A Womynifesto

Conrhonda E. Baker

A Womynifesto: Merriam Webster defines a manifesto as “a written statement declaring publicly the intentions, motives, or views of the issuer.” This is a womynifesto…hold up, let me be specific. This is a black womynifesto. It declares my attentions, motives, and views while using allegory to call up hard truths and shed light on behaviors that actively prevent the manifestation of a Nonprofit Wakanda in the NYC arts and cultural sector. In this womynifesto, the words “we,” “our,” and “they” decenter whiteness and refers specifically to my brothers, sisters, and institutions derived from the brilliance of the African diaspora. “You” applies to everyone.

In my imagination of the future, there are systems, protocols, and procedures that lessen - dare I say eliminate - the need for professional fundraisers. I wholeheartedly believe that one idea/one thought creates entire ways of being, corporations, and societies. I know that professional fundraising only exists because philanthropists generate the need for, support, reward, and expect solicitation methodology. Akin to car salespeople, fundraisers sit in the middle – packaging and presenting products for maximum revenue generation. Is there value in their service? Yes. Would it be better to redirect fundraising resources and salaries to program services? Maybe/probably. Would the field of philanthropy benefit from a disruptive service like Carvana, which has removed human interaction altogether? Hmmm/probably not. Is there a third way, an idea/thought poised to create a new way of exchanging funds, resourcing programs, and solving problems? I think so – and I think we are on the road to discovery.

In my imagination of the future, the roadblocks to discovery simply do not exist. Nonprofits embrace cultural heritage, freedom, originality, creativity, and constant regeneration while melding a variety of operating practices. They understand that “nonprofit” is a tax status and not a business model. We are self-sustaining. We embrace mutual aid. We no longer ask and wait for white folks to critique, review, write about, and promote our cultural products. Offers for digital broadcasting and syndication, extending our work’s life beyond proscenium stages and galley walls, are standard components of commissioning agreements. There is a deep respect for the collective power of our niche markets. We demand wage parity and an understanding that a contract with one of us means you will respect our whole tribe. The monetization and ROI ascribed to our cultural products are in proportion with the amount of respect afforded to the producers. We have myriad opportunities to take risks and fail safely. We deemphasize – strike that – we do not support or tolerate transactional interactions. Our organizations embody the Adinkra symbol of Bese Saka, exuding affluence, power, abundance, plenty, togetherness, and unity. [1]

My Wakanda is a place where the NYC version of Giving Back: The Soul of Philanthropy Reframed and Exhibited lives as part of the permanent collection and is the sixteenth theme niche in the North Gallery of the Henry Luce III Center for the Study of American Culture at the New York Historical Society. In my Wakanda, PWI’s (primarily white institutions) don’t exist. Rather organizations proactively and consistently yield space. The few remaining “philanthropic” entities only resource solutions, cultural activities, and movement work aimed at addressing root issues over Band-Aid fixes. They work hard to avoid creating perpetual “meantime moments” laden with never-ending research and white papers. We no longer accept pulling babies out of the river,[2] creating whole villages to address their trauma, or merely looking upstream to discern their source. This is not good enough. We do not craft specialized projects or rely on an outsized amount of in-kind labor to secure funding and sustain cash flow. We only engage with and accept multi-year general operating support from partners who have decided to build and live with us in high-quality, affordable housing for all. The focus is on trauma prevention.

These collectively constructed spaces are where continual confession of harm, forgiveness, and healing is paramount. They are where accountability is the default, and swift course correction is the norm. There is a willingness to rip up our lists of best practices and standard operating procedures – a recognition that their exclusionary methods of creation mean the lists are inherently flawed. Residents of my future spaces walk with a posture more interested in the wisdom of those in the most deep-rooted relationship to an issue than individual selfish desires to be proved right, feel validated, or revel in delusions of grandeur. There is a refusal to use labels and acronyms like “POC” and a preference for being explicit about whom we intend to serve and impact. We know there is always time and space to say or type Indigenous, Native American, African, Black, Latinx, Hispanic, Asian, Pacific Islander, Arab, or Middle Eastern. There is an understanding that one person's ego alone is not that big of a deal or that important. However, one person’s willingness to show up fully and speak up with a selfless motivation and intention to be of service is powerful. Showing up is a big deal; it creates opportunities for divinely inspired words to create worlds.

In my world, artistic and cultural expression by black folks in NYC is the purest, rawest, most nascent form, most rebellious, and a most libratory act of social justice. One can identify every significant social change movement by its associated art. Our art is where the complexities of life coexist, a decompartmentalized manifesting of the full range of human emotion. We yell, cry, laugh, fear, and love simultaneously. My world is one where NYC based injustice is enough to spur collective action. There is no need for a national crisis to serve as the impetus for cultural workers and philanthropists to put aside compliance and stand in real revolutionary solidarity. In my world, everyone has canceled the subscription to brainwashing conformity garnered over years of fancy academic degrees, internships, job opportunities, and carefully pedigreed careers. We grant the right to reject the rules forged/written with our ancestors’ blood. We give authority to tear up marginalizing contracts. We afford opportunities to create first drafts and edit new governing ways, and we always receive authorship credit. We regularly review and fashion new covenants in which all contribute out of a posture of humility and sacrifice.

Most importantly, my Wakanda is a place where non-Black folx refrain from sharing opinions (aka “thought leadership”) about societal issues to which they have no understanding, formal education, or even a curiosity to learn. Non-black folx shut up and understand that our lived experiences always supersede Starbucks-fueled, antithetical, inherently contradictory, hypocritical, word salad diatribes. My Wakanda doesn’t care about the faux-white reality; it actively seeks to dismantle the systems designed and built to protect non-Blacks, starting with the ones that are operating correctly. We won’t allow anyone to cling to plausible deniability, notions of innocence, feeble attempts, or pleas for more time. We know you might not have lit the match, but will no longer ignore you as you add twigs to the fire…or if you have some money, your sustainably sourced timber…or if you real bougie your investment in carbon offsets. In my Wakanda, you either get on the frontline and risk getting scorched, or you get evicted. There is no room for mediocrity and protecting the status quo. Here, in my Wakanda, we only make space for folx interested in investing in fire retardant policies and practices to prevent future outbreaks and uncontrolled spread.

Now in this beautiful land, there are specialized orientation courses that all “philanthrofolx” complete before they earn the right to disseminate resources and investments. The intro course is Cornbread is Betta than Cake 101. In this class, philanthrofolx learn that every applicant can write as they speak, play with grammar, disregard King’s English, choose how to structure their thoughts, and rebuff written narratives altogether. This course’s objective is to bury the most insidious manifestation of philanthropically imposed assimilation to whiteness – worship of the written word in the form of grant applications.

In Cornbread, students learn that formerly primarily white philanthropy’s grant application processes over-relied on written text, even though virtually no artform, save the literary arts, are designed for consumption in a written form. We dissect how this business practice forced applicants to translate ideas intended for another medium into text for readers who expected their words to sparkle with emotional pizazz. We discuss how this is just like asking folks to make wedding cake outta Jiffy cornbread mix! It’s possible, yet it requires untrained cooks to go into their storehouses. The cooks use up their precious life, time, talents, and hard-won resources to transform their products into something that’s seemingly more palatable and digestible for the reader. We declare “How selfish and immature!” – we know only babies get fed one way. We teach philanthrofolx to minimize written requirements, to make room for a fuller experience, to receive and equally evaluate aural and visual information and reference material.

We stress that an applicant’s ability to hire a professional pastry chef and/or import fancy ingredients for their cakes is often a red flag. It is a signal that the applicant may lack proximity to the issue and, therefore, the ability to address root causes. We point out that readers who failed to see the warning signs and rewarded such behavior with investments not only aided in creating organizations that were too big to fail but also filled up on empty calories and increased exposure to cavities from all of that sugarcoating nonsense. We tenderly detail the worst and oft-ignored outcome: prior readers missed out on all the nourishment from the good ole, pure, unprocessed cornbread. Instead, readers continually ingested soul poisoning fillers and developed an addiction to byproducts. So much so, that olden time readers could no longer appreciate the unadulterated natural flavor of cornbread. Taste preferences got so desensitized to sugar and other fillers that the purity and the truth of the healthier raw grains and minerals of cornbread tasted bitter in the reader’s mouths and felt foreign to their stomachs. Sadly, for too long, readers dismissed their jacked-up digestive systems and ruined appetites; instead, they blamed the wholesome cornbread, calling it names like bland and aesthetically unpleasing. They blamed the cooks by stating, “you didn’t follow directions” and didn’t cook it right. They ruined themselves from the inside out, subconsciously avoiding interactions with cornbread, and refusing to detox.

Readers delighted when applicants continued to serve up their best attempts at wedding cake even when guidelines stated “we’re committed to equity” or cornbread is welcomed and encouraged to apply. The addiction became normalized as the way of doing business. Regardless, the readers actively endorsed and simultaneously actively denied favoring cake. The habit made the readers feel comfortable because the cake was a familiar flavor, one that they indulged in for decades. Cornbread was labeled as an acquired taste only because the readers forgot how to cleanse and expand the palette. They extolled the complexity of the cake’s icing and decorations, all the while capitulating the fact that the actual crumb had no substance. Cake was a quick fix, a sugar high, with no power to sustain applicants or resist spoiling over time. See cake is needy – it needs an icebox and extra pampering to maintain the façade. Cake, unlike cornbread, is unable to withstand the heat from the fires stoked in the fields upstream – for that is where the actual labor lies.

So, the readers continued to blame the cornbread, lying and assessing cornbread as inherently incapable of ever having been or ever future being capable of satisfying the readers’ hunger. Readers forgot their personal hunger was irrelevant to the evaluation process. The readers became disassociated from their contribution to the collective devaluation of all non-cakelike offerings by applications who dared present an “alternative” aesthetic ideology. They denied responsibility for their diet and role in crafting pathways for cake, cupcakes, and cake pops to win funding. Nope, they just keep shoveling it in, ignoring the lack of nutritional value, and ultimately leading to the demise of grantmaking morality and integrity. To put it bluntly, the readers were complicit in the degradation of society and the promotion of anti-cornbreadness.

We know that our non-Black residents often struggle with translation, with unlearning best practices, with flushing their systems, and with respecting the cornbread. That’s why, in my Wakanda, you got to go through a whole slew of prerequisites to ensure cultural competency. My nonprofit Wakanda is a place where philanthrofolx exude personal accountability. They are incredibly mindful of maintaining a balanced diet. They actively seek out the applicants that are not on their plate, and they don’t dare prioritize cake over cornbread.

[1] Source: http://www.adinkra.org/htmls/adinkra/bese.html

[2] Not familiar with the urban legend? Google “The Babies in the River” or “Upstream Parable.”

Conrhonda E. Baker: Philanthro-activist & Chief Copy Editor The Bese Saka

Conrhonda’s passion for the performing arts is grounded in her dance background, sparked by taking after-school classes at a county-wide recreational facility in rural northeast Georgia. Having grown up with limited access to the arts, she understands the importance of exposing children to creative outlets and creating opportunities for artistic expression. She founded The Bese Saka in 2018 as a way to actively intervene and build equity into the process of securing institutional funding support.