Dear Friends of 540,
This year marks 540WMain’s seven-year anniversary and my eighth year of grassroots nonprofit leadership. As we embark on our annual fundraising campaign this month and next, I feel a mix of deeply complex emotions as I reflect on everything we have accomplished within the Rochester community and beyond. I am filled with a deep sense of pride, gratitude, and fulfillment. I have been able to grow this work from a one-man show with a few ad-hoc volunteers to a true community and network of deeply committed staff, volunteers, and monthly sustaining members that are committed to making a difference as it relates to dismantling racism and inequity at the individual, institutional and societal levels. 540 has evolved in scope starting in 2016 from a brick-and-mortar community space in the historic Susan B. Anthony district to a virtual-hybrid education platform that curates and creates original content and programming rooted in antiracism education for folks online and in-person.
How the pandemic changed us
Our world has shifted tremendously over the past seven years with the most notable changes happening within the last three years due to the once-in-a-lifetime global COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic saw 540 shift to a primarily online format and grow into a staff of eight people. This growth was due in large part to the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement nationally and globally as people responded to visceral and highly publicized images and videos of the murder of Black men, women, and people at the hands of police officers. The world watched in unison on social media as Derick Chauvin kneeled minutes on the neck of George Floyd for over 8 minutes while onlookers and bystanders watched in horror as the life drained from Mr. Floyd’s limp body. This incident can be considered a culture-shifting moment in United States history and it happened one week before our 4 year anniversary and 2020 annual campaign.
Almost immediately my inbox was filled with messages of solidarity, apologies, and support from well-meaning white people, alleged allies, people I knew, and complete strangers. Many of these messages saw people pouring their hearts out (completely unsolicited) as to how they were ashamed about racism and asking for my time and attention as to what they could do and how they could “be better” white people. These messages extended to almost every communication channel to which I was connected. My phone rang incessantly almost daily for weeks on end. I received letters, cards, flowers, and lots and lots of money. Checks started to stream in and the Cashapp account for 540WMain, Inc was overnight full of electronic deposits. All of it was eerily surreal and completely overwhelming.
Well before May 25, 2020, the 540Team had been strategically building a membership base, content, and teaching workshops and classes aimed to help individual people and businesses learn how to be less performative in their allyship and truly make substantive structural changes to their hiring practices, policies, and workplace cultures. Our following has been steadily increasing. We started a biannual gentrification conference with City Roots Community Landtrust, created a workforce development youth program, and an after school program, and collaboratively worked with dozens of cultural and arts institutions to support emerging artists and the arts here in Rochester through a variety of gallery shows, public art installations, murals. We had been iterating our mission since founding in 2016 to be more responsive to helping folks understand the ways in which the vestiges of chattel slavery, Jim Crow, the Black Power movement, and Indigenous genocide still affect our present in very real and tangible ways. Our visibility was growing — my visibility was growing but nothing prepared me for the outpouring of “support” and interest that folks near and far would have for antiracist education in the summer of 2020.
This boon felt not just surreal but performative and unsustainable. I remember needing to take two weeks of personal leave after George Floyd was murdered and civil uprisings began in Rochester and cities around the country. I found myself asking and grappling with so many questions:
- Where had this support been all along?
- Why was anti-racism suddenly so important for so many (white) people and white-led organizations?
- Why did it take an act of explicit and vicious killing of a fat Black man at the hands of a white police officer at this moment to make people care, especially when Black violence at the hands of law enforcement and the criminal injustice system happened every day?
- Why did so many people who had ignored my inquiries before suddenly want to meet with me immediately?
It was a lot to process and I quickly learned that many of my Black and brown brothers, sisters, and kin were navigating similar existential questions and fielding the landmines of harmful outreach by the white people in their lives. It quite literally felt suffocating, overwhelming, and scary. It also felt invigorating and validating to finally have a renewed national spotlight and interest in issues of equity and civil rights. But it also felt amoral and unethical to have this outpouring of financial support based on the public lynching/murder of a Black man. The parallels to the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Mamie Till’s insistence on an open casket after the lynching of her son Emmitt Till at the hands of a violent white male mob, and the images of Bloody Sunday; civil rights leaders being violently accosted as they crossed the bridge in Selma in march from Selma to Montgomery weren’t lost on me. Throughout history, white people have needed to witness/watch/see egregious and explicitly racist violence against Black and indigenous bodies to be moved to some kind of action against racism. If history has been any guide, we’ve learned that white guilt based on violence against Black bodies is temporary at best and any societal gains in the areas of equity are fleeting. White supremacy will only ever cede so much power and any power that is acquiesced is surface-level and short-lived.
I worked really hard to push through this cynicism and accept all the help and financial support that was coming our way. I wanted to lead with the hope that maybe just maybe this time would be different. Our work grew, our team grew and we made a deeper commitment towards our mission of becoming an antiracist education platform.
Where has the support gone?
Fast forward to today and we are living in a very different socio-political landscape than that of 2020. Gone are days of public declarations from white leaders and white-led organizations. Gone are the Black Squares for Black Lives and #BlackOutTuesday hashtags of solidarity on social media. The influx of positive support and financial investment for our mission has all but dried up. Before Donald Trump left office, we saw intentional and deliberate attacks on terms like woke, antiracism, and CRT (Critical Race Theory) from disingenuous academic charlatans like Christopher Rufo. With strategic precision we have seen political leaders and white supremacists come together to intentionally malign the decades-long work of scholars like Dereck Bell, Kimberly Crenshaw, and most recently Nickole Hannah Jones and Ibram X. Kendi. Misinformation, propaganda, and lies have prevailed as we see corporations, both for-profit and non for profit publicly dial back their commitments to equity, diversity, inclusion, and antiracism. Books that focus on Black and brown lead characters both fiction and nonfiction are causing violent and polarizing rallies from explicitly racist and also “nice racist” white people demanding that these books be removed from schools, public libraries, and town halls. Trans people are being violently attacked, laws are being passed to banish gender-affirming care, and even in local communities like Pittsford, drag storytimes are being violently threatened. Over the last year almost daily we’ve seen headline after headline confirming the worst of my cynical predictions. The overwhelming commitment to antiracism and equity was ephemeral, short-lived, and performative. Companies from Pepsi Cola, Target, and Walmart to the CollegeBoard and publicly funded colleges in Texas and Florida are outright banning DEI and antiracism initiatives, departments, and programs.
This has all coalesced into a situation where the future of 540’s mission — our existence is on the brink of collapse. As a leader, I’ve dug my heels in deep to keep myself and my organization afloat during a tumultuous period. I’ve reached out to our network of community partners, members, and donors to create more tangible ways that people who believe in our mission can support this work in greater ways financially, with their time, money, and labor. We’ve launched an endowment fundraiser to build financial equity for the future, curated a volunteer fundraising committee called Friends of 540, talked to financial planners, and are recruiting board members that will provide more capacity-building support and oversight. Even with all this it’s been an uphill battle that has battered my will, our will, and made the ability to actually do the work more challenging than ever.
Your support means more now than ever
So, for this year’s campaign, your financial support means more than ever. If you are reading this essay and haven’t yet become a monthly member I implore you to become a member today. Not only will your dollars help us sustain our organization, but you will be connected to over 100 hours of high quality expertly curated antiracism content rooted in history, humanities, and culture campaigns. If you’ve donated in the past consider increasing your donation by $5, $10, or $15 dollars.
At a time when history is quite literally under attack, your support means more to us than ever before.