Pay Young Black Folks To Do The Work They Want To Do

Young black people have got this every bit as much as the next person, and maybe more so.
"A place to live and a place to work" by <a href="" target="_blank">Sharee Miller</a>
"A place to live and a place to work" by Sharee Miller

“I tell my students, ‘When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else.” – Toni Morrison

Now more than ever, we need young black organizers all over the country to lead us forward – young black organizers who will advance progressive messaging, innovate political strategy, refresh electoral organizing and call in issue campaigns that uphold core priorities for our liberation. There are over 500 nonprofit progressive organizations in DC alone. Every single one of them should have job positions for young black people to do work that they want to do for their communities and for the world.

It’s pretty simple: without these young black organizers at the helm, too, we can’t win.

I work with many organizations and nonprofits that preach the same values I do, but the faces behind the work don’t look like mine. Instead, young black folks are often the interns, the part-time staff and the seasonal organizers. Or they occupy a single, token seat on the board. In a movement that preaches equality, if we really want to have a strong progressive agenda, we must make room and create more roles that allow black folks opportunities to do the work that they love and to lead.

There is a major disconnect between what institutions do for urban communities and what these communities actually need. The disconnect is rooted in the intersection of high unemployment and lack of representation within institutions that advocate on their behalf. The only way forward from this disconnect is to hire and cultivate black talent to do the work we so desperately need in this battle against white supremacy.

There is a major disconnect between what institutions do for urban communities and what these communities actually need.

Yes, progressive non-profit and labor movements need to create more institutionalized, well-paid opportunities for young black people to hold space and train others. But we must also be the voice of our liberation right now. There are some things we must do immediately to fuel this revolution, to eliminate the disconnections and to move forward from our collective power.

First, trust young black people.

In order to get rid of the institutional racism that prevents organizations from trusting black people to do the work that is necessary to win, we can start by just going ahead and trusting black people, including young black people. Everyone. Right now. Go ahead and try it. But don’t just try it. Trust young black people completely. Trust us deeply. Young black people have got this every bit as much as the next person, and maybe more so.

I am a believer that the people directly affected by the problem are in the best position to say how we should address and change the problem. In order for black people to get out of the jobs crisis, black people are the ones who must set the agenda and make the needed demands to fix the economy. Other nonblack folks who study the problem will have great suggestions too, but black people are fully capable of demanding what they need. It’s clear that black people and young black people aren’t the decision makers in government, so our elected officials should look to black organizations and thought leaders for solutions to end the black jobs crisis.

That means progressive nonprofits need to trust black people and the diversity of thought and experience that each person brings to the table. By trust, again, I mean seriously allow them to own their work and vision. It also means knowing when to move on when you’ve been in the organization for too long, to make room for young people to join in the work. I think if this were the case, the progressive movement wouldn’t be in the mess it’s in.  

Don’t just create jobs – foster new talent in young Black folks.

Second, institutionalize training opportunities for young black folks.

Don’t just create jobs – foster new talent. I’ve traveled all over the country for the last six years speaking to high school seniors, college students and young workers in the labor movement. At the end of my keynote address or workshop, young people always privately approach me with the same question: “How did you find such a great organizing job?” I imagine this question comes up often because I am both young and I get paid t­­­o do good work for the communities I care about – not the norm. Truth be told, there aren’t nearly enough employment opportunities like the position I currently hold.

Too many young talented black people serve as consultants for seasonal projects for nonprofit progressive organizations, when they should be hired as full-time staff and trained and empowered to create the work that impacts their communities. I’ve been fortunate to find positions within organizations that match my values, allowing me to work with progressive-minded people and cater to my personal and professional development. Everyone deserves that type of job with handsome pay and benefits. And our movement deserves, collectively, to create real pathways to revolutionize who is doing the work and getting paid for it.

Third, the philanthropic world needs to invest in black leadership.

Standing organizations now are under-resourced and unsupported. A lot of foundations are expanding or re-creating racial justice projects and funds. There needs to be a systematic fair process that uplifts well-known black organizers and black organizers that aren’t so popular as well. When black leaders have the vision and the people power to sustain the work, then donors in the philanthropic world need to resource those agendas. There are ways to hold black organizations accountable to a clear theory of change, in exchange for big dollars. But leadership development and community building are just as important as electoral wins. Too often in the progressive movement, the dollars determine the vision when it should be the other way around. The vision should inspire the dollars that hire the talented black folks who execute the dream.

Between President Obama’s administration, Hillary Clinton’s campaign, and the new round of college graduates, there are tons of young black talent looking for ways to plug into and advance this movement of ours.

Without young black organizers at the helm, we can’t win.

In 2015 I started “Prayers to Jobs,” a listserv for jobs for black folks, because I got tired of looking around for young talented people of color in other progressive nonprofit organizations and not finding any. I heard presidents and executive leaders of nonprofit organizations say all the time, “we can’t find qualified young people of color to hire.” So I asked my network for emails of folks of color who were under 30, unemployed, and college educated, and started sharing job announcements with them that they otherwise wouldn’t have received. My list alone has over 200 people on it.

I know a lot of folks were caught by surprise when Donald Trump became the President-elect. And more so surprised by the executive orders he has signed since being sworn into office. Trust, there will be more attacks affecting labor unions, reproductive justice, mass incarceration, immigrations and education. Black folks need to be positioned before that happens to fight against racism and hate. This is about national and global politics, not one individual politician. If we really believe in a just society for all, then philanthropy and institutions need to deeply invest in the growth of a movement of black talented organizers by giving them real jobs. If we really want liberation for all, then everyone needs to trust in the wisdom of those most oppressed in guiding us there. If we don’t do these things then the worst parts of our history will be repeated.

I do believe that we can win. I trust myself to stay on the right path to get us there. And even if I am alone right now in doing so, I will always extend that trust to other young black folks, too. I can keep taking that first and fundamental step forward – I have to.

This post is part of the Black Futures Month blog series brought to you by The Huffington Post and the Black Lives Matter Network. Each day in February, look for a new post exploring cultural and political issues affecting the Black community and examining the impact it will have going forward. For more Black History Month content, check out Black Voices’ ‘We, Too, Are America’ coverage.