Racialized women and the movement for decent work in the nonprofit sector

by Amrita Kumar-Ratta

Illustration by Samantha Nickerson •

Illustration by Samantha Nickerson •

Last year, while working in the nonprofit sector, I came out of an informational interview with a senior leader in the Ontario Government feeling the most confident I had felt in a long time about my professional portfolio.

In fact, I came out of the interview with the realization that in my my recent experience as a contract employee in the nonprofit sector, working tirelessly towards social justice on behalf of underrepresented communities in Ontario, I had rarely been acknowledged or appreciated for my work.

Instead, in most cases, I was dismissed, spoken for, spoken over, overworked, underpaid, and fundamentally undervalued in the workplace. My experiences resulted in mental health challenges, including but of course not limited to the internalization of a profound lack of professional ability and self-worth.

Suffice it to say that this informational interview was a key experience that prompted me to finally acknowledge that something important needed to change in my career; I wanted to feel this confident about my experiences and professional abilities all the time. And I was no longer sure that was possible in the nonprofit sector.

Here’s the thing, though: I love nonprofits. I’m a passionate advocate for the sector’s importance and in the last decade, I’ve built my career working in, collaborating with, and advising the nonprofit sector — both in Canada and internationally.

It's home in many ways.

But I also believe that having passion for one’s work and community and feeling a sense of personal wellbeing are not mutually exclusive. I’ve had more than my fair share of moments, some even quite recently, where I’ve thought to myself ‘I need to leave this sector now or risk becoming seriously ill.’ True story.

According to recent statistics from the Ontario Nonprofit Network (ONN), 75-80% of sector employees are women. While there are more women in leadership positions in the nonprofit sector compared to other sectors, 87% of nonprofit senior leadership is white and racialized women mostly occupy junior positions with limited decision-making power. Given that the dominant narrative of the nonprofit sector is that it’s a care-oriented sector and thus majority women-employed, it has been historically under-resourced and under-valued. Most community work is viewed as ‘charity’ rather than that which requires important skills, training, and emotional stamina.

As project lead for the ONN, Pamela Uppal tells me, “The non-profit sector didn’t end up like this as a fluke… feminization also means that traditional stereotypes of femininity are mapped onto sector structures and embedded in its narrative.”

And while this is by no means a fluke, the structural challenges to decent work are only exacerbated by challenging work environments that are rife with “racism, erasure and patronization (that) make some atmospheres feel impossible to thrive in”, says Rudayna Bahubeshi, communications manager at the Inspirit Foundation in Toronto.

For racialized women in particular, these kinds of environments stifle passion and create serious mental health challenges. In her recent book Brown Girl in the Room, Canadian writer and non-profit communications professional Priya Ramsingh honestly confronts the spiraling reality of so many racialized women who come into the sector with excitement and leave anxious, demoralized and exhausted.

Brilliant women of colour—often the best positioned to advance the social change agenda—are being pushed out of the sector like rapid fire.

In a previous review of her book, I’ve written that this portrayal “is terrifyingly close to home.” In my own network of racialized female nonprofit employees, toxic environments are an everyday reality. And while these kinds of environments are by no means limited to the non-profit sector, we can’t ignore the fact that brilliant women of colour — often the best positioned to advance the social change agenda — are being pushed out of the sector like rapid fire.

“I have met women who have been pushed to their limits and have had to leave their jobs as a result of toxic experiences,” Bahubeshi says. “This sector, which claims to be committed to marginalized communities, so often marginalizes its staff, the same staff who are often most close to the work and best positioned to advance it.”

How can we be better when, as social justice lawyer and decent work advocate Fay Faraday says, the non-profit sector is characterized by “a confluence of… different dynamics that structurally oppress the most marginalized communities”?

To find the answer, we should examine what’s working in the sector and what’s not. That’s where the decent work movement comes in. According to the International Labour Organization, decent work “involves opportunities for work that is productive and delivers a fair income, security in the workplace and social protection for families, better prospects for personal development and social integration, freedom for people to express their concerns, organize and participate in the decisions that affect their lives and equality of opportunity and treatment for all women and men.”


So what does championing decent work actually look like? More specifically, what can we do, as women employed in or working with the sector?

Like any movement for social change, there are many ways, both small and large, to get involved. Organizations like the ONN and the Atkinson Foundation, among others, have been leading the way forward by providing concrete tools and resources for individuals and employees who are championing the cause; these include: a decent work checklist, budgeting tool, charter, as well as a number of reports listing promising practices and answers to frequently asked questions. Uppal has pointed out that “the ONN has co-created a Decent Work for Women agenda… We want this agenda to serve as not only a catalyst for these conversations but for other people to pick up things to do from the agenda.”

Personal strategies for championing decent work also matter. Bahubeshi told me about how she’s individually contributing to solidarity building within the movement: “This year I started a monthly meet up for Black women in the nonprofit sector and it has been so enriching and validating to us as individuals in our careers, and we also hope to embark on some work together to better the experiences of others in the sector and other young, Black women coming up behind us.”

Similarly, Uppal spoke about the importance of mentorship and positive self-talk as strategies within the decent work movement. She reminds others to “seek out mentors and mentor younger professionals yourself. Make a career plan for yourself with milestones. You may not hit all of them, at the times you wanted, or they may change. But just having a road map is important so that you have a sense of where you want to go and how to get there. And last, always remember why you are doing this work. That will always be your motivator.”

As I said, I love the nonprofit sector. I’m committed to it, I believe in it and frequently stress how critical it is to a strong and sustainable society. I continue to be motivated by my passion to the betterment of community, but I also know that my health and wellbeing need to be nurtured for my community work to be effective.

After 10 years of working on the inside, I’m one of the (many) racialized women who has shifted to showing up for the movement as a supporter, advisor, and collaborator, and I’m okay with that.

In fact, I know that my passion for social change will be that much greater, and my community impact that much stronger when I nourish myself and build solidarity with the nonprofit sector on my own terms.  

Always remember why you are doing this work. That will always be your motivator. – Pamela Uppal

Amrita Kumar-Ratta is a researcher, community builder, arts educator, and social justice activist who works at the nexus of human rights and social inclusion in Canada and internationally. She’s currently a Geography PhD student at the University of Toronto.