Working for peace and justice through a racial equity lens

I'm a co-director with the Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice, and I've been in this role for a year and a half. Given the needs of the organization, and my background experience doing organizing work around affordable housing and participatory democracy, it’s been an interesting and timely match. My co-director and I believe that it is important to not only serve the broader community outside of Ann Arbor, but to shift how we do that work authentically.


Our work at ICPJ is to inspire, educate, and mobilize people across our shared ethical and spiritual values. As the sense of urgency for peace and justice continues, we are really centering anti-racism and racial and economic equity as the lens through which all our work will flow. The pandemic really lifted these things up with how our Black population has been disproportionately affected.


For us, that means adjusting our programming and the way we do work to focus on relationship-driven collaborations and recognizing the different roles we need to play. Being based in Ann Arbor makes it especially important for us to make sure the organization is making these connections intentionally with other communities in the county and across the state. We need to do that in ways that grow our understanding of who we include in our grassroots, especially when we're dealing with the kind of inequities we have in Washtenaw County.


That’s always a challenge for nonprofits because you have to brand yourself and constantly chase funders. You have to put yourself out there and be at the forefront so people think that you're doing the next best thing. It's harder to say, ‘well we just need you to fund us being in relationship with others.’ But right now, that's how the work actually happens. That is how it needs to happen to have the quickness and depth of transformation required to actually change the conditions of those most negatively impacted by the current harmful systems.


And we're still having to do fundraising. In the spring we had a couple of fundraising events that we had to postpone or reimagine. It was weird to have to try to raise money during a global public health crisis that is also highlighting all the racial disparities in this country. It’s a lot of calling people, and writing personal notes because we are funded primarily by individual donors.


So I have been thinking more about how we balance, as a nonprofit, that we have to build relationships with donors, as well as community members who contribute equally valuable time. It's not sustainable for us to have to spend so much time on getting donors to give us money. We need to shift the way donors stay in touch with the organization so that staff can prioritize our time and resources through a value lens.


During the pandemic, we’ve had to pull back on things. But how do you pause relationships and work that has been in process? So even though we have worked on reduced hours and pay twice so far, we have continued to hone what we have that is relevant and needed in this moment. We are focused on a just transformation -- how do we make sure that we are recovering and keeping in mind those most vulnerable, and not settling for a return to a harmful system because it was comfortable to some.


I’m also focused on helping make our organization more welcoming for people of color. How do we create an environment where everyone can belong? What expectations do we need to change within the organization so we can focus on the most pressing things? What barriers do we need to remove so that we can all act as our best selves?

Desirae Simmons is a co-director of the Interfaith Council on Peace and Justice in Ann Arbor. She lives in Ypsilanti. Stay tuned for her next entry in our Nonprofit Journal Project, an initiative inviting nonprofit leaders across Metro Detroit to contribute their thoughts via journal entries on how COVID-19 is impacting the nonprofit sector--and how they are innovating. This series is made possible with the generous support of our partners, the Michigan Nonprofit Association and Co.ACT.
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