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A wealthy white man has opened America’s first slavery museum.

John Cummings - lessons for nonprofits

John Cummings (right) sits in the Baptist church on the grounds of the Whitney Plantation. Photo credit: Mark Peckmezian

The New York Times published a fascinating account of how 77-year-old John Cummings turned The Whitney Plantation, based 35 miles west of New Orleans, into a museum, plantation tour, and art gallery hybrid intended to highlight America’s painful relationship with slavery.

Cummings has spent more than $8 million of his own money and 15 years to create the museum, the first of its kind in the United States. While slavery is memorialized in American museums, the subject is often tossed within a larger African-American historical narrative. Cummings’ creation points a spotlight specifically on slavery — and its impact on both the slaves and America in a broader context.

“I’ve been asked all the questions,” Cumming says. “About white guilt this and that. About the honky trying to profit of slavery. But here’s the thing: Don’t you think the story of slavery is important? Well, I checked into it, and I heard you weren’t telling it, so I figured I might as well get started.”

The parallels between Cummings, a wealthy white man seeking to share the authentic story of a historically disadvantaged population and nonprofit leaders (often white) who seek to alleviate and rectify unfair treatment experienced by traditionally marginalized populations (people of color, women, low-income communities) offer valuable implications for the nonprofit sector.

Whitney Plantation - Nonprofit Lessons

The path stretches to the “Big House” at The Whitney Plantation. Photo credit: Mark Peckmezian

The Whitney Plantation opened December 7, 2014 and nearly three months later attracts large crowds mixed with a fairly equal amount of white and black faces. On the surface Cummings isn’t the natural leader for such a monument of America’s history. Yet, he’s created a success due to several factors that nonprofits should emulate.

Acknowledge the uncomfortable

The article declares, “talking about slavery and race is awkward, and the museum stands a chance of becoming the rare place where this discomfort can be embraced, and where the dynamic among the mainly mixed-race tours can offer an ancillary form of education.”

Another quote, this time directly from Cummings:

“I mean, you start understanding that the wealth of this part of the world – wealth that has benefited me – was created by some half a million black people who just passed us by. How is it that we don’t acknowledge this?”

Both passages illustrate an important takeaway for nonprofits, particularly ones that work with traditionally marginalized nonprofits. When nonprofits have staff who overwhelmingly are different from the population they serve, there is potential for awkwardness. But instead of pretending that dynamic doesn’t exist, nonprofits can use that as an opportunity for dialogue, and ideally, a deeper connection. In practice, this can look like working with the community to establish community ambassadors who communicate needs and issues that may not be apparent from the nonprofit’s perspective. It can also mean holding public polls or an open forum that invites the service population to share their voice.

Involve and embrace

Cummings deserves the lion’s share of credit for transforming The Whitney Plantation into a unique museum that opens America’s dialogue about slavery. But other voices have left significant contributions too. Ibrahima Seck, 54, is a Senegalase scholar who met Cummings in 2000. The two met each summer since, with Seck helping Cummings clarify his mission for The Whitney. In 2012, Seck became the Director of Research at The Whitney.

Cummings also is currently interviewing influential African-American academics to serve on The Whitney’s Board of Directors. The display shows Cummings isn’t looking to control the story of slavery in America, he’s looking for those most affected by slavery’s long-lasting impacts to contribute to its present and future narrative.

While this may not seem novel, reports from The Nonprofit Quarterly and Stanford Social Innovation Review highlight a significant lack of diversity within the nonprofit sector. Nonprofits should embrace a wide range of perspectives, including the populations they aim to serve. Traditionally marginalized groups in particular report often feeling like they’re being directed how to solve their problems, but not recognized as collaborators. By viewing the service population as joint members in solving an issue, more trust is built between nonprofits and the communities they serve.

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