As service providers in low-income communities explore new methods to more effectively aid those in need, they are confronting the disturbing reality that some of their own policies may actually be part of the problem.
Bread for the City, one of Washington, D.C.'s pre-eminent non-profit service providers, provides food, clothing, legal counsel, and other aid to District of Columbia residents. In recent years, they have been conducting an extensive audit of their own intake and referral systems -- while simultaneously developing an analysis of dimensions of race and power dynamics within their organization and community.
"We are beginning as an organization to look at policies that exist, and not just asking 'are they working or are they not working,' but 'are they working through a lens of racial equity?'" says Karen Byer, Bread for the City's Communications Manager.
Consider that Bread for the City's clientele are 89% African American, in a city that's 43% white. Yet Bread for the City's mission is not to serve African Americans per se. Rather, they serve any D.C. resident in need and view people equally without prejudice. So if the vast majority of Bread for the City's clients are African American, then instead of assuming that this entire group of people has some mysterious deficiency, their working hypothesis is that certain policies or institutional structures are adversely impacting and oppressing communities of color.
"We don't think we can fix racism," Karen adds, "but we can work to dismantle the racist infrastructures that we have been a part of."
After conducting an extensive data-driven analysis of their intake and referral processes, Bread for the City concluded that some of their existing practices did not meet the racial equity standards that they intend to uphold. Some such practices are actually commonplace across the human service sectors.
Here's one problem that Bread for the City has already taken action to address:
Many food pantries require prospective clients to present a signed document from another organization as a 'proof of need.' This document then 'refers' them to the organization for food and/or other kinds of assistance. Many pantries require such third-party referrals regardless of whether the individual can provide their own proof of need, such as an income statement.
This means that clients often arrive at a food pantry seeking help, only to be redirected to Bread for the City to get a signed document, and then come back.
Bread for the City, in other words, was acting as a gatekeeper for necessary services, rather than a gateway. The implicit assumption of the referral system is that certain people are unworthy of receiving assistance. Given that the vast majority of Bread for the City's clients are African American (or other people of color) in a city that's nearly fully half Caucasian, this assumption not only ignores broader patterns of racism -- it becomes part of the pattern itself. And Bread for the City realized it was functioning as an instrument of that pattern.
"Historically, social service provision has often been based on antiquated ideas of worthy or unworthy poor," wrote Kathleen Stephan, Bread for the City's community resource and quality assurance coordinator, on the organization's blog. "We believe the elimination of paper referrals is an important shift away from a prejudiced charity model."
Bread for the City's social workers have actually felt this way for quite a while. In recent years, two things changed: first, the entire organization -- staff, clients, volunteers, and even board -- has been engaged in serious dialogues about racism and oppression. Second, they've begun making better use of data to drive their decisions.
Thanks to an upgrade in their case management technology, Bread's social workers are now able to analyze their referral patterns over time. The records show that from January to August of last year, Bread for the City wrote over 1,141 individual paper referrals to other organizations. More analysis revealed that almost all of these referrals could be traced back to the same 16 food pantries.
Bread for the City estimates that the paper referral policy costs $20 per person per trip, factoring in public transportation and time away from work to make this additional journey. (No one knows how many people just get discouraged and go without help.)
Furthermore, Bread for the City's social workers found that almost half of their 'walk-ins' were solely seeking referrals elsewhere -- a major burden on the organization's own workload.
Now that they had hard data about this problem, Bread for the City started talking to people about it. First, they organized meetings with clients to learn more about their first-hand experiences with referral processes, and to solicit their suggestions for improvements.
Then Bread for the City engaged the Capital Area Food Bank. This partnership proved essential because because 14 of the 16 organizations already had a relationship with the Food Bank. This created trust amongst all of the partners, which made it much easier to reach an agreement around new policy changes at the organizations that previously required referrals for food assistance.
Thus far, 14 of the partner organizations have agreed to drop their referral requirements. These pantries represented 88 percent of the referrals Bread for the City wrote during the period under review.
This minor bureaucratic change has now dramatically improved food accessibility for thousands of low-income residents in D.C. -- who also happen to disproportionately be African American.
Small changes like this are the kinds that can make a big impact, but to do so you have to ask big questions. Bread for the City understood that racial injustices can lurk in banal procedures -- and by challenging themselves and their peers to examine and reimagine these structures, they are finding better ways to serve their communities.