Relationships as Infrastructure in Southern African American Communities

Relationships as Infrastructure

“In human society, relationships act as a basic infrastructure, providing an underlying framework for getting things done.”  This is one of the key insights of Betty Emarita, of Training and Development Resources, as part of her contributions to our evaluation work with Ford Foundation’s initiative to move philanthropy closer to racial equity in the American South.

Going deeper, she says, “[Relationships] are the DNA of social and economic systems, and reflect culture, history and individual experience. Culture is the medium through which relationships are understood, experienced and negotiated.

In her article, entitled “Relationships as Infrastructure in Southern African American Communities,” Ms. Emarita writes, “In the culture of the Southern African American philanthropic organizations we visited, relationships were a strong, vibrant and highly nuanced infrastructure that operated from a spiritual imperative.”

Our final report, Pathways to Progress: Focusing Philanthropy on Racial Equity and Social Justice illuminates six different Pathways, or benchmarks for making progress in moving philanthropy to become more effective in the  challenge of closing gaps in racial equity.  One entire Pathway is entitled “Strengthening relationships, networks and leadership.” The other five pathways explored in the final report clearly connect and intersect this one.

The work of Betty Emarita, in the context of our larger effort, carries these important lessons:

Lessons for Activists

“These [relationship-building] skills are not easily developed; they are the result of minute-by-minute choices in circumstances that range from mildly annoying to horrendously difficult. They include the ability to reflect deeply, see fearlessly, act courageously and to hold a vision regardless of one’s surroundings. They require the ultimate engagement of the whole self,” says Emarita.

Lessons for Grantmakers

Given the centrality of relationships built on trust for making progress, “Philanthropy that aims to close gaps and make progress toward social justice requires a profound understanding of the environment in which grants are made. An analysis can make a difference that takes into account the legacy of race-based inequities embedded both in law and social practices,” Emarita writes.

Lessons for Nonprofits 

Each nonprofit works in its own context and carries forward the history of the place in which it operates.  These contexts or settings present both opportunities and challenges, but one thing we learned is that relationships built on trust are practically a prerequisite for bridging divides, and bridging divides required to achieve productive and enduring partnerships.  Creating an infrastructure of trusting relationships allows solutions and leadership to emerge and go forward.

Lessons for Evaluators

Evaluation strategies are likely to miss the relevance of “relationships built on trust in creating positive outcomes” unless those evaluation strategies include opportunities to notice, articulate, and value elements of relationship-building and trust-building as they happen.

You can download Betty Emarita’s full article here, and the final report which elaborates the six Pathways of Progress here.