By Pastor Isaac Scott
Long-standing institutions that seek to move toward social correctness in 2021 are often proud to declare that those who are closest to the issue are closest to the solution and should be driving the change. While true, in its current application, this proximity to justice and advocacy rhetoric for the oppressed manifests only in mere concept. It is nothing more than rubber-stamped language rearticulated from organization to organization that expresses understanding and empathy. The reality is that well-known organizations continue to profit from prioritized funding, accessible social resources, and supportive networks that would be more beneficial to Black and Indigenous people in communities like Harlem. These benefits should be reallocated to smaller, nontraditional community-based projects and organizations that are birthed right out of the neighborhoods they serve.
As a Black man who has been incarcerated and labors at the intersection between a predominately white institution and a predominantly Black and Indigenous community, I have observed that the same organizations claiming to fight against systemic oppression are oftentimes the very same organizations that promote unreasonable standards for producing results that are out of reach for smaller community organizations and uphold discriminatory selection processes. Taken together, this flawed version of activism results in unrealistic demands being expected from formerly incarcerated people who are returning home and are eager to reenter society and lead something meaningful despite being plagued with a heap of collateral consequences that are inherent in a criminal conviction.
When it comes to community grassroots organizing and coalition building for equity and inclusion, we must be mindful to never overlook smaller, less structurally developed advocacy groups, especially before we understand their on-the-ground impacts on the lives of people they serve. To those institutions that pretend to champion inclusion while excluding grassroots organizations, I say: Come out of that elite, privileged bubble and get your 10 toes down on the ground you serve. Many new community-based organizations are founded out of a person’s own story or struggle or the oppression of an individual or a group of people, and these organizations don’t spring up with fully-furnished operational decors. The specificity of their missions is not created from consulting among the haves, but from sharing the hardships of the have-nots. Rarely are these organizations even able to secure sustainable funding within the first few years of operation.
Unlike larger financially sustained organizations, community grassroots organizations uniquely take advantage of the wisdom and leadership of those who are traditionally excluded from opportunities. However, they are often well connected to effectively enact change in ways that larger institutions are not able to. The community organizations with the strongest neighborhood ties and most effective harm-reduction methodologies usually start with a handful of local volunteers who genuinely devote their time and personal resources for the sake of creating change. But their contributions are trivialized by the work done by more well-known organizations and institutions.
The reason it is so important to recognize the work being done by smaller and newly formed collectives is that a failure to do so perpetuates the exclusion of those groups. Given their limited financial support, they are often forced to be more resourceful and more dependent on networking and strategic partnerships to scale their work and gain access to sustainable resources. We need to understand that if we seek to transform the current nonprofit culture to one that is truly inclusive, privileged institutions cannot continue to pick and choose how to distribute equal opportunities. Each unique perspective, project, and initiative from those individual agents of change should be prioritized.
Yes, this kind of transformation means that the same old two-step has to change and that new methodologies for equity and inclusion may prioritize untraditional theories for change, but the change that is needed may not look the way you want it to.
This article is published in collaboration with the Columbia University Center for Justice, Pastor Isaac Scott, and the Columbia Spectator.
Pastor Isaac Scott is is an award-winning, Social Impact Multimedia Artist and Human Rights Activist. He is a Fellow at the Center for Institutional and Social Change at Columbia Law School and Founder & Lead-Artist for The Confined Arts at the Center for Justice at Columbia University, where he spearheads the promotion of justice reform through the transformative power of the arts. Through The Confined Arts, Pastor Scott has organized art exhibitions, poetry performances, and storytelling projects to interrogate and bring about awareness around several important issues, such as juvenile justice, solitary confinement, prison conditions, the rising rate of women in prison and the media’s role in shaping public perception. As a result of the impactful work of The Confined Arts, Pastor Scott received the 2018, 2019, and 2020 Change Agent Award from the School of General Studies at Columbia University, where he currently studies Visual Arts and Human Rights as a Justice in Education Scholar Scholar. Today, Pastor Scott holds the esteemed title of Associate Pastor at God’s Touch Healing Ministry, located in East Harlem, NY, where he serves on Manhattan Community Board 11 on the nomination of City Council Bill Perkins.
Featured photo: Shawanna Vaughn, founder of Silent Cry Inc., advocates for Post Traumatic Prison Disorder legislation. This legislation is an example of how large institutions can begin transforming their approaches to smaller organizations and marginalized communities. Courtesy of Pastor Isaac Scott.