Let Me Be: Worth, Storytelling and Reflection During Black History Month

Black History Month is upon us, and I am going to cut right to the chase. I believe it’s high time we start appreciating Black communities in philanthropic spaces based on their innate dignity and worth and not just the achievements marked as "success stories.”
Let Me Be: Worth, Storytelling and Reflection During Black History Month

Black History Month is upon us, and I am going to cut right to the chase. I believe it’s high time we start appreciating Black communities in philanthropic spaces based on their innate dignity and worth and not just the achievements marked as "success stories.”

You know the stories. The ones placed in the annual reports, volunteer webpages and marketing brochures…

The stories that begin with describing the community as a set of deficiencies and end with it being better off due only to the diligent volunteers who came in to save the day – those success stories.

Let me explain further. I remember being in school and doing art projects and hearing lessons around Black achievement – inventors, scientists, politicians – those who were deemed acceptable because they contributed to the overall advancement of American culture. Because of the delivery of the lens through which their stories were shared, they seemed like they were docile. They weren’t too controversial, not too rowdy, just right. There were a select few that were always highlighted. My teachers kept their stories blemish-free and their narratives clean-shaven. I also remembered Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech highlighted and his words picked apart to present the most socially palatable version of his humanness.

25+ years later, out of the classroom as a pupil and into nonprofit spaces as an adult, I continue to see a trend. My community is celebrated based on the type of contributions they offer to the nonprofit space and our narrative is misused for the benefit of the savior.

The contribution of receiving help: “If you’re Black and willing to accept any form of help and any solution we present to you, we can work together.” In my experience, Black communities are more digestible when they are receiving help. Volunteers know how to show up, pack the lunches, pass out the food and drop off the clothes. Any interaction outside of that gets a little sticky. Volunteers can show up for their needs but aren’t always sure how to interact as a neighbor, as a fellow human.

The contribution of need: Over my years in the sector, I have noticed that the nonprofit space celebrates Black communities for the needs that they have because if they’re able to play savior they can feel appreciated and can feel as if they are contributing to a larger cause. But if there is no need, it’s harder for them to find something to champion. There is no savior ego to stroke. The celebration comes in the form of volunteer appreciations, the dressed-up fundraising galas, the new marketing and communications packets highlighting needs with pretty fonts and pity-stirring pictures instead of the recognition of the community itself. Here are some other things I’ve noticed when it comes to achievement, storytelling and partnership around this time:

  • We are asked to speak during this month, but our expertise isn’t desired the other 11.
  • Special volunteer partnerships are created during this time only to dwindle out into a transactional abyss.
  • Toolkits are spread about how to partner with Black communities only to collect dust in the long run.
  • Stories of impact and engagement are shared, only to stop on the last day of February never to be seen again.

It is my vision that Black history is seen as American history, where ALL Black communities are seen as indispensable regardless of the type of contribution to society they offer.  It's my goal to see the volunteerism space be built on celebrating liberation and opportunity, not just need perceived defects and lack.

So here are some reflection questions to ask yourself as you celebrate Black History Month:

  1. As we partner with Black communities, what is already thriving? How can we partner with that?
  2. How can I celebrate the existence of Black people with no strings attached?
  3. How will we talk about the communities we serve and how can we promote a language that is rooted in dignity and value and not in deficiency?
  4. What parts of me make celebrating Black people for who they are uncomfortable?
  5. Before we connect them with volunteer support, what new learning opportunities can volunteers be a part of to reshape their biases and thinking around this community?
  6. As a volunteer or as a nonprofit professional who partners with Black communities, how can I celebrate them on an ongoing basis? Do I see them as worth celebrating or do I only see their perceived needs as a summation of their character and personhood?

This February, I want you to learn how to celebrate the Black community for just being. Let’s start there.

Photo credit Valerie Elash on Unsplash

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Breauna Dorelus is the Founder and Chief Cause Consultant at Connecting the Cause, a consultancy dedicated to identifying and uprooting harmful volunteer practices implemented by nonprofits and volunteers specifically towards Black and brown communities. Breauna believes in community inclusion in all aspects of the volunteer process and has dedicated her work to ensure that service is centered around helping and not harming. Starting her decade-plus stint in the nonprofit sector as an AmeriCorps member, she has continuously held positions in leading volunteers, creating programming, and spearheading community initiatives in the areas of humanitarian aid, refugee resettlement and ministry. She received her Bachelor’s degree in International Studies from Georgia Southern University, and her Master’s in Public Administration with a concentration in Nonprofit Management from Georgia State University (Summa Cum Laude).