Alumni Spotlight: Ewuare Osayande, American Friends Service Committee and ORIJIN

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Ewuare Osayande is Chief Diversity Officer at American Friends Service Committee and the founder and principal of The Osayande Racial Justice Initiative (ORIJIN). ORIJIN provides comprehensive intersectional anti-racist consultation, training and seminars to achieve organizational justice. The Center for Public and Nonprofit Leadership spoke with Ewuare Osayande about his work with anti-racism and his experience in the Center’s Nonprofit Management Executive Certificate Program.

CPNL: The nonprofit sector is vast with so many important causes to champion. In addition to founding ORIJIN, you also work as the Chief Diversity Officer at American Friends Service Committee. What led you to pursue a career in racial equity and diversity?

Osayande: I actually went to college looking to get a job in marketing. I was a pretty talented illustrator in high school, often asked to create the artwork used for the plays and other exhibitions. I love the arts. I went to college to study visual art with plans to get a degree in marketing and work for Disney or something like that. But, as life would have it, that did not happen.

It is an interesting thing, looking back and considering where we are now in our country. It must have been during my junior or sophomore year, Phillip Pannell, Jr., a young African American boy in the community where I was going to school was shot and killed by a white police officer. That single event changed my life. At the time, I was the Vice President of what was the largest student organization on campus, the Association of Black and Hispanic Collegians. We had members in the organization that were from the local community, so they knew the young boy that was killed and his family. They set up some time for us to go speak with the family as an organization. All the organizational leaders were there, and I remember the young boy’s father sitting there crying in the living room the entire time saying, ‘I just want justice for my boy.’ We left there that day deciding to organize a march for peace and justice that began at the campus where I was a student (Fairleigh Dickinson University) in Teaneck to Trenton, the capital of New Jersey. The trek would take us the entire day to get there.

We were part of a network of Black Student Unions across the East Coast. So we had students come down from as far north as Harvard, and as far south as Howard. We had a few hundred students with us that day. It was a monumental experience, certainly a life changing experience for me. I got into this work as a consequence of that single experience. I would say that folks assume that because you are a person of color, you automatically grow up with a sense and awareness of racial oppression. That’s not true. We may experience racism, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we know it’s history, the ins and outs of it systemically. But that was kind of my baptism. I said ‘this is something I need to start dealing with, myself.’

So we began to organize on campus after that march, which had gotten national attention. Phillip’s death occurs between the white mob murder of Yusef Hawkins and the police murder of  Amadou Diallo, both occurring in New York. We began to have meetings with administrators, and by the time I graduated two years later, we had quadrupled the number of faculty of color. We also laid the groundwork for what would become the University’s first multicultural affairs department. And as a consequence of the work we did to get them to hire more faculty of color, we were able to work toward the inclusion of African American studies in the core curriculum and the studies of other ethnic groups. So it was a grand achievement for us as students there in our generation, and I have stayed on the path ever since.

CPNL: What was it like to start your own organization? What advice would you give to other nonprofit leaders?

Osayande: The process for the founding of ORIJIN is kind of a life on its own. It has been through a number of different forms. This latest form is a consultancy that provides both support, training and advocacy for nonprofits primarily, but we also work with other institutions, too. We prioritize the work of racial equity inside the institution. What I have learned from my decades of workshop facilitation and consultation is that the primacy of race as a social construct of power does not get the necessary consideration that it merits given the predominance of racism in our society. It is one thing for an organization to experience an anti-racism training. But, it is something quite different and more significant when that organization actually implements the learnings from that training in ways that enable them to make critical advancements toward becoming authentically anti-racist. This is the kind of development we help organizations achieve. There are key learnings that can only come through this experience. These are the principal foundations for ORIJIN.  One such fundamental understanding addresses diversity. An organization can achieve a level of diversity that is representative of the communities you are working in, or more generally the country and our world. But institutional racism, institutional sexism, and various other forms of oppression can still be present. And so the question becomes, how do we tie the work of diversity to the work of equity to assure that all persons in the organization have access to power, access to opportunities, access to advance–if they so desire–and there is no measure of discrimination that occurs within the operations of the organization. We come in and we help the organizations look through, and we take them through their policies, principles, values, and practice to get at their culture. In so doing we show them their weaknesses, their strengths and focus on how we can help them address these weaknesses toward achieving real equity.

CPNL: Much of your work focuses on providing education and guidance to other organizations invested in becoming actively anti-racist. With the current social climate, why is anti-racism so important in the nonprofit sector, and how can the sector improve?

Osayande: That’s the best question I’ve been asked in a while because that is the very issue we need to be dealing with right now. I would say that the nonprofit sector is vital. With all the positive, life-affirming value the nonprofit sector provides, particularly when we look at the work of antiracism in our country right now, is vital. Institutional racism is the critical conversation, whether our nation is having it right now or not. And so, I would say that if the nonprofit sector is really going to advance the work well, it’s going to need to focus on looking at and addressing its own inconsistencies. The nonprofit sector must interrogate its relationship and role in the arrangement of power in our society. For most part, nonprofits operate as the middle person in the exchange of resources, if you will. You have the communities that have needs, you have the funders who have resources, and the nonprofit sector operates somewhere in the middle there. So it becomes a legitimate question to ask, “What role does the nonprofit sector play in the realities of inequality that are present in our world?” That takes a level of courage for many nonprofits to say, “I am willing to look into that mirror.” It is easy for the nonprofit sector to look into the government mirror, the political mirror, or the corporate mirror and see all of the inequalities and injustices. But it is another level of courage for nonprofit folks to look squarely in the mirror and see how inequality plays out within our own sector. Because the quality–not just the quantity–of how those resources finally arrive at the community level is a critical conversation that our present reality of structural racism and police violence is crying out for. And though I believe that there are folks having that conversation, I would definitely say that at this particular moment the stakes could not be higher for this generation. 

In previous generations, the Civil Rights generation for example, you had a lot of what would be considered white philanthropy that supported the work of civil rights leaders. Including the Southern Environmental Law Center, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Community, and the vanguard organizations. But today, we have organizations like the various Black Lives Matter chapters that are tied to the grassroots. These are locally led efforts. Folks now have the capacity to go onto social media and say, “This is when and where will we hold a rally.” The next thing you know, a thousand people show up. That is an astounding tool for social justice, but I would say the nonprofit sector has yet to catch up to making the most of it. That’s a conversation about mobilization vs. organization. What we are seeing in social media is mobilization, folks are using social media to show up and mobilize for a particular moment. We have yet to translate that in a very real way that is tied to legislation and policy at the local, state and federal level. That is the primary role that the nonprofit sector can play. But again, for us to do that well, we need to reassess our sector’s role in these times. And through that process have, what I call, a racial equity audit. And if it does that, I think the sector will be in a better position to provide the level of support and advocacy that our times demand right now.

CPNL: COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted marginalized communities. How has the pandemic affected your work with anti-racism? Are there any specific projects or initiatives your organization has led?

Osayande: Most of my work of late has been mainly writing and advocacy. For example, I wrote an article for the nonprofit quarterly that was published I think back in June that looked specifically at the issue of equity and diversity in the era of COVID-19. It lays out, in a casual narrative sense, the particular things that nonprofits should look for if they want to assure that equity is at the center in this moment. Whether it is having the understanding that mask wearing, while essential during this period, is going to place certain limitations on disabled persons, people who are deaf, or have difficulty communicating verbally. Looking at the particular concerns of families at this time, children not knowing if they will be able to go to school and what will happen if they do go to school. There is an additional burden being placed on families, single mothers in particular. So how can we provide time off, a benefits package that includes some sort of appreciation for these different dynamics.

With respect to racial equity, this is a very sobering moment within our country and the nonprofit sector particularly given its advocacy work, and work actually providing resources to communities. The impact COVID-19 has had on communities of color, Black, LatinX and Indigenous has been devastating. It crosses class lines, it crosses regional lines, it even crosses age groups. And I’m sure in a couple years we’re going to find a lot of studies on these dynamics going forward. But we are literally losing lives at this moment. So we can’t wait for studies, we have to act right now. So that is why for me and for the work that I do, the principle of accountability is critical. If there was a message I could get across to nonprofits, no matter how close you believe you are to those communities, you have to rearrange your services in a way that makes those programs and services directly accountable to those communities. Where you are actively listening to the concerns that are being voiced by the communities themselves. That means trusting folks when they are telling you what is going on, and what their needs are. And shifting your focus from, say, what funders are indicating and getting creative to ensure that you are able to meet the needs while being responsible with the funds. And so I would encourage nonprofits to examine how they can be more accountable to the communities they serve. At the end of the day, folks know how they hurt. And once you know how they hurt, you’re in the best position to support their healing.

CPNL: What is one significant challenge you faced as a leader in the nonprofit sector?

Osayande: Speaking frankly, I’d say the stubbornness of leaders in nonprofit organizations to take seriously the imbalance of power in their organizations. That just as there are hierarchies of power in the corporate world, that just as there is privilege in our society, those two realities are actively at work within the nonprofit world. On many occasions, I have bumped my head up against those forces, in the work that I do and in community with others who are also invested in equity. But the thing that keeps me motivated is certainly the reality itself. As depressing and as difficult as it can be sometimes to stay motivated, things happen in our day that really show us both the capacity of the human spirit, and the determination of communities to not only overcome whatever it is they are experiencing, but to really realize their deepest and heartfelt aspirations. Whenever I find myself having a difficult moment with a client or with an issue I am writing about, I know I belong to a community of folks who never gave up on me. So I have no desire to give up on this work and those that are invested in seeing real change occur in our lifetime.

CPNL: How has the Certificate Program helped you in your career?

Osayande: It was a life-affirming experience for me to be in Georgetown University’s Nonprofit Executive Management Certificate Program. Whether it was the presenters who shared with us the depths of their experience and knowledge, to the opportunities to engage and network with other leaders in the field, to Luisa and Kathy. They are not only excellent at what they do, but they are truly good people. Folks who will always show up and be the last ones to leave.

A lot of people ask me, what is it like being a Chief Diversity Officer, and I say it’s kind of like being the vice principal at a bad high school, you’re always trying to put out some fire or fight. As a consequence, a lot of Chief Diversity Officers find themselves siloed in their organizations. So it was good for me to experience other executives and leaders in other capacities, and just have a chance to learn from them and be affirmed in their efforts to get it right. It is that experience that gave me the confidence to pursue the consultancy. Having such a formidable foundation of best practices within the nonprofit world is an asset you can’t put a price tag on. So I would say to anyone who is reading this or considering the program, it will benefit you. No question.

CPNL: What advice would you give to other professionals who are considering participating in the Certificate Program?

Osayande: Come with an open mind, expect to be challenged, and expect to be affirmed. If you are coming to gain additional knowledge, you will get that. But you are also going to find some life-lasting friendships to take along with you.


Ewuare X. Osayande is also the author of several books, including Commemorating King: Speeches Honoring the Civil Rights Movement. Osayande is presently at work on his next book entitled, The Ethics of Anti-Racism: The 5 Fundamental Principles for Achieving Racial Justice. Learn more about ORIJIN at racial-justice.org.