An Open Letter to My Nonprofit Colleagues

Anastasia Tomkin

Dear colleagues,

I am writing to express my deep disappointment with us as an organization. We have truly missed the mark of the lofty mission we claim.

Time and time again, I have found myself in the head space of trying to convince my “superiors” that it is worthwhile to financially assist the participants in our program, whether harmed parties or responsible parties. But how do you, as a lowly Coordinator or lowly Direct Service personnel, teach someone in a limited time, how the theory of liberatory practice can and should be tangibly realized? I thought the problem was just the white ED who holds the nucleus of power and can’t be bothered with anything beyond the profit and position this organization brings her, but I’ve slowly come to realize that she is not alone in her thinking. I don’t know how to explain to elite black people that poor black people need money. I don’t know how to explain to staff that it isn’t scandalous for a tiny sliver of the 6.5 million dollars we make off the unabashed persecution of black and brown hood youth to go back into their pockets instead of just our own.

Here we sit every day, in the comfort of our own homes, with a significantly reduced workload, sending enthusiastic and unnecessary thank you emails as our version of “work”, half-heartedly hopping on zoom calls, keeping our head down to the glaringly obvious oppression that goes on within our walls, while the amazingly talented Communications team paints us as pioneers in the movement to the outside world week after week. While still receiving our salaries, averaging from $60,000 to $80,000 to $100,000 on the lower tiers, some of us find it a problem to continue the initiative started during the pandemic by a black female employee, (who was pushed out), to compensate our participants up to $300 weekly as a way to help them out. Three hundred dollars weekly comes up to $14,400 annually, which is a fraction of our own salaries, and far below minimum wage. But for the majority of our handful of participants, mostly young black men of working age, it is their sole source of income.

As we know, these young black men face severe discrimination in securing employment, due to minimal education, minor criminal records (whether legitimate or not, now that we know of the police’s habit of arresting indiscriminately) and of course, the symbol of their brown skin. The result is the abysmal statistic of only one in four young black men in New York City having a job. Nevertheless, executive leadership has decided to end financial support in June due to no room in our budget for it. It makes sense: if the nonprofit industry prioritized financial empowerment of its clients over an array of carefully-crafted emotional support programs, hell might freeze over.

We are hired for our knowledge and ability to articulate systemic racism in our interviews, but clearly an ability to translate such into practical policies and initiatives that benefit the participants is an unwanted quality. This, even at a critical time in history where reports show that poverty has reached an all-time high during the pandemic. If there was ever a time to become more radical about how we tangibly support those who are truly suffering the most from both economic instability and the racial disparities in healthcare, it was now. If there was ever a time to go beyond limiting it to temporary assistance and instead writing it into the fabric of how we operate and what we claim to do, that was also now.

I am stunned to find that very few of my colleagues are willing to fight for that to happen, and that the ones in power actively do not want it to happen. The money that we call “compensated stability” that is given to participants only if they comply with our demands has been seen as giving free money or handouts. Meanwhile, we know for a fact that most of us don’t have nearly enough work to fill the 7 hours we are getting paid for during the pandemic, so is free money really an issue? Then when I try to explain that we can look at it as a form of reparations, the response has been that it was never our job to give reparations. Our job is squarely to provide an alternative to incarceration for a select few marginalized youth. It was never to meet the dire financial needs that often drive them to petty crimes in the first place. It was only to show them the intangible wonders of restorative justice, circles, and learning about your history.

We exist to give the Brooklyn DA a way to appear progressive while lining the pockets of the white woman who supposedly came up with this idea. What else could it be, when we currently boast a caseload of about 12 people? I guess that’s if you don’t count the record number of them who have been snatched up by the police and ICE during the pandemic and now sit behind bars and out of our reach. We shrug them off and painstakingly sift through the masses for new candidates. Alternative to incarceration program, we say. For 12 out of the thousands of young black men who get swallowed up by the system in Brooklyn and the Bronx every year. We are little more than a creative liberal experiment, because we choose to be. We choose not to go the extra mile for the sake of our participants, by not making room in our budget to meet their material needs. It is much easier to just pay a small direct service team to talk them through their struggles.

We know that black men from marginalized communities are forced to the bottom of the racial caste system in America, criminalized, stigmatized, and hunted by police. We know that they are disproportionately incarcerated for any perceived crimes. We know that in many of our assault cases, the fights were mutual, or the victim was actually the aggressor, or the defendant was acting in self-defense. But in the justice system, these nuances are rendered irrelevant because their blackness incriminates them, and so they were graciously handed down to us as their best possible option. We know that in many of our other cases, people resorted to theft as a result of being impoverished, desperate and surrounded by a culture of violence. But it is far easier to hold them accountable for their individual actions than it is to hold society accountable for the systemic racism that is at the root of their behavior. So we force accountability, help them in the near futile search for minimum wage employment, and stop short of giving them some change from the money we earn off their backs. And we call it revolutionary. We buy Ibram X Kendi’s latest book for them and for staff so we can learn all about the history of being socio-economically disadvantaged for 400 years, and come out of it more educated. Education without corrective action is performative and meaningless.

However, the practical application of theory is clearly too much to ask of well-meaning black or white liberals. The general notion seems to be that we are already doing enough, and to push for anything more is simply too much of a hassle. We are living through unprecedented times after all, and focused on our own survival, just like we did before, and just like we will continue to do when it passes.

Anastasia Tomkin is a radical thinker and writer with a passion for racial justice. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in French and Spanish, and has a self-published poetry collection called "Delusions of Grandeur." She works at Common Justice as a Direct Service Coordinator.