I start this post with an acknowledgment that I am the beneficiary of tremendous undue privilege, all of which is built upon the oppression of other people. As a white person living in Toronto, I am a settler implicated in the violence that Canada has been visited upon Indigenous peoples since the time of first colonial invasion. I benefit from systemic racism against Black, Latinx, Asian, and other racialized peoples, as well as xenophobia (especially against Muslims); the same social structures that have enabled me to thrive are used to deny others their full agency as people. As a cis-gendered, heterosexual, able-bodied man, I encounter none of the violence imposed upon women, LGBT2Q people, and people with disabilities.

My desire to dismantle these systems of oppression does not mean I don’t continue to reap their benefits.

We are living through a historic moment that is fraught with violent action and hateful speech. Between Donald Trump’s regime and the white supremacists he embraces, oppressive worldviews — ones that are explicitly racist, xenophobic, misogynistic, transphobic, homophobic, ableist, and anti-poor — have been thrust into mainstream conversation. This poisoning of public discourse fuels violence and imperils the lives of people everywhere.

As nonprofit communicators, how should we respond? After all, our skills and platforms give us tremendous power in the fight to make the communications landscape a less oppressive space.

However, many of us are reluctant to get involved in this fight. For some, linking our comms work to struggles for social justice seems too overtly political; others don’t feel personally compelled to take up this kind of work.

And yet as nonprofit communicators, we all share the same fundamental goal. We do this work because we want to make the world a better place. So if we’re not standing up to oppression in its most blatant manifestations, what good are we really doing?

There is an urgent need for the nonprofit marketing communications community to come together and mobilize against oppression in all its forms. However, if our efforts are not driven by the needs, voices, and aspirations of the people directly affected by multiple forms of oppression, we will end up silencing those who need to be heard most.

In this article, I propose that we work together to build an anti-oppressive framework for nonprofit marketing and communications.

What is anti-oppression?

Anti-oppression is a well-established field of theory and practice in activism, education, social work, and counselling. It’s informed by people working to dismantle systems of marginalization that operate across social lines such as race, Indigeneity, class, gender expression, sexuality, and ability. These systems are woven into the fabric of our societies; they grant privilege to some by denying power to many.

In the North American context, much anti-oppressive work is focused on challenging and dismantling settler colonialism, white supremacy, and patriarchy — interlocking systems of dehumanization that work together to deny Indigenous peoples sovereignty, strip Black and other racialized peoples of agency, and marginalize people that are not cis-gendered, heterosexual men.

What might an anti-oppressive framework for nonprofit communicators look like? I’m not sure, and as a white man who is not on the receiving end of multiple forms of oppression, my voice is not the one that matters most in building this framework. But I would like to put forward some questions to help structure the conversation.

What might an anti-oppressive framework for nonprofit communicators look like? #NPMC Share on X

How can we incorporate intersectionality into our work?

Intersectionality is a term that anti-racist legal scholar Kimberly Crenshaw coined in the 1980’s for conceptualizing the multiple layers of discrimination that Black women experience at the intersection of systems that are simultaneously racist and sexist. The concept has since been expanded to conceive of how other forms of interlocking oppressions — such as xenophobia, heteronormativity, ableism, and class-based violence — come together and impact different people in ways that are both distinct and overlapping.

If our attempts to develop an anti-oppressive nonprofit marketing communications practice are not intersectional, we run the risk of perpetuating multiple oppressions rather than dismantling them.

For example, in response to Trump’s grotesque “Muslim ban(s),” thousands of people attempted to show solidarity with Muslim refugees and newcomers by using the slogan #WeAreAllImmigrants. The intention was to rally against oppression; however, in a settler colonial society built on the backs of slaves, to assert that everyone is an immigrant is to erase the deep, long histories of oppression that Indigenous and Black peoples continue to struggle against. To counter this erasure, Indigenous activists put forth a new slogan instead: “no ban on stolen land.”

Incorporating an intersectional lens into nonprofit marketing communications means ensuring that we always position ourselves as conscious of and counter to multiple systems of oppression. As individuals and organizations, we need to understand how we are both affected by and implicated in sustaining these systems. We need to call out these dynamics in our messaging and ensure that our messaging is accessible, inclusive, and responsive to critical feedback.

How can we transform nonprofit marketing communications so that marginalized voices are always out front?

In the US nonprofit sector, the percentage of people of colour in executive director/ CEO roles has remained under 20 percent for the last 15 years.

Many in the sector explain this disparity as the unfortunate but inevitable result of a lack of racialized talent. However, a landmark study by the Building Movement Project proves that the opposite is true: in the nonprofit talent pool, not only are people of colour just as qualified as their white counterparts (in terms of experience, education, etc.), more of them aspire to take on leadership roles.

This disparity reveals an inherently racist and unjust system that affects not only individual organizations but the entire nonprofit sector. Without inclusion and equity at the top tier of the sector, racialized and otherwise marginalized voices will always be considered less important and less worthy in every aspect of nonprofit work.

I’m not positioned to talk about this phenomenon in the same way as someone on the receiving end of systemic oppression would be, but I have certainly witnessed (and actively participated in) the pushing out of marginalized voices from nonprofit marketing communications spaces. Often this happens in the form of tokenizing and “speaking for” the oppressed, which is particularly rampant amongst Western organizations doing humanitarian and development work in poor countries.

This is not a problem that can be addressed superficially; rather, we have to transform the entire system so that marginalized voices are always out front and always leading the conversation. There are fantastic examples of this in new media (see theestablishment.co and colorlines.com) as well as in activism (see The Movement for Black Lives and Idle No More).

To achieve an anti-oppressive nonprofit marketing communications framework, people who represent dominant groups like myself have to let go of control and “take leadership” from (in other words, follow the lead of) people who experience oppression. Until we cede power, nothing will change.

How can we situate our specific organizational mandate within broader struggles for social justice?

What if your nonprofit’s mission has nothing to do with ending racism, colonialism, and xenophobia?

If that’s the case, consider Free Geek Vancouver. Here’s the mission statement:

Free Geek is a nonprofit community organization that reduces the environmental impact of waste electronics by reusing and recycling donated technology. Through community engagement we provide education, job skills training, Internet access and free or low cost computers to the public.

Doesn’t exactly conjure up images of activists taking to the streets with bullhorns, does it? And yet Free Geek Vancouver has dedicated an entire wiki page to anti-oppression, complete with intros to concepts such as structural power, intersectionality, and internalized oppression.

In a section entitled “Why Is This Relevant to Free Geek?” the authors explain:

It may be surprising to veteran geeks, but computers and technology can feel very intimidating to a lot of people. Like most high paying industries, the computer industry in North America is like a pyramid. The higher up on the pyramid you look, the denser concentration of white, able-bodied males you see.

Free Geek seeks to make technology more accessible to the larger community. By providing a space that is safe, inclusive and comfortable for everyone to learn we are meeting our goals. Understanding why and how computer technology can seem frightening & intimidating is important in your role as a teacher.

The wiki then goes on to list how fair access to technology is denied along lines such as race, class, age, and gender, and provides guidance for technology educators in transforming the potentially oppressive “power dynamics between those who hold and receive knowledge.”

Free Geek Vancouver sets a clear example that all work for the greater good must necessarily be work toward liberation from systemic oppression. This includes operating from a basic understanding that in our roles within what INCITE! terms the nonprofit – industrial complex, we contribute to state-sanctioned efforts to “monitor and control social justice movement, divert public monies into private hands through foundations, [and] manage and control dissent in order to make the world safe for capitalism” (among plenty of other problematic things).

We must therefore always be aware of how we as individuals and organizations are implicated in multiple forms of oppression. At the same time, we must also be proactive in offering up our unique resources as assets in the struggle against these systems.

Developing an anti-oppressive nonprofit marketing communications framework is fundamentally an exercise in imagination. How can we envision new ways of doing things that are just, equitable, and powerful? What might this framework operate, and how can we achieve it together?

Join the #NPMC Twitter Chat on Thursday, September 28th 2017 from 1 to 2 pm ET to share your thoughts on anti-oppression in nonprofit communications!

Power in words: doing nonprofit marketing communications from a place of anti-oppression #NPMC Share on X
Ben Losman

Ben Losman

Ben Losman does communications for TechSoup Canada, where he develops learning resources to empower people in the nonprofit sector to make effective use of technology. He also runs an independent writing practice that helps socially-minded people and organizations tell compelling stories that inspire action. Learn more at his website (www.benlosman.com) and follow him on Twitter.
Ben Losman