I recently met someone whose professional pedigree is something of which I stand in awe. They have a robust background in nonprofit work and entrepreneurship. And I greatly look up to this person. We spoke briefly, and I learned a great deal. I listened intently to the gaps between the level 2 information they gave me and that of level 3. I don’t know if they know it, but they, through such simple dialog, changed the trajectory of my professional life, at least in the short term.
Three significant points before I expand on this: I moved from Norfolk, VA, to New Orleans, LA, back in early July. I moved to Nola to start a nonprofit recording studio. I presently work for a national nonprofit organization tackling issues far removed from those affecting New Orleans.
Due to the nature of my friend’s work and our recent conversations, I started questioning what I’m working toward at my current job. I believe in what I do, but we shine spotlights on people already illuminated in the public eye. Besides, my organization would continue without me, allowing me to pursue work that shines lights on the less illuminated. But also, due to my friend’s work, I started questioning if I was doing it right. Will my proposed organization operate in ways that genuinely help? Or am I part of a more systemic problem?
I dove deep into the history of startup nonprofits in New Orleans and discovered something disheartening. There is no shortage of issues needing tackling in this city. Crime is a major issue. Natural disasters and weather, crumbling infrastructure, inequality: problems plague the town. And often, well-meaning people come to New Orleans to tackle these very real problems. But these “white saviors” don’t necessarily understand the context of the issues on which they’re working. They may, simply by acting with compassion, upset unfortunate social realities or exacerbate associated problems.
I would go on about this for several more paragraphs, but for brevity’s sake, I’m sure you get the point: I don’t want to be a part of that. I want to solve not only the right problem but also the problem right.
I live in Tremé, a predominantly Black neighborhood that borders the French Quarter. Tremé is alive with culture, music, and museums, and I’m proud to be a part of this community. I initially thought Tremé was the perfect place to start my organization. But I no longer believe this after reflection. At least, not right now.
I don’t know enough about New Orleans’ or Tremé’s culture, needs, history, or ongoing problems. I haven’t even lived here for five months. How can I expect to operate a nonprofit in a way that avoids upsetting the local culture and exacerbating other problems?
I think I should begin looking for work with an established local nonprofit organization to address problems within the city. There are numerous nonprofit organizations in New Orleans (a symptom of it being a poorly managed city), and I’ve been keeping track of about 30 for the last two years. I think I’d like to spend two or three years (maybe longer) working under the guidance of an established mission statement before crafting one of my own.
This invariably means I must abandon whatever progress I’ve made since deciding to start a nonprofit organization. But that’s okay. It’s best to know how and why to do something rather than simply what to do.
Again, I’m in awe of my friend, and I thank them for unknowingly making me reevaluate my plans and goals. I believe I can start moving forward now.