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Good Intentions, Broken Trust, & Practices of Accountability in the Deep South

This piece was originally written on the night of November 13th, 2019.

I spent the evening of November 13th, 2019 with Jimmie, Sylvia, Arrie, Lizzie, Carolyn, Dorothy, & Kerwyn in Gadsden county. Gadsden county is Florida’s only majority African American county and one of its most disinvested & least healthy as a result. I drove the thirty minutes from Tallahassee to the public library in Quincy to offer a training on crowdfunding, and get feedback — would crowdfunding be helpful in their community? What did they think of ioby (the nonprofit organization I was representing)? I offered this training as a piece of the larger Phase 0 research I was conducting on behalf of ioby between Mobile, Alabama and Tampa, Florida. Phase 0 research is designed to help ioby understand if its unique structure as a mission-driven nonprofit crowdfunding platform with wrap-around services like fiscal sponsorship, implementation support and on-the-ground organizers can support grassroots work in a particular place.

Jimmie, Sylvia, Arrie, Lizzie, Carolyn, Dorothy, and Kerwyn are all Black women, and I am a white woman. I stood before them, an outsider from the city, representing ioby and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, who was funding this Phase 0 research project. I knew that they were mostly there because my local contact had leaned on them to attend this training as a favor to her. I felt awkward.

I was moving through my presentation, not feeling much from the room. About a quarter of the way through, I stopped to encourage the women to ask questions or stop me if I was moving too quickly. Some questions came. Then some dialogue. Then the heart of the matter.

First I heard about some of their biggest concerns in their community — women’s health, childhood mental illness, literacy, homelessness, lack of opportunity. Poverty. They asked, how could ioby help?

I listened. I reflected back. I tried my best. And finally I had to say, I don’t know. I know that is inadequate. I’m not here as a community organizer or to offer fundraising coaching. I am just here in a research capacity.

Arrie was righteously frustrated, and let me know with more consideration for my feelings than was necessary. Arrie is 77 and works with the Mother Care Network, a group that addresses a number of public health issues that plague Gadsden county. Gadsden county consistently ranks very, very low in the Robert Wood Johnson County Health Rankings. In recent years Gadsden county was ranked 67th out of 67 Florida counties. Arrie told me, we have been researched to death. We don’t see results. We are tired of being used. To be the only majority African American county in the state, and to largely only see negative information about our community, is disheartening.

And there I stood, in this moment, the face of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, one of the largest funders in the world, asking this community once again to subject themselves to an outsider’s research efforts. Arrie looked at me standing in front of the room and said, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation sent you here, knowing the stats, to do more research, when what we desperately need is action.

Jimmie, another woman attending the training, & a number of faith leaders in Gadsden county started Healthy United Partners, a group of concerned citizens, in direct response to the Robert Wood Johnson County Health Rankings. While she fixed her a plate of spaghetti for dinner, Jimmie asked if I could get her the contact information of someone at the foundation. She wanted to ask this question — we started our work because of your rankings, so now can we get some funding to address these problems? I told Jimmie I would try my best to get her a phone number, & would absolutely make sure the foundation received her question.

Trust is hard earned in the South, if earned at all. Memories are long, and history has repeated itself over and over. There is a pattern of outsiders parachuting in with intentions ranging from good (helping, researching) to nefarious (extracting, exploiting). In 2019, we who are committed to community change and social impact know that it is impact, not intentions, that matter. And regardless of intentions, the impact of this pattern is the same — communities who struggle the most, who are poked and prodded and researched and “helped” and exploited the most, have become all too accustomed to outsiders coming in with a big idea, big question, big opportunity — never to be heard from again. It is this pattern that I propagated with my well intentioned research and slick powerpoint presentation that night. It is this pattern that I named to this generous group of women (generous of time, generous of spirit), for which I professed my embarrassment for representing, and my apologies for propagating.

Misplaced trust has a history of real harm in the South. I as a white woman stood before a group of Black women in one of the most disinvested counties in Florida, on behalf of ioby and The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and asked them to trust me. This is unacceptable. Those of us who profess to do good and create change must do better. We must take a much closer look at our blindspots and the real life impacts of our good intentions. We must match our investments in research with investments in accountability. We must develop rigorous processes to answer to the people whom we poke and prod, visit and leave behind.

As Arrie left we shook hands and I thanked her for her time, & for being so transparent about her frustration. She nodded with stoicism and empathy, looked me in the eyes and said, next time send your boss.

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