The Color of Crisis Response
Around the world, people of color are often depicted as ‘victims of crisis.’ They are therefore recognized as people who must be rescued more often than people who are part of the crisis response. They are indeed problem solvers, donors, decision-makers, and field-based practitioners. African-Americans perform many of these roles and I’d like more people to know it.
I left the United States for Yemen in 2009. It was my first trip to the Middle East and no one I knew was happy for me. Anytime I told family and friends I was planning to travel to Yemen, they would say things like, “Why not Dubai?” or “Why on earth would you go to Yemen?” Sometimes, they’d admit never having heard of Yemen and therefore, thought it couldn’t possibly be a place worth traveling to.
They knew about my work with nonprofit organizations and ambitions to grow professionally in part, by finding employment in more diverse settings. However, Yemen was not what they had in mind.
From their perspective, Yemen was the place people ran away from not toward. And when they saw me, they saw a single, African-American woman going to a violent place alone. Because I did not speak the language or know anyone in Yemen, they also said I did not belong there. But over the next seven years, I went to Yemen many times.
Each time I returned to the United States, I was eager to talk about my experiences. I showed family and friends pictures and talked extensively about the health and education projects I planned and implemented. I was excited to share stories of students in second-chance education classes and girls playing basketball for the first time. “That’s nice," most of them flatly replied.
I returned safely and that’s all they cared about. They did not care about any other details and they did not see themselves in the photos of the Yemeni women and girls that I worked with. I stopped sharing.
At the time, I failed to help them understand why my experiences and perspectives as an African-American humanitarian were relevant. I failed to connect our longstanding struggle for equity, our fight for the right to education and our community with theirs. I could not situate what we've been through in the United States within the wider context of human rights or our gains in sectors like education in emergencies. I also didn't know any other African-American humanitarians to ask for advice. Indeed, I only saw two other African-Americans in Yemen in 2009 and afterward, never met another one.
I had a personal need to connect to other everyday African-American humanitarians, but they were not visible. Neither was I.
For instance, the international organizations I worked for abroad, all had diversity statements. They distributed generic surveys at times, yet senior leaders did not inquire about my experience as a minority while I was in the field, or invite me to participate in diversity recruitment, retention, or outreach activities. I had even less contact with them as a consultant than when I was classified as an employee. And, there were no African-American mentors or platforms for development, feedback, and promotion that were culturally-informed and accessible to both employees and contractors.
It seemed everyone agreed there was minimal representation from the African-American community in the aid sector workforce, but nobody seemed activated - with the necessary resources, networks, and strategies to address this issue.
It is the same at home in the United States. The job boards and career sites of US-based non-governmental organizations (NGOs) also have diversity statements. However, there are minimal opportunities for candidates from disadvantaged or minority groups to participate in a discussion session, chat with a recruiter, or become a paid volunteer. In addition, outreach activities to African-Americans in particular, mainly target Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). The activities mostly focus on currently enrolled students. HBCU alums and candidates in the larger community are not usually included. As a consequence, African-American professionals like me can not express our interests and needs, see ourselves represented in the workforce, or recommend culturally relevant forms of engagement - which differ in many ways from other minority groups. Moreover, I know African-American caregivers and low-income candidates who have foregone unpaid opportunities because they simply could not afford it. They may never acquire the requisite experience mandated by most aid vacancies and either remain at an entry-level aid position or find work elsewhere. In either instance, the pool of African-American candidates, particularly for senior level roles, is narrowed.
I’ve only recently started to talk again about my experiences in the international aid sector and to find ways to explain why I went to Yemen and other countries in crisis. Now, when family and friends ask me why I went to Yemen, I say it was to make sure women and girls can go to school and pursue a better life, like our mothers did for us. I say it was to represent a community that is engaged and fights for everyone’s right to education. I also say violent places don’t get to determine women’s choices or the color of crisis response.
My passion and motivations are not unlike those of many other international aid workers, but my experiences, as a person of color, in the sector, in crisis contexts, are vastly different from my mostly-white colleagues. With encouragement from INEE, I’ve started to raise my voice again and position African-American representation in emergencies as a prominent issue at home and abroad.
Kara Whitman is an African-American woman and humanitarian with over ten years of experience in the fields of education and mental health. Kara began her work in Yemen in 2009, via teaching and conducting teacher training. From 2013-2016, she embarked on a new assignment, helping to improve Yemeni education and community-based services through the sport-for-development-and-peace model. Kara has also conducted research and comparative policy analysis in the areas of refugee and adult education in emergencies. She holds a PhD in Education from the University of Pittsburgh and presently serves as a Communications Consultant for the United Nations Volunteers (UNV). She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The views expressed in this blog are the authors’ own.
INEE anti-racism commitments:
Change is not always easy, and we recognize that we have a lot more to do to address racial inequity, power imbalances, and lack of diverse representation in our staffing and network spaces. We also recognize that we do not have all the answers; we need a wide variety of perspectives and inputs to effectively address all elements of racism embedded in our work and operations.
In particular, we welcome inputs on:
- Your own personal and/or professional experiences dealing with racism in the humanitarian sector, and approaches you or your organization have used to address these issues;
- Suggestions for how the INEE Secretariat can improve upon our stated commitments, including identifying any important things missing from our list, as well as additional activities we could pursue.
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