This is a bittersweet column to write. After eight years at Real Change, I am leaving in order to attend to a family member’s pressing health issues.
I am honored to have worked alongside my colleagues on staff, our passionate volunteers and our incredible board members. They are second to none, as are our vendors, for whom I have the utmost admiration. In trying to meet their basic survival needs, our vendors are forced to spend countless hours every day navigating systems that routinely kick them in the teeth. They spend their hard-earned money to buy Real Change and then stand in the elements for hours at a time to sell an award-winning paper that is still underappreciated.
My work here over the years has been primarily internal. While Tim Harris has always been the visionary and public-facing leader of Real Change, I have focused on supporting and growing the organization’s senior staff, overseeing its programs and running our operations. When I got here, Real Change was buckling under the weight of too rapid programmatic growth. The board’s decision to invest in its own infrastructure and prioritize operations probably saved the organization from imploding. In the past eight years, we have worked collectively to build a community institution that will serve as a lasting voice for racial and economic justice.
If you stick around long enough, Real Change will get under your skin and change your heart and mind. As I reflect on my own journey here, I see how relationships, especially with vendors, have opened my heart. When I arrived here, my strong convictions about justice and social change were grounded in my Quaker roots and an intellectual understanding of systems of inequality. Now those convictions have a face. When I fight for equity, I am fighting for Sean, for Evie, for Lisa, for Carl and countless others whom I have been honored to get to know since I’ve been at Real Change. The issues I have long been fighting for have become more personal to me because they affect people I know and love.
As my heart has been transformed by the people I have met here, my eyes have been opened by our equity work. In particular, our quest to become an anti-racist organization has been personally transformative. I came to Real Change as a typical “class-first” progressive, thinking that if only we would deal with the roots of economic inequality, the problems faced by people of color would largely disappear. My close-up view of the racial disparities in homelessness has helped shift my perspective. I have come to see race and class as inextricably linked, with racism as the tool used by the wealthy elite to divide people and maintain power. Homeless people, disproportionately people of color, are collateral damage in a system that uses race to pit poor and working-class people against each other in a fight for survival.
Today, racism has been bumped to the foreground of our national consciousness.
As we saw recently in Charlottesville, Trump has emboldened the forces of hate and intolerance and his preposterous statements about violence “on all sides” portend more to come. It is vital for people to stand up and speak out against the hate.
During my time at Real Change, I have also learned that it is not enough for progressives like me to point fingers at avowed White supremacists.
Doing so can cause us to distance ourselves from the institutions and systems that prop up the system of White supremacy.
White people must be honest about our own complicity in this system and ask: What are we willing to give for a more equitable society? And, equally important, what are we willing to give up?
We are living in immensely challenging times and it is easy to fall prey to feelings of despair.
Engaging with organizations like Real Change can be an effective antidote to those feelings. My time here has forever changed the person I am and for that I will always feel immense gratitude.
I am sad to leave this place, but hopeful that this tremendous organization and the community of readers that supports us will help Real Change find its way through the tumultuous times in which we live.
Alan Preston served as Director of Programs and Equity Real Change. He has extensive experience in nonprofit leadership and a passionate commitment to economic justice.
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