Opinion: What nonprofits can learn from bell hooks

bell hooks
bell hooks
Cmongirl, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
bell hooks

Opinion: What nonprofits can learn from bell hooks

The late author’s insights and philosophies provide inspiration and lessons for those working in the sector.
December 21, 2021

We are mourning the passing of bell hooks, pioneering intellectual, author, professor and feminist, and a beautiful soul. hooks has been a guiding presence in my life for the past 30+ years. I have spent my professional life swimming in the turbulent waters of social change work in no small part because I believe in her vision of what is possible for our society, and because she helped me see a role for myself as a Black woman in making that vision come true. 

hooks’ writing and thinking have given us all permission to dream of a better world, and her philosophies offer some insights and lessons for those of us working to do that in the nonprofit sector today. I offer some here for contemplation. 

Black women are credible sources

Although I was introduced to bell hooks in my early teen years, I was a freshman at Yale when I began to study her writing in earnest. I was just being introduced to historiography and the intentional study of social infrastructure, and hook’s writing expanded not just my understanding of how to study history and society, but also my understanding of what it meant to be intellectual.  

Too many times to count, a classmate would look askance if I would mention Their Eyes Were Watching God in a conversation about the literary canon or design to suggest that the study of classical economics was not racially neutral. There was often an unspoken (and sometimes spoken) idea that the spaces I was in - self-consciously intellectual, liberal arts spaces - were the primary province of the descendents of the white men who had created the spaces. The voices and experiences of others - of Black women - were considered separate and distinct from that which was truly intellectual; We could be in spaces of critical thinking, but could not really be of them. 

bell hooks’ writing gave me language and a framework for challenging this by insisting that any analysis of our history and our society without intentional consideration of all perspectives was limited and deeply flawed. She helped to expand my sense of the inherent influence and importance of my own voice and perspective in whatever space I entered. That helped me in later years as a law student at Harvard, and in various New York City courtrooms, to quietly insist that my way of holding space for discussion, my style of negotiation, or my way of articulating a point, was equally as valid as those of my older white male counterparts. It helped me when I was building my nonprofit to show up as my whole self in conversations with funders and donors who inadvertently essentialized me by making assumptions about my background or politics. 

Things have come a long way since the 90’s (Shout out to my colleagues and friends Robyne Walker-Murphy and Toya Lillard, Trish Tchume, and the incredible folks at the Brooklyn Community Foundation as just a few diverse examples of lifting up, centering and supporting Black women as sources of expertise and leadership). Yet I still find myself in too many conversations with Black women friends who are leading institutions, about board members that subtly question their fundraising prowess because their strategies are unfamiliar and may not be steeped in ready access to networks of wealth; There are still too many funders that challenge the value or clarity of their strategic vision because what they are prioritizing - equity-based compensation or narrative change efforts or cultural shifts - does not seem “concrete” or “impactful” enough; There are too many conversations about staff members questioning whether they are, in fact, “good leaders” because they are too collaborative… or not collaborative enough…or because of how they choose to run meetings or make decisions.  

Simply put, there are still too many situations in which how we as a sector define and understand true leadership does not fully include leaders of color, or Black women leaders in particular. bell hooks was, then and now, a beacon and a reminder to so many of us that the perspectives and experiences of Black women -- our ways of holding space, defining priorities, moving through the world, and making decisions --  are not on the margins of what is “normal” or “real.” Just as her theories push us to expand our thinking about whose experiences and perspectives are truly counted in our history, philosophy, politics, and literature, as a sector, we must continue to push ourselves to expand who is counted in our definitions of expertise, participation and accountability, and leadership. 

Our power is in our complexities

At the same time that hooks insisted that Black women’s voices could not be left out of a true and full consideration of history or society, she also showed us that a woman’s race, social position, or economic contribution are just some of the elements that comprise her value - they do not define her. They are not all that she is.   

I have been inspired by her fostering of a feminist movement that both empowered women of all races and classes, and also indicted the racist and classist origins of the white feminist movement. In doing so - and herein lies a central lesson - she insisted that the way forward for our society was through our multitudes, not around them. She didn’t argue for a separate Black feminist movement. She argued instead, that there is power in the collective, but that for this power to be actualized, the collective must do two things. It must truly include everyone, and it must face up to, and repudiate, those facets of itself that undermine the humanity of any of its elements. 

Similarly, as our sector continues to work to open up leadership space for people of color, we need to be careful that we do not essentialize leaders of color and strip them of their multitudes. We need to be careful about engaging with leaders of color as a monolith. If we can learn anything from bell hooks, it is how powerful complexity can be. She stood in her multitudes and invited the world to join her there; She did not release us from the work of grappling with the complexities of our many isms. Instead, she pushed us to think harder and deeper about what we see in one another and in ourselves, and to figure out how to reconcile the contradictions to arrive at a shared humanity.  

Ultimately, one of the most powerful lessons I’ve carried with me from bell hooks is that our society can be simultaneously deeply and painfully flawed, and worth fighting for.  

As our sector - and our society - continues to muddle through a fundamental reshaping of how we understand and practice inclusion and equity, this feels more urgent to me than ever. What I learned from bell hooks in my 20s and have carried with me ever since, is a belief that we will only make our society better by finding a way to work together, but that in order to do that we must be willing to be sharply honest about our failings, we must hold ourselves and one another accountable for doing the work to resolve those failings, and we must treat one another with grace.

Brooke Richie-Babbage
Brooke Richie-Babbage is founder of Brooke Richie-Babbage Consulting and works as an impact strategist and coach.