The Privilege of Making Space: A Few Thoughts on Race 

Robin Heller, President
Picture the scene: A young social worker a few years out from receiving her master’s degree, interviewing at one of the world’s most prestigious children’s hospitals. The job: Social worker, Hematology Division. Ninety percent of the patients and families in the Division faced a serious chronic illness—sickle cell disease, a brutally painful, largely invisible disease that affects African-American children and, if they survived, adults. 

I was that social worker, and I was ready for the Big Question. It came from the director of social work: “You’ll be a white social worker working primarily with Black children and families. How do you see yourself being of service to them?” I said that I was “a reflective person who had thought about issues of race”. I was a good social worker, I offered, and that should count for something. My supervisor would be African-American, which would bolster my skills. I would bring “an inquiring and caring mind” to my work. And the job was mine.  

I stayed in the Hematology Division for two years characterized by moments of great competence and compassion and, at the same time, by great clumsiness and outright racism on my part. This racism usually displayed itself as seeing patients and families from a deficit framework and not one of resiliency and strength. I brought a “white gaze” to the lives of the children and families I served. I remained quiet when I should have spoken out. I voiced opinions to gain favor with colleagues. Racism is wily; it was smarter than I am.  

The Hematology Division was an interdisciplinary team, and it was an interracial team. When I announced my departure—to take a promotion at the same hospital—I spoke with my colleague, an African-American nurse, about finding a new social worker. She and I were close enough for her to be candid: “This department needs a Black social worker. This is not about you. This is about the patients and families.” I had the good sense to say, “Tell me more.” “Every day, as Black people, these families have to deal with white people—in schools, in the hospital, in the grocery store. If there is a Black social worker, it means more of an open door. The trust is more immediate. It is about insight and empathy that you could not hope to have. It is not about you. It is about the families we serve.”

I went into my office, closed the door, and called a Black man, a social worker at a different children’s hospital. He and I had met several times through professional networking. We liked and respected one another very much. “I’m leaving my job, and I wanted to let you know,” I said. Thirty years later, he remains the social worker in the Hematology Division, without a doubt an amazing resource to patients, families, the hospital, and to the sector of health care.  

I have had many occasions over the years to work with people of color, particularly African-Americans, in a country with as confounding and challenging a history as the United States. I have worked several times for African-American bosses and with colleagues. I have hired staff members and enlisted volunteers and board members who were African-American. Here is what I know from these experiences: The insidiousness of racism is so persistent in me as a white person that I battle it literally every morning. I was raised in it, educated by my U.S. history books that included a mere paragraph about slavery, or in the television shows of my childhood, or in the books my teachers chose for me. One mitigating force was that I attended integrated public schools in a working-class town in Kansas, where I studied with Black students in the classroom, on the student newspaper, and on the debating squad. But the force of racism for anyone growing up in the States is profound, and it lives within me.  

Racism, I hope, will not conquer me, but I have to contend with it daily, striving to be the ethical, compassionate, and just person I long to be.  

Over time, I have learned to approach the everyday racism in my heart in several ways: As a warrior, I call racism what it is; I thrust and parry with it as if in battle. As an inquiring person, I allow myself to be curious about the source of my misconceptions and fears. As a person of faith, I pray to a stronger Force and do not rely on good intentions alone to help me conquer my racist inclinations and behaviors.   

Now, I live in London, working internationally. I operate in a much more multicultural world than when I lived in Kansas, or even Chicago, Philadelphia, and Washington. I encounter people of color who are just as passionate as I am about creating a better world, people with different histories from my own American one, collaborating with people far better educated than I am, from different economic backgrounds than mine. I always have to check my preconceptions and wrong-headed ideas. Being an “antiracist” to use the term of Ibram X Kendi, is the work of a lifetime, I see. It is deeply worthwhile work, requiring deep reflection.

But being an “antiracist” also requires action. At The Athena Advisors, we want to create a strong, equitable nonprofit sector. One of the first programs I created was Racing Upwards, which provides a paid fellowship to people at any point in their careers to build skills in fundraising. We focus on professionals from communities of color. The six people who have received this fellowship reflect the diversity of our world. I decided on this fellowship because in my long career most senior teams were entirely white, and the fundraising profession attracts a mostly white demographic. Boards of directors, even those serving communities of color, might be made up entirely of white trustees. When leadership is this homogeneous, it narrows the information needed to make good decisions about programming, hiring, salaries, and promotions. Knowing about fundraising can give a competitive edge to people from communities of color to get the job or the board appointment. And for our organizations to flourish—for our sector to flourish—we need diverse talent, perspectives, and expertise at the top. We are currently recruiting for our 2023 Racing Upwards cohort. Read more about it here. 

One of my associates recently said that I make space for people of color in the work we are doing at The Athena Advisors. I have thought a lot about that compliment. And I realized wryly that I have the privilege as a white person to hold roles and opportunities that I can share; I have the privilege to make space.   

In closing, this is as much as I know at this moment, but I have so much more to learn, to grow beyond, to undertake with compassion and humility. What I have written here likely won’t withstand the test of time any more than my answer did in my job interview in 1989. There is more to learn tomorrow.  

May the conversations I have with people in my midst—who are exactly like me or wildly different—be rich and filled with candor and even humor. There is so much more to be done.