Traditional management has run its course. At IISC and in our network of clients and equity practitioners, we’re trying to create something new in its place. We don’t have all the answers, but we know it’s time to discover another way.
As a Generation X’er who worked “under” bosses trained in traditional command and control leadership, I saw the poor results of “do what I say” or “do as I do” leadership. In the 80s and 90s, management strategies were based on military and manufacturing leadership practices which relied on top-down hierarchies, rigid routines, and long work hours.
Obedience of the workforce was paramount. And it was suffocating.
A natural product of the system of racialized capitalism, management was – and in many cases still is – about dominion over people and making sure they work harder and faster to amass money and resources for those “at the top.” It’s too often about quantity and output over people and quality, rather than what you ultimately accomplish.
Fortunately, collaboration as a critical proposition for team effectiveness, and equity and wellbeing as vital strategies for organizational success, are now in play in more workplaces. And yet, if we’re honest, we’re still churning out work and people like generations before us. The pandemic tried to teach us otherwise, but now that we’ve moved from pandemic panic to endemic acceptance, we’ve fallen back into old habits. We’ve defaulted to management practices that are rooted in the anxiety that comes from living in a world of systems which perpetuate oppression, political chaos, and climate catastrophes. Anxiety compels us to micromanage, remove employee autonomy, and revert to workplace disciplinary practices,
At IISC we’re working hard to stay true to our values and practices by approaching our organizational structure and practices with intention. We’re moving away from traditional management to transformational leadership that is based in shared leadership and the facilitative leadership and equity practices we bring to others.
So what are we doing? Here are three strategies we’re trying:
We’re decentering ourselves as “managers.” We’re developing a new leadership and decision-making structure that envisions each of us as leaders in a network, offering our contributions individually and collectively to move the whole. People closest to their areas of work and the impact of the work will be entrusted with decisions in those domains. Multiracial and multigenerational leadership will be a core principle as we undo work norms that stem from cultures of white supremacy.
We’re creating a workplace that is about preserving dignity and wellbeing. We believe that policies that promote wellbeing help us approach our work with greater focus and creativity. And having more time outside of work to rest and connect enables us to see the world more clearly and better understand our organization’s role in making the world a better place. We have implemented a four-day work week to give people a greater balance between work and personal time, and we’ve launched a compensation pod to explore how to increase our wages through an equity lens. We’re repackaging some of our functions so they fit better within each person’s job and hiring more people to share those responsibilities. We avoid booking meetings before 10am so people have time to plan their days, do solo work, and attend to caregiving responsibilities.
We’re building new practices for holding each other accountable to our work goals and values by navigating the conflict that naturally arises in an organizational setting. We’ve had a dominant culture of “niceness” that allowed tensions to stay buried, leading to work inefficiencies and resentment. To address that, we’ve worked with transformative justice practitioners to learn to step into more radical candor with each other. We’ve learned it’s possible to have hard conversations and hold people with dignity by engaging in truth-telling that emphasizes impact over intent. And, last but not least, we’re piloting mechanisms for sharing feedback that are not based on a supervision model but rather on coaching and mutual accountability sessions.
I’m relieved that future generations may be spared the problematic management practices of the past that treated us like widgets instead of precious humans. But we need a lot more people and leaders who are willing to stand with us and our allies. And who are ready to lead us forward into this new way of working.
We want to hear from you! How are you trying to replace traditional management practices with transformational leadership? How do you want to take a stand?
Earlier this summer, I walked into the Boston Convention Center with thousands milling about and locked eyes with a Black woman who had the kindest smile. As I learned later, she, like me, had been to hundreds of conferences in our lifetimes but we felt shy. The exhibits weren’t open yet so we started chatting about our work and lives. I learned she is the president of a local chapter of the NAACP in the south, and a Black woman president at that. Her power has been challenged daily by white power structures resisting change and by male leadership within her ranks who assume they know better, but she didn’t look tired. She was ready for the convention and she was proud of her youth leaders who were participating. She was here, at the NAACP convention, working to build a better future and that was all that mattered.
If the convention had stopped there, I would have learned something. When you get to my stage of life and attend events like this, you often spend time with people you already know. That day, I spent time with people I didn’t know and at workshops in which the content was unfamiliar. I came away enriched with a new relationship, with new ideas, and – most importantly – with new-found hope. And I learned a lot about what advocates working for change most need in these times.
Here are three takeaways:
These times are not new, and we have the people and tools to break through this painful America we are living in right now. Shavone Arline-Bradley, president of the National Council of Negro Women, brought the house down at the women’s luncheon when she ran down the list of conservative white supremacists that Black leaders have reckoned with – including George Wallace, former Governor of Alabama, who was an ardent advocate for school segregation in the 60s and 70s. Despite his efforts to keep in place Plessy v. Ferguson, which legalized school segregation in 1896, it was overturned 58-years later by the US Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education. She argued that we have seen the likes of supremacists like Donald Trump and Ron Desantis before and we have stopped their progress through organizing, get out the vote efforts, and in the courts. And she credited the strategy and strength of Black women who waged these fights.
The climate crisis must be viewed as immediate and dangerous, and as a critical racial justice issue. Boston environmental and racial justice activist Reverend Mariama White-Hammond and other climate leaders clearly laid out the climate and weather shifts that we are now facing. We learned that the impacts are disproportionately centered in Black, Brown, and low-income communities where residents don’t have access to sufficient air conditioning or plentiful and drinkable water in hot conditions, or places to go when flooding hits apartments and homes because of poor water mitigation systems.
As I listened to the inequities, I realized that there should be no “change” in climate change because it’s now a crisis, and there is no “threat” because climate chaos is already damaging our cities and rural communities in the form of extreme heat, wildfires, floods, and droughts. What gets in my way and the way of others who are in this fight is that it’s just so hard to face. We need to stare the climate reality in the eyes, and as indigenous people and people rooted to land know, we must focus on healing our planet and taking the best care of it we can.
We must bring young people to our tables. There were hundreds of youth at the convention, all attending workshops and participating in events designed to develop their leadership at all levels of the NAACP and in local communities. It was clear from the panel conversations and the myriad of people I spoke with that if we’re going to fight modern-day supremacists and their successors, we need young people leading the way. And we need to train and support them with strategies, tools, and resources for social change and racial justice. Our legacy will continue through their passion and ideas and we have a responsibility to support them, teach them what we know, learn what we don’t, and follow their great ideas.
I am walking away inspired by the knowledge that we absolutely have what it takes for the fights ahead, as long as we continue to build the strength of our networks and prioritize the leadership and energy of young people. We can – and we will – do this.
Folks who know me as a facilitator know that one of my first and favorite questions in planning a meeting is “who’s deciding?” It’s a question that can be counter-cultural for groups that are unaccustomed to clearly defining the decision-making process. And yet, leaving the question unanswered or unclear is one of the fastest ways I have seen to erode trust and to drive people away from working together.
Tips for doing better
Answering a few simple questions can help to avoid a great deal of frustration and prevent the fracturing of collaborative work:
WHAT decision is being made? What information will we need to make the decision? What criteria will guide the decision?
WHY is this the decision we’re making? Is there something else that we need to address first?
WHO is the final decision maker? Is it the group that’s meeting now or is it actually some other group or individual?
HOW will the final decision be made? If the group is making the final decision together, do they have an understanding of what consensus is and how to reach it? What will they do if they can’t reach a consensus? If an individual is making the final decision, will they gather input from others or proceed alone? How will they share the factors that will be considered as the decision is made? How will people be informed about the final decision? (Check out our Levels of Involvement in Decision Making framework for many more details about options for how to involve people in decision making.) What constraints will shape the decision-making process (e.g., time available, resources needed, etc.)?
Using the Questions in Sticky Situations
Do any of these situations, which we’ve seen repeatedly in our work, sound familiar to you? Here are some ideas about how applying our tips could have helped.
A team receives a task with minimal guidance about constraints, other than when the project is due. They complete their task and are told, “No, we don’t have time or money to do all of that.” or “That’s not actually what we thought you’d do with the task.” The team is asked to go back to the drawing board but many members feel disrespected and frustrated, and are reluctant to continue working on the project.
The leader who set the team up with the project could have named specific time and resource constraints to help both the leader and the team set clear expectations, and could have indicated what would happen next if the group couldn’t make its decisions within those constraints.
A coalition is meeting to decide on its goals for the year. A few priorities rise to the top, but there is no moment when the group clearly affirms the choices. Everyone goes away feeling good, but thinking differently about what was actually decided. A few days later, members read the meeting notes, which sound to some participants like they were from an entirely different meeting. Frustration ensues as individuals jockey to get the items they thought were agreed upon onto the final list of goals.
The meeting facilitator could have explicitly checked for consensus as priorities began to emerge, and clearly identified where there was/was not agreement. The note taker could have recorded on chart paper or used a computer and projector (in an in-person meeting) or screen sharing or a shared online document (in an online meeting) so that everyone could see what was happening with the information in real time.
A team receives a meeting agenda saying that the outcome of the meeting is an agreement on a solution to a pressing organizational problem. During the meeting, people spend all of the time exploring the problem. Some people are frustrated that they didn’t even begin to move towards a solution. Others are frustrated with the stated meeting outcome, since there hadn’t been any problem analysis. The meeting ends without a clear sense of what to do next and what to say to those who are waiting for the solution.
Typically, if a group is deciding on solutions, they first need to understand the problem they are trying to solve so they can identify solutions that effectively address root causes. The facilitator and meeting planners could have designed pre-meeting work or discussions to build understanding of the problem before getting into solutions. Or, they could have shifted the timeline so the group could explore problems during this meeting and solutions later.
People leave a staff meeting thinking they have reached agreement on organizational priorities. A few days later, the CEO announces priorities, which are slightly different, thanking the group for the way the meeting helped her to make her final decision on priorities. Staff members are confused and frustrated because they thought they were all making the decision together. Some team members begin to wonder if they can trust the CEO.
The leader could have first asked herself whether this is a decision the team should actually make together. If the situation really did call for her to make the final decision after consulting with the team, she could have started and closed the discussion by clearly stating why she is the final decision maker and how this discussion gives the team a chance to inform her final decision.
A colleague sends you an email, assigning you a task that you didn’t know about and asking you to do it in a way that doesn’t make sense to you. They don’t invite any questions and do not appear willing to discuss your ideas about how to get the job done. You wrestle with how much energy you want to put into asking questions and whether you have the energy to deal with a potential conflict if you just do the task in a way that makes most sense to you.
The colleague could have explained who decided that the task needed to be done in this particular way and why, spelling out important factors that led to this decision. They could have asked for your questions, concerns, or ideas about how to proceed. And they could have explained any degrees of flexibility around how the task was to be accomplished.
While clarity about decision making isn’t magic, it will make many collaborative ventures much smoother. It will grow the precious resource of trust, without which your efforts to work together are destined to fall short. It will also give you new ways to explore and expand power, which is so often experienced through the act of decision making. Questions about who decides on things like priorities and strategy; the allocation of time, money, and other resources; involvement in designing and implementing activities; and who decides who gets a seat at the decision-making table are fundamentally questions about power. Clarity around decision making will create space to address power dynamics more directly and grow more shared power to accomplish together things that you could never accomplish on your own.
Let us know how these tips are helping your efforts to collaborate for social justice and racial equity.For more on power and power dynamics, check out our series Bringing Facilitative Leadership for Social Change to Your Virtual Work, which includes sessions on Managing Power Dynamics in Virtual Meetings and Collaborative Decision Making and Shared Leadership.
All along the way, there were messages of what the times are calling for in terms of practicing resilience and transformation. Each of these deserves a fuller unpacking, and I offer them here for now, with much gratitude to many teachers along the way. I begin each of these with the word “remember,” as that was a core teaching from our gathering on Haudenosaunee lands, that one of our greatest gifts is to remember, and that so much of this is about remembering …
Remember that everything is designed to work together through reciprocal relations.
Remember where you come from, what your “creation story” is, as there is great guidance there.
Remember what matters most to you, your values, and align with them in practice.
Remember what is yours to do in this lifetime and in/with Life.
Remember to go below the neckline (to the heart and gut), without throwing out what is above it (the head).
Remember to practice belonging and accountability (they go together and support one another).
Remember to do intergenerational work/learning, thinking of those living, those passed on, and those yet to come.
Remember to bring in “the periphery” (whatever that means in your particular situation – this generally relates to power and access). There is much wisdom and fresh insight here.
Remember the importance of putting in place a “resilience or transformation infrastructure” (think process, roles and relationships) – this does not necessarily happen on its own.
Remember when it makes sense to “institutionalize” and do so in ways that do not kill spirit, vitality and diversity.
Remember not to make assumptions and be prepared to be surprised.
Remember to have faith in the unseen, the power of “practical magic.”
Remember to break bread with one another, to talk with one another and to keep leaning in to the (apparent) differences. Learning awaits!
Remember to find what grounds and nourishes you (individually and collectively) and cherish/honor it.
If you’re asking the question “What do we do now?” you’re asking the right one.
With the recent plethora of dangerous decisions by the US Supreme Court, many of us were not surprised. As soon as former President Trump added new members to the Court and set them on a course for an anti-civil rights and anti-equity agenda, we knew many of the transformative gains we had made over the last sixty or more years were in danger.
Civil rights and civil liberties that protect human rights are, and never have been, guaranteed. America has a history and deep practice of white supremacy, control of women’s bodies, and discrimination and violence against Black and Latinx peoples and LGBTQ+ communities, land theft, confinement, and erasure of Indigenous communities, and scapegoating of immigrants. And it is all firmly backed by politicians and their carefully selected court appointees who threaten the rule of law and everyone’s security by dismantling protections to live, work, go to school, and love freely.
We knew the plan and we knew the pain that was coming. Now we need to understand and analyze the decisions. And, most importantly, we need to act and exercise our power – organizationally, collectively, and individually.
Here are five actions to take after the recent US Supreme Court Decisions:
Stand firm and advance racial, gender, sexual orientation, and class equity like never before. Don’t wait for someone to tell you what to do. If you’re a boss, offer your staff benefits and protections that no court can take away. Don’t use vendors, professional services, or companies that do not reflect your values. Sit your human resources professionals and managers down and ask them to do everything in their power to remove impediments to equity and justice in your workplace. If they’re too attached to the law and not willing to be creative or take a few risks to protect the rights of your employees, find the person who will.
And take advantage of any loopholes in recent US Supreme Court decisions. For example, even though the Supreme Court restricted affirmative action in admissions programs, Justice Roberts writing for the majority said “Nothing in this opinion should be construed as prohibiting universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected his or her life.” At UC Santa Barbara, for example, students still write about their race and ethnicity in college essays. Although the admissions team can’t consider race, they can evaluate how students responded to significant issues that impacted their lives and factor that into their admissions decision. And the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission noted in a statement that the recent cases do not “address employer efforts to foster diverse and inclusive workforces or to engage the talents of all qualified workers, regardless of their background,” clarifying that it is still legal for “employers to implement diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility programs that seek to ensure workers of all backgrounds are afforded equal opportunity in the workplace.”
Own Your Power. Get political! Some people think of politics as an ugly endeavor (or dirty business), but politics – the building and wielding of power and policy to help lives – is, or at least should be, the essence of democracy. Understand what you can do within the confines of your organization. There are fewer limits on nonprofits than you may think. For instance, 501(c)(3) organizations can educate voters and elected officials, and even lobby under a certain threshold. And organizations can set up 501(c)(4) organizations and PACs to do direct electioneering and endorse candidates.
And up your personal political game. Participate as a voter if you’re eligible. If not, register voters and campaign for candidates that show up for civil rights and racial justice. Research the legislation politicians are voting on and make sure they hear from you about your priorities. Consider running for local office. Make your voice heard by showing up at school board, zoning commission, city council, and other public meetings. Don’t assume that because you’re in a more progressive state that we don’t have work to do – it could just be a matter of time.
Reclaim the streets. We have to continue to organize, demonstrate power, and march in the streets at unprecedented levels to protest the perilous actions of the court and politicians. We need a narrative and set of demands that undergird our outrage about how the American people can no longer trust the courts because precedent and human rights no longer matter to them. We must call on Congress and state legislatures to pass new laws that grant civil rights and personal freedoms.
Vision, plan, and execute for the long-term. Anti-civil rights groups have been planning and building for this moment for decades. They have focused on five crucial areas that have brought them wins: policy, candidates, gerrymandering, courts, and messaging. They laid plans years and sometimes decades in advance to identify policies they wanted to change, recruit candidates, draw political districts in their favor, elect politicians that would approve their court picks, and cultivate messages online and offline that resonate with voters. Those of us who focus on progressive social change need to do the same – unapologetically and now.
Build and expand community – even those you think are not with us. Anti-civil rights groups and networks have captured more of the working class vote and white imagination than the progressive movement thought possible. They have been digging into white, middle America communities, swing states, and emerging swing states, spreading misinformation and fear throughout. They have been present and listening to communities that some progressives have abandoned, believing erroneously that they only need each other to make change.
We’ve got to reach more people, understand their concerns, find connections, and foster greater love and empathy for others. The people who are opposing affirmative action, reproductive rights, racial justice, LGBTQ+ rights, cancelation of student loan debt, environmental protections, and reasonable gun restraints are not fighting a single-issue battle and neither can we. They are fighting for a narrow conception of what it means to be the United States and who this country and its resources are for. We will not win the moral battle for justice as discrete communities, but rather together – as a collective so strong and a movement so large, diverse, and inclusive that we cannot be divided!
And, as you take these actions, know you’re not alone. While the forces against justice have gained ground and visibility, there are many individuals, organizations, and networks who are “fighting the good fight” and getting into “necessary trouble.” This is a time to collaborate across traditional boundaries and put your justice values into practice. IISC can partner with your organization or network to help you advance and operationalize racial equity and equity of all kinds at every level of your organization. This is the time to dig in deeper and we’ve got a full team ready to dedicate our services to you.
Knowing that our country needs more political action and organizing, IISC wants to work with more advocacy, organizing, and electoral organizations and networks so that we can support movements for justice by sharing our facilitation skills and tools for collaboration, equity, and network-building. Can you connect us to them? IISC is also available to bring seasoned facilitators to organizations and networks that are eager to clarify their vision for the future and develop a pathway forward to realize that vision. And we can support you in facilitating conversations with people who are nontraditional allies and with whom you may even be at odds. Learn more about our offerings here.
IISC President Kelly Bates was honored this Juneteenth holiday as part of the groundbreaking launch of a new exhibit titled “Living History Makers of Color in Hyde Park”, a pictorial installation of Boston residents and leaders of color who have made historical contributions locally and nationally.
The exhibit features 13 Hyde Park residents of color who are having a positive and enduring impact in the local and national arena and who have committed themselves to service in addressing marginalization, disparities, and inequities. Consisting of larger-than-life pictorial stands of each honoree, the exhibit is scheduled to travel to various sites around the state over the coming months and will have its home during the winter months at the Hyde Park Branch of the Boston Public Library.
The exhibit was conceived and produced by the Forum for Racial Equity in Hyde Park, led by Marcia Kimm-Jackson. The Forum for Racial Equity in Hyde Park via Educational Experiences (FREEE) believes that acknowledging modern Black and Brown contributions and history is important for many reasons. First, it allows us to eradicate the pervasive and damaging myth of inferiority that has been perpetuated throughout history about communities of color. By highlighting the achievements and successes of Black and Brown residents, we challenge this false narrative and promote a more truthful and positive view of the residents and the broader community in Hyde Park and beyond. Second, by recognizing the valuable contributions of Black and Brown residents, we can help to create a more inclusive city and state that values and respects the diverse experiences and perspectives of all individuals. And third, acknowledging the contributions and history of Black and Brown residents is a crucial step towards achieving racial justice and equity.
The full list of honorees, in addition to Kelly Bates, includes:
Reverend Dr. Bruce H. Wall – “Defining the Church Without Walls” – Groundbreaking pastor/activist/changemaker
Aisha Francis-Samuels, Ph.D – “Educator at Heart” – First female college president at Franklin Cummings Institute of Technology
Conan Harris – “Purveyor of Fortitude and Foresight” – Esteemed purpose-driven leader and mentor
Segun Idowu – “Man of the Moment” – Exemplary economic and equity leader
Wyatt Jackson/Dianne Walker – “Ambassadors of Black Creativity, Giants in the Arts” – Impactful educators and award winning and historic artists
Ruthzee Louijeune, Esq. – “Working for the People, Advancing Equity” – First Haitian American city councilor; accomplished attorney
José C. Massó III/José Fabio Massó – “Voices for Change, Pride and Unity” – Award-winning broadcasters for equity and unity and living the legacy of love in service
Pat Odom – “Trailblazer” – First female of color in Massachusetts Army National Guard
Imari Paris Jeffries, Ph.D – “Keeper of Stories” – Exemplary and influential nonprofit leader & equity advocate
Ayanna Pressley – “Policy is my Love Language” – First Black woman elected to represent Massachusetts in Congress
Tanisha Sullivan, Esq. – “Courageous Leader and Fighter for Collective Advancement” – Visionary and impactful attorney, humanitarian and civil rights leader
Ricardo Arroyo, Esq. – “Making Space for All” – First city councilor of color in Hyde Park
Just wrapping up some work with a network focused on just and sustainable food systems, and based on work we have done and conversation we have had to date on equity, networks, and love, here is a list of 10 things that might be transferable to your work (remembering that you can’t always transplant directly, without some fine-tuning to context):
If you have an equity commitment, revisit it often, if not during every significant meeting that happens. Integration is key. If you have not developed a commitment, consider it. You might ask your team, “Why are we committed to advancing equitable wellbeing and belonging in and through our work? What does this mean to us? What is in it for us? What happens if we don’t live into this commitment?”
Go back to your group agreements (assuming you have a set of guiding principles) during every meeting (think about opening with these). Ideally these agreements help you to answer the question, “How can we create conditions for a sense of equitable wellbeing and belonging?”
Have more discussion with people in your organization/system about Zoom and on-line etiquette. This has to do with supporting equitable wellbeing and belonging and also leaning into collective accountability, which is a big part of “justice infrastructure.” Talk about what you all mean by “accountability” in terms of “showing up” for each other and “speaking up” when together and why it is important.
Clarify an equitable “system of roles” in your meetings/work (facilitator, scribe/memory keeper, sponsor, lead organizer, point person, etc.). These roles can (and probably should) rotate, and be distributed (not all held by a single or few people). Know what your system of roles is in any given moment, whether you are making meaning, making decisions, or taking action together.
Create and maintain a broadly accessible list of recommended equity tools for all. Ideally co-create this, revisit it together from time to time, and think of it in terms of different modalities (text, audio, visual, etc.). Keep it fresh and pruned. Here is a great resource to get started.
Fine-tune the structure of your organization/system so that it reflects your equity commitment, following the notion that “form (structure) follows function (activities) follows focus (what you are trying to make happen in the world).” Revisit structure in light of changing functions and your evolving understanding of equity at least once a year. How is it supporting equitable wellbeing and belonging? How might it be adjusted to be more aligned? Consider using an equity impact assessment to guide you in this work (see image below).
Keep broadly accessible equity learning and cultural celebration events going, monthly or quarterly. This could be movie nights, discussion groups, guest speakers, book clubs, multi-cultural food potlucks, storytelling festivals, etc. This could also include something like participating in the FSNE 21 Day Equity Challenge. And certainly see if you can attract a diverse flock to these events and celebrations.
Think about how to do your events in such a way that a wide variety of people feel engaged and included, as participants, contributors, presenters, etc. Consider who has access and feels welcomed and who does not.
For a bigger stretch, perhaps, consider doing relational organizing or “conversational weaving,” focused on discussing and practicing equitable wellbeing and belonging. You can do this in small groups starting in your organization/community and spread out from there. A resource that might be helpful in this regard is Marshall Ganz’s work.
This is something that I put into a digital journal as I was traveling home to capture what was moving through me:
“Just leaving Jackson, Mississippi, where I was for three days, co-facilitating and participating in a gathering convened by the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future of food policy councils from around the country (US) that are trying to advance social equity in their work. It was incredibly powerful to me to gather in Jackson, for all its history; to meet the likes of Reena Evers-Everette (daughter of Medgar and Myrlie Evers), Charles Taylor (head of the NAACP-Mississippi), Savi Horne (Land Loss Prevention Program), Ed Whitfield (Seed Commons) and Dr. Cindy Ayers-Elliott(founder of Foot Print Farms); and also to learn more from colleagues there about the network weaving and healing work they are doing in and around food systems, which is about so much more than food – community, local economy, and culture.
As I was walking through the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum about two hours after we closed the convening, I was hit in the forehead and heart (literally had to sit down) by the messages from both the history I was taking in and also what I had just experienced in Jackson. And I should add that it links to the work we at IISC have been supporting through Food Solutions New England for over a decade. To distill “success” (or encouraging movement) in the Civil Rights movement (especially in Mississippi) and what is happening now in Mississippi and in New England around food systems change, much seems to come down to this:
Grounding in the anchoring power of faith, which may or may not be religiously-sourced, and nonetheless is about having humility in the face of Life’s gifts and grandeur, which is complex and awe-inspiring, and asks us to both never give up but also to let go …
On top of this, or infused with this, comes the work for policy change, creating new civic infrastructure, and the like, and never losing sight of the list above.
One peril, over and over again, in social/system change work, seems to be the pitfalls of abstraction – making what we are doing too intellectual and inaccessible to most, not to mention unactionable; not addressing the abstractions that people make of one another in systems (seeing someone only as their role, or other aspects of identity); inappropriately “scaling” or “franchising” efforts and not shaping the work to real places where there may be some familiar patterns but always uniqueness in terms of history and culture.
Another peril is perpetuating fragmentation – not working with living breathing wholes, siloing our “knowing” to overly intellectual/analytical thinking, failing to integrate/weave strategies and perpetuating unhelpful competition (playing into the oligarchic capitalist narrative and way of doing things).”
Now reflecting on this a few days later, something else comes up, which is the importance of ongoing work on ourselves as “change agents,” care-fully watching our own automatic tendencies, biases, and inclinations (including towards groupthink), and especially being careful of the rearing of the overly pride-full ego in the forms of fear, envy, greed and striving for control. Much seems to come down to the abiding power of Love (and from it the expression when necessary of “holy rage”) and the never-ending practice of making room for regenerative flows …
Still sitting with it all, and curious to hear reactions, resonances and other reflections …
Welcome to the Racial Affinity Group Field Guideproduced by the Interaction Institute for Social Change (IISC) for public distribution. Affinity groups are an important part of the journey towards understanding and promoting racial equity and racial justice. We are so glad that you have signed up to support people in having these important conversations.
This guide provides practical advice for leading and facilitating racial affinity groups in your organization or community. It includes the nuts and bolts of organizing affinity groups; potential topics to cover in your groups; the importance of managing your own interior condition while participating in an affinity group; and links to various tools and resources.
Many questions are likely to arise as you design and lead your affinity groups. It’s important to remember that there are no perfect answers to these questions; there are always pros and cons to trying different things. We encourage you to avoid a false sense of urgency and the pressure to make everything perfect, both of which are characteristics of white dominant culture. Some things will work and some things won’t. You’ll make mistakes and that’s okay, particularly because that means you are learning along the way.
We encourage you to try out different affinity group content and techniques, and eventually you will have greater comfort and ease in the role. If possible, surround yourself with a community of other facilitators so that you can learn, experiment, and grow together. Please know that there are many others doing this work; you are not alone!
Please note this guide was written for people living and working in the United States. Racism is a global phenomenon, as Europeans displaced and oppressed non-white people all around the world. However, racism in other countries may operate in unique ways based on the historical context and the expression of modern-day racism in that location. We encourage you to further adapt the ideas in this guide to reflect your own local context.
HOW TO USE THIS GUIDE
This guide is structured to address the most common questions that arise when designing and facilitating race-based affinity groups. It addresses the who, what, when, where, why, and how of all things related to affinity groups. Read the whole guide or skim to get the answers to your most burning questions. And, as always, we welcome your comments.
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.”