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To Be Truly Anti-Racist, Community Development Needs a Reckoning

To tackle the deadly and enduring public health crisis of anti-Black racism, nonprofits must shift and sharpen their approach to upending the systems that perpetuate it, explains Adiyah Ali, LISC development officer and a member of the organization's Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee. Unless we make those changes now, we cannot sustain our impact.

Photo © Elizabeth Janney/Patch

The recent murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery were a wake-up call for some, and a reminder to others, that Black people are facing two pandemics – Covid-19 & anti-Black racism – and they are both deadly. 

I believe that the latter is deadlier, because at least with coronavirus, there is a protocol for minimizing your chances of being infected: stay at home; wash your hands; and if you must venture out, then wear a mask and practice social/physical distancing. With anti-Black racism, however, there is nothing that Black people can do to stay safe or alive.

Structural and systemic racism is killing us. It is a public health crisis. In light of this, community development is facing an existential calamity: if we do not address racism with the same fervor that we’ve put towards helping our communities respond to Covid-19, then our efforts to catalyze opportunity for all will be for naught.

If we invest in housing, but we can be shot or killed while sleeping in our homes, then what’s the point? If we invest in schools but our children are facing bias and discrimination and are being funneled into the school-to-prison pipeline, then what is the point? If we invest in sports and recreation, but kids that are playing and recreating can be killed, then what’s the point?

Community development is facing an existential calamity: if we do not address racism with the same fervor that we’ve put towards helping our communities respond to Covid-19, then our efforts to catalyze opportunity for all will be for naught.

If we invest in economic development, but our businesses will be burned down by white supremacists, then what’s the point? If we invest in building the wealth and increasing the assets of Black people and ensuring that they have equal access to opportunities, but these same people can be killed with impunity, then what is the point? The racial wealth gap cannot be closed without addressing racism head on.

For decades, nonprofits have focused their efforts on the consequences of racism – segregation, redlining, health inequities, concentrated poverty, etc. Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color (BIPOC) overwhelmingly face housing insecurity. So, we’ve been building and preserving affordable housing. Food apartheid is prevalent in BIPOC communities. So, we’ve been investing in grocery stores and farmers’ markets.

BIPOC families were barred from successful public schools. So, we’ve been investing in quality education. Every year 50,000 Black women die from heart disease (that’s 137 deaths per day) and Black children die from asthma at a rate 500% higher than that of White children. So, we’ve been investing in health care and access.

The racial wealth gap is so wide that by 2050, experts predict that Black families’ median wealth will decrease to $0, while that of White families will exceed $100,000. So, we’ve been investing in jobs, entrepreneurship, financial opportunity centers, etc.

While all of the above investments are necessary and worthwhile, none directly addresses racism.

In order to address racism head on, we must shift our focus from community development to community liberation, from building structures to dismantling structural racism. This requires that nonprofits engage in the arduous and uncomfortable work needed to become anti-racist organizations.

To fight racism, in all of its forms, we must first shift from an exclusive focus on the business case for racial diversity to embracing the moral case for racial justice, and then begin investing in freedom movements, advocacy, and organizing. To tackle anti-Black racism in particular, we must unapologetically declare that Blacks Lives Matter, sever ties and relationships with any stakeholder that thinks otherwise and focus our efforts on building bridges and coalitions that are fighting for this truth to be evident.

To address systemic racism, we must distinguish between funders who are serious about investing in racial equity and justice from those who are aren’t. And we need to hold funders accountable for living up to their assertions of anti-racism by helping to guide their investments toward initiatives that will bring about long-term, systemic change.

LISC, as one of our nation’s largest CDFIs, is in a position of influence. If we do the hard and intentional work of driving systems change that will help to advance racial equity and justice, then we can support others in the CDFI community doing the same. I acknowledge that talking about race and racism makes many people uncomfortable. But it is imperative that we sit with the discomfort. It’s time to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.


Adiyah Ali, Development Officer

Adiyah Ali has over 15 years of experience in the nonprofit sector, with a focus on resource development, program management, and advocacy. In her Development Officer role, Adiyah focuses on cultivating relationships with major foundation and corporate donors and helping to expand private resources for LISC’s national programs and local offices. As a member of LISC’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee and Racial Equity Learning Group, Adiyah focuses on driving systems change to create a more inclusive workplace, un-design inequities wherever they exist, and dismantle systemic and structural racism.