Ending Discrimination at the Local Level: The Work of Nonprofits

By Dr. Alicia Schatteman

I am a big proponent of the need for cross-sector collaboration to meet complex community issues.  No one sector can do this alone. We have certainly seen this during the pandemic and now during the protests against racial discrimination.  We need public investment, still the largest source of funding, which requires political will from public pressure. These protests are about once again highlighting the systemic injustices and applying public pressure to elected officials to reform those policies and practices.  This is necessary.

Many of the federal and state programs to address the fallout from the pandemic have been directed at the economy, most notably, the for-profit sector. This is also needed because economic self-sufficiency is still the foundation upon which we can build our economic futures.

At the same time, nonprofit organizations are continuing and often increasing their programs and services to individuals most affected by the financial, physical, and mental toll of the pandemic; the individuals without health insurance, those experiencing homelessness or mental health issues, those experiencing food insecurity, etc.  Nonprofits are truly the “boots on the ground”; staff and volunteers, getting things done every day no matter the challenge or obstacles.  The United Way and the Serve Illinois Commission on Volunteerism and Community have been recruiting volunteers to help our local communities during this pandemic, and volunteers are stepping forward. Staff and volunteers are putting their own lives at risk to serve others.

We need all three sectors working together towards the common goal of building a better and just society for all.

In today’s Chicago Tribune, there is an op-ed by David Brooks of the New York Times.  He reminds us that “a lot of the segregation in this country is geographic”.  We have separated ourselves from others, typically along socio-economic lines, which often includes racial lines.  If we want to fix what ails the United States, then we need to agree that “the neighborhood is the unit of change”.  Local nonprofits are the experts at the neighborhood level.  This is where they serve.  If we could get resources to these local nonprofits and let communities define what is needed and how those services are delivered, we could see real change at the local level, and the ripple effect that would result.  What we don’t need is a complicated, burdensome system that is not flexible based on local conditions. We need clear goals and funding that supports proper accountability and data systems as well as direct service delivery costs.

Tip O’Neill, a former Speaker of the House, is given credit for saying “all politics is local”.  Local is where we live, where we get our groceries, where our kids go to school, where we enjoy the outdoors, and where we work.  Until an issue comes into our local communities, it almost doesn’t exist.  If our local communities are still separated by class and racial lines, we will not make progress on eliminating racism.  Nonprofits are already working at the local level and with local residents.  Any solutions for healing must include funding directed at local organizations. This is our chance, right now, to start anew and try again.

Here is a sample of statements from nonprofits about their commitment to ending racial discrimination.

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