Not Just Surviving, But Thriving

ProInspire Exploring How We Step Towards Organizational Resilience

by Ashley Bernal

March 31, 2023

“Give Light and People Will Find the Way”

– Ella Josephine Baker

In my experience as a social scientist and advocate for racial justice, I’ve observed that racial equity is analyzed most often from a place of deficit. Justifiably so, as identifying racialized inequalities has served the purpose of highlighting the role that race plays in the lives and outcomes for Black, Brown, Indigenous, Asian and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Americans. However, as a Black woman committed to racial equity in the social sector, I am guided by the words of the great civil and human rights activist Ella Jo Baker: “It is in the light that we will find our way forward.” Solely framing Black, Brown, Indigenous, and AAPI leaders’ needs through the lens of systemic barriers has not been without consequence. To advocate for racial equity that will disrupt the social, political, and economic power imbalance, Black, Brown, Indigenous, and AAPI leaders are required to identify all the ways we lack to be considered worthy of support. To consistently pull from a place of lack dims the light of possibility for illuminating what’s going right. 

A hand holding a tree with its intertwining branches spiraling upwards as it expands towards the sunlight. The tree is surrounded by a forest with the sunlight peeking behind it.
A thriving tree image from Adobe Stock

As a new member of ProInspire, I join a team of folks committed to not only building organizational resilience with Black, Brown, Indigenous, and AAPI leaders in the social sector, but to also lead by example and be the change that we want to see. But, the truth is, in the past, we’ve fallen into this deficit trap too. Phrases like “capacity building” have positioned us to think of Black, Brown, Indigenous, and AAPI leaders and communities from a need-based perspective. We were dimming each other’s light and reinforcing white dominant norms in the process. The call was coming from inside the house! 

So as an organization, we are committing  ourselves to reimagine what it means to build capacity from a place of thriving, abundance, and joy. What would it mean for the social sector to view Black, Brown, Indigenous, and AAPI leaders from a place of asset? What can a community of these leaders learn from one another when we center what they are getting right? What does it mean to thrive, to prosper, and to flourish as a leader, particularly in under-resourced communities, where identifying disparities remains paramount in garnering support? 

Our team has been wrestling with these questions together as a collective and, individually, through reflection and 1:1 conversations. As the new Director of Impact & Research at ProInspire, one of my first actions was to sit down with each member of our team to learn how my colleagues thought about the concept of thriving and see where we aligned. These conversations helped to set a foundation for what it means for us to thrive here at ProInspire as individuals, as an organization, and as members of an extended community in the social sector. Here are the themes that emerged from those conversations.

Thriving as Individuals at ProInspire 

The team discussed thriving as individuals as having a supportive community of coworkers. It was crucial to have trust, to feel fully supported, and most importantly, to have a team with evenly distributed workloads that supported a work/life balance. Each team member talked about how their ability to thrive was connected to not feeling alone and belonging to a community with colleagues who are “connected” to each other through a common goal. The team also expressed the importance of having the ability to invest in their personal development and growth that allows them to more effectively do their work. This included, but was not limited to, being able to do the work when they felt most inspired. 

Authenticity was another theme present in our discussions. The team felt that not having to perform for others and their prescribed perspectives allowed for the opportunity to form working relationships that would prioritize the work and not how they would be received. Being allowed to show up as you are, however you are, creates spaces for people to work more effectively and efficiently. Thriving meant doing the work from a place of purpose and not just getting the job done. 

Thriving as an Organization at ProInspire 

Our robust resourcing was key in how the team defined what it means for ProInspire to thrive. Each person discussed how ProInspire thriving as an organization meant having freedom to focus on work that was solely aligned with our commitment to racial equity. Remaining focused on our organizational objectives and not expanding beyond our area of concentration to meet funding goals gives ProInspire the freedom to grow and enhance our strengths. Thriving means to do what we do, and do it well. As an organization we are afforded the opportunity to develop deep relationships with funders and other organizations because of the freedom to not have to pursue every available opportunity to keep our doors open. For ProInspire, thriving is having the choice to say no.  

Thriving as an organization also means working collectively and collaboratively to build values alignment and move in the right direction towards our organizational goals. We challenge each other to push the work forward by engaging in generative conflict and invite each other to share diverse perspectives. We thrive when we lean into our differences as individuals. It helps us to see things from different perspectives that will ultimately yield more inclusive outcomes. 

Lastly, ProInspire thrives with a supportive Board of Directors that is fully committed to the growth of our organization. Having a fully aligned Board creates a holistically supportive structure where everyone is on the same page at every level. ProInspire is thriving because we are truly a team. 

Thriving in the Social Sector Community  

“If you want to go fast go alone, if you want to go far go together.” Thriving as a community in the social sector means to develop a strong network of members at every level that understands the strength in numbers. The inconsistency of resource availability has unfortunately created a competitive environment, most often leaving behind organizations that don’t center white normative measures of success. For our team, an example of the social sector thriving is willingness to be more inclusive of perspectives and practices that not only challenge the status quo, but more importantly actually work. Thriving in this context creates opportunities for everyone to share their lessons of what’s working and what doesn’t. A social sector community thrives when it prioritizes redistributing power throughout community-based organizations, funders, and media where we actually operate as a community that values participatory and shared decision-making. 

Key Takeaways  

In our candid conversations, I found three (3) key takeaways on thriving for ProInspire as individual team members, as an organization, and as an active member in the social sector community: 

1. Thriving is not either/or. Thriving was not discussed as a destination or a definitive outcome. While we set goals, thriving is a process where you continue to find what works to progress the work further and further along. Once a flower blooms, you don’t shut down your garden. You take the lessons learned to have a more flourishing bloom the next season. 

2. Thriving is not zero-sum. In order to thrive, there must be a perspective shift away from scarcity. Organizations should view one another as allies and not adversaries.  

3. Thriving is not reactionary to deficits. For folks to really center and think about thriving, it must be intentional. White supremacy culture has created deficit mental models that are easy to fall back into. So to be able to think freely about growth, flourishing, and possibilities, there needs to be some coaching in the conversation.

Next Steps

Our vision of an equitable social sector community is one in which the measurements of success are no longer rooted in white dominant norms. Our leaders, organizations, and communities are not deficit-ridden vessels just waiting for a funder to fill the gap. We need a narrative flip from deficit to asset so that organizations are empowered to do the work that works best for them and foundations let go of rigid guidelines and measurements that do more harm than good. Shifting the narrative centers choice, trust, and reciprocity—not paternalistic charity.  

This year, ProInspire is leading a national project to take an active role in advocating for this narrative shift. We’re seeking Black, Brown, Indigenous, and AAPI leaders from grassroots and community-based organizations across the country to participate in our project.

Funders need to know how they determine who gets funding support is rooted in white-supremacist measures of success that actually exclude many organizations who would benefit from the freedom to just do the work. But this research is not just about focusing on funders. We’re also looking for this to be an opportunity to build an extended community with Black, Brown, Indigenous, and AAPI leaders across the country who could benefit from hearing and sharing with each other just how they are thriving.

Follow ProInspire as we explore and illuminate the distinct leadership practices, strategic decision-making, and intentional behaviors of these leaders who create bold and transformational change in their organizations and communities.

Working in the social sector—while fulfilling—can be also exhausting, especially with incessant barriers like poor funding, under-staffing, and the overall devaluing of the labor and perspectives of the leaders who work, live, and thrive in their own communities. Ella Jo Baker, like many unsung Black women, used her light to guide many into the path of leadership that would ultimately empower their communities to thrive. 

It is in the light where we find the path to progress, and where we can lean into our strengths that allow us to grow as leaders, as organizations, and holistically as a community.  

We’re seeking leaders who identify as Black, Brown, AAPI, Indigenous, or a Person of Color from grassroots and community-based organizations to share your thoughts and experiences with how you, your organization, and your communities are thriving. 

Is that you? Take our survey today.

Ashley Bernal

Director, Research and Impact, ProInspire

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