Earlier today, I listened to Dov Khenin, a left wing Israeli activist, insist that, in the midst of the current violence and conflict, there is opportunity. He described his efforts to join Arabs and Israeli Jews who are equally troubled by poor or absent housing in their neighborhoods. No matter how the local people differ on religious, cultural, and ideological issues, he argues, they can agree to fight gentrification together. And he hopes that out of that common, local bond, a larger movement might be built.
I well know the near impossibility of leaping from small, local protests to large scale movements, but I couldn’t help but thrill to the effort to build on the sparks of common ground.
My parents passed onto me a faith and an enthusiasm in political movements and, to an extent, a contempt for small scale “charity,” which might take the edge off poverty but never comes close to changing the underlying conditions that lead to the oppression of the dispossessed.
To my detriment, I took them too literally—and somehow undervalued the many local organizations they joined and led. For much of my life I have felt defeated by their insistence that nothing less than major economic and political change would make a difference. My entire professional life has been dedicated to helping individuals, groups, and (nonprofit) organizations improve their lot, yet I’ve almost always felt that I’m not doing enough. As a result, I have felt only moderately fulfilled in my work, no matter how well done.
Then, in 2006, came the Institute for Nonprofit Practice (INP), a set of leadership training programs that, over time, began to feel like a spear in the larger movement for diversity and social justice. I’d like to describe how it grew and, with its growth, how I began to feel much more in the flow of redemptive social change.
I had been consulting with a good number of nonprofits with only modest success. Their leaders were filled with passion and, often enough, with innate ability, but lacked sufficient training in strategy, finance, and fundraising, confidence in their ability to work with foundations and business people, and connections to their compatriots to fulfill the promise of their cause.
At the same time, baby boomers were in the process of retiring. Cities were on the verge of becoming minority-majority. Nonprofit leadership in communities of color, especially in larger organizations, remained mostly White, especially in the larger nonprofits. .
In other words, there was a need—for training and network building—an opportunity—the openings created by boomer retirements—and an ethical imperative—that people of color lead organizations in their own communities. If I could build a good leadership training program, demographics would be my partner.
So I started the INP on my own dime, operating at almost no cost by continuing to earn a living in my consulting practice. I asked friends to refer students. They did. We had an initial class of 12. More than half were people of color; and the faculty member who I hired was an experienced Black CEO. This initial group, enthusiastic about the learning and the mission, became our ambassadors. More than I, they recruited the second year’s class of 30. And this kind of exponential growth continued, year after year. Soon we could raise money from local foundations. One foundation suggested we open a branch in Lowell and Lawrence. Another on Cape Cod. With their help, we did. By our third year, we won a prestigious award for our work. We were now on the map in the Boston area. Not yet a movement but feeling the wind at our back.
Throughout, we stayed true to our goal of creating a diverse, skilled cadre of nonprofit leaders, who would lead an increasingly effective workforce. Our diverse faculty and student body exemplified our values. For me, the greatest gift, aside from teaching my students, was being able to speak, every day, a language of social justice.
At graduation, one year, Hubie Jones, one of Boston’s most respected Black leaders, stopped his talk to ask: “Barry, what’s in this for you—personally?” With only a touch of irony, I said: “My parents would be proud.” Hubie nodded his head. He understood. At this late age, I had begun to live a professional life that was fully aligned with my values. I began to feel the first inkling of helping to build an important movement for social change.
By then I was 74 and knew that I needed to find a successor, someone who was even more qualified than I to build the INP. So I handed the INP’s leadership to a former student, an immensely talented young woman of color who shared my values and, maybe more importantly, understood our mission to build a movement. Her name is Yolanda Coentro.
As Yolanda and I had planned, we opened in Rhode Island, then New York City, knowing that adding the Big Apple would announce our national ambitions. As I write, the INP is on the verge of opening programs in several additoinal cities on the mid west and the west coast. They are adding complementary programs, such as a National Black Leadership Institute, a Board training program, a consulting program focused on teaching nonprofit leaders how to develop greater depth of diversity, equity, and a sense of belonging in their organizations.
Yolanda’s leadership has been recognized by a number of national organizations. And the fundamentals of organizational growth—financial and data systems, for example, and most importantly, excellent new staff members, lured by the promise of the INP—and now set to match the INP’s ambitions. Since readiness is all when it comes to change and growth, we had reached an inflection point.
And just as we had readied ourselves, the Black Lives Matter movement served as an accelerant. It dramatically highlighted the need for greater diversity and equity in American life. The INP had been building nonprofit leadership capacity as though we had anticipated that movement. We had become an outlet and a vehicle to build on the pent-up desire of young leaders to realize the movement’s goals in education, housing, economic development and many other arenas.
At this particular moment in history, the INP’s combination of practical and moral focus and its potential to gather such an immense and influential community—thousands of alumni leading thousands of nonprofits, which employ hundreds of thousands of employees—has become increasingly appealing to progressive funders. It’s an almost perfect vehicle to realize their philanthropic ends. The more the INP does, the more support it receives. The more support it receives, the more it can do. A virtuous cycle is in motion.
Of course, the INP isn’t alone. Many other organizations have reshaped their programs to feature social justice, equity, and diversity. That’s the point. We are one among many who share missions. I suspect that all of them – or at least most of the good ones – are currently experiencing comparable cycles. It’s like being swept along by a wave, and the wave is the current zeitgeist.
And with that wave, it becomes possible, without arrogance or self-deception, to begin talking about movement building. That is the aspiration. You can see the mood lifting among the staff, among the organizations that INP supports, and among the funders. You see it in the classrooms and in the exuberant celebrations at graduation.
At this point, I am no longer a central player in the INP. I advise a little and participate on the board of directors. I’m mostly a cheerleader. But I’m getting closer to reporting back to my parents – letting them know that I’m part of a movement now too. They believed that things could get better, and they brought me to huge, May Day, anti-nuclear, and civil rights marches to bring me into the community of believers. They reveled in being among the throngs of strangers who shared their beliefs. And I have been a believer that we can shape our society according to our values.
But, when it comes to method, I’m probably more like Dov Khenin. I have loved the familiarity and accessibility of the local, working across communities and within neighborhoods. I like coming to know my compatriots more intimately than you can in a demonstration. I have liked building up to a social movement.
My parents and I have taken different paths to our goals, but I know that they would reassure me. I can hear them as though they are speaking to me, saying: “That’s ok, so long as we’re moving forward.”