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‘Good people can do bad things unconsciously’: NFPs urged to reflect on racism and implicit bias


2 September 2021 at 5:06 pm
Luke Michael
“It's hard work, but it's important work, especially if we really want to create change for different communities and create projects and services that are sustainable” 


Luke Michael | 2 September 2021 at 5:06 pm


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‘Good people can do bad things unconsciously’: NFPs urged to reflect on racism and implicit bias
2 September 2021 at 5:06 pm

“It’s hard work, but it’s important work, especially if we really want to create change for different communities and create projects and services that are sustainable”  

The not-for-profit sector can become more effective serving multicultural communities if those working in it develop a stronger understanding of how racism and unconscious bias can manifest in their work, an anti-racism expert says.              

Phoebe Mwanza is the director of Hueman Equity Consulting and the manager of diversity, inclusion and wellbeing at Amnesty International Australia. Born in Zambia, Mwanza went to school in Zimbabwe before moving to Australia to study law at 19. 

She has worked as a human rights and anti-discrimination lawyer, and across the public, private and NFP sectors at organisations including the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission, the Attorney General’s Department, and Ernst and Young. 

Mwanza spoke to Pro Bono News about how racism and unconscious bias were issues the NFP sector needed to be strongly aware of. 

Despite many NFPs servicing the needs of multicultural communities, advocates have noted there is a lack of culturally and ethnically diverse voices in positions of power across the sector.

Mwanza said there is a lot of self-reflection that needs to happen within the NGO space. This requires “unlearning old ways of doing things and relearning”.

“What I mean by this is that there can sometimes be an attitude that our sector knows the best solutions for the people that we are advocating for or servicing, and that we basically have all the answers,” Mwanza said. 

“And so there isn’t a lot of engagement or consultation or working with the communities that we serve.    

“There may be a manifestation of racist beliefs, or believing that we know better and are intellectually superior.”   

Mwanza said this was not usually conscious – people often don’t know that they hold those subconscious beliefs.

She said it was sometimes hard for people in the sector to fathom that they could actually be inadvertently causing harm to the communities they serve.

“Good people can do bad things unconsciously. We can also perpetuate negative views about different groups if we are not conscious of what we’re doing or how racism or bias can show up in our work,” she said.

“For example, this can show up in images we use or the language that we use. We want to use imagery that will evoke people’s emotion and will galvanise people to act and to contribute money to a cause.

“But we also have to balance that with making sure that the images we use are not perpetuating stereotypes. And are not doing more harm to that community.”

Mwanza acknowledges that talking about racism and working to become anti-racist can be very uncomfortable. But she believes the benefits will be worth it.

She said doing this work allows for sector solutions to be informed and hopefully led by the community. 

“This means we will hopefully see more success and more programs that will have a lasting impact,” she said.

“It’s hard work, but it’s important work, especially if we really want to create change for different communities and create projects and services that are sustainable.” 

Phoebe Mwanza is presenting a Pro Bono Australia Masterclass on 16 September, where she will take you through how to identify racism and bias in the workplace and share advice on what you can do to combat it. You can find out more here.


Luke Michael  |  Journalist  |  @luke_michael96

Luke Michael is a journalist at Pro Bono News covering the social sector.

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