What’s it Like Working in an All-Black Workplace?
Introducing #HowWeWork, a series dedicated to how we get sh*t done at Ujima. We’ll unpack the inner workings of our culture, participatory processes, and how we advance our mission with our team of economy-builders.
We know the nonprofit space is overwhelmingly White — 80% of the industry, to be exact. With a focus on returning wealth to working class communities of color, we felt it important to build a culture that centers Black knowledge, excellence, and care. It’s rare to find an organization in any industry with a majority BIPOC staff, so people ask us all the time about what that’s like.
You asked, and we answered. Read our interview with Ujima staff about working in an all Black workplace.
Is this your first time working in an all-Black organization? Why was it important to you to work in this kind of environment?
Paige Curtis, Culture & Communications Manager: Ujima is the first organization I’ve worked at that actively centers Blackness and Black culture in the workplace. At previous organizations, I’ve been one of very few employees of color, and felt like I had to tone down parts of myself to make White coworkers feel comfortable.
Jock Payten, Interim Managing Director, Ujima Fund: In terms of working as full time employment — yes. I’ve long had ties to operating historically Black organizations through my church, fraternity, and school affinity groups. Working on behalf of the Black community, especially in the finance industry, is not something many of us get a chance to do as full-time employment. Working with Ujima was the perfect opportunity to do so.
James Vamboi, Chief of Staff, Community, & Culture: This is my first time working full time in an all-Black organization. I’ve had seasonal summer work with a majority Black camping staff, which was more potent than recognized at the time. I’ve had opportunities to work in other all Black organizations but the Black expression at Ujima feels particularly transgressive, safe, and laser focused on a commitment to a shared economic development practice — that’s the type of experience I want to commit my time to right now.
JaNoah Daley, Fund Administrator: Ujima is the first all-black organization I worked for. The opportunity to work in this environment is rare and by joining this organization I feel proud. A lot of companies make you feel like you are just another employee, but here we all have a voice.
What were your expectations coming in? What surprised you most about working at an all-Black organization?
Paige Curtis: I didn’t have any concrete expectations beyond being excited to start at Ujima. I was surprised by how easy it is to joke and collectively digest aspects of Black culture while still being able to get all of our work done. People are also very open and direct about how systemic issues like racism and sexism can still show up at majority BIPOC organizations like ours. We keep an open dialogue about all of these things.
Jock Payten: I was excited to get to work with an organization in its early stages and help implement processes that can have a long standing impact. I expected it would be a fairly flat organization where ideas can be heard and implemented — and that’s been the case. The reach of the work that we’re doing — to colleges, hospitals, national and local organizations — surprised me. With such a vast network, you would think that Ujima has been in existence for much longer.
JaNoah Daley: Before starting with Ujima I had no expectations. I came in with an open mind ready to help. An area that surprised me is how each staff member’s input, thoughts, and suggestions are consistently encouraged. I wanted to highlight this because not every workplace creates this environment.
What do you love most about working in an all-Black workplace?
Cierra Peters: There’s a concerted effort to maintain integrity in our workplace culture and processes. We have conversations about ways we can recognize and dismantle dominant culture in our spaces. There is an effort to create a culture of care among staff and members, like our time-off, or open-door policies.
Paige Curtis: When notable Black celebrities, scholars, or leaders achieve amazing things or pass away we’re able to celebrate and grieve together. There’s an innate sense of empathy we all have as it relates to the trials of being Black in this country.
Jock Payten: Discussing topics relevant to the Black community in work meetings. Usually those are conversations that the relatively few Black people of an organization have during lunch or after work hours, away from the rest of their colleagues. It’s great to address things openly in an understanding environment.
JaNoah Daley: The atmosphere feels genuine and balanced. There is a sense of camaraderie which helps makes this workplace special.
How do you think Ujima as an organization amplifies and centers Black culture? (Noting of course that Blackness is not a monolith.)
Cierra Peters: In the past we’ve had house parties for MLK day, a warehouse party to celebrate Black recreation and dance culture, and many many Black Trust lectures that feature artists, organizers and theorists whose work engages Black culture in someway or another. It’s in the details, like the music we play before events start or the relationships we’ve developed with folks who’ve stopped by.
Paige Curtis: We often pay homage or draw on Black diasporic cultures for the branding of events and programs. Since the organization is named after a Kwanzaa principle, this sense of Black ‘collective work and responsibility’ imbues all that we do!
Jock Payten: Ujima, as a principle, is directly tied to Black culture. Also, the political and financial education workshops almost always tie the topics back to the Black community. It’s great to understand how larger systems have direct impact on the work that we’re doing.
James Vamboi: We gather often and make collective decisions.
Responses have been edited for clarity and brevity.