Photo depicting Amy Piñon interviewing Clara Olivo in a brightly lit living room with a hammock in the background.

‘And Other Oppressive Dynamics’ Explores Toxic Work Culture in the Nonprofit World

by Patheresa Wells

And Other Oppressive Dynamics opens this weekend during the Northwest Film Forum’s 25th Annual Local Sightings Film Festival. The film examines the toxic work culture and discrimination faced by many nonprofit workers in the Seattle area. The premiere will take place in person on Sept. 18 at 4 p.m. at Northwest Film Forum at 1515 12th Ave. An online option will also be available for viewing from Sept. 16 to Sept. 25. 

The film is directed by Amy L. Piñon, a Seattle-based filmmaker, photographer, audio engineer, visual artist, and vocalist who spent six years working in the nonprofit world before leaving due to burnout. She wrote about her experience for the Emerald last year.

“The most important thing to come out of the film is to listen to your staff. Prioritize people’s well-being and humanity over your mission statement and bottom line. So many people have been voicing their specific issues in organizations and have been forced out because they are not listened to and taken seriously. This is what led me to make this film,” said Piñon. 

And Other Oppressive Dynamics starts with the poem “A Litany for (Not) Surviving Nonprofits” by Ebo Barton. Barton recites the verse: “those of us who live on the cliffs of not making rent.” Then Piñon starts by telling her own story as a Seattle-based nonprofit worker reading her resignation letter. 

“I am permanently leaving the nonprofit industrial complex for freelance media production and artistic rediscovery, to finally flourish as an artist. I plan to work to elevate the stories, visuals, and narratives of youth, women, BIPOC, and other multiply marginalized identities,” she reads as announcing her last day will be Sept. 11, 2019. 

Photo depicting Ebo Barton wearing a black T-shirt and baseball cap while sitting on a couch giving an interview.
Poet Ebo Barton is one of the many Seattle-area nonprofit workers interviewed in “And Other Oppressive Dynamics.” The film starts with one of Barton’s poems called “A Litany for (Not) Surviving Nonprofits.” (Photo courtesy Amy L. Piñon)

After leaving her position, Piñon heard stories of other Seattle nonprofit workers quitting their positions for similar reasons and noticed a cycle in the stories. First, people within the organization bring up equity issues. The workplace responds with surface-level Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion training (DEI), but nothing happens beyond talk. And those who raised the issues are pushed out. As Piñon heard these stories, she realized that while she might not have the answers to fix the problems within these organizations, by speaking with those who have had similar experiences, solutions can be found collectively. 

In the film, Piñon interviews several Seattle-area nonprofit workers who faced discrimination, toxic culture, and burnout in their positions. Many found their way to these positions due to passions for a specific cause that they often had firsthand experience with as part of the demographic served by the nonprofit. 

One of the people interviewed in the film is the poet Clara Olivo who left the nonprofit world in 2020 after 15 years in order to no longer be exploited and to heal from the trauma of workplace toxicity and racism. In the film, she speaks about the cycle of harm that Women of Color in predominantly white institutions (PWIs) feel as they raise issues only to be treated as if they are the problem until they leave and are replaced with someone else.  

When asked what she would say to another Woman of Color who took her place, Olivo said, “It’s important to remember that you’re not alone, and that what you’re feeling is real and valid. PWIs will do everything in their power to shift the blame to you because they cannot take accountability for the multitude of harm they continue to perpetuate internally. Walk away knowing that it’s not up to you to save the organization or to uphold the mission. That burden is for the organization to hold and execute in a manner that is way outside of your own control.” 

Photo depicting Clara Olivo giving an interview while wearing bright-pink cat-eye glasses and an embroidered knitted cardigan.
Clara Olivo shares her story of working in predominantly white institutions (PWI) in the film, which shows how the harm Olivio experienced is part of a cycle in the nonprofit industry. (Photo courtesy Amy L. Piñon)

In the film, many interviewees talk about how employees are expected to push through harmful situations to do the work at these institutions, and how often the BIPOC working for the organizations are the very people the organization is committed to help. Yet often, they are forced out for raising issues, leaving them without resources like a paycheck and benefits as they try to put their lives back together. 

One way many interviewed in the film find healing is through sharing their story and learning that they were not alone in their experience. Olivo said, “Validation and affirmation are so important in an environment continuously gaslighting you. Filming … allowed me to not only speak my own truth but to listen and hold the truth of others in a similar place. There was so much fear in speaking up about my experience. You’re almost powerless against these large organizations that are often backed by even larger donors and funders that dictate how they operate.”

This week makes three years since Piñon gave her resignation. And her search for healing is evident in And Other Oppressive Dynamics. The film is her first independent project, one that taught her to say no to things like fundraising videos and commercial work that don’t feed her heart. And to make space to say yes to what inspires her, like smaller community-minded projects. 

When asked what answers she found while making the film, Piñon said, “My biggest realization is that nonprofits’ relationships to funders are what perpetuates a large majority of the harm people face within them. Funders — foundations, wealthy folks, corporations, and the government — need to change the way they distribute funds.” But that was just one of the many collective answers found in the film. Piñon invites everyone to watch the film to hear more answers and questions nonprofits should consider in creating more equity in their organizations. 

To purchase tickets for And Other Oppressive Dynamics, visit Northwest Film Forum’s website.

Patheresa Wells is a Queer poet, writer, and storyteller who lives in SeaTac, Washington. Born to a Black mother and Persian father, her experiences as a multicultural child shaped her desire to advocate for and amplify her community. She currently attends Highline College in Des Moines. Follow her on Twitter @PatheresaWells.

📸 Featured Image: Amy L. Piñon (left), director of “And Other Oppressive Dynamics,” interviews poet Clara Olivo about her experience leaving the nonprofit sector after years of working in a toxic culture to pursue healing. (Photo courtesy Amy L. Piñon)

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