Organizations have to acknowledge how racism is still present in many of the institutions and systems meant to help and protect marginalized children and families. Photo by: Kelly Lacy from Pexels

This year, COVID-19 and instances of police brutality exposed the painful reality of racial inequality and injustice in the United States. And even though these injustices manifest differently around the world, the fact that the most marginalized people are hit harder — both directly and indirectly — by this pandemic is a universal truth.

Equally, we have to acknowledge how racism is still present in many of the institutions and systems meant to help and protect marginalized children and families. It is vital for organizations to fully embrace anti-racist values, behaviors, and policies to change our cultures and the way we do business. If we don’t, we will not only fail the people we serve, but our organizations will fail, too.

As a leader of a global nonprofit, this hits close to home. A century ago, Save the Children was founded to fight injustice, and this fight is every bit as necessary today. We know that discrimination and inequality begin in childhood and have devastating life-long consequences on a child’s health and future. The American Academy of Pediatrics has called racism a “socially transmitted disease passed down through generations.”

According to a recent Save the Children report, the most disadvantaged counties in America are mostly communities of color. When Black children in America are three times as likely to live in poverty as white children, this results in Black children suffering disproportionately from poor health, hunger, inadequate education, and violence. It is unacceptable that Black babies in America are more than twice as likely to die before their first birthday as white babies; and U.S. maternal mortality rates for Black women are three times as high as rates for white women.

Watch: Anti-racism in hiring — putting policies into practice

In this online event, experts from the sector discuss why some employers are still lagging behind when it comes to tackling racism in the workplace and share initial steps they should take.

Also, research by the National Black Child Development Institute has shown that Black children do not have equal access to high-quality early education and are suspended or expelled from programs at higher rates than white kids. Black students are also twice as likely as their white peers not to graduate high school on time.

Throughout our work across the world, I have seen first-hand how enduring racism and caste systems impact children and their families globally. From Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh to Dalit girls in India and Black children in the U.S., we will only change the world for all children, if we change systems to work for the most marginalized.

In a world of plenty, still in 2018, the under-5 mortality rate was more than eight times higher in Africa than in Europe. In addition, in the 2020 Global Education Monitoring Report, UNESCO outlined the importance of inclusion in education and shared how long-standing racial inequality in Latin America has led to lower school attendance rates for Afrodescendants.

All these statistics are devastating, but they should spur us on in this fight. To start, we must recognize our own implicit biases in order to change how we lead, work, and serve. Let’s recognize that many of the large organizations in our sector were built during the remnants of a post-colonial era, with some of those assumptions still permeating our language and systems today; beneficiaries, capacity building, to name but two.

We must be unapologetic in demanding systemic change, whether that be within our organizations, communities, or governments around the world. The most inclusive leaders are comfortable giving up power and making space for all voices and perspectives to be heard and collectively effect change. And none of this is possible without first recognizing and better understanding the privilege and power many of us have benefitted from and continue to do so. This is evident when we try to raise funds, raise our voice, have a presence at global fora or even get op-eds published, for that matter.

As the development sector this year grapples with its shortcomings in diversity and inclusion in a way it hasn't previously, it's critical for organizations to be "comfortable with that discomfort," Janti Soeripto, president and CEO at Save the Children US, advises.

To create a safer, healthier, and more prosperous world for marginalized children and their families, our leadership, teams, and strategies must reflect the people and communities we are aiming to serve. How could we otherwise be credible when we say we want to offer assistance with an equity lens, if we can’t even do so within our own organizations? Action, therefore, needs to occur at four levels:

1. The individual: What does real allyship mean? Where did I fail in the past, how can I do better? Am I addressing systemic injustices when I see them, always?

2. The organization’s internal processes and system: Recruitment, development, promotions. One of the most important actions any leader can and must take is to set objectives and then recruit and promote accordingly.

3. Our work and programmatic design: “Nothing about us without us” is important and useful guidance, borrowed from the disability movement — but are we using it every time and everywhere, consistently? To whom are we listening when we design an intervention?

4. The narratives that we promote, through our storytelling, brands, and reports. Are we continuing a narrative of victimhood and aid, or are we bolstering one of possibility, resilience, and growth?

We have made progress in some of these areas, and have lots to improve on, but if we can all commit to improvement from wherever we start and publish our progress against these four areas, we are on our way to meaningful change.

Save the Children is like many organizations, far from perfect. But after eight years with the organization, I can say with certainty that we always show up for the good fight, and that we are dedicated to learning, listening, failing and picking ourselves up — and most importantly — acting.

I do not have all the answers, but I do know that together with our partner and peer organizations, we have to make urgent and drastic changes to dismantle the systems of racism and oppression that create inequity and threaten children’s survival, learning, and protection. Only then will we help our organizations reach their full potential, and in turn, every child will reach his or her full potential. Our future generation is depending on us and the commitments to act that we make now.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Janti Soeripto

    Janti Soeripto is president and chief executive officer of Save the Children, an organization that gives children in the United States and around the world a healthy start, the opportunity to learn and protection from harm. The global Save the Children movement serves over 155 million children in the US and in 120 countries. As a global organization, Save the Children has committed to driving down the numbers of preventable deaths of children under 5, ensuring every child gets a high-quality basic education and protecting all children from harm.