A letter from Erica Stephens, executive director of Nana Grants
In 2016, Nana Grants was founded to address a systemic problem. Over the years, I’ve used different words to describe this problem: multi-generational poverty, educational inequality, gender bias, unequal access to quality child care, and our fundamentally sexist approach to raising children in this country.
I’m adding a new set of words to describe the problem: structural racism.
Ascend at the Aspen Institute, where Nana Grants is an Ascend Network partner, defines structural racism this way: A system in which public policies, institutional practices, cultural representations, and other norms work in various, often reinforcing ways to perpetuate racial group inequity. It identifies dimensions of our history and culture that have allowed privileges associated with “whiteness” and disadvantages associated with “color” to endure and adapt over time. Structural racism is not something that a few people or institutions choose to practice. Instead it has been a feature of the social, economic and political systems in which we all exist.
Economic status, race, and gender are intertwined and overlap in so many ways. Bias against low-income single mothers — particularly black and brown single mothers — is baked into our social, economic and political systems. For nonprofits and community organizations working on any one element, without acknowledging how they all intersect, is to miss the bigger picture — and to miss the opportunity to be part of broader, systemic change.
Nana Grants’ mission has always focused on addressing barriers to economic mobility for low-income single mothers. About 40 percent of Georgia’s low-income households are led by single mothers. According to Georgia Budget & Policy Institute, black women and Latinas are more likely to participate in the labor force compared to white women in Georgia, but they are often relegated to jobs that pay lower wages, a problem that is exacerbated by systemic pay gaps brought on by gender and racial discrimination. Thus, it is not surprising that black women and Latinas in Georgia are about two times more likely to live in poverty than white women.
Georgia’s HOPE Grants and Scholarships were created to expand access to higher education. But without child care, all the tuition money in the world is of no use to low-income, single mothers already struggling to support their families. Our organization uses child care to support single student mothers, and the majority of those students are women of color.
Robin DiAngelo, author of White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism and self-described white anti-racist thinker, said in a recent interview, “Racism is the foundation of the society we are in. And to simply carry on with absolutely no active interruption of that system is to be complicit with it… There is no neutral place.”
When we talk about economic mobility, our discussions cannot exclude race. Our work at Nana Grants, while focused on single mothers of all races, can’t be “neutral.” Discussions on how to incorporate anti-racist work into our mission are now at the forefront of our organization, because this is the kind of intersectional framework required to make change in our community.
I applaud the activism, urgency, and progress displayed in the last few weeks. I also recognize that the road to true equity will be long and difficult. Permanent change is hard; just ask our student mothers. It’s tiring. It’s often lonely. And the goal can sometimes feel out of reach. But every one of our mothers will tell you they are doing it for their children, and that makes the struggle worthwhile.
As an organization, we are energized by this work. We are committed to supporting single student mothers. In addition, we are discussing how we can be more intentional about our role in eliminating structural racism. That includes:
- Making demographic data about our moms, including data about race, more readily available on our website and in our annual report
- Continuing to evaluate our outreach, application and approval processes to most equitably support a diverse student mother population
- Expanding the representation of people of color on our Board of Directors
- Increasing collaboration with nonprofits and activist groups in our community who specifically address racial injustice
Structural racism thrives on economic disenfranchisement. Education is power. Financial independence is power. Nana Grants directly supports mothers who are reaching for those tools of empowerment.
That’s what Nana Grants stands for. I hope you’ll join us at www.nanagrants.org.
Erica Stephens Founder and Executive Director, Nana Grants