WHAT THE FUNDRAISING
22: Doing Anti-Racism and Social Change Work from Inside and Outside the System with Nicole Parker
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“You need to be in alignment with yourself so you can show up and be fully healthy to run your business or run your nonprofit, or make the impact in the world that you want to make.”
– Nicole Parker
In this episode of What the Fundraising Podcast…
I have a critical conversation with Nicole Parker. In this episode, Nicole talks about her journey through community development, from her lived experience and years as a student in social enterprise to becoming the social innovator and disruptor that she is now. Through her professional training, Nicole has explored patterns within social movements in America to shape her work, inspired by the stories of great female innovators like Ella Baker and Sojourner Truth.
Nicole also has a consulting business where she works around organizational development and strategic planning with organizations who are trying to do community development and social impact work, in particular for marginalized communities.
Around this episode, we question what’s behind the trust issues, stigmas, and systematic racism that create heavy obstacles in funding and access. We also talk about the concepts of economic justice, authenticity, and alignment in this work.
Do you stay within the system and disrupt it completely? Or do you work outside of it? How do we – as social changemakers and entrepreneurs – make sure that we’re sustainable? And make sure that we create access to social change? There are so many valuable questions in this episode, I can’t wait for you to join us!
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NON PROFIT SHOUTOUT
Get to know Charlie’s Place!
A nonprofit pursuing Leadership and Community Engagement in Kalamazoo MI, with the mission to recognize the potential in the village for youth and families by providing programs through education, athletes, and skill development. It covers many programs and activities such as a basketball league for the youth and community collaborations made possible by volunteers.
Mallory: Welcome everyone. I am thrilled to be here today with the amazing Nicole Parker. We had our first conversation a few weeks ago now, and at the end of it, I was like “Oh my God, that should have been recorded. That was the podcast”. It was so good, but I have no doubt that this is going to be such a rich and valuable conversation. I learn so much every time I talk to you and read about your work. So, let’s just start with introducing yourself to folks and sharing a little bit about your story.
Nicole: Of course. First of all, thank you for having me. It is always a pleasure to be on these platforms. And yes, I agree. When we first had that conversation, it was so rich. It was so cool. I’m really excited to be back here again and have the conversation.
So, I’m Nicole Parker. I always have a hard time trying to say what I do. I wear a lot of different hats. I think one of the biggest things that I say is I’m a social innovator and disruptor. Currently I’m doing work with my sisters in an organization called Sisters in Business, which is an organization that supports black and brown women who are in the entrepreneur space or thinking about starting their own business. Like I said, I do this in partnership with my biological sisters, Elisa, Tiffany, and Taleesha. We all have our own businesses. We came together to say “How do we support and create spaces for black and brown women in our community?”, because we saw that it wasn’t there. We started this organization in December. It’s been five years that we have been in partnership doing Sisters in Business, which has grown from brunches to summits, to pitch competitions and so much more. So that’s kinda the hat that I’m wearing today and talking about.
I also have a consulting business where we do work around organizational development and strategic planning with organizations who are trying to do community development and social impact work in particular for marginalized communities. Yeah, that’s a little bit about who I am. I’m here. I’m there.
Mallory: Wow. I know your educational background has so many components that relate to all of your work, but let me ask you what gets you out of bed in the morning? What is the thing you’re like “I fundamentally want to change the way this is”.
Nicole: What gets me out of bed in the morning is really wanting to remove barriers. In particular for people who are innovators and creators. I’m working with a lot of women of color and seeing the work that they’re passionate about, but recognizing that there are systemic barriers in the way. Through my education and my personal lived experience, I have been within systems and seeing how those barriers are created, and outside of systems, seeing how people are innovative, creative, but they’re not tapped into the right resources.
So for me, I would say the work that we do is right at the bridge near the intersection. My lived experiences, my professional experiences, my educational experiences. I often say that I’m speaking different languages, and if I have the opportunity to work at the intersection and be able to shift systems in order for people to get where they need to go, that’s what gets me up in the morning.
Mallory: Wow. From a very one-on-one perspective, what are the biggest barriers that you see in helping black and brown women innovators in this space get access to? I’m sure resources like financial resources, probably networked resources. Talk to me a little bit about that, for those who might be coming to this conversation with fresh eyes. Even systematic racism, what are the barriers that you are trying to break down? and also supporting women around handling it?
Nicole: Wow. So many different barriers. I guess I’ll start answering this question by getting into how I got into this work. In my family, we do a lot of community work. Back in 2013, my family started a nonprofit called Charlie’s PLACE, which stands for pursuing leadership and community engagement. My father had always been active in the community, so that’s something that we naturally have been a part of, doing community development, youth development work.
When we started our nonprofit, there was a huge need in our community. A young person had recently gotten killed. One of my uncles had passed away suddenly from a heart attack, so we in our family were going through a lot, both saying “What can we do with our influence and our passion to create change for youth in the community?”. And that’s really where our organization was birthed out of. During that time when we started to build our organization, one of the first things I said was “How do we make sure that this organization is sustainable long-term? I want to make sure Charlie’s PLACE is here a hundred years from now. How do we find resources and funding?”.
So to answer, one of the biggest things I saw was funding right away, access to funding to do this type of community grassroots work. My father had worked in a nonprofit for years, doing youth development work and here he was doing all this work for himself and in our family organization. And we were struggling finding resources, but like he said, “We’re not going to be grant dependent from the beginning”. So with that in mind, my thought was “how do we make sure we’re sustainable?”. It all came down to how we access funds. How do we access networks to be able to move around and I first started to see those barriers in our nonprofits.
I also was in a place of saying, working in an organization, higher education, doing diversity work. While being there, I also was seeing the systemic issues that were happening with the students I’m working with and saying “how do we really create change to make sure people are on the path to have access and live their fullest potential”?.
I started looking into grad schools and came across a TED talk on social entrepreneurship. I never thought about entrepreneurship a day in my life, cause I was all about community work and education. And so in this TED talk, which I don’t know the name of to this day, the person was talking about how we create social good through utilizing business and teaching people how to create their own revenue streams and invest that money to create impact.
I found a school that had that social entrepreneurship master’s program. That’s how I got into it at George Mason University. We were told we needed to do a thesis project and I was really focused on how we use social innovation and social entrepreneurship to support innovation in the black communities, because I saw many people in my family who had created nonprofits and are trying to create solutions, but we didn’t have access to the networks and the money and the human capital to create the change that we’re trying to do.
We kept running into barriers. So while I was there, in these classrooms, I’m learning about people being social change agents and all of the buzzwords. For me, it seemed to have come from a very white paternalistic framework to say “You’re coming into communities to create change” and not necessarily that community members didn’t have a change that they needed.
For me, that was a fundamental difference. I’m like “That’s not my experience”. My experience is the people I work with in the community, my family, and the solutions are within the community, but the community might not necessarily have access to money and funding.
And here I am in the academic space where they’re doing pitch competitions and they’re talking about how all this money is available and just go get these grants and ask your father and have these conversations with these people and get into these networks and I’m like “Hey, black woman in the room”.
I was exposed to this new world of “business for social good” and everybody was doing this from a very white paternalistic framework, saying “We have the answers for the community. Let’s go to the community and show them what they need”.
And here I am saying “That’s not my experience”. The community knows what they need, the community needs access. I started to see all these barriers. I’ve already known them from a lived experience. A lot of your decision-makers, even in the nonprofit space, are white people who are making decisions on how resources are distributed in communities who are mostly people of color. And the way in which these processes were set up are problematic when the majority of the people who are making decisions on where resources and how resources are distributed, do not reflect the people who are in need of the resources and also have the solutions. I’m seeing this in my academic experience. I’m seeing this in my own family’s non-profit, I’m seeing this just in general. And for me, that’s where I began to say “Oh, there has to be some type of shift happening here”.
I remember this was at the time when the Trayvon Martin case had happened and Mike Brown and all these things were happening, I kept asking myself “What role does social innovation entrepreneurship play in the era of Black Lives Matter?”.
And at the time, I also needed to form my committee to do my thesis. So much is going on. I’m away from home. My family is back home doing nonprofit work. And so I’m in this space trying to figure out what role I play personally. I’m seeing these issues and barriers on a systemic level, on a personal level. I’m going through my own transition personally, as well, and ended up connecting with my committee member. Her name was Dr. Wendi Manuel-Scott. She’s one of my mentors to this day and she told me “Nicole, you need to look at this work through the eyes of a black woman. I encourage you to do that”.
So when I ended up doing a few independent studies with her. I was frustrated because in the curriculum, there was nothing that really talked about how people of color are creating change within their communities, through business entrepreneurship, through social impact nonprofits. That wasn’t reflected in the curriculum. That’s really what I wanted. Because that’s my experience. So I pretty much was crafting my curriculum. She said “You need to study social movements”. So I began to study black social movements throughout time and looked at the types of innovations that came out of black social movements through the eyes of black women.
I studied people like Ella Baker, as well as Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman and Mary McLeod Bethune and really began to dig into the lives of these women and seeing how there’s always this trend that when there’s deep trauma in black communities, which continues to happen today. But when you see these, the rising up of movements, you also see the rising up of organizations or different organizations, businesses like even right now, you see a lot of black businesses starting to pop-up.
But you also see this post reconstruction, you see this during the civil rights movement, you begin to see what’s happening around the movements is this burst of self-empowerment to say, we have to control our resources. We have to control what we’re doing to distribute the money and economic justice.
So you began to see this uproar in a sense, and it’s even happening right now. That happened last year in 2020, when everything began to happen and folks started to support black business, but throughout history, you also see this every 50 years or so. When I was studying, what I also saw was the barriers to growth and expansion also were within access to capital. The majority of these organizations and businesses are very innovative and creative, but systemic barriers stop them from being able to push forward. So for me in studying that, it was like “How do we create access to the capital?”
I cringe with capitalism. We can go back and talk about capitalism, but for me economic justice is also about being able to access resources, whether they’re financial resources, health, education, or a variety of things. To be able to move the community floor, to get the community out of survival and thriving, it’s about being able to access those things.
Studying that, I’m like “Look at the pattern of what is happening around these black social movements”. Like I’ve said, civil rights, you have Black Lives Matter, you have post reconstruction, you have post segregation, all these different things, but you also see these movements of black people being innovative and creative and trying to find their own way to create change and community, but systems block it.
You see the history of Tulsa, Oklahoma, where you have the bombings destroying the black communities, but this is historic. There’s a thing on social media going around about the lakes, man-made lakes, that were used to destroy black communities. These are historical patterns that have happened. For me as someone who’s studying this work and now trying to apply it in community, I’m like “How do we make sure that we’re sustainable? How do we make sure that we create access to these systems so we can disrupt the system?”, as well as shift resources in a new direction and teach people how to go and get these resources for themselves.
As I’ve done the work internally in systems and externally, one of the things I always wrestle with is “Do you stay within the system and disrupt the system completely? Or do you work outside of it?”, and I’ve done both.
Mallory: Yeah, I know that’s something we talked a lot about last time, too, around the constant inner battles that sometimes we face around working within a system that we fundamentally disagree with, but recognizing the short term benefit to the people in communities that we care about by doing so, and then also wanting to just blow it all up.
I want to ask you a question. So we saw a lot in the last year as there has been this growth in black businesses, we’ve noticed bigger brands promoting them, even having search functions, like some of the meal delivery searches, to make sure that they’re buying food from local black owned businesses. What do you think about that type of action taken by big companies?
Nicole: I look at it in two ways, depending on the intent behind. It’s all about intent to me. I think there are some organizations who are really genuine to say “I’m going to use my privilege and power to provide access to the platform that I have to be able to provide exposure”. I think it’s good if their intent is right, to be able to get folks elevated to where they’d have more exposure so more people will be able to shop with their business or patronize their business.
On the flip side, what I tell some of my clients that I work with is “Is this performative? Are you really trying to intentionally put dollars behind the work that you’re doing? Or are you trying to get along with the trend?”. Because, post George Floyd especially, you saw a lot of people saying “Support my business, let’s make sure we’re doing this work”, but let’s go back now in 2021 and see where they’re at.
Where are your initiatives? Are you still providing access to your platform? And not only that, are you providing access to your networks and your resources, like even here at home, there’s a big store, Meijer, it’s a huge grocery store here and I would say they’re a great example of an organization who utilize their platforms.
They have over a hundred different stores and they held a vendor’s fair to teach black businesses and other businesses how to get on their shelves. And I know at least three people who are actually getting ready to launch in Meijer stores now. So I think that’s huge, to their benefit. They use their platform, their power and their privilege to really elevate and not only just elevate and provide exposure, but to say, I’m going to make sure we put dollars back into your pocket.
Mallory: Specially as you were talking just now about, some of these platforms that have made it easy to search for, black owned businesses, I’m like “You have access to capital and the people who have capital and are you introducing these startup businesses to those people and helping them get into those spaces because that’s the bigger gate, and so the recognition. Yes, we can all see you doing that thing on your platform, but are you doing things behind the scenes that are actually truly fundamentally changing access?”. I think it’s such an important thing for us to be thinking about and looking for, there’s all that data that came out about how many companies made pledges following George Floyd’s death, that haven’t fulfilled them in terms of their investment in black and brown communities or organizations.
The other thing that I’m trying to process is, when you talk about the Meijer’s example and the difference between that and the performative activism, it seems to me that one of the fundamental differences is the entities’ belief in the value of what they’re bringing to the table. Myers knows that there are products out there that have been kept out of our realm of awareness because of these gates that are fundamentally unjust, so they want to remove them because they recognize that it has kept them from these really valuable products.
Not that they’re doing just some favor, but they’re actually saying there’s been an injustice here and there is value here and we need to actually rewrite the system to connect those pieces in a more just and equitable way. That goes back to the beliefs that they hold, when you were talking so much about spaces being occupied by white people that are intended to serve black and, partner with, or serve probably from their perspective, black and brown communities, but not really trusting or believing that the solutions that roll back to what are the underlying beliefs around why you’re showing up there, because if you believe as a white person that you know better, then you’re never going to be able to fundamentally show up in partnership and actually solve the challenges the world is facing because while they might be materializing in certain communities, that structural racism is all of our problem to deal with.
Nicole: Yeah, absolutely. It’s literally everything you were just saying, because it’s so easy to say “I’m really here to do the work”, but I haven’t done my own personal work. That unconscious bias or that implicit bias, saying, you sit in a position of power to create so much change, you haven’t done your own work. I think that’s what you see a lot of, especially when it comes to the philanthropic space and the fundraising space and people who sit in places of power, who can make some changes without really intentionally doing their own personal work. Maybe it serves as a barrier.
I think some of the most well-intentioned progressive people that I’ve ever talked to or been in partnership with are some of the folks who sit in very powerful positions in our gatekeeper who haven’t been beneficial because they haven’t done their own work. It’s the structural and the individual work. So you do the individual heart where you can’t really sit in positions in the structural work and think that you are being a champion. You really aren’t, you’re hurting people. To circle back to the question you asked about the corporations on the corporation side, I’ve seen this, but what I’ve also seen, because Sisters in Business is a nonprofit with all of the great awareness around this that happened in 2020, I also saw, even in the philanthropic foundation space, organizations like Sisters in Business and other organizations who have been doing this type of work for a long time, getting sideswiped because more of your other organizations who are doing this work, who may have a bigger platform, are able to now say, this is my priority.
And because this has now shifted my priority, I have the means and capacity and the people seeing show performatively that this is my priority. They now are seen as the main champions name, voices of this work. I’ve talked to other people who also have organizations like Sisters, and we’re like “Oh, welcome to the party”. Thank you for finally hearing us. We’ve been talking about this type of work. So there’s, to me, like a Catch 22 that’s happening. I’m grateful for the awareness that has happened within the work, but it’s also the question of “Now who are you?”.
When you are a smaller organization, and you’re running this with two or three people, and you have a bigger organization who has a staff behind this analysis, diversity equity inclusion, especially around “Black and brown entrepreneurship is my focus”, you may be able to put a grant application in way faster than I can. You may have some other resources that I don’t have. It’s been interesting to see that shift happening too, and having funders who invite us to apply for grants and ask us what are the barriers and we’re explaining to them. But their processes are still very much so difficult.
We created a new program as a response to the COVID funding that was being released. We saw that a lot of black and brown businesses weren’t able to access their dollars that were coming out because either they didn’t have the paperwork or just different things.
And so we said “There’s a gap, we can fill this gap by creating a program”, which was called the Black Entrepreneurship Training Academy that we did in partnership with an organization called Black Wall Street Kalamazoo. When we began to put it together, we said “We have to create a program that helps people get the fundamental pieces in place while we also work on the systemic issues, so we can pull out some of these resources as well”. And I remember while we were going through funders, talking to funders, one of the main things that a lot of funders would say to us is “Who’s already funding you?”. If you don’t have a funder yet, we don’t want to be the first in it. So to me, it comes back down to a trust issue.
Do you trust that we can do the work? Even though we’ve been doing the work, this is also systemic. I see this happening in the world of fundraising all the time. When you’re talking to foundations, it’s something that they do. “Who else is your funder? Who else is funding?”. Very rarely do you see people who say we want to be innovative and invest in that.
We talk about it. We talk about saying that this is something we want to do. We put our statements out. Everybody was putting their statements out in 2020, but you have an organization who is coming to you with a very innovative solution to a problem that we have right now. And you’re still using very old tactics to provide funding.
Mallory: I think you’re talking about so many important things here. I think it’s really interesting. I’m reading this book right now called The Psychology of Money. It’s not what I thought I was buying, but it’s actually fascinating in a very different way.
It’s geared towards how you make strong financial investments and accumulate and keep welfare. It’s a lot about sort of the stock market, which is not a book I would typically buy, but what’s really fascinating about it is the chapter I was just reading around how much fails in the market and how much investment and even the best hedge funds or the best mutual funds are really buoyed and profitable based on 7 to 10% of the investments in the portfolio and really upwards up 60%, I’m sure I’m botching some of these numbers. Our failures are investments that totally don’t pan out.
The thing I was thinking about yesterday when I was reading this is “Gosh, what if we had this level of awareness?”, which I think he’s trying to bring that awareness in general to the investment space. I’m not saying they have the awareness and we don’t, but it was making me think what if we brought that risk and investment and awareness into the nonprofit space?
I think what’s happening is that we’re not being trusted so that they’re going to invest in us first, because they want to know that their investment is going to be successful. But the reality is they don’t know that just because another funder invested. Funders are doing that for their friends and family, without having that proof point of other people, they are being the first for other people.
And so what is the impact of that? It is the same level of risk or probably actually more risk to invest in a white-born organization that’s trying to solve an issue in the community versus investing in a new type of solution. That’s like the risk around innovation.
And that I think is part of this unconscious bias piece. They’re looking for more proof related and that’s so messed up, for so many reasons. I’ve heard it too, starting a nonprofit or working in a nonprofit, your friends and family round. We hear that from startup companies too. I have folks come to me all the time saying “What if I don’t have friends and family around? That means I can’t start a nonprofit?”. I hear that from black and brown leaders all the time. And then I hear from white leaders all the time “I’m starting a nonprofit to solve this thing”, without having done any research about what’s actually happening in the community.
Nicole: It’s something we definitely, this year in particular, struggle with, because we’ve been doing the work, we’re proving the work we’ve done. We’ve been doing this for five years, whether it’s workshops, whether it’s any of these things and it’s not just us, but it’s black organizations across the board that we saw this with, especially over this last year, everybody’s putting the statements out, but it’s a trust issue rooted in your unconscious bias and really systemic racism.
They’re going to continue to give to the organizations, no questions asked, that they’ve given over the years who have yet to solve it, but will question you and your intent and to me, it’s a dance that I think a lot of black and brown organizations go through in the philanthropic space.
It’s really interesting to me, how a lot of foundations and different folks will police pennies while they let millions fly out the door, no questions asked about risk, and often that policing of pennies is rooted in work that black and brown people are doing.
I’ll give you pennies, not even really enough for you to do the work that you’re trying to do, but I’ll also micromanage what this looks like and how you need to do this and how you need to show up in this way. When in reality, we’re like “Get out of the way so we can do the work”. We’ve been doing it. If you’re not going to invest, move on, we’re going to find a different way.
Mallory: Yeah. It begs the whole framework around restricted funding, for grantors to restrict funding around communities that they are not from, and that they do not understand. I think what you’re talking about is really important because a lot of burden is put on organizational leaders to be trustworthy without recognizing the systemic barriers that are gatekeeping the funding, that have nothing to do with how trustworthy the leader or the organization is, but are really rooted. I think that the point around doing the personal work is like “Okay. Yeah, it’s cool. You changed your HR policy, but did the people who are actually making these decisions, do the personal work?”, because your paper might look different and you might say something different, but the fact that you haven’t noticed that your reporting requirements haven’t changed is because you don’t really understand the relationship between your reporting requirements and your bias. So when you’re supporting black and brown women to get access, or to help them navigate even opportunities like that, what are some of the biggest recommendations you make?
Nicole: One of the biggest recommendations that we make is first doing that self-work. Earlier I talked about the thesis work that I did during my research, I ended up doing my thesis. I titled it “Ain’t I an innovator? the missing narratives of black women in the field of social innovation and entrepreneurship”. One of the things I did was create a framework that I call the six eyes of black innovation and my committee told me that I needed to do that because I was researching black women in entrepreneurship because I saw that black women were the fastest growing demographic in entrepreneurship with the least funding.
I began to do a lot of research studies around black women and access to capital and funding, whether you’re from the nonprofit space or the for-profit space. I remember coming across an article by a brilliant woman, her name is Katherine Finney, around her Diane Project, and it looked at black women in venture capital.
She studied, over the course of two years, how tech companies were being funded. I believe it was like 0.02% received venture capital funding and they were coming from the same funder. Some of the comments that were made often were like “I don’t support the woman thing or the black thing”. And the “woman” was a tech company. This is specifically to care directly to black women, this is a tech innovation that can cater to almost anyone. You’re seeing this happening, whether it’s in the tech space, whether it’s in, other service spaces, it’s happening all over, where your fastest demographic of entrepreneurs doing innovative creative work also is the demographics of who’s locked out of the most funding.
In reading her study and some of the other research that I was doing, one of the things that I saw around the six black women that I studied, like I told you, Ida B. Wells, Ella Baker, Mary McLeod Bethune, studying their lives. I saw this pattern with them. And this is where the six I’s of innovation came from.
It was really centered in that lived intersectional experience, being able to break past some of the internalized oppression and racism that allowed them to push past and do their innovation. So the first eye is the lived intersection of experience and looking at how somebody’s race, class and gender impacts the way in which they navigate the world and how the world sees them.
One of the things I talk about is their innovation catalyst, the identification recognition, and in that step, what’s really happening is people are beginning to identify and recognize how the world sees them and how they see themselves. There is a process in which folks are able to push past and do that internalized work and push past internalized racism, internalized oppression, whatever that may look like for them, they are also the individuals who are able to push past and begin to step into their innovation and step into their power. I think as women, and especially as women of color, there’s a lot that you’re always having to press past and understanding your inner strength and who you are, allows you to step into a system that might not necessarily always be welcoming to you, but you did have enough understanding of who you are to know how to advocate for yourself. What we do a lot of is that self-work and teaching people, how do you understand who you are, your power, your authenticity, and how you show up in spaces, how you’re going to show up in your business, so when you get ready to go to a potential funder potential investor or whatever the case may be or advocating for your business, you are coming from a place of power and not necessarily a place of oppression.
I think it’s so key to understand that. And so while we’re doing that individual work, especially some of the things we try and do as Sisters in Business, I’m also on the other hand, in our consulting business, trying to do the systemic work. We’ve had a lot of conversations with organizations to say “Hey, we’re working really hard over here to get women the resources and information and the foundational components, so when they step into your organization, they’re ready. But you, system, you need to correct your biases, your policies, and other things that are a roadblock because we cannot continue to send people down this road if they’re hitting roadblocks.” That is, a lot of what we have been doing is like “How do we prepare your mind?”, and then acknowledge that there is some truth to what this experience is going to look like, but people have done it.
“Here are some other women who have done what you’re trying to do, we’re going to connect you to this woman. We’re going to try and get people to mentor you for us”. Being in Kalamazoo, Michigan, is a small city, so what we really have started to try and do intentionally is how do we connect people outside of Kalamazoo? How do we get you connected to other resources outside of here? If the system here is not going to necessarily help you, let me get you connected to somebody who can. And so that’s a lot of what we’ve done. It’s a lot of what I’ve had to do personally, because it’s easy to internalize that and say “Maybe it’s something wrong with me”.
And that’s where I found myself working with a lot of different women, saying “Hey, how do we work on ourselves mentally and get our mindset right?”. Also, foundationally, what other components in your business have to get right? So when you go to that bank, you already have everything you need or you go talk to them. You got that pitch deck together, so trying to equip people with all the necessary resources and school tools and skills that they need while also trying to shake up systems.
The other thing that we’ve been doing is creating our own way. For Sisters in Business, we started doing pitch competitions after our first year, because when we did surveys people, the number one thing that kept coming up was access to funding and funding without strings attached. So we were like “Let’s do a pitch competition with our long-term goal of creating a business fund”, because women need access to no-strings-attached money where you can take a risk.
You need to be able to go and take a risk with funding, test your product, test your service, do whatever and not feel guilty. Even one of the studies I saw said that most black women who started their businesses are pulling from their 401k’s and orange lining their savings account, which most people do, but it’s at a much higher risk.
We’re starting businesses at a much, much higher risk, but how do I supplement that risk for her? How do I make sure she has all of the tools and resources and access to the funding that she needs to be able to thrive and flourish? So those are some of the things that we do.
Mallory: So every time I talk to you, I’m always like, I need to do more research. I feel like I’m always trying to keep up with everything you’re saying, and I’m just, I’m blown away and I’m really inspired by so much of what you said. But I love the way you talk about working on both sides of the problem at the same time. And I know it’s an inner battle that you are always dealing with.
I think what’s so beautiful about what you’re doing though, is, I went through executive coach certification a few years ago, many years ago now and the whole time I kept asking what about systematic and structural racism? I felt like everything I was being taught was like, it’s all in your mind.
That just doesn’t work. And I was like, “I get that your framework around coaching is like, what are the inner barriers that we can get past?”, but I feel like we also need to acknowledge that there are external barriers. And at the time I’ve heard that the organization has shifted, but at the time they really couldn’t hear it.
I feel like that’s a lot of, like the toxic positivity and coaching. Like I will read these books and I’m like “Oh man, like it’s not all in your head”. We do need to understand the barriers that we have internalized to continue to perpetuate these internal stories as well, and understand where they come from.
Like in fundraising I say to people all the time “Of course you feel awkward asking for money”. Women forever have been told that it’s inappropriate for them to talk about money, so of course you feel uncomfortable talking about money. It’s a huge taboo. That’s not your fault, but we need to acknowledge that history and then figure out where we can take control over the narratives at least to move past some of those internal barriers.
It sounds like what you’re really doing is also helping folks have that level of awareness and understanding that might increase resilience around what they might experience, in coming up with some of those external challenges, but also just this deep sense of self and alignment and authenticity, which I want to ask you about, because I’ve heard, particularly from black and brown women that I’ve worked with, that even the term authenticity can feel really triggering and it’s a term I’ve taken out of my work really over the last year.
I talk more now about alignment, about how not all money is created equal and you don’t just want to take money that is not in alignment with who you want to be as a leader or a fundraiser, because then you’re going to be held to being that person and that’s not who you want to be. But I’m curious, just your thoughts about that piece of it.
Nicole: Yeah. It’s something that I definitely struggle with too. When you’re talking about being authentic, I think for black women, it’s another layer of what side of authenticity are you looking for?
Do you want me to be the safe black woman that is politically correct and shows in this specific way? I think that’s what a lot of people want to see when they say I want you to be authentic. And so it takes me back to one of the researchers that I read a lot of, Melissa Harris-Perry, she’s a political commentator and also professor and she wrote this book Sister Citizen a few years ago, maybe 2012, I think. I had the chance to read it when I was doing my research.
In there she talks about a field dependency study and she uses it to describe the experiences of black women. And it’s the field dependency study, they use it in the military, where people go into a room that’s crooked. There’s a chair and they tell them to try and align themselves. Everything in the room is crooked, from the doors, the windows, the pictures, everything in there is crooked. And what tends to happen is everyone who did that, the majority of the folks would align themselves with the images or the doors, and they thought they were straight, but in reality, they were crooked, and the reason why they were crooked is because they were aligning themselves with the things in the room, which were the crooked images and all of that. And so she describes this as a black woman’s experience in America. Iterating that the images and the doors and the windows and different things on the stereotypes and the way in which people want you to show up.
And so it’s always this constant battle of bending, twisting, and trying to stand up straight, but trying to align yourself with crooked images. A lot of black women know that these images are crooked, but you’re constantly struggling every day to try and stand up straight in a crooked room. And I feel like that’s what’s happening.
Even when that conversation of authenticity is, “I’m trying to stand up straight and align myself with what I think society means by what they want an authentic black woman to look like when being yourself” versus how I really feel like I am. It’s this crooked room and trying to battle with yourself internally every single day.
And how do I stand up straight? And is it about dismantling the entire room in order to stand up straight, or is it learning how to navigate in a crooked world? Something you talked about was alignment. And I think it’s about that internal alignment. How do I feel entirely that I’m straight? Because we go off of that analogy.
Everybody felt in alignment when they were aligned to the freaking images. And that happens with so many of us “I’m trying to just be with society”. Oh, I’ll align with the crooked images. Whereas other people, I think in that internal disruption and understanding of self and taking back your own power you’re aligning from within.
And when you align from within, you’re standing up straight and you’re like “I am the one who has power over myself, my thoughts, my future, where I’m going”, and then you begin to move and operate in a completely different way. I feel like that’s the work that has to happen with people. I feel like not enough people have been given the permission to do that because we’ve been told through stereotypes, “this is how you show up”.
In the book, she talks about different stereotypes from the mammy, the jezebel, the welfare queen. And then one of the ones she talks about is the superwoman that was created to combat the other stereotypes. So you see a lot of black women who I want to be superwoman. I have to do everything myself and I’m combating. I’m not these things, but it’s to your own detriment, see your own health, health issues, different things like that, because you’re trying so hard to fight against the images of negativity and stereotypes, but you don’t realize the superwoman isn’t in alignment. And so how do we begin to give people permission to say “You don’t have to be all things to everyone”.
You need to be in alignment with yourself so you can show up and be fully healthy to run your business or run your nonprofit, or make the impact in the world that you want to be, or be the best mother. Even if it’s not even just business, either as a mother, be the best person that you can fully be here on this earth.
I got to get in alignment with myself and I don’t have to be all these things that everybody else in the world wants me to be.
Mallory: Wow. Yeah. Thank you. Thanks for saying, for sharing all of that and saying all of that. I can’t imagine how exhausting it all is. Even hearing you talk about that, and I think the point that you’re making around the layers of work that are necessary to create safe spaces is just really critical.
I have this dream of doing a pitch competition. Where all the judges go through anti-racist training and implicit bias training before they participate as judges in the pitch competition. Because I do think sometimes it’s performative, intentionally performative and I think sometimes people think they’re doing the right thing by addressing one element of the problem. And so they’re like, “we’re going to really diversify the organizations participating in this pitch competition”, but they haven’t done the work with the judges. And then it just puts all the burden on the people pitching to figure out what kind of room they’re in and how to stand in, instead of asking the judges to examine the room too, because even for the judges to know we’re sitting in a crooked room would be really helpful. For that whole process to happen in a more equitable and just way. So you have said so many things here that I know we could talk about forever and I really want to thank you so much for your time.
I also want to know how people can support Sisters in Business. Folks who are listening to this who are funders or individual donors, where can they go? How can they give, how can they support your work? And if you want to share, I know you shared about your family’s organization, but tell us all the ways or if they want to hire you, please drop the information about your business. Give it, give us everything.
Nicole: All right, I’ll give you all. So I will say, first of all, thank you, this has been amazing to have this conversation and we can go on for hours and hours. First of all, for Sisters in Business you can go to our website. Our contact information is there, social media,email, all of that info, and that is going to be www.sistersinbusinessmi.com. And you can find, like I said, all of our information there, if you’d like to donate to our fund, which goes to help support our pitch competitions, all of that information is also there also. For my consulting business. It is anpcreates.com. All that information is there.
Whether you can work with me, or if you want to learn more about the work that we’ve done, and then for my family’s nonprofit, which is Charlie’s Place, is http://www.kzoocharliesplace.com/
Mallory: And I really want to encourage people, if you are feeling activated by this conversation, inspired or frustrated by it. I want you to go and donate to that pitch competition right now. The movement of money starts with all of us. It’s easy to be frustrated about the gates that foundations hold or that big investment funds hold, but you, the listener also have power in this situation and an opportunity to further like money movement into the right places to support these businesses and these business leaders. So I really want to encourage you to go and do that.
Thank you. Thank you, Nicole. For this time.
Nicole: Thank you.
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