Assembling our board of directors in the context of #BlackLivesMatter

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Progress report from Shannon

Good nonprofit organizations begin with good governance. I thought I’d offer a report on how we’re structuring this new organization. We will begin with seven board members. This is a relatively large board for a new group; most nonprofit startups begin with the legal minimum, which is three members. But ours is a big project, with significant challenges ahead, and this founding board will be making key decisions.

In consultation with a number of ad hoc advisors, I’ve spent the past week putting together a short list of 15 potential board members, and I’ll spend the week ahead getting in touch with them and scoping them out for their interest and availability.

A seat on this founding board of seven people has been reserved for a member of the Baldwin family, an invitation they are currently considering. Our short list also includes some poets, a lawyer, a couple of MBAs, a friend or two of James Baldwin, several scholars, two publishers, a whole bunch of activists, a minister and a TV executive. Everyone on the list is dynamic. Everyone is driven. Everyone is connected and passionate and present. As far as I know everyone identifies as Black, or African American, or a person of the African diaspora, and in many cases they identify as LGBTQ as well.

Most founders, people like me who start a nonprofit, also claim a seat for themselves on the board of directors. Many play the role of both board member and staff person. Personally I’m choosing to keep that boundary clean; I have no plans to serve on the governing board. I prefer to be supervised and evaluated by the board of directors, as per nonprofit administration best practices. I’ll continue to do the job of organizing this project as long as I’m needed and as long as my involvement is appropriate. Whether for two months or two years or two decades, my intention is to serve at the pleasure of our membership and of the governing board.

I do enjoy the considerable privilege of assembling this body of founding visionaries and planners. I recognize this as a significant measure of power and responsibility and am proceeding with that in mind. At the same time I am unafraid to institutionalize, very early on, the values important to me and the values I believe were important to James Baldwin, and for this reason I’ve chosen to assemble a founding board short list made up one hundred percent of people of the African-Caribbean diaspora, at least half of whom are also LGBTQ. This founding board may very well choose to diversify themselves, after they’ve settled on a mission statement and a vision for the future. However I am deeply inspired by organizations founded by and for artists of a specific cultural and/or racial identity, groups such as Cave Canem Poets and the Asian American Writers Workshop and VIDA. While I’m unwilling to make the call on the question of whether His Place in Provence will ultimately become a retreat for Black writers and artists—that’s the board’s job, not mine—I am however willing to stack the deck in favor of that outcome. I make this decision in direct response to #blacklivesmatter and to this tenuous, terrible moment in history.