by Anthony Pleasant, Owner, Pleasant Assembly
Seven months ago, Graham McLaughlin and I co-wrote a blog post outlining legal challenges arising from what we argued was an all too familiar example of the negative impacts of institutional racism and implicit bias faced every day by thousands of poor minorities, and the way it perpetuates inequality without many even realizing it is happening. I’m happy to say that last week my charges from this case were dropped.
My story is the story of so many others like me, but with one major difference. The thing that is special about my story, the reason you even know I exist, is that I know a powerful white person who gave me a platform to write this. I am also blessed to have a generous community of people around me, of all races and backgrounds, who wouldn’t let me fall through the cracks.
Graham and I had originally planned to tag team this, but, with no offense to him, I asked to write this solo because he is often lifted up by people and asked to tell his story. Often, this drowns out the true story of those of us who are working just as hard to build an uplifting community helping folks.
People ask Graham all the time if he’s burning out, how he does it, etc. No one has ever asked me if I’m burning out, and I have fewer zeros in my bank account. I had heroin in my system when I was born to a mom who even to this day verbally abuses me though I stay in her house many nights to take care of her (that is when I’m not working overnight cleaning kitchens). I also spend every day trying to hustle for furniture assembly clients even though I’m learning as I work due to learning to read in prison and not learning marketing in college.
I know life is not fair, but I challenge all of you as you think about equitable grantmaking to think about how you can make it a little fairer. Changing Perceptions, and more specifically the Black and Latino returning citizens who founded it, saved my life. I would have never gotten help if guys who are like me, guys who I knew on the street and in jail, hadn’t approached me and showed me a different life.
Just like most of you reading this go to people like Graham because he’s familiar and comfortable, I went to the people who were familiar and comfortable to me. These guys wouldn’t be able to fill out grant applications effectively or present the way those of you in power consider to be the right way, but they knew how to change my life and know how to teach returning citizens they are loved. They can teach them how to make money legally to reach their full potential personally and professionally.
I had to go out of my comfort zone to change my life. Anyone who is Black, especially those of us who grew up in the streets, must navigate unfamiliar territory every day with people who look different from us if we want to succeed. My question to all of you with money and power reading this is how are you going to go out of your comfort zone? How are you going to sacrifice?
I’m not advocating that you stop looking at all metrics. I think the mark of a good organization is it has people with my background and people with Graham’s working together so all experiences and skills are used, but I would challenge you to get out of your comfort zone. I’d challenge you to think about whether you are really taking risks or just talking about it. Whether you’re willing to fund something that isn’t the same old proven organization, and whether you’re willing to maybe be fired, maybe be uncomfortable, maybe “waste” money to test something, or, in order to further a just cause, have your Board tell you that you made a bad decision. If we’re going to change the norm, it takes leaders willing to sacrifice in order to make a difference and show a new way.
I know every member of our leadership team has made sacrifices. Will and Charlie, two returning citizens who own Clean Decisions and founded Changing Perceptions, sacrifice some of their income by keeping us on, even when we screw up. They provide profit sharing when we earn it, and help us, using their own money, when we are down and out. Carlos, one of the Changing Perceptions navigators (and a returning citizen) gets paid $3 per hour less than the warehouse job he left so that he could provide support to us. I just loaned my last $300 to a family member, who will never pay me back, but I know she needs it more than I do right now.
I don’t have any specific recommendations for you. I know I’d like you to make investments in us instead of Fortune 500 companies with your non-grant funds. I know I’d like to have grants set aside for organizations that are created and led by the communities they serve, and I know I’d like for you to focus more on helping us build wealth and ownership. But I don’t have your knowledge of how to do that and am sure I am biased toward the organizations and people I care about.
My goal in writing this is to say it takes all of us playing a role to change the world. I know you all know that I had help writing this essay so that everything was spelled correctly and sounded good to this audience. I know that when one of our guys with face tattoos and a hard look comes into a room with your people he’s already at a disadvantage, but I also know that we command immediate respect from men and women coming out because we have lived their life, and we are now making something of ourselves. Those of us from the streets don’t have any friends or people who care about us anymore when we turn from our old life so we need a positive new community. It is transformative to create a new family with role models who have walked our path. But I also know we don’t have that opportunity if there aren’t people with resources who are helping make that a reality.
It takes everyone bending a little to make a better world. It takes someone who can correct the spelling, who can translate what we are doing for each other into metrics that will make the elite on your Boards feel comfortable and ensure you do not seem like you’re wasting your money. It also takes individuals from our backgrounds who are leading us so we can become complete leaders and have a positive community who reminds us we are loved sons and daughters of God.
On your side, I don’t know how you make decisions on where to invest your money, but I do know there are a lot of people working hard who are not known because they don’t have the powerful white person in their corner. With some money and support and being brought into the fold, they could do even more amazing things.
I don’t have the answers, but I think you all do. It will take the courage of pushing slightly beyond comfort, slightly beyond safety in metrics and proven records, while also being smart in how the money is given. I know that book learning and knowing what has worked with grants are needed to make a difference as much as knowledge of the streets is. But only as we get to know each other as individuals and everyone gets a chance to lead do we begin to break down institutional and personal barriers.
I have learned a lot from having the privilege in recent years to be in rooms with people like you. I hope all of you will have the same opportunity to learn a lot by having the privilege of being in rooms with people like me.