All That Brown in Texas
Published May 5, 2023
When I joined The Nature Conservancy (TNC), I had been told initially that I would inherit the portfolio of a departing principal gifts officer. That actually never happened ( which is a whole 'nutha conversation). Instead, I was "shared" with the Texas chapter of the organization. Just to give scope, TNC has a presence in every state and in the case of Texas, actually had four offices: Houston, San Antonio, Dallas, and Austin which is also where the state chapter was headquartered. And make no mistake about it - this was a chapter that white women were clearly in control. And Texas is a big state with a lot of wealth. But we know that Texas can also be a challenging state politically, environmentally, and definitely when it comes to anything justice related. So for me to come in as the "new kid" and being a Black woman - it was an adjustment for everyone all around. The sisterhood wasn't necessarily receiving me with open arms. That is me being diplomatic. This "sharing" lasted my first year.
Oh, but the beauty of Texas. It has so many beautiful places; so many resources and an abundance of natural riches. I got to see some the most unbelieving bat caves for the first time (including an albino bat!) and had a chance to revisit San Antonio, a special city for me as it was the last city we lived in before my parents divorced when I was in elementary school. I was excited about this event. It was outside which makes it easier when you know you will be one of few people of color, possibly the only Black person in attendance.
So, back to this event. It was a stewardship events for donors. Stewardship events are designed to deepen relationships with donors that, ideally, result in continued and increased giving. I was cute, y'all. This is a different photo from my time in Texas but it gives you an idea of how I showed up. I took time to ensure my appearance was representative of me, my family, the organization, the mission, and my culture. There is a lot that can be placed upon us and then we have a tendency to pick more up. But I felt good in the end; my outfit was outdoors appropriate.I had on comfortable but cute shoes, curls were popping, and I remember feeling particularly good about my lashes as I had just purchased a new mascara and it was doing what needed to be done. The event was in an idyllic restored meadow that inspired love of nature. It was my first time engaging with this group of donors - mostly those who have given planned gifts.
As a fundraiser, it was my job to mingle and connect with the donors. Share information about work that the chapter was doing that may be of interest but also broader work happening in the organization. I was supposed to be an objective generalist - matching donors with opportunities that aligned with their philanthropic interests not only in Texas but anywhere in the world, basically, This organization touted itself as working in over 70 countries - the breadth of work was expansive, to say the least.
At one point within my mingling, I saw a couple of colleagues talking with a donor. I decided go over and see which one as I knew from pre-event meetings that there were a few donors of interest that the chapter wanted to engage with deeper. Someone's speaking so I walked up with a smile, nodding hi and making my presence known without causing a disruption to the person speaking.
I kid you not when I say that this donor jumped a measurable amount, gasped, and then said "Oh! I thought they had people dressed up in animal costumes when I saw all that brown out of my eye."
Silence. I did not know what to say initially. I am usually pretty quick on my feet, there was literally heat under my skin. If I had the ability to blush red, I would have been the color or the brightest apple. Did she really just say that? Does it sound as ridiculous to my colleagues as it does to me? I looked around. I recall one colleague looking shocked, others looking embarrassed, and some unfazed.
BUT NO ONE SAID ANYTHING. NO ONE.
I gathered my breath and I recall saying something to the effect that if I was an animal, I would be endangered because of greedy, privileged souls who couldn't stand my beauty or understand that I have every right to be here, just like them. The donor soon excused herself from the group. And of course, that is when folks express disbelief. How could she say that? Did she just say that? What happened? As I begin to recount, another colleague who I think managed the donor, shushed me because the donor was near by.
You are shushing me??? I actually decided to just walk away at that point because I knew I lacked the ability to stay in that space. It was a level of psychological unsafely that is hard to describe. I am in a meadow in the middle of who knows where Texas, the only Black person around (other than service staff) and I have just been referred to as an animal costume by a rich woman who was protected by the people who referred to me as a team member.
The level of humiliation. And yes. I reported it. It wasn't the only time I shared with my leadership team about incidents like this because unfortunately this wasn't the one. But it was one of the most humiliating. Although getting mistaken for the kitchen staff at the staff retreat was a close contender. the right collection fields.