“We were essentially being helicoptered into communities we weren’t necessarily familiar with.” Cara Donovan pauses, selecting her words carefully as she unpacks the experience of arriving in New Haven as a member of the Americorp Vista program in 2011. “Most of the people in that cohort were young, white people. We were given less than a week of training, maybe three days, before going into our placement,” Donovan recalled. “I recognized right away. We were going to be working at a nonprofit for a year, but our job was to somehow end poverty.”
Donovan spent her year at CitySeed, one of the over 200 registered nonprofits in New Haven championing a diverse set of causes from health care to education to social justice. These efforts are joined by the more than sixty Yale student groups that operate through Dwight Hall. As nonprofits in New Haven tackle community challenges, they face challenges of their own as they attempt to carry out their mission while representing and respecting the broader community. Even organizations with the best intentions can fall short of this goal, at times even harming in the communities they hope to help.
Some say a leading culprit of this phenomenon is the toxic mindset of saviorism. This was the topic of a Yale Health Justice Initiative-sponsored panel last March titled “Paved with Good Intentions: White Saviorism and the Non-Profit Industrial Complex.” The talk drew substantial interest, with 1,300 people expressing interest in the panel on Facebook, indicating the growing consciousness of this complex dynamic. Addressing a packed audience in Yale’s Afro-American Cultural Center, the five panelists spoke of their own experiences navigating saviorism. Jordan Flaherty, a journalist who has written extensively on this topic, described the savior mentality to The Politic as a mindset where “you want to help others but you’re not open to guidance from those you want to help. It’s an attitude where you go in believing that you are better than the people you want to help or serve.”
Saviorism is often fueled by existing structures of privilege and established hierarchies relating to race, socioeconomic class, and education. Flaherty traces this phenomenon back to media representations of heroism, explaining that “if you look at Hollywood, in these stories we see our whole lives, there’s this one protagonist and they have to find the solutions within themselves.” When these protagonists are largely white and male, the depictions of saviors feed conceptions of racial superiority. In his piece “The Whiteness of Oscar Night,” sociologist Matthew Hughey pointed to The Help, Avatar, and The Blind Side as recent examples of the white savior narrative trope that pervades American mainstream media.
This dynamic is nothing new to Kica Matos, a New Haven-based immigration rights activist. Now serving as the Director of Immigration Rights and Racial Justice at the Center for Community Change in Washington, D.C., Matos began her work in social justice activism as a community organizer in New Haven. In an interview with The Politic, she discussed the complexities of white saviorism with a worn frustration and the cool, yet forceful urgency that comes only from years of first-hand experience. In her mind, these experiences are inseparable from larger social forces at play in the United States. “We’re living in a time where white supremacy prevails,” she warned. “It will not take a white savior to solve our problems.” Matos explained that white saviorism maintains a cyclical relationship with racial bias, where attitudes of white supremacy both contribute to the existence of savoirism and feed off the the resulting dynamic of inequity; white saviorism “creates this hierarchy that is unfortunately perpetuated by philanthropy and funders that embrace this concept that it is elite white people who will ultimately solve the world’s problems.”
Repeated encounters with white saviorism can take a toll on organizers like Matos. “For people of color,” she said, “it is insulting, demeaning, and infuriating.” Instead of focusing on making progress for her community, Matos told The Politic she has been forced to “fight the white saviors because they end up doing far more damage in our community than any good, despite their best intentions.” Once, while working on an advocacy campaign relating to immigrant rights, a white colleague recommended against sending undocumented immigrants of color to the offices of congressional representatives, insinuating that these politicians “would be repulsed by them and would not listen to their message.” Matos offered this example as evidence of white saviorism devaluing the lived experiences of those who are most directly impacted by the issues that racial activism aims to solve. While she believes that white allies are essential to the fight for racial equity, Matos stressed that allies “need them to be respectful of the leadership that people of color bring to the many struggles that we are fighting today.”
Although attitudes of saviorism manifest on an individual level, this mindset also operates throughout institutions and nonprofit leadership. A large part of these attitudes stem from a lack of minority representation among decision makers within organizations. According to a 2017 report by the Building Momentum Project, people of color makeup fewer than 20 percent of nonprofit executives nationwide, and this number has remained largely unchanged over the past decade.
Matos has observed that donations flow mostly toward nonprofits led by white individuals with elite credentials, creating systemic barriers that disempower organizations led by people of color. Donovan witnessed a similar trend in her recent work as the food policy manager at United Way of Western Connecticut. She noted that within the nonprofit community, a lot of weight is placed on expertise and professional experience, leading to a impulse to “consult the experts to know what’s best for the community rather than consulting people with lived experiences.” This lack of inclusivity is a point of frustration for Donovan, as she pointed to the example of “organizations that are trying to work on issues affecting youth, but there aren’t even any youth at the table. We’re not even at the point where people can even be at the table let alone leading the work that is being done.”
However, there can be challenges associated with diversifying organizational leadership to include those who are closest to the issue, explained Steve Werlin, director of the Downtown Evening Soup Kitchen in New Haven. The organization focuses on promoting equity and health by improving access to food through weeknight meals and a weekly food pantry. Werlin identified diversity of background and opinion as central to way his organization has developed its leadership. Among the kitchen’s small staff, several people have lived experiences with food insecurity. Werlin pointed out that these staff members “have a perspective that can be completely lost when you don’t have those voices in the room.” However, Werlin also recalled past challenges within his organization related to staff members who were presently struggling with food insecurity. “If they are put in the position of having the keys to the room where all the food is kept,” he said, “they are basically put in positions of authority where they themselves may be susceptible to abuse of that authority. They might find themselves just taking food home at the end of the night, or grabbing a few things.” According to Werlin, this abuse is unfair to the regular guests who rely on the services of the soup kitchen.
Matos expressed no reservations about prioritizing the voices of those directly impacted by the challenges that nonprofits seek to address. She looked back to historical social justice efforts like the Civil Right Movement to provide examples of how “it’s really the people who have been most impacted who have successfully fought for change.”
Beyond taking the initiative to diversify the leadership of organizations, Flaherty identified accountability to the entire community is essential for organization which aim to avoid falling into the traps of saviorism. Unfortunately, Flaherty explained, the push to receive funding often leaves organizations “more worried about making happy the people who are writing checks to them than the people they seek to serve.”
Structural decisions of organizations can also exclude community members, Donovan pointed out. While working with the Food Advisory Committee in New Haven, she noticed that these supposedly open meetings were basically only attended by nonprofit professionals because the 8 AM weekday meeting time prevented many working members of the community from participating.
In last spring’s panel discussion, New Haven community organizer Kerry Ellington echoed this experience. While working on a case for a victim of police violence who was accused of assaulting an officer, she had to call out of work in order to lead organizing efforts. Despite working for an “organization that claimed to be doing the work in that community and holding that community up”, her employer didn’t truly “understand the importance of showing up.” As a result, she was suspended for a day without pay for leaving the office.
Flaherty offered an antidote to this systemic exclusion from his experiences with social justice movements in New Orleans, where community meetings include food and local music. Flaherty pointed out that “having culture be a part of the movement and breaking bread together are effective ways I’ve seen of building community.”
From her time in New Haven, Matos also set forth positive examples of inclusivity within activism. In work with Yale faculty and students, she has seen “the very best of what equity means in a fight and how successful movements can advance social justice causes,” but also “the very worst of white saviorism within the institution, especially among privileged, well-educated white men descending on our issues and treating our communities as if we are guinea pigs or subjects of experimentation.” A particular brightspot within the complicated history of collaboration with Yale was the effort to rename Calhoun College, named after one of the Senate’s foremost proponents of slavery. She described this case as an example of the relationship between Yale and New Haven at its very best, where the advocacy was grounded in trust and equity. “People were quick to leave their egos at the door,” she said, “and we got to work.”
Matos stressed that humility is vital to leading successful service and social justice work, especially for those in positions of privilege who want to engage with communities to which they do not personally belong. For Yale students who want to pursue service work in New Haven, Matos stressed the importance of action. “We need students to bring their energy, their smarts, their fearlessness, their energy, their willingness to be agents of social change,” she said, “but we also need people to come with us from a place of equity and respect and humility.” Flaherty also pointed to the importance of continuing internal work of dismantling attitudes of white saviorism. “Be ready to take action, not to be so frozen with fear that you do nothing, but also being ready to listening to the feedback of the people most affected,” said Flaherty. “I think the answer is not necessarily about being perfect, but what we do the day after we make a mistake.”