In the first post in this series, we lifted up a set of juicy questions about capacity building for racial justice. Here, we dig into one of those questions: “What trends are you noticing in the field?”
Let’s start with a little good news. In spite of all that conspires to the contrary, we are seeing some positive trends.
People are hungry for effective action. We are seeing a shift in some quarters away from “help us establish agreement on why racial justice and racial equity are important” to “help us build agreement on how we are going to make a real difference.” There is more need than ever for creative thinking and evidence about the effectiveness of efforts. People don’t just want to be busy, they want to move the needle on outcomes that matter within their organizations and within the communities they are serving or organizing.
Racial justice advocates are more paying attention to moving at a human, sustainable pace and nurturing organizational cultures that will support this intention. While the concerns and needs continue to be pressing and urgent, at least some leaders are leaning into practices that put people first and create more spacious, supportive organizational cultures.
Healing and embodiment are finding currency in more spaces. As part of the shift to more sustainable cultures, more people who are advancing racial equity
Some funders are working to shift power dynamics and make their processes more accessible. This includes a revival of interest in general operating support, streamlined paperwork and the emergence of trust-based philanthropy as a framework for shifting power dynamics between funders and grantees.
And, of course, some of the news isn’t so good, and some of that “news” it isn’t even that new.
Burnout is on the rise. Between the trauma of repeated racial violence and mass shootings, the multiple effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, and high vacancy rates in many organizations, both workloads and psychological burdens have risen dramatically in the past few years. Long-time racial justice advocates within organizations and networks are especially weary.
Some organizations are coming apart at the seams and struggling to achieve their missions, in part because of the impact of the effects of systemic racism, power struggles, generational tensions, and gaps in basic management functions. Sometimes there really is an “elephant in the zoom” or “in the room” as Ryan Grim lifted up last summer.
Up is down. False is true. We live in a time where polarization is intensifying and facts seem unimportant to a growing portion of the public and public officials. Public discourse and the public’s ability to think clearly and critically seems to be eroding as race discourse heads in opposite directions at the same time. In the year following the murder of George Flyod, the term “systemic racism” appeared more in the media than it had in the previous 30 years combined. That good news has been met with backlash, as white supremacist and white nationalist rhetoric continues to move from the margins to the mainstream and state legislatures are enacting Orwellian laws to ban books and prevent teaching of a caricature of Critical Race Theory on the grounds that it teaches hate (which it doesn’t) and might make white children uncomfortable (which it might, but has anyone noticed how uncomfortable Black and other children of color feel when their histories are erased or confined to just a few problematic mentions?!).
Among people working for racial equity, the temptation to lump diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging into a single bucket is leading to frustration and stymying progress. Making diversity a proxy for equity or justice does a disservice to each of these concepts. And it gives cover to those who want to declare victory prematurely (“We have people of color in leadership. We’re all good.”) or who want to point to a lack of progress (“That diversity training didn’t work. So let’s not do any more.”) as a reason to stop pursuing equity and justice at all. Diversity training and efforts to diversify leadership are good things but they will not end systemic racism on their own.
Unclear ideology and analysis leads to muddled thinking and disagreement about what’s needed to make change and what strategies and tactics will get us there. Maurice Mitchell points to this and a host of other challenges to our collective thinking and action as he sheds light on what it takes to build resilient organizations characterized by joy and durable power.
Racism, colonization, and other forms of oppression are baked into the structure of our society and our organizations. Many of our efforts to transform single organizations, systems, or networks run into practices and norms that work against equity and justice. We will not transform the consequences without exposing, uprooting, and replacing the ideology and the practices that hold them in place. This will require new ideologies and new practices that are equal to the task.
In the face of these trends, we have been tailoring the way we work with groups and examining how we operate as an organization. As we enter into a strategic thinking process this year, we will be asking ourselves how we can meet these trends in the field with deepened or transformed ideas, practices, and systems – for our clients and partners as well as for ourselves.
What trends are you seeing as you work for racial justice and racial equity? How are you transforming your ideas, practices, and systems to meet them?
If you’re a regular reader or part of IISC’s network, you’ll know that we build collaborative capacity for individuals, organizations, and networks to pursue social justice and racial equity. Organizational and network capacity isn’t the only thing we need to bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice, but there’s no doubt that we need the collective ability to deepen relationships, sharpen analysis, create shared visions, and make space for joy and for rest, even as we design effective strategies and develop action plans.
This year, we are again excited to partner with Food Solutions New England on the 21 Day Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge. This will be the 9th offering of what began as an experiment to bring a region together in exploration of the connection between race, racism and the food system, and what can be done to ensure equity and fairness across all lines of identity. Each year the Challenge has evolved, including more and different resources, topics, tools, and features. And the number of participants has grown from roughly 250 in the first year to several thousand over the last five years, with a total of more than 30,000 people signing up from all 50 US states and over 30 other countries. For more on this evolution, see this post.
What we wanted to highlight this year is that we are framing everything under the theme of “Moving to equitable wellbeing and belonging in food systems and beyond.” Why wellbeing and belonging? Because most everyone can relate to the ideas of wellbeing and belonging. Also because this phrase can help to answer the question regarding what some of the big goals are of doing racial and other forms of “equity work.”
At a time when we might feel confused about what it means to work for equity and justice, and when many words have become political footballs, we find that focusing on the core values and destinations of equitable wellbeing and belonging can help to ground and focus people. This is especially so when we focus on definitions of wellbeing and belonging that (1) most if not all people across identities can relate to, (2) emphasize the systemic, structural, and social nature of these terms, and (3) help us better understand how racism and other forms of bias and oppression can get in the way and ultimately impact everyone. We are especially fortunate to be able to turn to our partners in and experts on wellbeing at The Full Frame Initiative and on othering at the Othering and Belonging Institute at the University of California at Berkeley.
“We are all wired for wellbeing.” So say our friends at the Full Frame Initiative (FFI). And while this may be the case, they go on to say, “We do not all have a fair shot at wellbeing.”This ends up being due in large part to different kinds of treatment and opportunities that can fall along lines of identity, including race and ethnicity. While this clearly impacts the victims of racism and other -isms, it also ends up impacting everyone in society.
So what is wellbeing? According to FFI,
“Wellbeing is the set of needs and experiences essential, in combination and balance, to weather challenges and have health and hope.”
Wellbeing here is not the same as “wellness,” which often is used in very individualistic kinds of ways – for example, whether or not you are “well” is because of the choices you have made.
The work of FFI around wellbeing also points to five key factors or domains in play, which are largely socially determined:
Social connectedness to people/communities that allows us to give and to receive, and spaces where we experience belonging to something bigger than ourselves.
Stability that comes from having things we can count on to be the same from day to day and knowing that a small bump won’t set off a domino-effect of crises.
Safety, the ability to be ourselves without significant danger or harm.
Mastery, that comes from being able to influence other people and what happens to us, having a sense of purpose and skills to navigate and negotiate our life.
Meaningful access to relevant resources like food, housing, clothing, sleep and more, without shame, danger or difficulty.
The first domain above has clear connections to social location and connection. Being embedded and engaged in supportive social networks is a great contributor to individual and collective wellbeing. Beyond this, being connected to others in authentic, caring, and mutually rewarding webs of relationships can contribute to a sense of stability, safety, and purpose, and it can create access to resources (financial and otherwise) that sustain and enliven us.
To learn more about these “five domains of wellbeing” and why they matter for everyone, you can check out the interactive graphic at this link and/or watch the short video below with FFI’s Tanya Tucker.
Belonging. This is a powerful word, feeling, and condition/situation. It is more than inclusion, simply “feeling or being included.” It is about being fundamentally “seen” and “respected.” The concept of belonging has been explored and expressed by many over time, and with great depth, nuance, and relevance more recently by the staff at the Othering and Belonging Institute at the University of California-Berkeley (OBI). OBI contrasts belonging to “othering,” a process which fundamentally denies certain people recognition of their full or even partial humanity. You can watch or listen to a roughly five minute segment of a talk that OBI founder john a. powell gave in 2019 about othering and belonging (see below – start at 9:10 and end at 13:45).
As with the concept of wellbeing, belonging is understood here as being directly connected to power dynamics. According to OBI,
“Belonging means having a meaningful voice and the opportunity to participate in the design of political, social, and cultural structures that shape one’s life — the right to both contribute and make demands upon society and political institutions.”
Belonging then requires power, access, and opportunity among all groups and individuals within a given social structure, such as a society, organization, business, club, etc. And as Brian Stout, ever curious explorer of “building belonging,” writes, “Belonging is a felt sense in our bodies of safety, power, wholeness, and welcome. It is a relational quality that can be cultivated and practiced.”
With this relational and systemic understanding of belonging, we can see how the different “levels of racism,” in food and other systems, can create othering in interpersonal, institutional, and also individually internalized ways, which can and do ripple through the broader fabric of our shared social body, or what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called as our “inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”
If you are interested in further exploring these topics and engaging in this conversation about giving everyone a fair shot at wellbeing, repairing, healing, and building belonging in food systems and beyond, join us for this year’s 21-Day Racial Equity Habit-Building Challenge. Registration information can be found here.
“We are all tied to a lineage of love that has existed since time immemorial. Even if we haven’t had a direct experience of that love, we know that it exists and has made an indelible imprint on our souls. It’s remarkable to think that the entire span of human life exists within each one of us, going all the way back to the hands of the Creator. In our bodies we carry the blood of our ancestors and the seeds of the future generations. We are a living conduit to all life. When we contemplate the vastness of the interwoven network that we are tied to, our individual threads of life seem far less fragile. We are strengthened by who we come from and inspired by the those who will follow.”
I’ve always been drawn to complexity – messy problems that overlap without clear boundaries or tidy solutions. The kind of issues for which many of us long for a straightforward solution. The kind of issues that many people rush to oversimplify in their quest for a solution. Racism is one of those issues. Here are just a few who’ve shone a light on the need to think and act comprehensively.
Reflecting on lessons from the 1960s, Audrey Lorde reminded us that “there is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” She was reflecting specifically on the intersections of racism and sexism, and also on the fact that our current struggles for justice are built upon the work of those who came before us.
Dr. King organized against the triple evils of racism, poverty, and militarism, declaring that “the promise of a Great Society was shipwrecked off the coast of Asia … I intend to keep these issues mixed because they are mixed. Somewhere we must see that justice is indivisible, injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Building on Dr. King’s legacy, the contemporary Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival is calling for a comprehensive, multi-issue Third Reconstruction that addresses not only racism, poverty, and militarism, but also the failure to care for people and the planet, and the distorted moral narrative of religious nationalism.
In her 2017 bookNo is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, Naomi Klein stated “It is becoming possible to see a genuine path forward – new political formations that, from their inception, will marry the fight for economic fairness with a deep analysis of how racism and misogyny are used as potent tools to enforce a system that further enriches the already obscenely wealthy on the back of both people and the planet. …[formations that are] knitting together a multiracial and intergenerational coalition bound by a common transformational project.”
How does this matter for the work we do at IISC every day? I can see a few lessons and am curious about what else you see.
We can do more to help people explore how their central issues and concerns are inextricably linked to other issues and concerns, so that they can see more clearly the opportunities for partnership and solidarity. In the spirit of practicing net-work, we can help people understand how their work can be better leveraged if connected with others in the wider ecosystem.
We can do more to help people focus on building power through that partnership and solidarity – the kind of power that is necessary to meet the forces that hold the current social, political, and economic arrangements in place. We can focus more attention on what it would take to change those arrangements, even as we support people to strategize about how to survive and even thrive within those arrangements. We can remind ourselves to think and act more like organizers and less like administrators because we are, in fact, working to build the power necessary to birth a more just society.
We can do more to help people use their awareness of their own identities, particularly the identities that put them at the margins of society, to expand their consciousness and theircircle of moral concern. As they say in the Poor People’s Campaign, “Everybody in. Nobody out.” We can encourage people to build relationships and learn from movements and leaders in other sectors, other countries, and from other identities. We can stand up against efforts to restrict what books we and our children can read and what pieces of our history can be taught.
And, in the face of such enormous questions and pressing needs, we can continue to encourage people to slow down, truly see one another, and find beauty and joy in the midst of struggle. We can celebrate the moments when we manage to weave together a network of both likely and unlikely partners, moments where we achieve small and large victories in our individual and shared work, and moments when we amplify ways in which justice, peace, and love manifest in our daily lives and work.
What does the path forward look like to you? How are you helping others to find a path through complexity and towards connection?
In June of 2022, IISC decided to experiment with a four-day work week. First, it was just for the summer. Then we extended it into the fall. Eventually, after careful review of its impacts on multiple levels, we decided to make it permanent.
Here is the original post about this decision, which provides important context.
For years, our visionary president, Kelly Bates, dreamed of implementing a four-day work week at IISC. But it wasn’t until Covid broke open every preconception we had about work that it actually seemed possible. While Covid has led to a lot of heartbreak, it has also given us a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to completely reimagine our work, from where and when we work to how we manage our time and productivity and more. And so…we are trying an experiment this summer. From mid-June through August we are implementing a four-day work week at IISC.
Some background to this decision might be useful to share.
During Covid we went fully remote as an organization, as did so many others. And eventually, as we grappled with the impact of the pandemic on our work and personal lives, we implemented monthly restoration days (one Friday off each month) and started ending the workday on Fridays at 2 p.m. (essentially giving staff a 37-hour work week). These interim steps made a four-day work week experiment seem possible.
Before taking this step, we took a look around and learned from a lot of other organizations who have done this and we talked extensively with our staff. We learned that four-day work weeks are not a perfect solution to all that challenges us and that sometimes people will still work some on Fridays. But we also learned that a four-day work week can make the work/life balance significantly more manageable; multiple staff from other organizations that had implemented it shared that they’d not now have it any other way.
Another stop on this journey has been a simplification of our goals here at IISC to our intention to become sustainable, whole, and purposeful. Trying out a four-day work week is just one of the steps we are taking in pursuit of these goals. A four-day work week will require us to be more purposeful and intentional with our time and, ultimately, we hope that it means our staff who work diligently for racial justice will feel their work is more sustainable and that they are better able to show up as whole people.
We enter into this experiment with a lot of questions. Will it reduce stress or cause more? Will we be able to get our work done by getting better at prioritizing how we use our work time? Will it impact our finances? We are also entering into this experiment with a sense of gratitude for the out-of-the-box thinking it has taken to get us here, and with the hope that this change will better support our staff as vibrant humans who are living, being, and working in myriad ways to make the world a better place – within IISC and beyond.
The myth of the nonprofit sector is that we achieve our mission and creativity through a 9-5 workday. And if we have learned anything during the pandemic, it is that we all need to be better supported to live into our full potential. This policy change is in deep alignment with our values of love, networks, and racial justice and we are excited to launch an experiment that challenges us to live out these values in new ways.
Maybe some of you are already doing this, or will soon join us? If so, let us know how things are working out – you can use the comment section below. And check out this TedTalk with Juliet Schor discussing the value of the four-day work week – from retention of employees to enhanced productivity and overall wellness for people and families.