Abstract: How Black Women Founders' Intersectional Identities Shape Human Service Organizations Organizational Possibilities (Society for Social Work and Research 25th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Social Change)

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How Black Women Founders' Intersectional Identities Shape Human Service Organizations Organizational Possibilities

Wednesday, January 20, 2021
* noted as presenting author
Sara Terrana, PhD, Assistant Professor, Adelphi University, Garden City, NY
Background: Community-based nonprofit human service organizations (HSOs) are integral to providing neighborhood-level social services, yet establishing and maintaining HSOs in neighborhoods of concentrated disadvantage often presents considerable challenges. While previous studies have documented the underrepresentation of minority founders and leaders, there is a lack of research about minority founders and leaders of HSOs in neighborhoods of concentrated disadvantage. This research begins to address this gap by using a series of case studies to examine the experiences of five Black women founders turned-executive-directors of HSOs over a 40-year period in the same neighborhood. Drawing from theories of intersectionality, I analyzed why individuals developed HSOs in this context, how their identities shaped their experiences, and how the women drew on complex social positions to navigate organizational establishment and growth.

Methods: This multiple case study design included five individual case studies, followed by a within-case analysis. Data collection included 30 months of observational field research, 10 in-depth semi-structured interviews with the founders, and an archival review of each HSO’s IRS 990 tax-exempt forms, website data, and other publicly available documents. Participants were recruited through multiple-entry snowball sampling; I recorded and transcribed all interviews, which averaged approximately one hour in length. I used Atlas.ti 8.0 analysis software and employed an analytical lens attentive to intersectionality to decenter the assumptions and normativity of existing literature, which has relied until now on the experiences and perspectives of “typical” (i.e., White, well-educated, middle-class) HSO founders. Rather than using those experiences as a standard of “truth” against which to assess the experiences of Black women founders, I sought to employ a local and specific lens attentive to the latter’s intersectional identities as well as “constructed” and “co-constructed realities.”

Findings: Founders’ intersectional social identities were shaped by key historical and institutional events of racialized policy efforts of different eras—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. The findings also show how founders' intersectional identities guided how they negotiated for organizational resources, including the need for legitimacy both within the community and outside of it, their organizational know-how, and how they relied on a continuum of strategies for organizational establishment and growth.

Conclusion and Implications: The study makes an empirical contribution by demonstrating how individuals navigate structural and systemic barriers, and importantly, how they negotiate their identities while doing so. This research also examines the combined issue of context and founder identity, which is rarely researched in this particular population. By highlighting how the founders of HSOs navigated key historical and institutional events along with their own identities, 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. If the goal is to develop a pipeline of founders and leaders of color for HSOs, then understanding some of the experiences of those who are already engaged in this process is an important step in that direction.