Posted in Power, Equity, Inclusion
December 11, 2017
“We must make just and liberated futures irresistible.”
Toni Cade Bambara (via Adrienne Maree Brown)
At IISC, we are asking ourselves what we are trying to accomplish by helping the ecosystem of organizations, networks, and leaders pursue racial equity. Are we clear what we are fighting for? I believe we need to imagine what a society without oppression would look like in order to be able to explore this question. If oppression were a thing of the past, what would the world be like? If white supremacy and the drive to dominate didn’t ravage our cultures and minds, what would be available to us?
At IISC, we talk about the “Fourth Box,” the box that remains after we have eliminated inequities and achieved human liberation. I believe equity will exist when enough people and structures in societies have successfully dismantled the tools and ideology of oppression. But what is the liberation that follows after the breakdown of oppression? The word “liberation” can get a funny reaction in some quarters because it sounds like a 1970’s throwback civil rights expression, but it’s a deeply important concept.
What if liberation is the personal and transformational freedom that comes when our society is no longer rigged for the few – those who share similar characteristics or benefit from systems to concentrate their power?
What if liberation instead created a society that is centered on the notion that all human beings naturally belong in this universe? A society in which people live with autonomy, resources, creativity, inspiration, love, and human connectivity that makes life joyful, meaningful, and in alignment?
If we were to be fully liberated, what would that look like? I believe we would simply have time for being human. We would naturally spend time with those around us, appreciating their gifts and uniqueness. We would create play, laughter, and art in the ways we did as children but with the knowledge and insights acquired from our adult experiences. We would bring to human beings around us the power of presence – the relaxed unrehearsed connectivity that brings forth love and harmonious existence with all things living. We would build a fortified earth that yields food, sun, beach, ocean, sky, moon, mountains, lakes, clouds, and a vibrant and healthy climate to all.
We will soon be spending time at IISC examining our racial justice approach and methodology. It is my hope that we will start from the premise of the world without oppression and then think about how we can best help our clients and networks discover what that looks like, feels like, tastes like, and sounds like. Let’s suspend time and give people the opportunity to imagine themselves free from oppression and the tools they were taught to dominate others so they can live into practices that transform our world.
What would it look like to design racial equity interventions by helping people envision the end of oppression?
November 29, 2017
Increasingly, social sector organizations are applying collaborative change frameworks and tools to engage in racial equity transformation. In a pattern reflective of the broader movement for racial justice, employees, often women of color in particular, are challenging organizational commitment to racial equity internally and programmatically. Often people who are ready to take action want to know what they can do to create space for the conversations needed to catalyze racial equity transformation.
The list of strategies below was generated by Marlon Williams, Ratna Gill, Madeline Burke and Kimberly Dumont, during our Fundamentals of Facilitation for Racial Justice Work workshop held in NYC earlier this month.
- Data: Use data to identify and initiate a conversation about inequities
- Training: Invest resources in training to staff to learn about racial equity and create the space for them to bring insights back to the organization
- Elevate Voices: Look for expertise throughout the organization’s hierarchy and give power to those with the capacity to lead, regardless of position.
- Personal Capital: Leadership and those with significant person capital can use if in service of prioritizing conversations about equity.
- Crisis: Incidents in the news that highlight the impact of our racial disparities can serve as a call to action.
- Personal Ownership: A commitment to racial equity should be owned by specific individuals throughout the organization’s structure.
- Outside Voices: Bring in outside voices to validate the need and urgency for having a focus on racial equity.
- Highlight the Loss: Identify the the risks or potential loss of not having a focus on racial equity.
Have you tried any of these strategies? Is your organization embarking on a journey of racial equity transformation? We can help.
November 20, 2017
“We know that there is no help for us but from one another, that no hand will save us if we do not reach out our hand.”
– URSULA K. Le GUIN
Image by Stephen Bowler, shared under provisions of Creative Commons Attribution license 2.0.
A note on the quotes below (and the Le Guin quote above): I am grateful for the beautiful piece by Evan Bissel, “Frames for Life, Liberation and Belonging,” which appears in the Othering and Belonging Journal. This piece lifts up some central elements of an emerging and humanizing narrative for our times, with focus on themes such as transition, liberation, belonging, commons, interconnection, abundance, sacred, curiosity, play, and place. I strongly encourage readers to check it out, to sit with the piece and let it soak in, and to share it.
This post follows the thread of a conversation that has been evolving across events I have been involved with the past few months, and a bigger and broader conversation that is clearly informing it. This is certainly not a new conversation, but there seems to be a renewed or perhaps more public vigor to it, at least in multi-racial and multi-generational social change groups and initiatives with which I have been involved.
It has cropped up in a network leadership program where a discussion about the difference between working for equity and working for justice pointed in the direction of the need to pursue liberation, and not simply inclusion and accommodation in fundamentally harmful systems. Read More
August 2, 2017
Photo credit: Ginko biloba leaves by James Field (Jame). Ginko trees are considered endangered even though they are cultivated worldwide, because so few live in the wild. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unportedlicense.
I’ve often said that language is difficult, but it’s all (or at least most) of what we have to communicate complex ideas. I can remember when doing “diversity work” was seen as cutting edge, relevant, and powerful. It was an effort to change historic structures of exclusion, to change outcomes for people of color and women who suffered the brunt of racism and sexism. It was a chance to speak truth to power, and it seemed for a while that power was listening. Until it wasn’t. Or, more precisely, until the listeners started to hear “diversity” and think only about “heterogeneity.” With the stroke of a pen checking off boxes, the work was domesticated, watered down, simplified, and downsized into simply getting different faces in the place. And folks who were thinking bigger thoughts had to find new ways to talk and to get others to think and act on inclusion and equity.
I remember in the mid-2000s when I started saying “We don’t do diversity work, but if you want to think about diversity, equity, and inclusion, we might be the right people for you.” Now, I’m afraid, that equity might be running its course. I’m encouraged, on the one hand, by how many more people and organizations are asking questions about equity. And about how the equity conversation focuses on what we want, not what we don’t want. I’m all about the positive vision of life chances fulfilled without barriers based on any aspect of identity. And it’s also clear to me that some of those folks are using the language of equity precisely to avoid talking about racism, sexism, and other -isms that produce and sustain inequities. Somehow “equity” and even “inequities” are more comfortable rolling off the tongue than racism, classism, sexism, or homophobia. I wonder if “equity” as a concept is headed the way of “diversity.”
Still, if we are going to advocate for equity as the superior growth model for our country, as our friends from PolicyLink have so aptly argued, I wonder what language will help to keep our attention focused on dismantling the drivers of inequity in order to increase the odds that we’ll actually achieve something approaching equity. The science surrounding the origins, consequences, and remedies for unconscious bias or implicit association seem to be promising entry points for some people who are reluctant to enter a discussion doorway marked “racism” or “privilege.” And, research and practice around communications and messaging gives us other avenues to pursue. In these days of particularly fraught racial discourse, what are you finding useful in your practice? What are you finding gets in the way?
July 11, 2017
“Mutual learning is only possible when all participants are willing to be wrong … willing to learn, to explore new ideas, to go off the map, out of the known, and together grope in the shadowy corners of new ideas, new plans, new territories.”
“Expertise” is one of those concepts that seems to get a good vetting every now and then, and in the current climate of VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity) and networked approaches to change, there is certainly good reason for this. Mark Twain once quipped that what made the expert an expert was being from someplace else. There may be some truth and value to this view; when a set of “outside” eyes can lend fresh new perspective to a situation. And it is also the case that deference is often given to this version of expertise at the expense of local and other diverse sources of knowledge. Read More
June 13, 2017
“Life moves toward other life… If we trusted more in these cohering motions, we could move into an essential role … supporting the system to explore new connections, new information, new ways of being. It means focusing on opening the system in all ways.”
Margaret Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers, a simpler way
“Bridging” in the work of network development speaks to the act of creating connections between socially heterogeneous groups (or putting it a bit more crassly, building bridges between “us” and “them”). The benefits of bridging include making it possible for diverse groups to share and exchange information, creating new forms of access, as well as leveraging new ideas and spurring innovation between groups representing different interests and/or backgrounds. Bridging widens social capital by increasing the “radius of trust.” Unlike “bonding,” or more in-group relationship building (think “birds of a feather flocking together”), bridging can help create more inclusive structures that can have implications for long-term resilience and more equitable development. The following is a story of a network engaging in intentional bridging work for more robust connectivity, flows and opportunity …
Food Solutions New England (FSNE) is a regional, collaborative network organized to “support the emergence of a New England food system that is a resilient driver of racial equity and food justice, sustainable farming and fishing, and thriving communities.” FSNE is convened by For the past 5+ years, IISC has worked with the convening “backbone organization,” UNH Sustainability Institute, to launch and structure itself as a formal network, as well as to concretize and evolve its core commitment to racial equity as it has become more diverse and inclusive and worked for systemic change.
Eighteen months ago, FSNE was faced with making a decision about where to hold its annual Food Summit. The Summit was originally conceived to bring together delegates from across New England to strengthen collaboration for regional food system sustainability. The commitment was made early on by the convenor to move the Summit around the region, holding it in each of the six New England states once before going to any of them for a second time.
Delegates to the 2015 New England Food Summit gathered in Boston, MA.
In 2016, Connecticut was the last state to host the New England Food Summit. The network’s backbone organization was faced with a decision about the specific location within the state. Previous Summits had been held in prominent hubs in the other states – Portsmouth (NH), Burlington (VT), Portland (ME), Pawtucket/Providence (RI) and Boston. While places like Hartford and New Haven might have been natural considerations given their respective amenities and relative centrality in the state, the choice was made to bring the Summit to Bridgeport. This decision was spurred in no small part by the leadership of State Senator Marilyn Moore, who hails from that city and is a member of the FSNE Network Team. Senator Moore pointed out that not only would it be significant for Bridgeport to play host, given it is often overlooked in favor of its more well-known and regarded neighbors, it would also be enlightening for Summit delegates to see reality on the ground. Furthermore, this choice was viewed as an expression of FSNE’s commitment to racial equity and food justice.
June 7, 2017
A couple of weeks ago, IISC was invited to offer a post-conference session at the Collective Impact Forum Conference in Boston. The title of this 8 hour session spread over two days was “Advancing Racial Justice Through and Within Collective Impact.” This was an opportunity for Cynthia Silva Parker and Curtis Ogden to formalize our ongoing efforts to bring IISC’s core collaborative methods, frameworks and a variety of racial justice content and tools to the different elements of the Collective Impact framework.
We were heartened to see and hear the many conversations about racial equity during the main conference proceedings, and noted good and challenging questions and exploration about the fit between the Collective Impact model, such as it has been formally presented and understood, and community organizing and power building work. These conversations continued in some form or fashion during our session. Read More
May 29, 2017
I recently received an email from the NorthSky Nonprofit Network about a practice group they have called the “Network Sandbox.” They introduce a tool (for “Tuesday Tool Time”) and invite members to play with it. I was happy to be told that they recently incorporated “connection stories” as a tool. Here is their invitation to participants to stretch and innovate:
This week’s tool is inspired by the new connections catalyzed by the mini-grants. While the survey we used collected some anecdotal information about the new connections, it left all of us wanting more… richer, deeper stories about these connections. Curtis Ogden from the Interaction Institute for Social Change (IISC), calls connection stories “critical nutrients” for networks that “feed a network forward.”
Tool: Connection Stories
Source: Interaction Institute for Social Change
Purpose: Collect and share stories of connections that have happened because of networks and share them back to the network to inspire more of the same.
From Curtis’s blog: Making these stories more explicit and accessible can have a number of different impacts:
- They model the importance of reaching out across boundaries and to “the other”
- They encourage network behaviors that build a foundation of trust and understanding, which …
- Contribute to “network effects” such as resilience, adaptation, and innovation.
- They can encourage cultures of equity, inclusion and diversity.
May 8, 2017
“Clearly, we made some people uncomfortable. Good. For too long, our comfort has come on the backs of many who have been uncomfortable for a long, long time.”
–Niaz Dorry, FSNE Process and Network Team Member
Food Solutions New England (FSNE) is a regional, collaborative network organized to “support the emergence of a New England food system that is a resilient driver of racial equity and food justice, sustainable farming and fishing, and thriving communities.”
For the past 5 years, IISC has supported FSNE to launch and structure itself as a formal network, as well as to concretize and evolve its core commitment to racial equity as it has become more diverse and inclusive and focused on systemic transformation. Over the winter, editorial staff from the Othering and Belonging Journal at the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society solicited an article submission from FSNE to tell the story of why and how the network has operationalized its commitment to racial equity and food justice.
“While Othering processes marginalize people on the basis of perceived group differences, Belonging confers the privileges of membership in a community, including the care and concern of other members. As [john a.] powell has previously written, ‘Belonging means more than just being seen. Belonging entails having a meaningful voice and the opportunity to participate in the design of social and cultural structures. Belonging means having the right to contribute to, and make demands on, society and political institutions.'”
–Andrew Grant-Thomas, from Othering and Belonging Editors’ Introduction
The article was published last week under the title “Equity as Common Cause,” co-authored by El Farrell, Tom Kelly and Joanne Burke of the UNH Sustainability Institute (the convenor of FSNE), Karen Spiller of KAS Consulting and the Albert Schweitzer Fellowship (Karen is lead FSNE Ambassador) and myself, as network facilitator, with input and voices of many others, including Connecticut Senator Marilyn Moore, Julius Kolawole of the African Alliance of Rhode Island and Niaz Dorry of North Atlantic Marine Alliance. Read More
April 26, 2017
The human heart is the first home of democracy. It is where we embrace our questions. Can we be equitable? Can we be generous? Can we listen with our whole beings, not just our minds, and offer our attention rather than our opinions? And do we have enough resolve in our hearts to act courageously, relentlessly, without giving up – ever – trusting our fellow citizens to join with us in our determined pursuit of a living democracy? ~Terry Tempest Williams
In Turkey, voters just granted the Prime Minister additional powers. In the US, many people have long been fond of simple solutions. Today that plays out with support of a bombast who is inconsistent and offers solutions that exacerbate underlying problems.
When we work with clients, it also seems like there is a pull to simplicity, especially around issues of diversity and equity.
We field many calls from organizations and networks eager to address issues of racism. In its caricature state, which is all too common, the request is for a two-hour workshop for staff. The hope is that with a few hours of filling smart brains with a new understanding—of the history of racism, or of implicit bias, or levels of oppression—that then things will be okay.
This is false. A two-hour workshop can open some new understanding or potentially be used to make a case for change, but in no way does not even put you on the road to okay.
How is it that smart people believe that a little more in the way of “smarts” will undo a complex historical reality routed in policy, cultural narrative and economics?
Some of it seems to be a wish for easy and for ease. Many white people want the magic bullet or the easy solution to our own racism and that of our country and our organizations. We are not used to acknowledging that it took a lot of work to dig the hole that we are in and that it will take even more work to get out. Hoping that two hours or one day can give a diverse group the knowledge, tools, and understanding to create systemic change is simply a wish for simple.
In addition, there are systems that support the quest for this to be simple. For example, funders may offer relatively small dollars for organizational change efforts or not prioritize learning about systems of oppression at all. The push is almost always for fast outcomes and it seems risky to slow down and support the harder efforts that will ultimately be successful. Many leaders of our organizations, foundations, and government institutions have ourselves benefitted from the structures of racism and are content (wittingly or unwittingly) not to rock the boat.
For people working on systemic change, our job is to communicate that change is both hard and worthy. To want change requires more than a workshop; it is a commitment to put in the time, the dollars, and the effort. We know that effective equity efforts require work on multiple levels.
It may not be easy but it is fun and powerful to see the changes along the way. Change can beget more change. Change includes:
- New and deep relationships that expand what is possible and build new ways of being
- More equitable hiring and purchasing policies, investing in long term economic change
- Policies in an organization that are constructed to undo the bias that is both implicit and explicit in our minds and our organizations.
I will write more in the coming weeks about examples of change as a motivation for those moments when we think oppression, racism, and inequity are solvable in a two-hour workshop. IISC is interested in working with groups that choose to avoid the simple and invest with their hearts and time the work that can lead to meaningful change.
February 27, 2017
“We add value to society-at-large when we dare to connect.”
– Gibran Rivera
For the past five years, Food Solutions New England has been building a regional collaborative network organized to support the emergence and sustainability of a New England food system that is a driver of healthy food for all, racial equity, sustainable farming and fishing, and thriving communities. This network was formally launched with support of IISC in response to a shared sense that greater connection, trust, deep collaboration and innovation were needed across food system efforts throughout the region. To create this connectivity, we have engaged in a number of structural and procedural innovations, including creating an Ambassador Team to do network weaving and the 21 Day Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge, which will happen again this year from April 9-29.
Along the way, we have been witnessing some important boundary-crossing and new partnerships emerging. One example in particular stands out, stemming from a field visit a number of us did to a fishing community in the region to learn more about the challenges to and innovations among small scale fishermen. Our tour was organized by a network team member and community organizer of color who focuses on fisheries who has many deep connections in that community. One of the attendees of the tour was an older white man who does policy work in another state. Personality-wise, these two individuals are quite different, along with their chosen points of intervention in the food system. And yet on the heels of that tour, the organizer and the policy wonk became good friends and colleagues who continue to learn from one another and coordinate more around fisheries and policy analysis/development, creating new opportunities in and across their respective worlds. Read More
February 7, 2017
“Systems thinking without systems thinkers will change nothing.”
A few months ago, Andrew Grant-Thomas of EmbraceRace and I presented an interactive session at the Facing Race Conference in Atlanta on systems thinking tools to address structural racism. We had offered a similar session at the 2014 conference in Dallas with our colleague Cynthia Silva Parker, and as it turns out, both sessions were done in a standing-room-only situation. Clearly there is a hunger for these skills and tools among racial justice advocates.
Systems thinking as a field has been around for a few decades, but its direct application to structural racism has not been widespread. Even where racism has been discussed systemically, activists have often craved practical skills and tools to identify and align strategically around areas of intervention that will yield the greatest return for effort.
In our session in Atlanta, we spent some time talking about and exploring the “thinking” side of systems thinking. We presented a few systems thinking sayings and quotes from different writers and practitioners, and invited participants to read and reflect on them and talk with others about the ones that most caught their attention. A specific request was to pay to attention to how the words impacted their thinking and perspectives. There were, in just the span of about 10-15 minutes, some remarkable insights reported. And so I invite you to do the same, to share any impacts, and also to add your own favorite systems thinking sayings. Read More