December 19, 2018  |  Civic Engagement Cultural Awareness

A Rising Tide Doesn’t Lift All Boats: I See Color and So Do You!

by Kofi Kenyatta
FII_Detroit Director

In November, I found a community of like-minded people at Facing Race, a national conference presented by Race Forward: The Center for Racial Justice Innovation. It was held in my hometown, Detroit. The conference offers a unique collaborative space for racial justice movement making and is the largest multiracial, inter-generational gathering for organizers, educators, creatives and other leaders.

America has a complex relationship with race, and by complex, I mean brutal and oppressive. I’ve long discussed the need to have a racial equity lens when doing work in economic mobility and attending the conference brought about a sense of urgency to have the discussion.

We Know Enough for Action

Discussing race often makes people uncomfortable, understandably so. This provides even more reason to consistently have discussions about race and racial implications in the work we do. When discussing racial implications and disparities within the social service sector, I often get lots of head nods of agreement before the conversation moves on to more ‘actionable’ items. You know, the non-controversial agenda items that most people can readily buy-in to that will yield results in a timely manner. My position is that we make racial equity in the sector actionable, we make it a priority, and we do it now.

The “I don’t see color” systemic mindset is what has allowed the sector and American society to address economic mobility as a one size fits all solution. It is not. No matter what study or statistic you view you’ll discover that African-Americans have the highest poverty rate, followed by Hispanics. You’ll also discover that workers earning poverty-level wages are disproportionately female, Black, and Hispanic. You will also discover that a white high school dropout earns more than a Black college graduate. If I believed stats alone would make this clear and foster change on the economic mobility between whites and people of color, I’d spend more time detailing the plethora of statistics currently available. The statistics and studies are there, the problem persists.

Often when politicians and policymakers are confronted with addressing racial disparities, they rely on the rising tide lifts all boats talking point. The phrase is mainly attributed to John F. Kennedy but has since been repeated by other national influencers. The sentiment of the phrase is that improvements in the general economy will benefit all participants in that economy. This doesn’t consider that some people have had holes intentionally poked in their boats and others don’t even have boats. A rising tide only helps if you’re already above water.

Calling In Non-profits

You’ll notice racial disparities even in sectors that seek to create justice. The nonprofit sector is experiencing a racial leadership gap. Studies show the percentage of people of color in the executive director/CEO role has remained under 20% for the last 15 years even as the country becomes more diverse. Building Movement Project conducted a report on this very issue, check it out here. People of color holding leadership roles in non-profits matters the same way that teachers and police officers of color matters when teaching and policing in urban environments. Having people of color in positions across society is vital for this American experiment to progress.

Everyone points out the problems ad nauseam. When it comes to discussing possible solutions to address these complex issues, it’s crickets. I’d like to offer a few ways the non-profit sector can address racial economic inequities in a meaningful way.

First, we must realize that the root cause of the economic disparities we see are discriminatory government and corporate policies.  American government policies actively encouraged and supported wealth creation for white Americans while hindering that of Black Americans and people of color. Thus, in order to achieve widespread and sustainable improvements, our sector must advocate and support policy initiatives that provide restorative justice to those who have suffered from these discriminatory policies. We must go after policies that are targeted and intentional in addressing the communities most impacted by racial economic inequities. Simply put, we need restorative economic justice policy that benefits African-Americans, Hispanics, and Native-Americans.

Next, the non-profit sector should spend more time on increasing the net worth of the individuals in the communities we serve. White families have nearly 10 times the net worth of black families and African-American and Latino wealth are projected to lose even more wealth. This wealth disparity leaves communities of color less economically secure and with fewer opportunities for economic mobility. Our sector often focusses on increasing income as a means of achieving economic mobility. Obviously, more income is a good thing but if we’re looking to put ourselves out of work (which we should be if we’re serious about solving problems), we need to explore ways to support wealth creation among historically marginalized communities. Shifting our focus to creating wealth generating resources will increase the capacity of people of color to begin to build generational wealth that will help close the racial wealth gap.

We must also realize that racial disparities exist not only in wealth but also in health, education, criminal justice, and every other sector throughout our society. These pervasive racial disparities often intersect and are rooted in intentional racist systems that are working as intended. Our job should be to disrupt these systems at every opportunity. Our job should be to not only name the racial disparities we see in our respective fields but to also force our leaders to prioritize ways that they can be addressed. The communities we serve deserve to prosper, not merely survive.

Whether or not we gain traction in addressing economic racial disparities is a matter of will. Do we, as a sector have the will to be bold? Will we challenge each other, our funders, policymakers, and society to finally do right by marginalized communities? Will we just speak on it, or will we act on it? Will our legacy be one of closing the racial economic gap or will we pass the task on to our children?

Join me in Facing Race and becoming the generation who restores justice and creates integrity in the American Experiment.


Thanks to Facing Race for providing our local Detroit team with Press Passes. This is the first of several blog posts reflecting on the conference.


Kofi Kenyatta joined FII in 2014 and led the launch of the Detroit demonstration project. His professional tenure includes positions with various non-profit organizations focused on family development, housing access, and related quality of life issues. Prior to joining the Family Independence Initiative, he served as Director of Compliance and lead facilitator for The 180 Program. Previously, Kofi served on the Executive Board of the 13th Congressional District and has worked as a political consultant on national, state, and local campaigns. Kofi is a graduate of Hampton University where he earned a bachelor’s degree in Business Management.




Recent Posts

FII Newsletter

Sign up to read inspiring family stories, thought leadership articles and FII updates across the U.S.