A few months ago I applied for a temporary job with an organization whose work I had long admired. The job would have lasted all of three weeks. I made it through two interviews and was not hired. My age came up in the interview. The director of the Boston office of this non-profit asked me if I didn’t think “the younger staff would find me intimidating because of my experience.” I told her I didn’t think so. While I had a significant amount of experience doing interviews, the staff would know this organization’s process better than me. I thought we’d work together collaboratively which is how they explained their model. I also told her that I had worked with young people in their 20s and 30s successfully and thought there would be no problem. I didn’t get called back. As is usually the case, I had figured I wouldn’t get called back by the interviewers behavior. She acted uncomfortable around me and kept laughing this nervous laugh.
This entry is not about ageism. It is about an organization that is supposed to help but plays it safe instead. This organization is not alone in doing this.
One of the other reasons I wanted to get this job was to see this organization’s selection process. They give full scholarships to college and send people to college in groups where they continue to work with them. I knew one young man who had gotten through two levels of interviews but wasn’t chosen. I heard of another young man who had gotten to the same level of the process but wasn’t taken. Both of these young men were dynamic and both were Black.
As I waited to be called in for the first interview of two with the organization, I looked around the office and through their materials. I noticed, because I always do, that in the smiling faces of their selected crews, there were very few Black or other young men of color. The Black guy I did notice was part of crew from Atlanta. I also noticed that a lot of the staff for this organization, especially the chapter directors, were not people of color, either.
As the process was explained to me in the first interview, I could understand why the young man I knew so well, was not selected. He is a soft-spoken young man who tends to think deliberately before he responds to questions. He has shown leadership in his inner-city housing development for years and, in fact, had participated in a well-known leadership program for years, interacting with young people and adults from the non-profit, corporate and government sectors. He would have difficulty making it through a process if he had to engage with the two women with whom I interviewed. They reminded me of a number of efficient, well-educated, well-meaning young white women I’ve met over the years who work in similar roles. They often have the appropriate educational credentials for these roles, but not the appropriate experience or backgrounds.
I’ve thought a lot about this organization since October when I had the interviews. It didn’t sit right with me. When going on a long walk the other day with a friend who taught in the Boston Public Schools for 30+ years and who knows this organization well (and by the way, she herself is of the liberal white persuasion), she told me I should blog about it and shared her take on the organization. Seems a cousin of hers works at one of the colleges that works with this organization. He said the colleges love the organization because of their prescreening process and because they select students who are bound to succeed and provide services to those students so that the colleges don’t have to. Statistically and financially working with this organization is a win for the participating colleges.
This is disappointing, not because the organization doesn’t do good work – it does. This is disheartening not because the students who are selected don’t need the financial support the organization offers – they do. The problem is that the students that are selected are so high-achieving that they were going to get in and get through college without this organization’s help, unlike the young Black guy I knew. He has been struggling to find the right fit in a community college and to work that system so that he can go on to a four-year college without. losing too much time or money in the process. It disturbs me that he didn’t have the proper nurturing to have had several irons in the college fire. The organization whose name I am not mentioning was really his only choice. Raised by his grandfather, who counted on the guidance counselors at his school to do right by him, he has been basically adrift.
I notice, and notice, and notice how few Black and other young men of color there are in the dozens of organizations supposedly designed to serve inner-city youth (or whatever the moniker du jure). When I’ve been privy to recruitment and selection processes that involve young people, I push – overtly and covertly that organizations dig deeper to find, accept, and nurture Black boys (and other boys of color) who are critically unrepresented in enrichment actiitives and higher education programs.
It is criminal that their absences are so easily tolerated. These organizations, especially the one I do not name but you could probably figure out if you think about it, ought to be ashamed for neglecting their responsibility and playing it safe.
Unfortunately, this sounds like a typical scenario. Can you imagine an organization that wouldn’t hire you for a three week stint taking on any longer term risk? It will change when organizations start Black at the top and teach Whites in their organizations the difference between Black and Unqualified, the difference between Black and Risky, the difference between Black and Unmotivated, not the difference between Black and White. This is directly apropos of a benefit we might get on a national level from an Obama presidency. Glory in our differences, celebration of our common values.
By the way, risk is more easily borne in business, especially small business where rules and civility are a little less burdensome. When it’s easier to fire someone, it’s easier to hire them. Risk is blunted by the agility of management and that applies across the board not only in race relations and human resources, but in marketing, finance and operations. Non-profits are quasi-governmental entities that do a lot of good work, but breaking barriers is not one of them. They generally work within existing systems to marginally improve people’s lives, the key word being marginally. They are often government funded.
The true engines of change are individuals who won’t accept the status quo. Frequently those are individual business men and women who see the failures of a current system and in those failures an opportunity to create change and build wealth. People like that generally do not go into non-profits, but they do pave the way for non-profits to walk up new roads. Hopefully, non-profits institutionalize those roads so that many more people can travel on them.
Here’s a simplified generalization that is often not true, but nevertheless is more often true. White people, especially White women, are afraid of Black people, especially Black men. That’s a fear worth confronting. I think the payoff for our unfair society and our warped culture could be very rich. Your experience sites a case in point.
How do we do it? Just like this. Start talking about it, bring the hidden fear to the front, deal with it directly. Get help from anyone who understands. Risk being wrong because you know that your motivations are good and then open yourself to other possibilities. Here are a couple of people I know who are doing exactly that in an entrepreneurial way:
Beth Williams, President/CEO, Roxbury Technology Corp.
Larry Higginbottom, Founder/CEO, The Osiris Group
Google them. They make change. They engage people.
Thank you, Candelaria, for keeping the conversation going, it can get tiresome, it should have been solved so long ago, but a fresh voice, a new irritant, a smart person who won’t be silent works wonders.
Gee, this soapbox is high, I almost used up my 3000 character allotment. How do you breathe up here, the air is so thin!
Your comments are so incredibly well-written, thoughtful, insightful that I am humbled by your analysis. Thank you for your careful reading of my words. I feel understood. I feel that some of us are working toward a new understanding which can only come through honesty.
Reading your response makes me feel freeer to post some things in the future that I’ve been holding back.
The dichotomy in the world is excrutiating sometimes. Progress and regression at the same time. Those of us who are in the tribe of good people that I wrote about some months ago, wil have to just keep on keeping on.
Thank you, again.
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