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A Qualitative Case Study of Black Women Nonprofit Founders: Social Justice and Social Change in the Community

  • Author(s): Terrana, Sara Elizabeth
  • Advisor(s): Abrams, Laura S
  • et al.
Abstract

Community-based nonprofit human service organizations (HSOs) are integral to providing neighborhood-level social services, yet founding and maintaining HSOs in neighborhoods of concentrated disadvantage often presents considerable challenges for founders. Previous studies have documented the underrepresentation of minority founders and leaders in such organizations. Vast differences often exist between the lived experience of people of color and non-Hispanic Whites, yet there is a dearth of research about minority founders and leaders of HSOs in neighborhoods of concentrated disadvantage. This study begins to fill this gap by examining the experiences of five Black women founders turned executive directors of HSOs in a Los Angeles neighborhood of concentrated disadvantage from 1977–2017. Importantly, this study uniquely examines why individuals found HSOs in this context, how their identities shaped their founding experiences, and how they used their complex social positions to negotiate for organizational establishment and growth. Social identity theory and concepts concerning intersectionality were used to frame the study.

The study design was a multiple case study. Data collection included 30 months of observational field research, 13 in-depth, semi-structured interviews with five Black women founders and three community stakeholders, and an archival review of each HSO’s IRS 990 tax-exempt forms, website data, and other publicly available documents, including published interviews, autobiographical books, and news articles on the founders or organizations.

A within-case analysis reveals that founders’ intersectional social identities were shaped by key historical and institutional events and processes—from the devolution and privatization of social services, to the War on Drugs, to mass incarceration—which fueled their desire to establish organizations in their community. None of the founders adhered to a single strategy or tactic of accepting, adapting, or challenging one’s social identity when interacting with those in more privileged positions of society. Rather, this was situationally dependent—they seemingly excelled in matching strategy (e.g., socially creative tactics, collective action) to situation. Thus, one’s social identity appeared to guide how these women negotiated with the external environment for organizational resources. This research highlights the founders’ processes and experiences of founding, including how the founders navigated structural and systemic barriers, and importantly, how they negotiated their identities while doing so. Therefore, this research deepens our knowledge of service delivery by minority founders who personally identify with the clients and the neighborhood of concentrated disadvantage they serve.

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