At IISC, we’re asking ourselves some hard questions. Are we maintaining the status quo or breaking it? If we are alive in times like this, what are we living for? And whatever that is, we better make it worth it. Because this country has been presented with a mirror and what we see is our ugly reflection, and the choices we now make will have life and death consequences.
So we feel it’s right, and necessary, to ask the hard questions, The questions are rhetorical, but hey, why not, since we’re all talking and trying to be brave.
If we don’t ask for and expect this President’s immediate removal, what are we sanctioning?
If you lost steam for the fight for racial justice that rose up last summer, or if you went back to business as usual after George Floyd died, why is that? Do you realize that racism is always awake even when you’re sleeping?
If you’re shocked about the attempted takeover of our Capitol and country, have you accepted that white supremacy isn’t just present in those that stormed the doors, but are also inside government institutions and within our own elected officials?
If you think diversity training and simple “DEI” initiatives are enough to dismantle structural racism, think again! How can you begin to shift your focus to dismantling structural racism?
If you think you aren’t complicit with racism, ask yourself, “am I too comfortable?”
Yesterday was an epic system failure (or, from another perspective, it’s the system working as it was designed to work), born out of relentless racism, white domination, and male violent entitlement. It’s not extremist. It’s not an aberration. It’s America. If you’re numb or checked out, wake up. If you’re shocked, don’t think more shock isn’t coming. You may feel pain, but that exists for a reason. The pain tells you that you’re alive and alert. We may be striving to do the right thing, but playing it safe is not an option during a 24-7 assault on our humanhood.
Safe is “we can do this later.”
Safe is “someone else will take care of this.”
Safe is “we can talk about ‘equity’ without being laser-focused on tearing down racism.”
Safe is “we can avoid struggle, hard truths and conversations, and real work.”
We turned out in record numbers in the November general election — despite a pandemic, an economic crisis, and so many attempts to stop us. We voted for our communities and the things we care about, and to make life better for all of us. We voted because it is our right to do so. And there is still more to do…
Yes – we still need to phone bank TODAY for tomorrow’s #RunoffElection in Georgia! This election determines control of the senate, and we can all show up for Georgians the way they showed up for the country’s future in November. Sign up NOW to phone bank with @newgeorgiaproject 5-8pm ET (mobilize.us/ngp) or @NAACPYouthCollege 6-7pm ET (bit.ly/GAPhoneBanking)
As you review the framework, would you share your responses to the questions below in the comments?
What does it bring up for you?
Where do you find yourself focusing your thinking and efforts?
What might you want to explore, start, continue or further develop, or stop doing in any of the stages?How does the framework help you prioritize and perhaps find empowering areas for action and partnership?
As you navigate the complex times of COVID-19 and racial uprising, consider what it would take to transition through these four dimensions, what needs to be in place, what is already in place, and what we need to reimagine and rebuild.
1 – In the Trauma Dimension: How are we responding to the impact of trauma from COVID, racism, and other shocks?
Racial Equity & Justice:
Are we removing racialized barriers to emergency resources?
Are we using a racial equity impact analysis tool to understand and evaluate our response? Even when we feel rushed?
Are we recognizing deep racial harm in our organization and networks?
Are we pausing and engaging in quick and meaningful stakeholder engagement to guide our responses and ensure less harm?
Are we attending to both relationships and results as we carry out our work?
Are we acting and responding with humility, empathy, and transparency?
Are we practicing presence and accountability?
Are we connecting with diverse networks to gather and share information and foster flows to address critical needs?
2 – In the Reckoning Dimension: How are we grappling with deep distress and the reality of shifting resources? How are we embracing racial uprisings for change? How are we embracing uncertainty?
Racial Equity & Justice:
Are we acknowledging inequities revealed by crisis?
Are we acting to undo the racialized impacts of our actions?
How are we recognizing the leadership of Black people and what are the lessons for our organizations?
It’s the days after the November 3rd presidential election in the United States. What’s a leader to do in this post-election moment? We believe the most fundamental principle that grounds Facilitative Leadership for Social Change, a transformative learning experience we teach and share with social and racial justice leaders, may shed some light.
The fundamental principle of Facilitative Leadership for Social Change, IISC’s flagship workshop, is that decisions are best made when we tap into the power of participation by involving every person who is a stakeholder in the decisions that impact their lives. Facilitative leaders create a safe environment for participation and collaboration. Those who are still counting ballots – and may soon be recounting ballots – will serve us best by being mindful of this and ensuring that every single vote is counted, as objectively as is humanly possible, and with an eye toward complete transparency. The integrity of the next steps of the election process and the outcome of any legal challenges depend on this.
In our organizations and communities, Facilitative Leadership invites us – now more than ever – to be collaborative, strategic, receptive, and adaptable. In this moment, linking arms with others safely in the streets or metaphorically in Zoom rooms, to connect deeply to strategize and engage in the work of racial and social justice with everyone at the table, truly matters. Generating and facilitating authentic conversations that help us to better understand ourselves and our country, and to adapt in peaceful and nonviolent ways to what’s happening now, is deeply needed. Greeting each decision with openness to the ideas and challenges of others without defense and ego can set our communities and leadership on the path to deep transformation.
As we make decisions in the coming hours, days, and weeks about the shape of our country or the work in our offices, seek maximum appropriate involvement. This doesn’t mean that every person must be involved every time you have a decision to make, but it does mean considering who will be impacted by that decision and how best to ensure their voices influence the outcomes of the decision, including making them more equitable.
Discover Shared Meaning
Now is an especially important time for people to engage in conversations, transformative listening, and deep thinking about what is holding us together and what is separating us. What can we learn from this election and the values, behaviors, and interactions that came from it? What assumptions and conclusions have we been making? What new insights do we have about our future?
How can we help others understand the ways in which systemic injustice and racism are playing out in our political process, in our work, and in our communities? How can we make more visible the different parts of our system – whether it is institutions like government, education, or health care – so that we can organize for change?
Inspire a Shared Vision
Even if you’re uncertain about the future, what do you understand about humankind and those you work with? What are the possibilities? How can we create and live into more equitable and resilient futures?
Focus on Results, Process, & Relationship
Whether we are with our families watching the election process and legal battles unfold or bringing together managers in our organizations, focus first on how people are doing and the strength of their relationships. And then go about things in a way that honors their human fragility while pointing them towards the results we are working to achieve.
Design Pathways to Action
Now is the time for us to start thinking about how we can design a pathway for getting what we need and want. The election has revealed once again the depth and level of racism in our cities, towns, and communities. What can we uniquely design to root out racism in ways that will bring along even those we think are not with us?
How can we work with others and with our government officials to facilitate a peaceful transition and build agreements that allow our nation to heal through the reckonings of COVID, racial violence, and election divisions? The wounds are deep and require challenging conversations that can be harnessed into agreements, concrete actions, and more repaired relationships.
Let’s be our most facilitative selves in this critical moment.
I’m fInishing up David Fleming’s book Surviving the Future, and buzzing with ideas and questions about the role of networks, network weaving and energy network science in these times of “systemic release” (see the adaptive cycle above, and more about the cycle here).
Fleming’s book, a curated collection of essays from the heftier Lean Logic, offers some compelling thinking about the trajectory of globalized and national economies – at best de-coupling, de-growth, and regeneration, and at worst catastrophic collapse – and the ways in which intentional and more localized culture building and reclamation as well as capacity conservation, development and management, might steer communities to healthier and more whole places post-market economy.
One of my favorite quotes from Fleming is that large-scale problems do not require large scale solutions; they require small-scale solutions within a large scale framework. That resonated immediately, even if I didn’t know exactly what he meant when I first read it. Re-reading more carefully, I hear Fleming making the argument that to take on systemic breakdown at scale is a fool’s errand – too massive, too slow, too much rigidity to deal with, too much potential conflict, too abstracted from real places and people.
Instead what is required is more nimble small-scale solutions happening iteratively and quickly (relative to how slow things move at larger levels). This suggests that action for resilience must happen at more local and regional levels, connecting diverse players in place, helping to encourage more robust exchanges of all kinds (including multiple “currencies”) and culture building. David Fleming offers the following definition of the lean economy (as opposed to the taut perpetual growth economy): “an economy held together by richly-developed social capital and culture, and organized around the rediscovery of community.” How might we weave that fabric even as others unravel?
Lean (network) weaving (a new term?) would focus on helping to create more intricate, high quality/high trust and diverse connections as well as facilitating robust, nourishing flows in tighter and more grounded cycles and systems. Part of the lean weaving would entail ensuring that smaller systems remain alert, quick and flexible so as to experiment, learn and adapt. And it would also maintain connection and communication between these smaller systems/clusters (Fleming’s “larger framework”), to facilitate learning and feedback of various kinds between them (not unlike proposed bioregional learning centers).
“The more flexible the sub-systems, the longer the expected life of the system as a whole.”
This idea of “lean weaving” also brings to mind the wisdom of network science as taught by Danielle Varda and colleagues at Visible Networks Lab. They make the point that when it comes to creating strong (resilient and regenerative) networks, more can be less in terms of the connections we have. Connectivity, like so much else in our mainstream economy and culture, can be ruled by a relentless growth imperative that is not strategic or sustainable and can cheat us of quality in favor of quantity.
More connections require more energy to manage, meaning there may ultimately be fewer substantive ties if we are spread too thin. Instead, the invitation is to think about how we mindfully maintain a certain number of manageable and enriching strong and weak ties, and think in terms of “structural holes.” For more on this network science view, visit this VNL blog post “We want to let you in on a network science secret – better networking is less networking.”
The COVID19 pandemic along with other mounting challenges may already be presenting the mandate and opportunity to get more keen and lean in our network thinkingand weaving, not simply in the spirit of austerity and regression, but to cut an evolutionary path of resilience and regeneration (renewal). Network weavers of all kinds, what are you seeing and doing in this respect?
We’re in a pandemic, Trump/Facism exists, racism is unrelenting, and there are wildfires, hurricanes, and floods.
You’re not alone
You’re deeply precious
Your existence truly matters.
We will learn
We will get a vaccine
We will fight the forces of tyranny, desperation, and hate
And time will seem to pass slowly
but we will see our fight pay off.
It’s normal some days and the next hour to feel like you don’t want to
or feel anything
It’s ok to feel like quitting or giving up.
It’s abnormal to work for social and racial justice in individual rooms
or on a lonely but better than no connection Zoom.
in a society that’s hurting us and others.
The work we do is hard and encompassing
Please pause and take care of yourself.
Give yourself a walk around the block
Talk to a friend even if you don’t feel like you want to
Take a personal or sick day just because you need the wellness and healing
Work less than 40 hours (who said 40 hours is even optimal and efficient?)
Free your mind of guilt no matter what you perceive or understand from others
We are here to build
and not necessarily to “serve” which is an anti-self care mindset if we’re not careful.
Your heart and spirit
is our heart and spirit.
Let’s check in on each other. A quick call, text, gif, laugh or spaced visit.
Let’s do one thing.
It will never be small
to help move ourselves
and this country in the direction we desire and imagine.
I love your humanness, your frailty, your strength.
Forgive me if I am not always my best
But I will try my best to
and for the world.
For the past month I’ve been checking in with a dozen or so networks that I support and participate in in various ways, looking at how best to navigate these times when in some cases it feels there may be a need to ratchet down or right size expectations. With so much in flux and uncertain, with many new challenges and barriers to how people may have operated in the past, when the impulse might be to pull back or bunker down, what can weavers/coordinators do, what are they doing, to keep their networks and net/collective work vital?
Below is a list of some ideas and practices that I am seeing, hearing, and trying myself, in the name of maintaining baseline connectivity, alignment and coordinated momentum. No one of them is necessarily the “right answer” in every situation, everything being context-dependent and also needing to suit the particular nature and situation of specific networks. And having shared some of these with others, I’ve heard these can be helpful for anyone now working virtually or in-person in times of greater stress. Curious to know what resonates, and what you would add!
Bring an open heart to network interactions. People are feeling a lot in these times. It can be important to allow for and acknowledge this.
Let people know you are thinking of and appreciate them. One of the practices out there that I’ve seen and am leaning into is people sending “love notes” to others in their networks.
Create more frequent, optional and informal opportunities for people to connect. I’ve been seeing and participating in “coffee chats” that happen weekly, bi-weekly and monthly for those who are interested to drop by (virtually), check-in and share gifts and needs. This includes setting up phone calls where people can walk and talk instead of being glued to a screen for videoconferencing.
Release your grip on certain standards of performance and accomplishment. This can often create more frustration and exhaustion. Model patience and grace with yourself and others.
Allow for, and maybe even celebrate, messiness, malfunctions, and “mistakes.” This is not just about cutting people slack and reducing stress, but also inviting ongoing experimentation, improvisation, creativity and playfulness.
Shore up the core of your network. With some coordinating teams working virtually for the first time or much more often, while juggling many other balls, it can be important to establish some basic expectations around communications and other working agreements. What minimally do people need from one another in order to function well in these times? What are they able to give?
Find time to disconnect and replenish. From Zoom overload to balancing needs of home and work simultaneously, it can be crucial to find time to disconnect from conversation and interaction.
Lean back into alignment. This can be a good time to put a network’s mission, vision and values back in front of its members, to remind people what holds them together and what might ground them more deeply amidst the tumult of the times. How can these values and larger goals provide ballast and guidance?
Create more slowness, stillness, spaciousness and even silence in your network interactions. Even when connected, we can practice different kinds of pacing and spacing that can help people to restore, maintain or increase their energy.
Stem degenerative flows. The 24 hour news cycles, social media wars, and spirals of outrage can conspire to overwhelm us and suck us dry, especially when there is an insidious fear of missing out. Other than simply disconnecting, we can ask what actually nourishes us in terms of connections and flows of information, interactions and other resources. Be mindful of what you consume, as well as what you send out and communicate with others.
Lead with joy and laughter. Because it feels good and can be so radical and welcomed in these times.
Really practice shared leadership. All the time, and especially now. Do what you do best and connect to the rest. Remember you are not indispensable and that networks benefit from redundancy of role and function. I was recently in a call with 8 other facilitators to develop both an agenda and executive memo for an important meeting, and while in the past I would have dreaded these kinds of endeavors, in this instance we really needed each other given the complexity of the situation and constrained capacity of each of us.
Keep an eye towards bridging. While comfort and care are important, watch the tendency to fall back into familiar patterns and relationships that can bolster bonding (birds of a feather flocking together) in your networks at the expense of bridging to those who are different in some way, shape or form, where those differences are vital to the health of the network and its work. On this front, see this resource, “On Bridging,” from the Othering and Belonging Institute.
Keep listening for and helping to meet needs, fill gaps, and leverage opportunities. What are the critical connections and flows that the network is asking for right now? Who can help to create and support these?
Ask yourself the following question and see where it takes you:
“What is something I/we can do today that our future network (and collective work) will be grateful for and benefit from?
A couple of months ago I was invited by Visible Network Labs to give a presentation to the Network Leadership Training Academy on regenerative networks. This was of course done virtually, and I was already wanting to not simply present or talk about the topic, but invite people into some kind of embodiment of it (given regeneration is about bringing life to life!). And so here is how I, along with a team of collaborators, invited people in …
We began with a truncated grounding practice that I received from The Weston Network/Respectful Confrontation community, which invites people to align their energetic center (gut), heart and mind, while cultivating deeper connection to self, surrounding and others. At its best, this practice boosts life force (chi) and gets energy and emotion flowing within and between people. Indications from the Zoom chat afterwards were that a number of people were indeed “rejuvenated” by the practice.
Then we showed a video for the song “The Play” by Minnesota-based singer songwriter Peter Mayer. The imagery is very evocative of the grandeur of life and the lyrics invite the listener/watcher to consider their role as both observer of and participant in this amazing show of creation and evolution. What do you feel moving for you as you take this in? See below:
Then we moved on to a group read (by the diverse, ad hoc and spontaneously named Regenerative Network Players) of a number of quotes that connect to these themes of networks, life, flow and evolution. People were then invited into trios to meet one another and share what caught their attention in one or more of these quotes and why. Inviting you to do the same:
“We are the 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.” – Sherri Mitchell (Weh’na Ha’mu’ Kwasset, “She Who Brings Light,” Penobscot lawyer and activist, author of Sacred Instructions)
“Life did not take over the planet by combat, but by networking.” – Lynn Margulis (evolutionary theorist, biologist, science author, educator, and science popularizer)
“You’ve got to keep asserting the complexity and the originality of life, and the multiplicity of it, and the facets of it. This is about being a complex human being in the world.” – Toni Morrison
“We must create civilization(s) for equitable human wellbeing within a healthy biosphere. Since our thinking produced self-inflicted existential threats, the main challenge is to find a practical way to reconcile our thinking with the logic of life.” – all-women Emerging New Civilization(s) panel. United Nations
“The basic pattern of organization of a living system is the network. Ecosystems are understood in terms of food webs, i.e. networks of organisms; organisms are networks of cells, and cells are networks of molecules. More precisely, a living system is a self-generating network within a boundary of its own making. Each component of the network helps to transform and replace other components, and thus the entire network continually creates, or recreates, itself.” – Fritjof Capra (scientist, educator, activist)
“Ultimately there is no independent heroic ego, only the collective work of sustaining and evolving life by reshaping the relationships between the community and its larger context.” – Carol Sanford (thought leader, regenerative “resource,” author)
“As we learn to become better observers of our aliveness, we can more fully participate in our evolution as human beings and generate sustainable action or change that is aligned with what we care about.” – Eunice Aquilina (somatic and leadership coach, author)
“Seeing energy flows so that we can engage with them in positive ways is not some mystical, esoteric art, but the role of engaged human beings.” – Joel Glanzberg
“Look well to the growing edge. All around us worlds are dying and new worlds are being born; all around us life is dying and life is being born. The fruit ripens on the tree, the roots are silently at work in the darkness of the earth against a time when there shall be new leaves, fresh blossoms, green fruit. Such is the growing edge.” – Dr. Rev. Howard Thurman (author, philosopher, theologian, educator, and civil rights leader)
From there, we moved into a brief presentation on regenerative networks, with some of the following points:
Networks are the underlying structure of life.
That said, there is sometimes not much life or liveliness in our human networks, and sometimes they can even become deadly.
We might think of many of the problems we face in this world as being linked to the difference (as Gregory Bateson once put it) between the way humans think and the way the rest of nature works.
A key going forward is getting back in right relationship with the rest of life, and to align with the processes of regeneration.
Regeneration points us to the self-feeding, self-renewing processes that living systems (including us) use to nourish their capacity to thrive for long periods of time, as well as their ability to adapt to unexpected, sometimes threatening, circumstances …
Long-term human thriving is rooted in large part in healthy socio-ecological webs that are diverse, intricate and dynamic.
We also talked about how stories can help point us in the right directions, including a growing number of cases of the practices of ecosystem restoration and regenerative agriculture (see below).
“What do these stories inspire in our thinking about how we might live and practice in our human networks?” we asked.
And amidst these stories of regenerative practice taking root and growing in different places, we also looked at how these approaches have impacted individual human beings, their life and liveliness. For example, research shows the following:
With the hope and and excitement that these kinds of revelations generate, we then presented a set of measures and design features that might help cultivate greater regenerative potential in and through people’s networks, with some time to discuss what most resonated:
There was not nearly enough time to process all of this very deeply, or to look at a list of network cultivation practices we had at the ready, but we did hear growing curiosity about what it would mean to intentionally focus on developing regenerative potential at the individual, group and larger systemic levels in a variety of contexts, which has expressed itself in follow-up emails and conversations.
Hoping the same will be the case here, if you feel so inspired. What’s moving for you now?
Over the last couple of months I have really savored my reading of Tyson Yunkaporta’s Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World. Yunkaporta is an academic, arts critic and researcher who belongs to the Apalech clan in Queensland, Australia. His book met me during found me in these times of disruption when I was searching to further disrupt myself and pry open some widening cracks in my older ways of thinking, feeling and being.
It is important to say that any review of the book or excerpting from it necessarily de- and re-contextualizes the content, which is a key point Yunkaporta makes – many people are caught up in low context cultures that are rather disconnected from the specifics of place and community. With that awareness, I wanted to offer some take-aways that have helped me to bring different, more energizing, engaging and empowering perspectives to multiple contexts in which I move, in the event that they may help others make enlivening shifts.
Towards the end of the book, Yunkaporta sums up what he and a number of other indigenous people with whom he “yarns” see as an indigenous approach to engaging with living systems – respect, connect, reflect, direct. He offers corresponding embodied centers for doing this work as: gut, heart, head, hands. He also makes the point that Western colonizer cultures reverse this progression, leading with action and control (direct), and only perhaps later capitulating (respect, or “looking again”), if at all, when things do not go according to plan. This “indigenous progression” aligns strongly with a community of practice of which I am a part (Respectful Confrontation/Fierce Civility), which is based in Taoist philosophy and practice, and invites devotees to lead in grounded and focused ways that put one in right relationship with their (multiple) selves and so-called “others.” I can say from experience that this is a very powerful way to prepare myself for engagement, especially in these volatile and unpredictable times.
Yunkaporta also lifts up what Aboriginal and indigenous knowledge asks of those who are attempting to bring about change in complex systems (all living systems). What he calls the “complexity agent protocols” includes:
Connectedness (create bonds to self, others and wider networks)
Diversity (respect and engage across difference)
Interaction (continuously transfer knowledge, energy and resources)
Adaptation (remain open to change, as that is the constant)
This, of course, is the much older wisdom that more recent so-called “regenerative” (agriculture, development) efforts are calling for and building upon, engaging the dynamics of network structures and energetic flows that constitute life.
The rest of what follows is a selection of twenty quotes that I pulled from the book, and that I can continue to read from time to time, to jolt my own tendencies towards complacency and stasis.
“Increase is different from growth, because you don’t want the size of the system to grow, but you want the relationships within the system, the exchange within the system, that needs to increase. And you can increase that quite infinitely.”
“Many Aboriginal stories tell us how we must travel in free-ranging patterns, warning us against charging ahead in crazy [linear] ways.”
“All Law-breaking comes from that first evil thought; that original sin of placing yourself above the land or above other people.”
“Nothing is created or destroyed; it just moves and changes, and this is the First Law.”
“Every unit requires velocity and exchange in a stable system, or it will stagnate – this applies to economic and social systems as well as natural ones.”
“Sedentary lifestyles and cultures that do not move with the land or mimic land-based networks in their social systems do not transition well through apocalyptic moments.”
“People today will mostly focus on the points of connection, the nodes of interest like stars in the sky. But the real understanding comes in the spaces in-between, in the relational forces that connect and move the points.”
“If you live a life without violence, you are living an illusion: outsourcing your conflict to unseen powers and detonating it in areas beyond your living space. … The damage of violence is minimized when it is distributed throughout the system rather than centralized into the hands of a few powerful people and their minions.”
“It is difficult to relinquish the illusions of power and delusions of exceptionalism that come with privilege. But it is strangely liberating to realize your true status as a single node in a cooperative network.”
“There is more to narrative than simply telling our stories. We have to compare our stories with the stories of others to seek greater understanding about our reality.”
“There’s no valid way to separate the natural from the synthetic, the digital from the ecological.”
“Most of us today are living in a state of compliance with imposed roles and tasks rather than a heightened state of engagement. We are slaves to a work ethic that is unnatural and unnecessary.”
“The assistance people need is not in learning about Aboriginal knowledge but in remembering their own.”
“The only sustainable way to store data long term is within relationships.”
“[From an Aboriginal perspective] an observer does not try to be objective, but is integrated within a sentient system that is observing itself.”
“Understanding biological networks appropriately means finding a way to belong personally to that system.”
“Somewhere between action and reaction is an interaction, and that’s where all the magic and fun lies.”
“Your culture is not what your hands touch or make – it’s what moves your hands.”
“Guilt is like any other energy: you con’t accumulate it or keep it because it makes you sick and disrupts the system you live in – you have to let it go. Face the truth, make amends, and let it go.”
“Stop asking the question: ‘Are we alone?’ Of course we’re not! Everything in the universe is alive and full of knowledge.”
I’ll tell you a secret. Most staff embarking on a journey for racial equity change in their organization don’t see board members carrying their weight. I hope to be provocative by offering a few secrets often unshared with boards about their lack of deep participation in equity change efforts. It’s time to have a real discussion about board and staff engagement when it comes to equity change so that the whole organization can collaborate to seed and root transformative change.
Secret #1: Boards still view their roles as promoting diversity in the workplace which is no longer enough to move an organization along a path toward implementing racial equity and justice.
Diversity was the early way to approach change in organizations. The focus was on getting more of this or that group represented on the board and staff, but these efforts lacked a power analysis. Bringing people of color onto the board is very different than ensuring they have positions of power and real authority on the board, or accepting their challenges to unhealthy parts of the board culture or the organization’s way of operating. Boards have also proudly hired people of color or young executive directors and CEOs and then expect them to magically turn around underperforming organizations with little resources and support, or unawarely blocked them from creating truly transformational equity change. Examining issues of power in leadership is an equity and justice pursuit, not a diversity exercise.
Secret #2: Most staff who are deeply engaged in diversity, inclusion, and racial equity efforts believe that their boards are lagging way behind them on the path to change.
Staff committed to racial equity often participate in rigorous and deep training, learning sessions, affinity spaces, and working groups to consider how to challenge the organization’s status quo which likely upholds white dominant culture, practices of racial inequity, and over-centralization of power. They may be attempting to practice new ways of building relationships, making decisions, or handling major racial tensions on interpersonal and institutional levels. In many cases, the board has not had the benefit of these awareness and skill-building moments that could strengthen their capacity to address power dynamics on their board or between staff and board on core organizational questions around racial equity.
Secret #3:Staff see many board members as out of touch or – even worse – contributing to oppression in their organization.
Many boards are recruited for their potential to fundraise or simply to have famous names associated with the organization, rather than to create a balance of people who can bring many types of resources to the organization such as lived-experience and knowledge of a community. Wealthy board members who have not explored the cultural roots of wealth and classism may expect formal decorum in board meetings or social gatherings that is counter-cultural and oppressive to staff. They may believe that they are helping the organization by firing questions at the staff when in reality the way they ask those questions puts staff on the defensive, creating a culture of fear that puts creativity to death. White board members that don’t champion racial equity in a board meeting or fail to interrupt other white members from engaging in paternalizing or direct racist behaviors are seen as supporting racism for failing to act.
Secret #4:Because staff (and especially the executive director/CEO) think board members want them to be “perfect” and share only their accomplishments, staff are reluctant to openly share their struggles and tensions around racial equity.
Staff are wary to share real-time equity tensions in their workplace or programmatic struggles. Simply put, there is not enough candor between staff and boards. Board culture often rewards product over relationship; perfectionism, numbers, and plans over impact and learning from mistakes. Additionally, the executive director is evaluated by the board and the main way for board members to gauge the leader’s effectiveness is the director’s ability to paint a rosy picture of the organization in board meetings. Moreover, board members rarely raise challenging equity issues as a part of board discussions, either to reflect on their own mistakes and challenges, or those of the organization as a whole. They leave that burden to staff.
So what can be done?
Board and staff need to build trusting relationships where relationships are valued and challenge and mistakes are welcome for learning and growth around racial equity.
Board members should build trust with staff by showing their own vulnerabilities, giving the staff runway to move their ideas, and avoiding savior thinking that assumes board members have all the answers, or that one executive director who is a person of color will save the day.
Board members that join any board in this day and age must be willing to jump into a journey to examine how their experiences with race, class, gender, sexual orientation, and generation impact how they see the world and operate in it. They must be willing to face hard truths about their privilege and, without placing the burden on others, champion change and use their privilege (access, resources, knowledge) strategically to shift opportunities to others.
Board members who come from a position of privilege in any category should embrace new ideas and ways of doing things from leaders that are very different from them or leaders that hold a more bold view of racial justice.
Boards and staff should work together to ensure that board members sit on diversity/equity/inclusion or racial equity teams with staff to experience, learn, and champion the work for change. And this should involve not just one board member, but a few.
Boards and staff should come together in joint training and learning sessions for the board and staff to explore issues of racial equity. These sessions should include reflection on how issues of racial equity impacts the mission of the organization as well as how it impacts the organization’s internal culture and operations. Better yet, have the organization go through a comprehensive equity change process that embeds equity in everything the organization does.
What else do you think could shift change so that boards can fully and genuinely support and champion racial equity efforts? We want to hear from you. Please start a conversation with us by commenting below.
As the world reels from racism and re-openings from COVID-19, we have a small window of time in which we can decide never again to return to the “old normal” of racism in every facet of our life, or to the exhaustion from an overproducing system. Let’s walk into the next one hundred years together in the spirit of new creation and new norms. May this poem that I wrote be a source of vision and inspiration.
Let not the slow creep of the old return
Like childish feet come slipping through your doorways
Look in the direction of the sun
Remember the lessons of staying in place
Wading into presence
Tending to family
Resting your breath
Slowing your heart to hear cries of “I Can’t Breathe”
For the futures of humankind
Erase the “old normal”
Walk toward the light
Grieve the long path of injustice you were in
And stand upright
To meet your new life
The new society we are creating
There can be no turning back
You can look over your shoulder and peek once in awhile
But there is no freedom behind you
Greed, exhaustion, and oppression live there
You said you wanted change in your lifetime?
Keep walking forward
Keep pausing to hear your heartbeat
To hear the people in the streets
And create the next 100 years
And you will not return
Because we will rise forward with the force of 100,000 horses galloping
Tens of thousands of drums pounding
And a Planet alive with millions dancing
Life spilling over into our lineage of children
We’re rising up to end anti-Blackness around the world.
George Floyd died under knee in Minneapolis But Black bodies and minds are under destruction in all lands.
Enslavement was a world-wide global attempt
Its end presupposes that our planet undoes itself, and heals itself
through transformation of hearts, minds, and structures.
White people of this planet, can you…
love Black people with abandon and without expectation that they will dismantle this racism?
decolonize and clean your hearts of Black hatred, disgust, dismissal, and disrespect?
never take a hand, arm, leg, knee, bullet to Black bodies and souls?
speak Black names and languages, and love Black children?
destroy your unconscious value of Black people remaining small, restrained, and tethered to white supremacy?
forever replace structures and practices premised on white ways?
follow and hire Black leaders to change your world and that of your entire organization…
…or will you act to make them produce, clean up your mistakes, and sacrifice their vision for your small version of social justice?
understand that one training will not be enough…
…and that instead it’s a tidal wave shift in hearts, minds, behaviors, practices, policies, and systems over sustained time that is needed, and is completely within your capacity and control.
take accountability and ignite and invite action…
…knowing that your grief and anger are welcome, and if you’re afraid to set a path forward to emerge, you’re complicit in allowing racism to continue.
extract racism in all corners to revolutionize the planet to be free of anti-Blackness?
And as Black people can we discover and rediscover our joy, beauty, refreshment, and spirituality to heal?
At IISC, we are asking ourselves, what more or different could we be doing to support the deep, transformative change necessary for Black people to know better and beautiful lives?
And to our world we ask, what’s enough? Could this be the tipping point that finally brings liberation for Black people and collective healing for us all? And if not, how can we be of service to prevent ongoing tragedy? Please use the comment field below to share your commitments and, in so doing, inspire yourself and inspire others.
Thank you to the Black women and men of IISC that bring change to our clients. As a Black Biracial woman and leader of IISC, you bring me joy and purpose. Thank you for working for our people every day. Be well, be safe, and be bold.