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Created in collaboration with Lead Designer and Facilitator Justin Laing, Hillombo, LLC

Before starting Hillombo in 2017, Justin Laing worked as a Senior Program Officer of Arts & Culture at The Heinz Endowments for more than a decade. His work focused on small  and midsized arts organizations, out of school time arts education and Black arts organizations, with a particular interest in participatory grantmaking. He came to philanthropy having worked for ten years as the Assistant Director of Nego Gato, Inc, an Afro Brazilian Music, Dance, and Martial Arts company where he taught, performed and ran the day-to-dayoperations. Justin has a BA in Black Studies from the University of Pittsburgh and a Masters Degree in Public Management from Carnegie Mellon University.

Justin serves as the co-chair of ArtsinHD, an arts planning and creation process in Pittsburgh’s Hill District to support the neighborhood’s master plan and mark the neighborhood as a place for liberatory Black Program culture. Justin is the son of Susan and Clarence Laing, the father of Kufere, Etana and Adeyemi Laing, and a member of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity.

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Watch our info video for details!

This Program is Different

The Elevating Equity Anti-Oppression Collaborative Learning Program brings together a cohort of 100 people from the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors to identify oppression within the social sector and design actions that dismantle systems, build resistance, and advance a shared commitment to equity. 

In a series of six sequential workshops, attendees bring their own personal backgrounds and professional expertise that span race, class, gender, and experiences to dig into anti-oppression work together.

Rooted in Paulo Freire’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” the program supports people who are increasingly concerned about colonialism in the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors.  The cohort-learning setting, allows for examining individual roles and organizations through an anti-oppressive framework – opening the awareness to develop strategies for making real and lasting change. 

Cohort members can:

  • Advance their understanding of a colonial lens of oppression and its subsets of race, class and gender; 
  • Learn to map the dynamics and systems operating in our workplaces and communities; 
  • Create strategies that challenge the way our organizations reproduce colonization
  • Deepen relationships with people interested in dismantling and disrupting oppression in our sector; 
  • Adopt practices of experimenting with disruption strategies.

Who is this for? 

  • Staff members of all levels of nonprofit, philanthropic, and community organizations, or government workers
  • Board members of nonprofit, philanthropic and community organizations
  • We encourage a minimum of two people from each organization or group complete the program together
  • This program is open people in any geographic location (though please note that the program times are start in the morning, eastern time.

To join the waiting list please email:

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People Are Talking

Leadership funding for this program is made possible by Robert Wood Johnson Foundation & The Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.

Program Highlights

Three Learning Modules are taught utilizing a combination of large and small group action-oriented discussions.  

  • Module 1:  Examining and deepening understanding of Freire’s systemic colonizing themes (colonial ideology, divide and rule, neocolonialism and acculturation). 
  • Module 2:  Applied Learning: identifying how colonizing themes show up in our own workplaces and lives. 
  • Module 3:  Examination:  analyze root causes of the previously identified oppressions to develop disruptions and alternative actions 

This link to the program schedule outlines the time commitment and workshop dates.

  • Info Session (Feb. 14): The program launches with a virtual public info session on February 14th.  
  • Submit Expression of Interest Form (deadline Mar. 11): Following the info session, those interested in joining the cohort will submit an “Expression of Interest” form (deadline March 11th).  We have a limited number of spots; submit your Expression of Interest form ASAP. 
  • Cohort Orientation (Mar. 13): If invited to join the Cohort, participants will attend a virtual orientation session in advance of starting the Workshops
  • Workshops (Mar. 29 – Jun. 14): Six virtual cohort workshops take place beginning in late March and culminating in mid-June.  
  • Attend one orientation session and all six virtual workshops (9:30am-12:30pm on mostly alternate Fridays) 
  • Are willing to engage in complex and challenging conversations about oppression, interpersonal and structural racism with:
    • Respect
    • Curiosity
    • Confidentiality
    • A willingness to examine one’s own complicity in the system and identify how to change personal behavior 
    • A willingness to acknowledge and redress harms that may occur during the course of the workshop discussions.
  • Read program materials such as excerpted readings, group agreements, short media pieces, etc. in advance of each workshop (approximately 1-2 hours on alternate weeks).
  • Engage in small and large group activities during workshop time
  • Access and use the program’s online learning platform (instruction will be provided) to conduct small group activities, as relevant

This program is supported by grants from The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.  Gathering Ground offers the program free of charge (valued at $8,000 per participant) to its colleagues in the nonprofit community as a way to reduce financial barriers to access.  Participants from the philanthropic community are asked to make a financial contribution to the program per participant.  

The 2024 Cohort is currently full. 

To join the waiting list please email:

We Are a Community of Practice

Our community members are located in 13 of New Jersey’s 21 counties plus members in New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio.
This community represents people racialized as Black, African American, Latino, Asian, Indian/Southeast Asian, Middle Eastern, Native American, and White.
Our community members are from fields and industries spanning....
Racial, social and environmental justice, education, health, arts, municipal and regional planning, local government, community development, media, immigrant support services, housing and homelessness, social services, management consulting, youth leadership, workforce development, local business, and philanthropy.
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Our program partner Justin Laing brings his expertise in designing anti-racist and anti-oppression programs coupled with his deep knowledge of adaptive leadership and multiple frameworks, including Paulo Freire’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” which became the foundational framework used for Elevating Equity.

In collaboration with a team of anti-racist experts, facilitators and documenters (see their names below), Justin and our Gathering Ground team engaged our diverse Elevating Equity community in a journey that resulted in:

  • A dialogical approach that examines personal stories of oppression;
  • The teaching of an anti-oppressive framework that can be replicated and scaled, and one that strengthens our muscle to be able to name the oppressors (our social sector is good at naming the oppressed but loathe to specifically name those who are carrying out the oppressive acts – meaning, ourselves);
  • The coalescing of a community of people dedicated to taking action that disrupts oppression in their organizations, communities, or in the social sector at-large;
  • A cohort-wide commitment to staying mutually accountable to each other.

Over time, the above offers a transformative experience beginning with learning and moving towards anti-racist and anti-oppression actions and outcomes.

Let us know how you are gathering ground with creating a more just and fair social sector!

Want to learn even MORE about Elevating Equity?

Unlock content and get on the list for updates!

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Dig Deeper: The Collected Learning Digest far

Racism & oppression create an excruciatingly difficult and dangerous experience for people of color in every sector of life in NJ in deeply systemic ways. As the social sector, we have our own complicity to examine and dismantle, including transfer of power and resources to BIPOC, organizing and acting in solidarity, and holding ourselves accountable for transformation in order to advance our commitment to creating an equitable society. It starts with us.


Elevating Equity would not have been possible without an abiding practice of collectivity and generous collaboration on behalf of the program’s team for which Gathering Ground is deeply thankful. We offer our tremendous gratitude to Justin Laing, Hillombo LLC, whom we engaged to lead, teach, and facilitate core elements of the program.

We also give our big thanks to an amazing working group that advised and provided guidance for this work and an incredible team of racial and social justice facilitators and documenters that engaged and supported a committed and courageous cohort of experiment creators.

Meet the inaugural cohort: the people and the work.

Our Elevating Equity Community

Elevating Equity benefits greatly from the sincere and productive input of everyone who joined the program:

  • our consulting partner and co-creator of Elevating Equity Justin Laing, Hillombo LLC
  • seven Working Group members
  • eighteen racial justice facilitators (9) and documenters (9)
  • fifty-eight cohort members, and
  • seven Gathering Ground staff and board members.


This community represents a diverse mix of racialized identities, genders, ages, socio-economic classes, and geographic locations.

Cohort Members totaled 58 people representing 50 nonprofit, philanthropic, local government, and community organizations, spanning a variety of industries and fields.

Collectively, cohort members, working group members, facilitators and documenters represented 36 municipalities; 48% north Jersey; 29% central Jersey; 17% south Jersey; 5% out of state

infographic showing the demographic breakdown of cohort members. The age distribution is 2% 23 or younger, 21% ages 24-38, 39% ages 39-53, 37% ages 54-74, and 2% 75 or older. The race distribution is 65% BIPOC and 35% white. The gender distribution is 67% female, 32% male, and 2% non-binary.
Infographic showing the demographics breakdown of Facilitators and Documenters. The age distribution is 0% 23 or younger, 44% ages 24-38, 33% ages 39-53, 22% ages 54-74, and 0% 75 or older. The race distribution is 83% BIPOC and 17% white. The gender distribution is 67% female, 28% male, and 6% non-binary.
Infographic showing the demographics breakdown of working group members. The age distribution is 43% ages 24-38 and 57% ages 39-53. The race distribution is 86% BIPOC and 14% white. The gender distribution is 57% female and 43% male

Candidates for the cohort were identified from:

  • Working Group member networks
  • Gathering Ground’s statewide and community-level networks
  • Nonprofit Professionals of Color Collective networks

Cohort members were selected through several different criteria:

  • The majority of spaces were designated for people racialized as Black, people racialized as people of color, and people racialized as White who have experience addressing intersections of White supremacy, racial capitalism, sovereignty, patriarchy, transphobia, climate change, and other intersectional issues.
  • Attendance at one of three orientation sessions was required.
  • Consideration of self-described racial and gender identities, age and geographic location, and sector to ensure the diversity of the cohort, as recorded in the candidate expression of interest form (sent to candidates after attendance at an orientation session).
  • Availability to commit to all four workshops as well as the year-long Community of Practice.

Understanding Biases

We disclose the biases and ideological leanings underpinning this program to allow critique, learning, and to emphasize that no program is ideology-free.

We disclose the biases and ideological leanings underpinning this program to allow critique, learning and to emphasize that no program is ideology-free.

As we stated above, our central ideological leaning (bias) was that “inequity” is created and furthered by a mix of racial, gender and financial class oppressions and relations, it is not simply the product of vague histories of being “at risk” or “underserved”.

The framing of the work of this sector as “charity” or “service” is one of the ways in which it participates in oppression because it serves to mystify and make less visible the racial, gender and class oppressions that are at the heart of the inequity. It is for this reason that the question was framed as it was and the project was focused on people developing experiments to disrupt our own relationship to systemic oppression.

Our second bias was that “race” is a concept emerging out of exploitative relationships between the European capital class, the European working class and African and Indigenous people. Thus, we used a definition of “race” as “a hierarchy in which European people are framed as the most intelligent, creative, and ethical, in order to lessen class conflict between people of European descent so that they will together hold the world system of racially gendered capitalism in place. Race is as much a process as category.

In order to disrupt the process of racialization, we used the framework “racialized as White” or “racialized as Black” rather than simply referring to people as “Black” or “White”. “Latine”, “Asian” and “Indigenous” all have geographic connotations as well as different histories, and so we didn’t use “racialized as” for those categories.

Our third central bias was that we believed that people could best be supported to create anti-oppression experiments with a combination of being provided counter thinking-frames, or frames that challenge the dominant liberal consensus named above, and space to theorize different ways of working. To this end we designed a process in which people would be asked to struggle with new concepts and with one another to design experiments disrupting the ways in which they participate in oppression.

Components to Our Approach

Critical Pedagogy

The foundation counter thinking-frame of this program was rooted in Paulo Freire's “Pedagogy of the Oppressed”. PO is a combination of critical analysis, and by “critical” we mean to say there is a presupposition of class conflict and domination, as well as anti-oppression teaching, learning, organizing, and research practices.

This mutually reinforcing relationship between analysis and practice is one example of Freire’s method of generating insight though juxtaposition, including ‘telling’ v. dialoguing (‘depositing’ v. ‘problem posing’), acting for oneself v. being acted upon (subject v. object), oppressors v. oppressed and the foundational concept of shutting down conversation and awareness of oppression (anti-dialogic) and creating space for conversation and liberation (dialogic). This juxtaposition, in order to generate insight and more effective practice, could also be referred to as Freire’s method of ‘dialectics’.

Adaptive Leadership (AL)

Adaptive Leadership is a model developed in the Harvard Business School by three organizational development and management consultants, Ronald Heifetz, Marty Linsky and Alexander Grashow . This model offers a number of strategies for distinguishing between complex challenges that require changes in ourselves and collective mobilization (Adaptive), and problems with known solutions which can be addressed within existing authority structures (Technical)...

“The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World” by Ronald Heifetz, Marty Linsky and Alexander Grashow.

…Relevant for this project was AL’s focus on the need to create experiments that foster a productive and sustainable level of disruption that bring the variety of organizational political forces into play so that there is constant feedback about what is sustainable and what is likely to be shut down by those who benefit from the current systemic arrangements. This is similar to what Freire calls “educational projects”, which are efforts to apply the principles of PO at a smaller scale designed to build broad “critical consciousness” or the awareness of and practice to change class-based oppression (and which Freire distinguishes from “systemic education” which would require a revolution). Therefore, the idea of experiments from AL seemed like a good fit and provides more strategies on this topic than PO.

Black Feminism/African Studies

Learning from Black Feminists such as the Combahee River Collective on the intersections of racism, sexism and capitalism and the work of African Studies scholar, Oyewumi Oyeronke, on the intersections of patriarchy and colonialism , we offered a frame of “racially gendered capitalism” as the key source of oppression that generates inequity. Racially gendered capitalism delivers benefits and penalties according to logics favoring Whiteness and maleness…

The Combahee River Collective Statement, Original Statement Dated April 1977

“The Invention of Women: Making an African Sense of Gender” by Oyeronke Oyewumi.

“Racially Gendered Capitalism” builds off of the work of Cedric Robinson and “Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition” and his use of a term first developed in South Africa “racial capitalism”, but integrates the central role of gender exploitation in this process.

…but as those characteristics do not exist separately from one another, this system particularly benefits people racialized as White and cis-gendered as male. Time did not allow us to unpack this subject, but we wanted to offer an expansion past the liberal frame that racism is a disease in an otherwise healthy body. The “racism is a disease” framing invites us to look for racism to show up in very specific and identifiable ways, often as individual actions or clear policies. Instead, we wanted to offer that the inequity was the product of an almost infinite number of hierarchical social relationships embedded in race, gender, property and narrative and more skeleton than disease.

Non-Reformist Reforms

Taking from the work of André Gorz in “Strategy for Labor: A Radical Proposal” and his frame of the “non-reformist reform”, we offered that we need to have criteria to define when an experiment is challenging oppression and when it is facilitating it, and provided examples of criteria to participants before inviting them to develop their own.

"Strategy for Labor. A Radical Proposal" (Book Review)

The major piece of criteria we offered were reforms that constrained racialized as “White” ruling classes by expanding decision making, decentralizing authority, destabilizing Whiteness by making its histories and strategies of normalization visible, and organizing BIPOC people. Our goal was to emphasize that oppression is based on actual relationships between different groups and not simply in the ideas that are dominant at one time or another.


This framework posits that when we collect data in which phenomena are described without interpretation, we then can use this to generate themes and insight that are more powerful than when a person simply tells about their own interpretations of their experience. This model was used in the collecting of stories from participant…

Phenomenology of Practice: Meaning-Giving Methods in Phenomenological Research and Writing by Max Van Manen

… as we asked them to describe a situation of oppression, lack of opportunity or resistance that they had witnessed or participated in. Submitting a story was a condition of acceptance into the program. We then used those stories as the basis from which participants could generate themes, limit-situations, untested feasibilities and limit-acts.

Design and Experiment Creation – Our Process

Step 1: Reframe question from one using a White Racial Frame to one using a more Pro-BIPOC frame

Our project began with the question “what are the barriers to equity and what is working to create or further equity in New Jersey?” but a theme we saw embedded in this question was its erasure of the answers generated by Black Power, Black Feminist, Decolonial, and Abolitionist movements. 
We reframed the question to be: “In what ways does the social sector contribute to the oppression, particularly of BIPOC communities, in the areas of philanthropic practice, nonprofit activity in neighborhoods and in the nonprofit organization itself, and what strategies can we employ to disrupt this oppression?”

Step 2: What process would find answers to our guiding question?

Over the course of three months, Justin, Gathering Ground Staff and the Working Group worked through a series of project design questions. Ultimately, we decided that we would see this project as “organizing through research” and that we wanted to be sure to attract those who were firm in their view that oppression was the source of inequity. We also determined that a cohort model would best serve the aim to get answers to the guiding question. Finally, the Working Group insisted that clear accountability be built into the project, particularly for people racialized as White, so inclusion as a member of the cohort was contingent upon a substantial commitment of accountability and action.

Step 3: Introducing the program and orienting our facilitation team and interested cohort members

Having agreed upon the program design, framework, and process, we designed a 90-minute orientation program where individuals with an interest in becoming a cohort member could learn about the program and the commitment required in order to participate. Concurrently with these public facing orientations, we also held two orientation/training meetings with our team of facilitators and documenters.

Step 4: Assembling the Cohort and Story Selection

At the conclusion of the public orientations, interested individuals submitted their expression of interest form to join the program, and our inaugural cohort was formed. The cohort’s first assignment was to think about a story of oppression. They were asked to write this story and submit it to us. Once all of the stories had been submitted, Gathering Ground then selected a story for each of the nine small groups to examine for themes of oppression.


We chose the model of story solicitation because it aligns with Freire’s research method of observing communities and taking detailed notes, but was an improvement over Freire, we felt, because it allowed people to be the tellers of their own stories. Stories also allow for multiple interpretations and a more complex conversation regarding the themes, limit-situation, untested feasibility and limit-acts on which the process would be based.

Step 5: The Workshops: Identification of Themes and Development of Experiments

We began each workshop with time for each person to connect and an exploration of Freire’s analysis as well as his process for identifying themes of oppression, limit-situation, untested feasibilities, and limit-acts. In the first two workshops, participants then went to work with small groups, practicing Freire’s method of thematic analysis and experiment creation before returning to the main group and debriefing. In the final two sessions, participants worked in their small groups creating their limit-act experiments.

Key Takeaways

From Justin Laing

Elevating Equity Lead Designer and Facilitator

There is often a cynicism or fatalism that naming explicitly anti-racially gendered capitalist ideas or frameworks such as Marxism, critical race theory or socialism is simply not possible in the sector, but we did not find this to be the case. Participants struggled with some of the language specific to Freire but not with the terms named above. This was most obvious in the case of the Gathering Ground which took to the model and is applying it on their own and supporting other organizations in understanding it. Critically important as well are the relationships Gathering Ground had established with the participants in advance of this program that went back years.

The 20- to 30-minute sessions that we held at the outset of each of the four sessions was simply not enough time for participants not familiar with the framework to really understand the generative themes approach nor were the two training sessions for facilitators sufficient time. Had participants had a couple of months to read Pedagogy of the Oppressed and discuss it collectively, we feel confident that even more anti-oppressive experiments could be generated. Without this kind of
time allotted, participants may struggle to complete their experiments or thematic analysis may produce themes that reflect dominant framing rather than counter framing.

Some of the stories submitted by participants described a clear picture of the ways in which the social sector contributes to oppression of BIPOC communities and this was the initial goal of the project. However, some participants also simply named oppressive themes of the sector which did not facilitate inquiry and dialogue in the same way.

This project would not have been possible without Gathering Ground, a
predominantly White organization, being willing to take a risk and try an approach that could potentially ruffle the feathers of stakeholders, nor would it have been possible without Justin offering up this framing as an opportunity for Gathering Ground to disrupt its own role in perpetuating oppression.

From Francoise Knox Kazimierczuk PhD,

Elevating Equity Analyst and Small Group Facilitator

In the initial reading of the data, thirty-three distinct categories (themes) were coded from key statements, phrases, and quotes which were central to the experiences of the cohort members. Re-reading the collected notes, stories, and experiments, the initial categories were grouped, and some categories were identified as main ideas for the categories, shifting to the coded theme. The categorization into subthemes and themes, resulted in ten themes being coded. The ten themes which were identified are as follows:

(a) Accountability
(b) BIPOC Leadership
(c) Community
(d) Disrupt
(e) Healing
(f) Mobilize
(g) Community Disconnection
(h) Fragility
(i) Power
(j) White Supremacy

These themes were further abstracted to meta-themes using a CRT and Freirean theoretical framework, which focused on the relationship between anti-oppressive action and oppression. The use of these frameworks is a methodological tool employed to deconstruct and elucidate racism and oppression — oppression due, in part, to our immersion in racially gendered capitalism, which privileges a “traditional” research paradigm framed by a white male aesthetic (Creswell, 2007). Themes (a) through (f) were representative of the meta-theme anti-oppressive action and the remainder of the themes, a total of four, coalesced to provide meaning for the meta-theme oppression. While there were only four themes for oppression, this is not due to a limited number of subthemes (initial categories). On the contrary, twenty-two out of the thirty-three initial categories were collapsed into the four themes.

A Freirean Dialectic:
How themes of oppression can generate disruptive experiments in a liberatory practice.

We took these steps in applying Freire's critical consciousness-raising framework, using generative themes to identify oppression & disruptive action.

This model was designed by Justin Laing of Hillombo LLC, merging the work of Paulo Freire and Adaptive Leadership.

The Cohort's Stories

Cohort members were asked to contribute a story of oppression: a personal or professional story describing an experience in which they themselves were either harmed by oppression or caused the harm by oppressing others and upholding racist structures and practices.   

Group C

I was hired by [a youth service organization] to become their Director of Addiction Services. [The organization] had been the largest non-profit provider of social services to the child, adolescent, and young adult population in New Jersey. Yet they had never had addiction services and I was hired to develop and administer the clinical program.

Over the next year [the organization] opened three adolescent outpatient substance abuse clinics in [three cities]. All programs accepted Medicaid. The programs were very successful, as there was a lack of services for this population through the State. However, within 3 years all these programs were closed. They were closed for budgetary reasons.

At the time, the rate of reimbursement for substance abuse services in the State of New Jersey was $14 a session. This rate had been in place for nearly 20 years, and compared miserably to the reimbursement rate of New York State, for similar services, of $125 per session. Because of the low NJ reimbursement rate, the more clients we serviced, the more money we lost. Consequently, because we were successful in providing services to this underserved population, we were shut down. [The organization] could no longer cover our budgetary losses.

The underserved population mentioned above is primarily an ethnic minority population, largely African American. The question is why had the Medicaid reimbursement rate remained at $14 per session for 20 some odd years. The answer is as follows: States receive Medicaid monies from the Federal government through block grants. These block grants are designated for substance abuse and mental health services. However, the states can distribute these monies in any way they choose. States are not required to use the block grants for substance abuse and mental health services, though they are designated thusly.

I have never been able to find out how New Jersey decided to distribute their federal block grants. Clearly they were not used to help fund services for their underserved minority communities. As a result three highly successful, sorely needed programs were closed for lack of funding, despite the real needs of the community. And, to this day, these programs have never been replaced.

Themes generated by cohort members during analysis

  • Racialized gendered capitalism
  • White guilt + White fragility
  • Otherness + seeing people as other
  • Discomfort by white people around the word privilege but won’t share equity
  • Same discussions and no change
  • Lack of context and foundation for equity work/conversation
  • Tenstions that arise between White + BIPOC people around these conversations
  • Protecting whiteness + White fragility is weaponized
  • Performativity
  • Tokenism
  • Workplace culture
  • Representational optics
  • Virtue signaling

Justin Laing's story analyis: working through themes to limit acts

Themes: (a) nonprofit staff as objects in the nonprofit system i.e. they are acted upon by the subject i.e. the State and the nonprofit, (b) with the idea that systems are not broken but rather serve a purpose, drug addiction in the racialized as Black working class serves the racialized as White ruling classes, (c) Black communities have very little control over the institutions that are intended to serve them; (d) opaque funding processes;

Limit Situations: (a) accountable to the State rather than Black neighborhoods, White staffed and governed nonprofits collude with the State in Black working class oppression as no objection appears to have been raised about these conditions, (b) Black communities do not have the organization and power to get access to information or to advocate on their own behalf re: access to drug treatment;

Untested Feasibility: (a) in solidarity with Black people, White professional class challenges White ruling class and mobilizes Black communtiy to address policy, (b) Black labor is mobilized and so holds greater power in nonprofit sector and the staff member thinks they can call out the injustice; an organized Black community that can regularly call institutions to it to report on what is happening;

Limit Act: organize these White and Black labor and Black communities to build power to challenge the way the nonprofit organization is being used by the State/ruling classes to oppress people racialized as Black.

Word Cloud Elevating Equity

Anti-Oppression Experiments

  • Accountability in collaborative partnerships: often, grassroots organizations with relationships to the community are required to have a partner to whom a grantmaker is “comfortable” giving the grant to manage, but accountability that the resources are equitably shared with the grassroots organization doing the work is lacking
  • Disrupt and decentralize decision-making authority in regional planning processes (land use, zoning, investment, and disinvestment, etc.) which currently are designed to reinforce white, colonialist values and suppress the influence of oppressed people.
  • Examination of, reckoning with, and reparative action for past and current organizational perpetuation of oppression and racism via creating public-facing, transparent organizational learning, commitments, and goals
  • Structure nonprofits to deliver results and receive continued funding based on community’s experience of success, ceding narrative control, and disrupting false generosity and the perpetuation of oppressive systems
  • BIPOC-led organizations and funders have direct relationships with each other and these BIPOC-led organizations have influence on funding guidelines and rubrics to ensure equity
  • Representatives of affected communities determine allocation of funding and resources, rather than social sector institutions, disrupting “false generosity” and “savior complexes.”
  • Dedicate funds to pay community members for time spent in advising, guiding, providing feedback, etc. for the social sector
  • Building a coalition of funders currently funding or willing to fund reparations work, and aligning this coalition with nonprofits focused on reparations to build solidarity and influence other philanthropic institutions to join in this work.
  • Creating and practicing decentralized and democratic leadership models for social sector organizations – for both staff and board
  • Requiring commitment of resources form organizational leadership to identify white supremacist ingrained behaviors and thought patterns in hiring practices; develop new recruitment and hiring practices with additional anti-oppression, anti-racism trainings
  • Reconditioned mental health systems that heal, rather than re-traumatize or sustain white-injected oppression by creating collective healing spaces that are safe for BIPOC
  • Cede board control and make space for new board members with anti-oppression and anti-racist values and practices aligned with organizational direction
  • Mobilize and build power of community members by community organizing, creating solidarity groups to tackle local issues and create a unified power-base to make changes that benefit historically and currently marginalized and oppressed people
  • Form coalitions of locally representative diverse community members, with stipends provided, who will have direct input and influence over their community’s organizational programming and budgeting priorities
  • Mobilizing people and disrupting white fragility in community groups and coalitions to have real conversations about why segregation is happening

Story-Analysis to Meta-Analysis

Connecting the material, everyday ground level of how oppression shows up in the social sector to the systems-level was an important aspect of the workshops.

Systems-level oppression can often operate invisibly, or in ways that are mystified or obscured by purposefully vague language.

Justin offered a meta-analysis that considered all nine stories analyzed by cohort members, providing one way to follow the trajectory of how individual stories of oppression map to the myriad ways oppression is operating systematically in our state.

Justin's Meta-Analysis

Meta Limit Situation: An anti-Black nonprofit sector AKA the nonprofit industrial complex, is a strategy of and accountable to the White ruling classes in more or less partnership with a White professional class that is immersed in the construct of race. As such, it feels entitled to its essential control of the sector, to see the sector and the organizations within it as its personal and collective property in exchange for not challenging systemic racism, the State or ruling classes in any fundamental way. Simultaneously, this professional class experiences its own labor precariousness in that its members are a few paychecks away from financial hardship and so unlikely to be in solidarity with BIPOC. The lynchpin to this arrangement is an isolated, not organized and minoritized BIPOC professional class along with BIPOC neighborhoods that are not in a mutually accountable relationship to the sector, but are rather objects of it.

Meta Untested Feasibility: Pro-Black nonprofit sector that is increasingly accountable to Black communities and aligned with national Black led movements. An organized anti-racist White professional class that sees its own precarious labor position as part and parcel of the ruling classes’ anti-Blackness and is willing to take them on. A BIPOC professional class organizing its own labor power and building its accountability to Black and Brown communities.

Meta Principles for Creating a Limit-Act or Experiment:

(1) Organize/mobilize: the stories show us that racially gendered capitalism, and the issues of the nonprofit industrial complex/sector cannot be addressed by single, isolated individuals, however well-intended and committed;

(2) constrain ruling classes; the oppression in the sector is coming in no small part from financial classes above the communities themselves, strategies are intended to constrain their power to act unilaterally and without accountability;

(3) Decentralize Authority: Oppression in the sector and stories often comes from power sources less than visible, expand who makes decisions and make that process more transparent;

(4) Destabilize or place Whiteness in historical context: Clearly White identity is an oppressive force in these stories, make it visible as a construct, particularly as one that is intended to hide intra class and gender conflict within people of European descent and encourage allied Whites to take on those class conflicts and garner additional resources to avoid the rest of us fighting for scraps as is the design;

(5) Redistribution: As we have seen in our opening land and labor acknowledgements, the initial accumulation around which fortunes were built in this country and fund this sector in no small part came from land and labor theft. The meta limit act should return resources and power to BIPOC people, particularly Black and Indigenous;

Meta Limit Act

White and BIPOC professional classes organize themselves to be able to more safely and sustainably disrupt White ruling classes unchecked use of the NPIC as an agent of oppression of working, non working and professional classes, particularly BIPOC in order to bring White nonprofit organizations into greater accountability to BIPOC communities to increase the financial resources available for this work; create majority BIPOC boards, to public commitments to share power and to use the sector as a critical tool and expression of reparations to BIPOC people, particularly Black and Indigenous people for land and labor dispossession.

Data Analysis Process

Data was coded for common subthemes, reviewed and grouped into ten major themes, six of which link to the meta-theme of Anti-Opressive Action and four to Oppression.

Data was analyzed by Dr. Francoise K. Kazimierczuk using a hermeneutic phenomenological approach and Nvivo 12 to create and cluster codes.

Subtheme to Theme Coding Process

Below is an example of the subtheme-to-theme coding breakdown for one of the four Oppression Themes identified.

Data was analyzed by Dr. Francoise K. Kazimierczuk using a hermeneutic phenomenological approach and Nvivo 12 to create and cluster codes.

Oppression Themes

Oppression Themes

Advice from the Cohort

White Supremacy

White supremacy is a colonizing process of physical space (land), psychological space, and intellectual space. The act of colonization is violent, oppressive, and dehumanizing. It constructs those in black and brown bodies as primitive and unintelligent, who are now better for being colonized because before they were a people without grace (Fanon, 1991). Colonization affords the ‘other’ salvation, and it comes
in the form of denial and rejection of that which whiteness has deemed less valuable.

From the Cohort...

Cohort members considered the implications of white supremacy on BIPOC communities and lamented a system intentionally designed with white supremacy as its foundation. These are examples of statements from cohort members experiencing white supremacy in the New Jersey nonprofit sector.

“To STOP, and acknowledge the degree to which injected white supremacy, by imposing a culture of violence and moral degeneration among BIPOC communities, has affected our individual ability to feel and process emotions.”

“Whiteness, White Supremacy, I’m naming it. What do we do when the process is in fact the barrier –– this process is consciously designed to thwart what is stated…”


White supremacy is a central feature of American society, and thus central within the non-profit sector. The prevalence of white supremacy and its sociopolitical-economic entrenchment makes it invisible to those who do not directly experience the negative consequences of it (Bonilla-Silva, 2006; Hill-Collins, 2003). The pervasiveness of white supremacy in all our systems (often perceived as benign by those entrenched in white supremacy) has led to a perpetual cycle of false attempts to address social disparities via charitable endeavors. The metastatic spread of white supremacy, of course, is not harmless, it is cancer which must be cut out lest it leads to death. However, immersion creates an illusion for individuals racialized as white to believe neither racism nor white supremacy exist, and that social systems and structures were designed via egalitarian principles. But there is no truth to this illusion as these systems and structures were constructed through hegemonic masculinity (which excludes all those individuals outside the dominant group of men who hold power). Meaningful action
cannot be had by using the same system as it is antithetical to the desired outcome. For most of us, we have been brought up within this system, and are daily indoctrinated through social interactions, policies, media, etc., our actions to resist can maintain the status quo via providing solutions to oppression which continue to oppress.

From the Cohort...

Non-profit organizations need to have sovereignty to act with community-driven plans that may not be reflective of white notions of success. In one of the working group sessions economic justice as a means to disrupt and promote anti-oppressive acts was discussed. Communities of color have been systematically and intentionally targeted by distributive racism, whereby resources are allocated based on racialization. One principle of economic justice focuses on distributive justice, which equally assigns value to an individual’s/organization’s efforts. Thus, privileges conferred due to whiteness would be removed along with the barriers of being BIPOC. However, due to the vestiges of white supremacy, economic justice is not enough to dismantle an entrenched system. We must stretch the definition to encompass restorative justice to include the process of reparations to repair harm via economic autonomy. This theme showed up explicitly in a working group session:

“Economic justice is a consideration because a lot of organizations will need some sort of financial support to make these actions come to fruition.”

Additionally, some cohort experiments incorporate principles of economic justice to disrupt the racialized gendered capitalism of charity through a paradigm shift which owns and tries to reconcile racial violence through reparations.

“A shift from charity to reparations to effect systems change through philanthropy”

Cohort members also discussed the inherent racism rooted within the non-profit sector due to white supremacy and discussed the need to question and take on the challenge of making whiteness visible for dismantling. Several cohort members focused their experiments on exposing and disrupting whiteness through an examination of internal organizational policies:

“Unmasking the paternalism inherent in the idea of charity/challenge the white supremacy structures within the sector”

“Destabilize whiteness as the lens by which organization understands policy and the impacts of policy decisions on BIPOC communities”


The last theme which was identified within the anti-oppressive action meta-theme was mobilization. This theme focuses on the movement of people, funds, and other resources to aid in liberatory action against white supremacist ideologies. The mobilizing is more than a call to action, it requires capital building which comes through trust, accountability, and a ceding of power to black and brown communities. Mobilization offers a Freirean counter-frame as described in an early section of this report, which implemented authentically can create dialogical action. There is an inextricable link among all the emergent themes in the data, which can be distinctly seen in the action of mobilizing. Community building to bring individuals together in an authentic way which does not ascribe to whiteness and is not co-opted for monetary means requires deliberate empowerment of community members to lead and organize constituents for their own identified causes. Additionally, moving financial control away from funders and foundations via BIPOC community led campaigns in order to secure resources to implement projects is needed.

From the Cohort...

Communities of color in the U.S. have long used gathering as a tool to address oppression. Organizing as a collective with a common goal, in a united voice, confers power. This power is sociocultural and political, impacting economic resources. Additionally, organizing and mobilizing has the potential to create a system whereby white led organizations and funders can be held accountable due to community/public support and pressure, in these ways mobilizing is a disruptive tool.
Mobilizing and organizing as a way to disrupt oppressive systems and practices came up across small breakout groups, in both general and specific ways:

“Mobilize together (union) say to the foundation that we aren’t doing this work for just $5K — you have to start valuing that”

“Mobilizing/infiltrating this coalition’s stakeholder’s meetings.”

Continued Action

Community of Practice, Action, and Accountability

As we moved through the workshops and subsequently launched the Community of Practice, Action and Accountability in May 2022, it has become clear to us that this community has the potential to be a robust, vibrant space of solidarity for imagination and action in disrupting oppression in our sector, and therefore will require a variety of supports to meet the evolving needs of cohort members.

Currently, Gathering Ground is able to provide the following:

Dialogue Time

Regularly scheduled, open, one-hour zoom meetings where our members workshop their anti-oppression experiments and provide each other with feedback and observations.

Large Group Gatherings

Drawing from Gathering Ground's Call to Collaboration and Communities in Conversation programs, we are holding full cohort virtual sessions that create the space for self-generated ideation/action sessions on nonprofit ecosystem and systems level change.

Private Facebook Group

To provide additional safe spaces for open sharing of ideas, resources, opportunities, and perspectives, the Elevating Equity cohort has a private Facebook group to stay in touch and communicate between virtual sessions.

Longer-term, we envision our Community of Practice to need the following supports and Gathering Ground is actively seeking funding for this work:

  • Coaching on anti-oppression projects – both small peer group feedback and one-to-one
  • Small group peer discussion, learning, and relationship building
  • Continued learning and training on DEI, racial justice, anti-racism, anti-oppression frameworks and tools for mobilizing, organizing, and disrupting oppression
  • Large group ideation on disrupting oppression in the social sector and potential collective action
  • Emotional and mental health support, particularly for people who identify as BIPOC, to process and heal from the ongoing harmful effects of oppression and racism
  • A continued safe and supportive space for honest conversation, as many individuals feel that they are unable to have conversations with this level of openness in their workplaces.

Gathering Ground Team Takeaways

As our Elevating Equity program valued dialogue, we operated in a continuous cycle of reflection and iteration. The notion of dialectics is that it is self-generating: if we follow it, it takes us deeper and deeper. The work of Elevating Equity and the courageous, honest, and substantive contributions of our program’s community has gifted us with the following observations and learning. We offer these observations in dialogue with and addition to the reflections offered by Justin and the thematic analysis offered by Francoise. Many of these ideas and actions have been formulated, raised and led by BIPOC leaders from around our country and beyond – and we name them here in order to make them visible and so that we can, together, disrupt how they are at work in our state.

The level of immersion we all experience in oppressive systems has a direct relationship to how disruptive or perpetuating our solutions can be.  Immersion is real, damaging, and self-perpetuating; it is a formidable barrier to furthering equity in NJ. Therefore, it is essential to introduce counter thinking-frames and develop critical consciousness in the social sector to assist people in seeing the ways in which oppressive systems work and how we can change that.

False generosity perpetuates oppression in our social sector – we are always attempting to alleviate symptoms instead of the root cause. We must begin to shift the narrative of our sector to talk about issues from the dialectic of oppressors/oppressed, to make visible how power is wielded, who benefits, and who is harmed.  The framing of our sector as “charitable” purposefully perpetuates the status quo and allows those in oppressor roles to maintain control of power, resources, and the system that is designed to benefit them.

Whiteness is property; those of us who can access it, trade on it, leverage it, consciously or unconsciously use it to our advantage.  Far too often, people racialized as White think they are more advanced/ aware/ informed/ educated/ knowledgeable on racial justice, racism and oppression than they, in fact, really are.  Whiteness doesn’t exist outside of oppression; White identity has to be re-thought and reformed.

There exists a great opportunity for trust-building if philanthropy will move money into the control and benefit of people racialized as BIPOC.  BIPOC-led organizations need to be resourced in a way that redresses historic underfunding and centuries of stolen labor (physical, creative, emotional). Shifting the ways in which nonprofits perpetuate inequitable, oppressive fundraising framing, strategies and tactics to center people, particularly BIPOC, as subjects of their own lives, not objects to be used to bring in dollars is essential, and having BIPOC representation across all levels of leadership is important and essential for creating the shift.

There is a pervasive theme of manipulation in our social sector: “people aren’t ready” for certain material – it’s “too academic” or “too disruptive” and therefore information that can advance understanding and critical consciousness-building is withheld.  According to who? What hidden biases and assumptions are manifested in that positioning?  Withholding information is manipulative and oppressive; doing so treats people as objects rather than subjects capable of wrestling with information and making their own decisions.  Doing so creates an environment where people fall into the trap of thinking “I can’t do anything to change the situation”, and abdicate responsibility for affecting change.

Our social sector needs to push collective action farther, and we need more collective mobilizing and resources supporting those efforts. As a sector, we need to be clear about who can hold risk and loss (frequently White-led well-resourced organizations and people with positional power within an oppressive system can hold more risk), and be intentional about asking those people and organizations who have more protection and who can hold risk and loss to agree to do this.

The entire social sector must be part of the conversation and action on redress and reparations; it is unfair and wrong for those of us benefitting from the current oppressive system to absolve ourselves of responsibility, dismissing this work as something that “other” organizations do.  In this area, our sector can follow the lead of and work in solidarity and support of efforts by BIPOC-led organizations, working together to take action.

Naming, out loud, who the oppressors are, along with the key issues of oppression, can lead to change.  All of us (all racialized identities but especially people racialized as White) need to become more comfortable with naming Whiteness as a barrier and oppressor in order to disrupt its ability to operate in the shadows. Doing so builds critical consciousness and normalizes the practice of examining power dynamics and how power is used to oppress.

We all need more time for reflection and dialogue on how racism, oppression and the disruption of oppression is showing up in our personal experiences: our families, friends, colleagues, organizations, neighborhoods, fields, disciplines, and sectors.  The way we learn is by being in dialogue together, being in relationship together, and developing community and solidarity together.  The need to build unity, organize and mobilize in order to resist and disrupt the isolation, scapegoating and retaliation that is used to divide us is urgent.

What if accountability became synonymous with responsibility?  How might that accelerate the disruption of oppression?  How much farther might our generation carry the baton of dismantling White supremacy if we agree to hold ourselves responsible and accountable to each other and the next generation? 

Gathering Ground itself learned to become more accountable and responsible.  Our Working Group member Andrea McChristian challenged us to adopt and incorporate a level of accountability and responsibility for continued action that we had not originally envisioned.   The work is personal.  It’s about ourselves; our own organizations, our own nonprofit and philanthropic sector. 

The People Elevating Equity

Paula Alekson, McCarter Theatre Center

Lupe Amate, The Fund for New Jersey

Andrew Binger, Yendor Theatre Company

Leslie Brown, Change Management Consultant

Fredric Byarm, Invincible City Farms, Inc

Tennyson Coleman, Black in New Jersey

Pamela Daniels, The Brickerati

Angeline Dean, Intersystemz

Frances Dixon, New Hope Now Community Development Corporation

Jim Donio, Town of Hammonton

Debbie Duncan, NJ Center for Nonprofits

Natasha Dyer, Greater Newark Conservancy

Erik Estrada, Community Foundation of South Jersey

Vicki Fernandez, Rutgers Institute for Ethical Leadership

Ivette Guillermo-McGahee, Allies in Caring

Shira Haaz, Subaru of America

Julie Hain, South Jersey Cultural Alliance

Shagufta Hakeen, ReThink Media

Lori Hohenleitner, Horizons Jersey Shore

Anysa Holder, Easter Seals New Jersey

Samuel Huber, Stone Foundation of New Jersey

Suzanne Ishee, NJIT Hub for Creative Placemaking

Denalerie Johnson-Faniel, PhD, HS-BCP, University Hospital

Susan Justiniano, RescuePoetix Management

Peter Kasabach, New Jersey Future

Jeffrey Key, Nfinity Enterprises

Christi Kobus Rokicki, National Summer Learning Association

Veronique Lambert, Sustainable Jersey

Toni Lewis, NNPHI

Nicolette Lynch, Yendor Theatre Company

Jennifer Made, Abbott Leadership Intitute

Pamela Major, Melia Bloom

Tenisha Malcolm, The Nature Conservancy

Andrea McChristian, NJ Institute for Social Jusice

Stephen McGahee, Allies in Caring

Courtenay Mercer, Mercer Planning Associates

Eve Niedergang, City of Princeton

Grace Penn, Princeton University

Adam Perle, ArtPride New Jersey Foundation, Inc.

Gina Pisasale, McCarter Theatre Center

Dan Rhoton, Hopeworks Camden

Itzel Saldana, Allies in Caring

Dr. LaTesha Sampson, Great Joy Counseling and Consulting Services

Evan Sanchez, Authentic City Partners; formerly Olo

Laura Leigh Smith, PhD, LPC

Alysia Souder, The Institute of Music for Children

Inge Spungen, Paterson Alliance

Sheryl Steadman, H.O.P.E. Collective, Inc.

Jyoti Venketraman, new Jersey Future

Teresa Vivar, Lazos America Unida

Dr. Charles Wallace II, Homefront

Ivan Wei, The Wei LLC

Kimi Wei, The Wei LLC

Craig Weinrich, Council of New Jersey Grantmakers

Tom Werder, Morris Arts

Patrecia West, West Orange Human Relation Commission

James Williams, Fair Share Housing Center NJ

Kareem Willis, Yendor Theatre Company

Marc Wurgaft, Paying Reparations Now

Elevating Equity Project Timeline

Inaugural Cohort

Launched in February 2022, 12 hours of workshop training followed by ongoing engagement in the Community of Practice.

Feb 25, 2022

Collected Learning Digest

This is a guide to all that we learned during the creation and implementation of Elevating Equity throughout 2021 and 2022.

Download the Collected Learning DigestOct 01, 2022

Cohort Learning Hub

In 2023, we are building a Cohort Learning Hub - a public hub for the learning, action and stories about oppression and resistance that are arising from this work.

Jan 1, 2023

Second Cohort

Coming in 2024!  Information sessions will be held later in 2023 for individuals interested in joining the second cohort.

Join our Mailing list for Info2023 & 2024

Get Involved!

Please reach out if you want more information or want to get involved in Elevating Equity in New Jersey.

Let us know how you are gathering ground with creating a more just and fair social sector!

Contact UsGet involved today!

Elevating Equity is not possible without an abiding practice of collectivity and generous collaboration on behalf of the program’s team, for which Gathering Ground is deeply thankful. We offer our tremendous gratitude to Justin Laing / Hillombo LLC with whom we have engaged to co-create Elevating Equity.

We also give our big thanks to an amazing working group that advised and provided feedback on the development of Elevating Equity:
Ivette Guillermo-McGahee
Andrea McChristian

Brandon McKoy
Derek Minno-Bloom
Grace Penn
Evan Sanchez
Alysia Souder

and an incredible team of racial and social justice facilitators and documenters that continue to engage and support a committed and courageous cohort of anti-oppression project creators.

Bonnie Cushing
Tyneisha Gibbs
Drew Giddings
Dr. Francoise Kazimierczuk
Derek Minno-Bloom
Orville Morales
Yvette Murry
Sharon Stroye
Wynnie-Fred Victor Hinds

J. Crystal Adams
Chantel Fletcher
Rosslin Mensah-Boateng
JacQueline Mestre
Renee Shalhoub
Sheldon Steele
Marcelo Vargas Banos
Bernice Vasquez

We also gratefully acknowledge the generous leadership support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation for making this work possible. We also thank the Community Foundation of New Jersey for supporting the program as a fiscal sponsor in 2021-22.