I often think the biggest quest for IISC is to
mirror our mission internally. We work to build collaborative capacity for
social justice and racial equity with our clients and partners in the field,
but how do we practice that inside of our organization with intention and
Unconsciously or consciously what leaders show,
allow, and choose to grow are the things that people either imitate or support
inside their organization. IISC is a leader in the field of racial equity and
social justice so it follows that we should mirror transformational practices
for racial equity and justice at home. It’s not about being perfect but it is
about taking deep ownership of our own racism and other forms of oppression.
It’s about bringing to an end comments, behaviors, and practices that call into
question even subtly the worth, intelligence, experience, and dignity of people
of color or other targeted groups. It’s about making sure that all of our
policies are informed by a racial equity lens by asking ourselves how a
decision, policy, or practice negatively impact people of color or other groups
at the margins.
At different points in IISC’s history we have
paid deep attention to our own culture and practices to align them more closely
with the just world we want to create. In recent times that has meant examining
the personal, interpersonal, and institutional interactions that may perpetuate
racial inequity in our relationships and inside our culture and system.
We have examined and adjusted our pay scales to
bring them more in line with our values and to ensure there is parity based on
race and gender. We have restarted the practices of caucuses, in which white staff
gather separately to learn about white privilege and fragility in our workplace
so that they can support one another and take accountability for their beliefs
and actions. In the people of color caucus, staff support each other around
instances of racism by staff and clients and challenge each other to show up
more fully at IISC so that we can challenge the status quo. Both caucuses then
come together in staff meetings to explore our learnings, give each other
feedback, and discuss our aspirations and challenges. We are constantly in
dialogue and discovery.
As the leader of IISC, I have made it known that
it’s not enough to do your functional job at IISC – the tasks of a particular
role for example – but that it is equally as important if not more so to walk
the talk of collaboration, racial belonging, equity, and justice.
In the future, we will be offering individual
equity coaching to staff so that they can have a resource to impact and grow as
leaders. We will also be deeply infusing equity expectations into our
performance management process.
Some of the questions I think we need to explore
going forward are:
How do we disrupt and interrupt unconscious and conscious racism in
our organization? In our thoughts, behaviors, and interactions, and in those of
others? And how do we still reach for each other to collaborate when we are in
the middle of tough conflicts across difference?
How do we move this internal work into our relationships and practice
with the board of directors and with our affiliate consultants? What is the
most authentic and powerful way to do that?
In what ways we do expect our clients to treat people of color staff
and affiliates with deep respect and on the same level as their white peers?
There are many stories of white consultants working in client systems receiving
better or different treatment than people of color.
Clients pay IISC to design and facilitate
processes for racial equity change in their organizations. If we do that which
we say we do, IISC will always be in an equity change process itself. There may
be fits and starts, victories and back slides, but we will be in it. Embracing discomfort like our clients, making
changes despite setbacks, and taking on tough battles and decisions to uproot
the influence of racism and oppression that surrounds and penetrates the IISC
We will be undone as I shared in a recent blog, but we will be practicing what we
preach and that alignment and clarity will give us the strength and resilience
to keep transforming IISC and of course transforming ourselves.
As I watch the Democratic Party presidential
debates, I am particularly struck by the large number of white males and males
of color who insist they must be candidates for president in November 2020.
Why do they feel it’s their time to step in
when there are plenty of women – including women of color – who could lead this
country as well if not better than they could? When do people with privilege
understand and appreciate that they need to step back so others can step in? A
defiant and powerful act against racism and sexism is to say to yourself, “I
have experienced what it’s like to govern, to lead, and to hold power. It’s now
time for me to support others who have not yet had that chance so we can
experience a different kind of America.”
I have a fantasy that sometime in the fall of this year, all the male candidates – yes all – will host a press conference and relinquish their nominations. If the male candidates actually ceded power, it would change the course of this country because a woman would be elected as president of the United States for the first time in our history. Our culture would see power explicitly and transparently shift to those who don’t typically have it. Policies would undoubtedly look very different if approached through a gendered and intersectional lens.
But I don’t want to just make this a challenge
to presidential candidates. It’s a challenge I want to make to us all,
especially those of us in the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors. There are
many great leaders holding onto their positions, titles, or spheres of
influence, not realizing that doing so comes at the price of denying others
Some provocative considerations include:
If you have been in your position
for at least five to seven years and think it’s yours until you leave the role
or retire, you aren’t ceding or sharing power.
If you aren’t sharing your
relationships with people who have power and resources with others who have
less privilege, you aren’t ceding or sharing power.
If you are reading this thinking
you don’t have power, ask yourself if you have ever been in a position of
authority or responsibility. Are you in one now? Do your decisions affect
others as well as institutional or organizational policies? You may not feel
powerful but chances are you have power.
There’s reward if we step back to make room
for others to step in. We will get to observe and follow the leadership of
others and learn new ways of doing things. We will know that we proactively and
willingly contributed to shifting power unlike some of our ancestors or
predecessors. We will feel the sense of relief and humility that comes from
knowing that we are not the only ones who can answer the call of duty or lead
an organization. And if we allow others to lead and to lead fully, we will be
able to restore our energy for other ways we can contribute to the work that
remains so important to us all.
I think about this as a woman of color leading IISC. Although I am female and a person of color, I am older and I have had the opportunity to hold many positions of authority. I think about how I can support younger people to lead IISC. It scares me to think about leaving my role one day, what I might do next, how I would make it financially. But then I remember all the privilege I have earned over my fifty years. I have gained connections to money, connections to recruiters and other opportunities, and I have many family members who love and can help me.
I breathe and I remember I will be perfectly
On June 11, 2019, IISC successfully celebrated twenty-five years of
building collaborative capacity for social justice and racial equity. It was a
beautiful and soulful party with over 200 supporters at the historic Hibernian
Hall in Roxbury, Massachusetts, a largely Black and working-class community in
the heart of Boston. It was IISC’s first time planning an event of this
magnitude, let alone celebrating such a major milestone as our quarter-century
As you know, part of IISC’s core and signature contribution to the
field is that we bring people together to collaborate, lead, and design processes
for social change and racial equity. Therefore, like a true IISC’er, I have
been pondering some questions. What did
we learn about collaboration, racial equity, process, and leadership through
this event? What did this event teach or re-teach us about collective planning
There are five observations that come to mind. Not so much about the mechanics of the event (get a great event coordinator is the short answer to that!), but rather about the important intentions around the event.
Clear collaboration got us through every challenge. It was important for us to have a clear purpose for our event, a set of shared values to guide our planning, and a collective vision for our success. Our willingness to share leadership brought wisdom and effective action to our task. We also understood that our collaboration could be efficient. At IISC we remind people that not every decision needs to be made by consensus and this was true in our process. In the case of our event, we delegated the role of planning the event to a committee of diverse stakeholders by role, age, and race that could work nimbly with a relatively small number of constraints such as budget. Other than that, the sky was the limit. We solicited input from each other and other stakeholders as we went along so that we could harness the collective genius and perspectives needed to make this a truly special and unique event. When we hit a block or wall, we would ask the group, what do you think?
Women of color leadership makes the difference. At IISC we are challenging our clients and ourselves to make and honor spaces for women of color to share their voices, to lead, and to flourish. Our event coordinator was a Black woman and at any given time, 70% of the event committee was comprised of women of color. These women of color brought intersectional approaches to everything, making connections between IISC’s equity values and our event vision and execution. We ensured that we had diverse voices on our event stage, and that we hired people of color, women, and Boston residents as vendors. Women of color have often had to make do with very little and to work on every task from bottom to top. With that, our skills kicked in, helping us to nail the small and big details. Collectively, we turned over every stone to solve every challenge along the way.
Set an inspiring goal. At IISC, we promote facilitative leadership, and a major facet of this kind of leadership is inspiring people with vision. We decided to set a fundraising goal that was a stretch but not one that would strike fear in us if we didn’t meet it. We chose a goal that if reached, would allow us to accomplish what had otherwise seemed impossible: a goal that would provide long imagined funding for innovation and product development. And we not only met our fundraising goal, we shattered it!
RPR works. At IISC, we talk about the three dimensions of success in any collaboration. Tending to relationships, designing artful and meaningful process, and achieving results. At each stage of our work as an event committee, we made space for each event committee member to personally check in about their lives and to learn about non-IISC interests and pursuits. We made sure to have focused and detailed meeting agendas with strong facilitation so that we could process all the event details before us and achieve our desired outcomes. We focused on achieving results. We set targets of $125,000 in fundraising and 150 event participants, and we exceeded both our goals. All three dimensions were essential to our event’s success.
5. Speak and show your values. At IISC our values include equity, networks, shared power, and love and we made sure our event program directly reflected these values. Event participants not only walked away knowing something about IISC’s historical accomplishments and what we do here at IISC, but also about the values that hold our work. Our special 25th anniversary video and program speakers spoke to racial equity, the value of networks, and of love as a force for social change. We had three tiers of event ticket prices along with scholarships, so that we could meet our fundraising goal and still make the event accessible to everyone. Our values were also displayed by hugs, laughing, dancing, and making connections between people around the room. It’s no fun to work on racial equity and social justice if you don’t get to live out and experience those actions and values.
There are many more lessons to learn, but this I know: love, commitment, collaboration, adaptability, connection, and ambitious goals had everything to do with our success. It’s actually hard to accept that our planning has come to an end. Our event planning committee members loved working with each other and experienced a sense of accomplishment that we hope to replicate throughout the organization in the next twenty-five years!
“By coming to the edges; by staying longer in the place that is supposedly without utility, empty, null and void; by dwelling with the bewildering awkwardness and staying with the trouble; other places of power become visible.”- Bayo Akomolafe
At a recent community of practice gathering of IISC consultants – a space in which we reveal our learnings and challenges – we explored the radical importance of creating spaciousness in our personal lives, as well as in our training and facilitation rooms. I believe spaciousness is the slow food of facilitation.
Slow food is used in progressive circles to describe living an unhurried life and taking time to enjoy meals and simple pleasures. It’s the complete opposite to fast food culture which, much like American work culture, is based on white and capitalist dominant norms of urgency, desperation, quantity over quality, and progress as always bigger and more.
We have forgotten to slow down. To say “no” lovingly. To just stop and pause lightly even for a few moments or minutes. IISC affiliate and former long-time Senior Associate Andrea Nagel shared at our community of practice session, “We can’t just talk our way into being. We need to be ‘in being.” Miriam Messinger, IISC’s director of practice, agreed and pointed out that “We have a fear of ‘being’ and we are rewarded for ‘doing’ in our culture.”
In our work with a client organization’s Race Equity Design Team, a member shared in a recent gathering, “We do have people who say no, but they have little power – we dismiss them. There is an unspoken sensation that we realize that ‘no’ is really not an acceptable word.” The team challenged themselves to slow down and get to the heart of things.
As facilitators and trainers, we can uproot white supremacy and capitalist culture just by adding spaciousness and slowness to our approach and design of meetings and gatherings. We can start with meditation and art, and we can focus on flow. Reduce the number of topics on an agenda. Pause to give people chances to breathe or take in moments of silence. Encourage people to empty their thoughts onto a page. Bring them into nature to walk and stretch. We can be firm on allowing at least one hour for people to eat lunch at day-long meetings so they can eat with intention and connect to people, and give no fewer than 15 minutes for a quality break. We can talk slower, walk around the room slower, and let space and time ebb and flow to allow people’s emergent thoughts to come into conversations. These thoughts are often the most strategic, brave, and authentic, and often the ones that allow new ideas to come into being and new cultural norms of collaboration to take hold.
There are times for high energy in a training or facilitation, but we can still offer spaciousness — more time for conversation and more time for self and group care. The rush of life and dominant culture will take us and our conversation over unless we intentionally create spaciousness. We have to re-condition ourselves to slow our minds and reduce or focus less on our “tasks”. If we disrupt the dominant pattern for one minute, one hour, or one day, it’s a victory in our current society. We can engage in practices to help us “be” in true and transformative collaborative relationship with one another.
At IISC, we are using guided meditations to spark transformation in the hearts and minds of participants in our facilitation and training rooms.
This is one I offered to thirty Black leaders brought together by the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene in New York City this summer. They were asked by First Lady Chirlane McCray, wife of NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio, to develop recommendations to increase the numbers of Black mental health providers. But our job in the end was so much more. It was helping them to discover ways to re-imagine mental health care for Black communities, and to encourage Black people to go into mental health fields to free Black people from the emotional and spiritual binds of pain rooted in systemic and historical injustice.
It was the deepest honor to create and share this meditation with the group as I lost my mother in 2002 to mental illness and the health care system that “treated her”.
Get comfortable Anchor your feet and back Breathe natural breaths at your own pace
See what’s on your mind about today See your obligations outside of this room and let them float past you and away
Call on your images of your ancestors See the faces of your family Present And Past
Think about the history of Black people What images do you see of pain? Of pain as they face hardship? As their mental health deteriorates?
Of triumph? As they triumph over, and their mental health improves and sets them free?
What supports did they have to help them heal and achieve wholeness? Who helped them? How?
Who helped you in times of need? In times of mental burden and stress? How?
Thank your ancestors Thank yourself Breathe once again those breaths of life And come back when you are ready
Many articles have been devoted to running effective meetings that build collaboration among teams, yet many fail to discuss the hidden element that can destroy a meeting almost without fail.
Power dynamics – the ways in which power works in a setting – can either sink a meeting and negatively impact relationships for years, or produce more shared power and capacity to get things done. A lot of the difference comes down to how we attend to power dynamics in meetings, how well we plan our meetings, how well we determine what happens within and outside of meetings, and how well we facilitate in the moment.
In every organization, there are people who hold formal power and informal power. Formal power is attributed to someone by virtue of their title or position in the organization. People carry informal power if they have influence over others or their organization, either because of their experience, force of personality or persuasion, unearned privilege, or because they have strong relationships with decision-makers and peers. Power is also deeply influenced by diversity and equity dynamics. In most Western societies today, many decisions in organizations are still controlled by people with certain backgrounds: over 40, male, white/European, heterosexual, and middle class and wealthy people. Many feel empowered to lead, speak, and make decisions by virtue of the standing society gives to them on the basis of their background. They get a lot of practice leading and people are acculturated to following and respecting them.
Power — the capacity to get things done — is neither positive nor negative in and of itself. It’s all about how we construct, reconstruct, and practice power. Individuals can exercise their power in healthy ways if they stay focused on making space for others and growing power to achieve positive outcomes by building “power with” others. Individuals and groups can exercise their power in unhealthy ways if they are focused on establishing “power over” others or concentrating power in a few.
At IISC we have made some key observations about power in meetings:
Power dynamics are always present in meetings whether we see them or not.
Every meeting is a chance to build a group’s power and transform power dynamics. It’s important to design and facilitate meetings to create opportunities for power to be shared and openly discussed.
Meeting designers and facilitators must attend to formal and informal power and the dynamics that come along with it.
Meeting facilitators should be mindful of and acknowledge their own power and enact it in a way that builds the power of the group.
Every element of meetings needs preparation to make power and decision-making transparent. Consider questions like: Who is at the meeting and who is not? Why or why not? What’s on the agenda and what’s not on the table for discussion that should be? Who will be making the decisions that flow from what will be discussed (both in the room and beyond)? Who plays which roles and why? What work will happen outside of the meeting? What information from the meeting should be shared and with whom?
So, what are some ways to attend to power dynamics in meetings?
Assume power dynamics are always present in meetings. Design your meeting agenda to include multiple voices and perspectives. Lightly encourage people to step forward to lead and participate, especially if they have less power in the organization either because of role, positional status, race, gender, or other factors. Encourage people with traditional forms of formal power to do more listening than speaking.
Build a culture of collaboration in meetings. Think of meetings as an opportunity for a team to build relationships, learn leadership, design good processes, and counteract unhealthy uses of power. Design your meetings for relationships, joy, and creativity. Good things will follow! Always build an agenda that allows people to first interact on a human basis, such as starting with opportunities for people to do a “check-in” to share how their day or week is going or to learn more about each other on a personal level. Ask people a question that surfaces their personal and professional purpose. Encourage honesty, vulnerability, and calling people “in”, instead of calling people “out”. Spread a little business love around the room, creating openings for people to feel heard and noticed, and to experience a sense of belonging and interconnectedness.
Openly discuss power in meetings. Discuss openly with your team the question, what would be the benefits to our group if we shared power? Remind them that power is not a finite pie; rather, it can be infinite, expanded, and shared among people and leaders. Prompt them to explore how they can share “power with” each other instead of “power over.” Make a list of meeting agreements the group will use to share power. Ask people to monitor the agreements and be brave enough to intervene if people are not practicing them. Make a list of “power over” moves, so people learn the behaviors that reinforce dominant voices and power and exclude others. Have people take mental note of who is speaking the most and who is not. Make sure your discussions of power go beyond yourselves as colleagues to the people or communities you serve. How are they “at the table?” How are their priorities, assets, and skills driving the discussion?
Remember that power is a social construct. We can design spaces where individuals and groups experience their own and others’ power differently. Be proactive about ways to amplify the power of people who are typically at the margins of the conversation. Challenge the group to pay at least as much attention to the expertise that comes from lived experience (say, of poverty) as from formal theories and data. Flip questions on their head by asking “why not do things differently?” instead of “how can we work within given boundaries?” Ensure that people who are affected by the issues you’re working on are at the center of the conversation and have meaningful roles in the work over time (inside meetings and beyond).
Use your role intentionally and thoughtfully if you’re the meeting facilitator. Don’t dominate the discussion. Don’t come up with all the ideas. Stay as impartial as possible, even though you can never truly be completely neutral. If you want to contribute an idea or experience, tell the group you are switching from facilitator role to express your view as an individual and then step back into your facilitator role. Examine who gets to facilitate meetings and who doesn’t. Meeting facilitators can change the outcome of the meeting just by how they design and run it. Rotating facilitation and supporting people to learn how to facilitate and run meetings distributes power and makes meetings more dynamic.
The skills of meeting facilitation with a lens to share power are teachable and replicable. At IISC, we share some of those skills through training and consulting. We have learned that meetings that are both well facilitated and that attend to power dynamics can transform groups into highly functioning teams with deeper purpose and intention for social change.
Pursuing racial equity and systems change is a forever equation. I am noticing that our clients and friends believe that if we just implement racial equity, diversity, and inclusion “the right way,” our organizations, movements, and networks will immediately become effective multiracial ecosystems that produce transformative results.
We will always be undone. People and systems – the very world we live in – are ever changing and reverting and that’s why I have to be honest that the work of racial equity will always be unfinished.
People are always coming in and out of our organizations, some with knowledge of our path to create racial justice and others completely unknowing and beginning the discovery of systemic racism. Even if we root out systems of injustice and racism in specific institutions or sectors, they will exist in other places and invariably slip back into our ecosystem. The world is encased in racial stratification. We can dismantle racism in one territory and it can spread elsewhere as people and their ideas travel.
Oppression cannot be fixed. It’s not a linear proposition. It swarms, grows, gets attacked at moments, dissipates, and then finds its way back into our systems as fearful ways of thinking and unproductive ways of doing. And because we are a species and planet dependent on each other, the chronic patterns of racism can reenter our minds and societies. We are imperfect people in deeply imperfect systems.
We are making progress but it’s not the kind where there’s a clear end in sight. We’re learning together. We’re trying new practices of shared power. We’re rooting out racist policies in our laws and organizations. Our systems are feeling the pressure because of our joint actions.
But we won’t do it “right” and we won’t get it “right.” We will be undone.
But don’t let this disappointment get in the way of persistent bold action.
We will have moments of clarity. Moments of seeing new possibilities. Months of progress in our leadership for equity and justice. Years of growth and learning. Examples of power shifting and sharing all around us. Detrimental laws defeated. It will feel like freedom, like less damage is around and inside of us.
Let’s see ourselves as equilibrium makers, re-introducing people to see the problem of racism once again, re-balancing power as the dynamics return, re-calibrating systems when they revert, revisiting change in ourselves and others with humility, and re-birthing our best nature and ideas toward liberation.
Each of us are needed to extricate the roots of racism. We can still be a constant catalyst for change all the while knowing that we will be undone.
“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?
A secret I don’t share with many people is that I have trouble reading books. When I went to law school, they made us read so many dense pages of legal reasoning I lost my love of story – until I discovered the podcast. In the comfortable confines of my car I stand witness to stories of personal accomplishment, quirks in our daily lives, and social commentary about our world. The other day one really caught my attention.
It was about Toys R Us, the biggest toy store in America. I love toys and I thought everyone else did, too. So I was surprised to learn that Toys R Us had filed for bankruptcy. Turns out, Toys R Us had invested in bricks and mortar without seriously expanding into the internet sales market. And at the same time, they kept those physical spaces disorganized, stale, and predictable. Amazon swooped in and sold toys at a record pace.
A toy and business analyst said if Toys R Us could have jumped in early and creatively into internet sales they would have avoided their decline. And if they had made their stores places of experience, fun, mystery, and discovery, they could have saved their business that way. He believed they should have created large and open areas where kids could ride around on bikes and play with other toys. He thought another miss was not thinking about how to combine physical toys with technological interactions.
As I was driving on the highway heading into traffic, I started thinking about lessons IISC or our network of clients and partners could learn from this story. Are we missing opportunities for integrating our knowledge and expertise with web-based learning and social media? Are we creating experiences in physical rooms and meetings that kick leaders and participants out of the norm and into experiences of fun, exploration, and surprise? Are we combining online and in-person strategies to more effectively and creatively share learning and ideas around collaboration, leadership, equity, and network building?
IISC is not a for-profit corporation like Toys R Us, and we have different values and approaches from them, but we can benefit from understanding that the way we do our work now and how we do our work may not be the standard for the decades to come.
IISC has started piloting some unique approaches in our workshops, in our consulting work, and through our experimentation with public engagement that use web-based learning, social media memes, and narrative. We are cooking up ways to fashion our training and consulting expertise in modular and less expensive ways so we can share it more broadly. I think that’s an early sign of us growing and stretching. We are pushing ourselves to domore experimenting and I know it’s going to help us stay relevant and live into the power of the future.
What experiments might you try out that will help you live into your future? What’s the risk of not doing so? Supporting leaders, organizations, systems, and networks to engage in social change is never out of date, but the way we as consultants and leaders approach that work might be. We may know at a gut level that something new and different is called for, but are we leaning into what’s necessary to make the leap?
Check out how Toys R Us plans to turn around: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-toysr-us-bankruptcy-brandon/toys-r-us-ceo-sees-future-with-smaller-shops-idUSKCN1BV2Y7