The recent protests amplifying the Black Lives Matter movement and demanding racial justice in the United States have not only heightened our awareness of how we run our own business. It also brings up the question of who we choose to do business with and how these partners may reflect on our integrity. In a time when systemic change is needed, we can go beyond practicing antiracism in our own lives and examine whether the people in our network—or even our whole industry—uphold those values, too. Kyana Wheeler, M.Ed, MPA, a consultant and board member of the Non-Profit Anti-Racist Coalition trains leadership to challenge inequity in their organizations, explains how to vet clients for antiracism.The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Determine whether you can afford to turn down a prospective client.
“Some of us are set up differently in society. Some of us need that client—some of us might be struggling to make ends meet and we need that dollar amount...Identify where your particular needs are in society and interrogate those [needs].”
Marketing your values can allow for some self-selection on the client’s side.
“Be very clear about your principles and where you stand, and market that. When people are looking for you, they will see words that make them uncomfortable and say, ‘Well, we actually aren't going to engage that consultant.’ That, for me, saves me a lot of time and heartache and pain from having to say, ‘Actually I don’t do that work and where you all are is really behind in the times.’ “Make sure that the words that you speak [and] the proposals you send out are very clear about your principles, how that works for them as an organization, and why their organization should consider that. those are the first things that an organization gets from me and they’re very clear about, ‘We either do or don’t want to go forward.’”
Get a feel for the client’s setting and environment (in person or virtually).
“I go and experience organizations that have contacted me. I might go stand outside their organization [and] see how things function, feel out the people that go in and out. Do they look disgruntled when they come out? Are people excited to go there?… I might even do something that people would have to respond to me about like I didn’t park in the right place or whatever. I want to see how people are like, ‘You can’t park there.’ Is this organization human or is it wielding its power structure?“Sometimes on Google Maps I’ll drop the little person on the street and look around. I had an organization I was working with and I dropped the little Google person in the area [of its office] and just walked around. What I found was that this was an organization that was situated within a very poor part of town. You could see the dilapidated buildings; you could see the lack of investment in this area. But when I was looking on the campus of that organization, [I saw] sprawling green hills—well-manicured, beautiful, and at every edge of that organization’s campus was a 10-foot high fence. When I got to working with those folks, one of the things they asked was, ‘How can we get more diverse people in our organization?’ And my question back to them was, ‘How are you accountable to the community that you’re actually in?’ And they were stumped. If you can’t even see the impact and need of engaging with that community, how are you going to hold onto and retain Black and brown folks in your organization? It’s very important just to understand the context in which an organization is situated.”
It’s up to you whether you work with a client whose values don’t align with yours—or walk away.
“I don’t think our work is shunning organizations that don’t do antiracist work. Yeah, we should shun folks who are clearly racist, but [not] just because folks haven’t figured it out. How do you figure that out together? How do you do that work together? Because we’re actually all implicated in this. We’re all part of this. Me not working with your organization because you have racist values that maybe you do or don’t know have disproportionate outcomes is too cut and dry for a world that is so murky.“Some work might be too much for you and you’re like, ‘I need to keep my soul intact.’ Other work might be like, this is what you feel your role in society is, is that you’re learning to undo [your own internalized racism] and so you want to help your organizations you’re working with undo [their racism]. It is really about what your principles and values include.”
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