditions (Indigeneity). The conversation you began is an important one.

    1. Thank you so much for your comment, Davida. We appreciate your thoughts and totally agree that it could be painful. We are committed to building true solidarity so we’d love to connect with you to continue the learning, growth, and engagement needed between the Black and Indigenous community as well as all other communities of color. Again, thank you for your beautiful comment and talk soon.

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