Haiti: Lessons in racialized language

This post is part of the Nonprofit Millennial Bloggers Alliance‘s response to the situation in Haiti. We encourage other Millennials to get informed and get involved.

It happened after Hurricane Katrina, too. No obvious Canadian example is coming to mind, but I’m sure one (or many) exists.

I’m speaking of the racialized language that media and public commentary use to describe the actions of black people in the midst of a devastating catastrophe.

Take the verb “loot”. Media are using it to describe what is happening as Haitians access food, water, and other materials necessary for survival.

Some recent examples from my local paper:

The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines looting as:

1 a : to plunder or sack in war b : to rob especially on a large scale and usually by violence or corruption
2 : to seize and carry away by force especially in war

Firstly, this isn’t war. Inciting language relating situations to war is a strategy used to increase approval of war-like tactics, often by governments – “war on drugs” and “war on terror” are two recent examples. I personally don’t want to see war-like tactics used on a devastated country without the infrastructure to defend itself.

Secondly, survival isn’t criminal. I hope that you and I would share an instinct to protect our own lives and those of people close to us by accessing basic supplies needed for life. I don’t know exactly what’s happening on the ground in Haiti. I’m really grateful I don’t have to experience and I hope I never do. But I’d be pretty pissed if anyone described my survival instinct criminal.

Some related headlines that criminalize the situation in Haiti:

Post-Katrina behaviour was similarly criminalized. Sarah Kauffman notes that “for the first days after the hurricane, news outlets focused on what we now know to be greatly exaggerated individual acts of crime and violence (Dwyer and Drew, 2005).” In addition to magnifying the actions of a few, language used was blatantly race-based. The loot vs. find photo controversy demonstrated that black and white people exhibiting the exact same behaviour were reported on differently by the media.

Fellow Nonprofit Millennial Bloggers Alliance member Rosetta Thurman shared some discussion about this on Friday…

Criminalized languageand more…

Criminalized language 2

So, what do we do about it?

My small part was a workshop on interpersonal communication I facilitated on Friday to a group of youth volunteers from a local hospital, many of whom intend to enter the health field as doctors, etc. I facilitate a similar one in my work at SFU (developed by the lovely Wendy Norman) as part of a Passport to Leadership series of workshop.

While the workshop starts off fairly predictably (e.g. importance of listening) I soon veer into the intersection of power and words. How language and word choice can further marginalize people who face barriers. How intent doesn’t matter when perception of word choice is harmful. We did an exercise where I gave them fairly controversial statements and asked them what assumptions were made by the speaker, how power was embedded in the words, who benefits if people agree with the statement, and if a positive intention might exist behind the statement.

These youth are going to be on the front lines, dealing with a diverse public coming to them in vulnerable situations. Interpersonal communication isn’t just about being nice and listening closely. It’s about checking your language and critically examining that of others.

Like the media currently isn’t as it criminalizes black people.

Other Haiti-relevant posts by the Nonprofit Millennial Bloggers Alliance:

Social impact and mission myopia

Image Credit: Sam Catchesides

The origin of this post first came out of reading Marketing Myopia, a Harvard Business Review classic from 1960, for my MBA Venture Analysis course. But the theme comes up over and over again for me. Good drill bit companies don’t sell drill bits, they sell holes.

Focus on the purpose, not the product.

An aside: Yesterday was the final day of the third core course in the Certificate in Dialogue and Civic Engagement program I’m taking. The course, Citizens Engaging Citizens: Issues and Practices, was facilitated by Charles Dobson, author of The Troublemaker’s Teaparty: A Manual for Effective Citizen Action and The Citizen’s Handbook, both great resources for social changey types, especially Canadian ones.

Part of our work today revolved around ideas that people had for citizen to citizen engagement in their own lives. We were outlining goals, objectives/campaigns, strategies, tactics and actions. The hard part was the objectives bit.

People were often inclined to describe a project output (product) as an objective. For example, “the objective of this project is to create a community asset map/hold a conference for animal rights activists/make Trina chocolate cupcakes.”

However, the true objectives were often related to a change in attitude, a change in relationships, a change in state: some sort of social impact.

Social impact ≠ output

Social impact does not occur because a video gets produced, an art project is implemented, a conference happens, or Trina gets her chocolate cupcakes. Social impact occurs and is measurable because change happens.

If organizations frame their mission, or plan their projects, around an output, measuring success is a check box. Did the the conference happen? Check. Did the asset map get created? Pat on the back. Did the resource get published? Can I has some more funding puleez? Did Trina get her cupcakes? Where are my bloody cupcakes?

If organizations frame their mission, or plan their projects, around an output, they risk becoming irrelevant to their clients. Times change. People change. Needs change. Focusing on the output, the program, the product, is what I call mission myopia: Losing sight of what is really important, and not adapting to the needs of your clients.

Does your organization sell drill bits, or holes?

Instead of the product, think of the need of your clients, your community, that you are satisfying. If you want to create a community asset map because you want to increase community connectivity (which would be important to define before you get going, btw), success should not be defined by the creation of the map.

I would challenge the above in this manner:

  1. If you created the map, but community connectivity didn’t increase, would that be success?
  2. If you increased community connectivity, but the map didn’t get done, would that be success?

Organizations that sell holes would agree with #2.

Practical Implications for the BC Society Act

Making sure your organization defines itself by its clients’ interests rather than a specific program description is incredibly important when writing out the purpose of the organization in your consitution as a part of registering under the Act. If your purpose is related to selling drill bits instead of selling holes, you may find yourself operating outside of the realm of your constitution as times change in the future. Find out more about appropriate purposes in Appendix A of Information for Incorporation of a British Columbia Society (pdf).

Read more on social impact

Other Nonprofit Millennial Bloggers Alliance articles on social impact:

Introducing a secret Nonprofit Millennial Bloggers Alliance

I’ve only been exploring Twitter and the blogosphere as they related to Millennials and the nonprofit sector for only a few months now – Twitter in March and blogging in June. I’ve learned a LOT in that short time and can’t believe I didn’t start sooner. And I hope I’ve contributed as well. It’s a perfect space to network for my introverted self.

So I was thrilled to be ask to be a part of an alliance of bloggers who flutter around the topics related to Millennials and the nonprofit sector. A big thanks to Allison Jones for getting the ball rolling.

Of Mutual Benefit

I first heard about the idea of a blog alliance through Problogger’s vague exposé on a secret blog alliance. The idea intrigued me, and apparently others were too. The alliance in Darren’s article was a

A small group of bloggers who’ve committed to work together in secret for the mutual benefit of all members of the alliance.

The mutually beneficial activities listed in Darren’s posts include things like commenting on and linking each others blogs, social bookmarking and tweeting, guest posts, and networking. Ideally we benefit by increasing the conversation around nonprofits and the Millennial generation by increasing readership and commenting of our blogs, as well as increasing the pressure to write well!


Well this alliance is not working in secret. Perhaps because we don’t blog for profit (on our personal blogs anyway). Maybe because of the open, sharing nature of those that work in the nonprofit sector. We haven’t really sorted out the fine details, but we’re all excited. I’m also thrilled to bring a Canadian perspective to the alliance.

Introducing the Alliance

A. Lauren Abele A. Lauren Abele (blog)
In New York, there is so much vibrancy, energy, passion, and access to the best the country has to offer. It’s the perfect landscape to work with entrepreneurs, meet people who are changing the world, and develop my passions for philanthropy, social entrepreneurship, and nonprofit management.
Elizabeth Clawson Nonprofit Periscope
Keeping an eye on news of the sector. Read one of Elizabeth’s favourite posts: No money? No problem—three free media relations tools for nonprofits (and others)
Colleen Dilenschneider Know Your Bone
My thing? Creative community engagement in nonprofit organizations.
James Elbaor Notes From the East Coast
His first passion is the not-for-profit sector. He cares deeply about social justice and the importance of community activism.
Kevin Gilnack (Nonprofits + Politics)2.0
Some areas of interest to me include nonprofit management, leadership development, workforce issues, public policy, civic engagement, business partnerships, innovation… for starters.
Trina Isakson (that’s me!) the good life | by Trina Isakson
Good articles on nonprofit capacity, community development, engaged citizenship and education. Life stories about travel, photography, music, and musings. Read one of my favourite posts: Social movements, institutions and the Millennial generation: synthesis or breakdown?
Allison Jones Entry Level Living
The personal and professional insights of a struggling college grad.Read one of Allison’s favourite posts: Are you joining a sector or joining a cause?
Elisa M. Ortiz Onward and Upward
Keeping an eye on the nonprofit sector, from the bottom up. Read one of Elisa’s favourite posts: The new leadership crisis.
Ben Sheldon island94.org: an internet backwater
Ben Sheldon is an author, thinker, facilitator, automator, mapper, artist, human and more.
Rosetta Thurman Rosetta Thurman (website)
Promoting next generation leadership for social change. Read one of Rosetta’s favourite posts: Why I Work in the Nonprofit Sector.
Tracey Webb Black Gives Back
A blog dedicated to Philanthropy in the Black Community.
Tera Wozniak Qualls Social Citizen
I am a nonprofit professional, social citizen, & community member. I blog to learn, express my interest & expertise in organizational development, expand my career, network, & discuss nonprofit leadership and community engagement.