Sanjiv Lingayah: We can commemorate George Floyd by choosing life-affirming alternatives to racism

The charity sector has witnessed many solidarity statements in the past year, but these words do not constitute decisive and irreversible progress towards racial justice

The murder of George Floyd on 25 May last year and the subsequent protests and uprisings around the world have ensured that racism is well and truly on the agenda. 

In the charity sector, we have seen solidarity statements from various organisations in response to Black Lives Matter. But these words cannot yet be said to constitute decisive and irreversible progress towards racial justice. 

Indeed, shocking cases of racism have emerged in the charity sector over the last year. 

But the future can be different. And charities can take the lead in constructing alternatives to racism. 

Here are some suggested ways forward. 

Understanding racism

In the charity sector we need to be clear about what racism is and what it is not. 

Racism exists where harm is caused to racially minoritised people by actions (or inactions) in which race-based thinking is a significant factor. An example is where the capabilities of black staff are questioned consistently and without justification. 

More broadly, racism is a way of looking at and organising the world. As such, it can powerfully inform and influence collective life and the charitable world. 

Understanding the everyday and overarching modes of racism provides a solid foundation for action and highlights the urgency and importance of a response.

Remaking missions

Much of the debate on "race", racism and charity has centred on workforce issues, particularly (a lack of) diversity and inclusion. These issues are critical.

But, given the scope and scale of charity activity, what is perhaps more significant for racial justice is the work that charities do in the world.

We need more charities committed to becoming anti-racist organisations. This work might start with specific efforts, for example, in key appointments to the senior management team and board. 

But ultimately, it requires that charities explicitly write racial justice into their mission statements and make this cause central to why they exist.

Follow the money

Advancing racial justice requires resources. Important among these are ideas and imagination so that we can fully face the problem of racism and create far-reaching solutions.

Another vital resource is money. This is needed by mainstream charities seeking to re-orientate themselves. And money is required by those in the racial justice movement trying to change society as a whole.

The racial justice movement is largely self-funded because many of those involved donate time to the cause for free. There is also money that is self-generated and controlled.

But this work also needs funders prepared to invest in growing a powerful movement that addresses the consequences of racism and tackles its root causes. 

To date, funders have collectively fallen well short on funding groups and organisations focused on racial justice. 

But change could be in the air. 

Mainstream funders are now talking about long-term funding for civil society efforts led by and for racially minoritised people.

There are conversations about ringfencing money, as well as the need for more open and trusting approaches to funding in general. 

More radically, some mainstream funders have let go of their power over some of their money by investing in funding pots for anti-racism that are overseen by racial justice advocates and activists. 

And, in other developments, a few funders have explored how their wealth has been built on racial exploitation and are looking at future funding as a means to make reparations. 

Positive as these steps are, progress needs to be broader and deeper.

Many funders are still auditing their spend rather than altering their allocations towards racial justice. And funders can be conservative, intransigent and hard to hold to account. 

As we continue to assess charity sector commitment to racial justice we will certainly have to "follow the money".

Making mistakes

A last thought is that as change continues, and hopefully gathers pace, mistakes will be made.

None of us has lived in a world without injustice, misogyny, racism, or xenophobia. Therefore, there is no exact template for transformation. 

Organisations and leaders in our sector will get things wrong. But let’s build strong foundations, such as working in genuine partnership to co-design ambitious solutions, so that if we make mistakes they are good ones.

And let us avoid mistakes such as performative anti-racism without serious follow-up action. 

Those mainstream charities and leaders with good principles and high ambitions will find support among anti-racists – even when things go awry. 

In other words, it is not the case that mainstream charities and leaders will be damned if they do or damned if they don’t. 

To make progress, we need audacious organisations and charitable leaders prepared to embody and redefine the spirit of charity; that will commit to healing and wholeness in society; and that accept the risk and reward in this work. 

This is the way to truly commemorate George Floyd; by insisting on and developing life-affirming alternatives to racism. 

Sanjiv Lingayah is an independent researcher, writer and consultant

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