changing the wind

A photograph from the bow of a small sailing craft on calm blue waters. Grassy brown hills dotted with green shrubs on the horizon separate the light blue sky and the sea below. A white and blue sail hangs from the mast, with rigging here and there. Kind of a weird flex way to say I’ve been on a sailboat.

One of my strengths at work is creativity. I enjoy coming up with new ideas and different approaches to problems. Some of these ideas are pretty out there! When I started my career, I had to learn how to gain buy-in from leaders in a traditional hierarchy. I would make minor tweaks to their ideas, judge where I could push and where I couldn’t.

Several years later, I’m a senior manager leading a small department. I have the institutional power I need to act on my ideas. I can also encourage, elevate, and expand on ideas that come from my staff or colleagues. My ideas, too, have expanded. I now spend time daydreaming about systems-level changes. These ideas have the potential to affect a whole company, or even an entire ecosystem.

But I’m not an executive director. I still have hierarchical superiors. These leaders are often less excited about disruptive change that challenges power structures. It doesn’t make my ideas bad, but it does make them risky.

if the executive won’t do it, nobody should
You can often tell what a leader values by the workgroups they create. Leaders show us their priorities in explicit and implicit ways. They will talk more about the ideas they like, and less about ones they don’t care about. Their intent here doesn’t even have to be malicious. There are only so many hours in the day. If the executive is not on board with an idea, it doesn’t have to go anywhere.

A leader can show a project is important by assigning it to someone. They can make regular check-ins on their progress. The opposite end of the spectrum is also true. They could assign a ‘priority’ task to a committee that rarely meets. Or they could approve a vague plan with distant timelines or impossible milestones.

If leaders show no reward for success and no consequence for inaction, why would anyone spend time on it?

Early in my career, I interpreted inaction or ignorance as permission to do something. This created renegade cells that ran counter to the status quo. Working in this way sometimes made me feel worse about my ideas. What does success look like? If my boss found out, would the idea excite them? Would they think this was all a waste of time? Would they feel undermined because I was doing this without their explicit support?

ok then so how do we get new ideas off the ground?
Any time I do something on my own, I need more power and energy to get it done. I have to get all my other work done before I can work on my “passion projects.” I enlist others who have similar interests. I find allies across the company who support these changes and will advocate on their behalf.

I find it’s helpful to study what ideas executives do like. What kind of metrics do they consider valuable? When an idea does get off the ground, how did it happen? What approach did the person use? Easily-approved ideas generate funds, make a process more efficient, or have tangible benefits.

There is of course the worst approach, for when all other options fail. Incrementalism can help get an idea’s foot in the door. I don’t support it, though. You might help create a one-and-done decision that nobody has the capital to ever revisit. And if that incremental step does fail, the more ambitious idea will never get off the ground. This happens in politics all the time. For all the electoral costs of the Affordable Care Act, we lost the ability to push for true universal healthcare coverage. Now, progressives are forced to defend a healthcare plan with serious flaws.

what would this look like with a distributed leadership structure?
I’ve spent my career navigating white-dominant workplace hierarchies. I dream about finding a workplace with true power distribution (without having to create it). In such a structure, people can create new ideas without the threat of an override from a person with power. An idea can be reviewed, tested, accepted, or rejected on its merits.

The advice process is well-suited to create decisions that affect a large group. Autonomous teams can scope and test their own smaller ideas. If those ideas are a success, other teams can choose to adapt them. All of this can happen without a person in power unfairly moving the scale in either direction.

Changing an organization’s direction can feel like having to change the wind itself. It can happen! It’s so satisfying when it does. For all the work that entails, it’s sometimes easier to find a ship that believes in sails.

when the work is interesting

a photo of Myrtle Falls, a trickling stream near Paradise, WA. Mount Rainier looms in the background against a saturated blue sky. a lush valley separates the falls from the mountain. it’s mostly green with a few flowers here and there. if Paradise was boring, i would simply leave Paradise. but it was kind of fun (we left eventually).

There is a video that has gone around leadership seminars for years now. The video is of a person dancing alone at an outdoor concert. This person starts out alone, but is soon joined by one and then dozens of dancing people. There are a few easily-shared lessons that come from this example. Some might say it means that you don’t need a large following to start a movement. For others, it’s that it only takes one person to begin something.

All these lessons are true, if generalized past the point of being meaningful. To me, the most important part of that video is simple: the person at the start of the movie is having fun. We wouldn’t see this example if someone else had put them up to it, or if the dancer wasn’t plain enjoying themself. It’s not easy being someone you are not. Sure, some successful people are disingenuous. Yet most movements begin with a passionate, charismatic leader, leaders, or cause.

the things that we do are art
If our work is an art, then for whom are we artists? I’m not much of a painter, but I like to write. I’ve been writing for almost as long as I’ve been reading. But in school, I agonized every time I had to write an essay. It’s a (funny) expensive story that I took seven months to write the last term paper I needed to graduate. I took a long time to learn that if I didn’t enjoy writing something, why would someone else enjoy reading it?

Nowadays, I write things that I want to read. I create things that are interesting to me. I put my energy towards things I already have energy around. Even in my day job: when we have a list of group projects to work on, I ask the group which projects excites them the most. If there are no pressing deadlines for the other projects, we do the most inspiring projects first.

I am one of five leaders in a local anti-racism coalition. We’re all volunteers supporting a sixteen-year-old institution with a noble purpose. My colleagues and I have ideas and goals we want to pursue, ways to grow ourselves and further our mission. I also feel the obligations of a coalition that has made many leadership changes over the years. But old programs woven with nostalgia make it hard to do new things and still keep the old ones running. The conflict is a conflict because those old programs don’t mean as much to me.

how would i rebuild an institution?
We don’t need to focus on the parts that don’t matter to us. We can create things that we want to see and do and interact with. I would make membership easy to join. I would make it easy to join us on the leadership team. And then I would let those leaders do the things that interest them.

We don’t need to follow “tradition” for people who are not around to enjoy it. If the work is important, we will find someone who likes to do it. If we don’t, it might not be in our lane to do. Rather than trying to uphold the old, we could spend our time uplifting the new. We could stretch ourselves as learners, not educators. We could let people create their own spaces.

It’s a function of capitalism that insists we have to be all things to all people. If we aren’t expanding our market share, we must be doing something wrong. I think we can instead try being ourselves, and see who ends up joining us.

normal wasn’t working

a photo from 2007 of a poster in Mendoza, Argentina that i thought was hilarious. a bus ad for Diario Ciudadano features a cartoon of a first-, second-, and third-place podium. Diario Ciudadano is third place. two unnamed newspapers, “Diario 1” and “Diario 2” are ahead of them. large letters at the top of the poster says, “Somos el tercero diario de Mendoza”, or “we are the third-place newspaper in Mendoza.” in small letters at the bottom of the poster is what i assume is their tagline. “vamos por más,” or “let’s go for more.” this is something i can get behind! though i was once on a team that got bumped up from last place when another team was disqualified. “let’s go for more!,” i said.

We’re now entering month 6 of people in the united states talking non-stop about COVID-19. The terrifying rush of March through May is over. I spent all summer talking about racialized police killings and the ethics of masks. And now, people who are six months exhausted are ready for things to “get back to normal.”

I agree. I want things to get better. But “getting back to normal” is also a little bit of a tell. Whose normal are we getting back to?

For some people, the subtext is that they were pretty comfortable in the before-times. It means they did not spend their days consumed by stress, or worry for their family. People in the u.s. are suffering right now at uncommon levels. People in and outside the u.s. have been suffering for much longer than the pandemic. It’s only now, when suffering is at a peak, that we are speaking with a loud enough voice.

What unsettles me now is that for some people, their solidarity is only as strong as their discomfort. Their fight for justice may only last long enough to return to their relative measure of safety. But normal is not a place everyone wants to return to. This is why so many people now are demanding something better.

when you realize this
Food banking has changed in minuscule ways since 1967. This is the year St. Mary’s Food Bank in Phoenix, Arizona became the first food bank in the u.s. In the intervening 53 years, the safety net has gotten worse. The number of people in poverty has grown to the exclusive benefit of a handful of billionaires. There is no reason why we should fight as hard as we must to turn back the clock only a few years. We should not want to dream of a world where poverty still existed. We should be demanding a world without poverty.

We have a unique opportunity here to move past what we thought of as normal. I was on a call this past week, an Imagination Lab hosted by the organization Closing the Hunger Gap. The facilitators invited us to be radical in our ideas to end hunger. My group talked about the goal I’ve had for a while: food all food should be free. Free at grocery stores. Free at food banks. No restrictions, no means testing. Home delivery for people with mobility issues, or those who live in rural areas.

There are better futures than the one we came from. It will take as much work to get there as the future that recalls the past. The future we should be dreaming of is one that we all build together. I’m not as interested in knowing what it will take to get us back to normal. Let’s talk instead about what is worth saving from this world, the one we’ve left in ashes.

seeing myself on tv

Priyanka, a drag queen on Canada’s Drag Race. she describes her heritage as Indo-Caribbean. in this photo, Priyanka is wearing a blue and gold sari with one leg exposed, her black hair is styled big and parted on the side into two perfect asymmetrical swooshes. i cannot describe fashion, unfortunately. but she’s gorgeous!! Photo from RuPaul’s Drag Race Wiki, uploaded by AlexanderRous.

Even before the pandemic, television has always been my favorite form of visual media. I worked three jobs through college and was well known for falling asleep during movies. I enjoyed the theater and acted in a few small plays. I had a favorite improv troupe (it was the early 2000s). I didn’t have cable growing up. My home movie repertoire included Blockbuster rentals and sunday movies of the week. My family watched a lot of TV together.

My cultural heritage is Mexican and Sri Lankan. Growing up, it was rare to see people who looked like me. TV in the 1990s and 2000s might contain a single person of color in an otherwise-white cast. Shows that were more diverse were often the niche.

I’ve spent most of the year indoors due to the pandemic. This means I’ve been watching a lot of TV. My tastes now branch out into many genres. I’m starting to see more people who look like me, who grew up like me. Here are a few that have caught my eye recently.

Never Have I Ever: remixing stereotypes
Maitreyi Ramakrishnan plays Devi, the main character on the show Never Have I Ever. The actor is Sri Lankan, but Devi is an awkward Indian high school sophomore. She lives with her mother Nalini and cousin Kamala after the death of her father. Nalini’s mannerisms remind of so many aunties I’ve known in my life. Devi, too, is like a lot of the family friends I had growing up: very smart, but also pretty weird.

There was a “color blind” take prevalent among proto-woke white writers in a lot of 90s media. People challenged themselves by taking a white character and casting them as Black. A Black character dealing with white stories the way a white person would. It loses all the richness that comes from having characters with varied backgrounds. People are not interchangable, and neither are their stories.

I love that Devi could be in the background of another show, a naive, too-intelligent foil to a white kid. Instead, this is her show. One episode centers on the family celebrating Ganesh Puja. There’s so much story that is possible there, rather than another bake sale setting. Devi’s stories are interesting enough to stand on their own.

Monarca: know your audience
As a millennial with a borrowed HBO login, I loved watching the dripping excess of Succession. But I was not prepared to enjoy the show I compared it to: Monarca. It’s centered on a family of media conglomerate and tequila billionaires in Mexico. After the murder of their father, Ana María, Andrés, and Joaquin vie for his empire’s throne. The stories of an all-Mexican family of elites don’t play the way they do on Succession, or even Arrested Development. There’s intrigue, betrayal, and drama.

They also bypass the they’re-Mexican-but-always-speak-English trope of some US show. Though it’s a Netflix-owned series, Monarca is set in Mexico and films in Spanish. I’m glad they can find crossover success while retaining what makes them unique.

Priyanka on Canada’s Drag Race: why diversity is important behind the camera
Priyanka is a drag queen on the first season of Canada’s Drag Race. More than 150 queens have been on the many different series in the show’s universe. Priyanka is only the second person of Indian heritage to appear. It wasn’t until she appeared that I realized I had been missing more brown people in the Drag Race pantheon.

But Canada matches the Pacific Northwest bill for its whiteness. When Priyanka competed in the category Pageant Perfection, she dressed in a modern take on a blue and gold sari. Priyanka says her inspiration was her grandmother. She wanted to bring a Bollywood-style beauty to her performance. The judges, instead, raved over what they called her Princess Jasmine look. It served as a reminder that even when we stand out, we do so through the lens of a dominant culture.

There is so much TV coming out these days, it’s about time that media started to look like different people. BIPOC stars can still flounder when they’re written for and directed by an all-white crew.

I didn’t grow up with these shows, but I’m glad that they exist now. I can’t wait to see what happens next!

like a hammer

a video by Jeffrey Gibson called ‘one becomes the other’. the film is set in the Denver Art Museum. Indigenous people in ceremonial dress populate the film, examining artifacts on display throughout the museum and in the archives. I’m fascinated by the racist juxtaposition of what I perceive as “ancient” meeting the “modern” setting of the museum. But as the people demonstrate in every frame, they are very much alive. this culture lives on, despite the best attempts of the dominant culture in the united states.

Jeffrey Gibson’s exhibition Like a Hammer was on display at the Seattle Art Museum last spring. It’s one of the rare exhibits I’ve gone to see more than once. (Another fave was Gordon Parks’ Segregation Story at the High Museum). The exhibition space on the last night of the show was buzzing with energy. A person wearing a shirt that read “Indigiqueer and still here” caught my eye.

One of Jeffrey Gibson’s pieces is a video called On the Other Hand (above). Kealey Boyd at hyperallergic says, “The film is set in the Native American archives and art storage of the Denver Art Museum. We see a man speaking Kiowa pick up a hand drum from a shelf and begin to play. A woman in a long, white dress with colorful patterns enters the halls, dancing in time.”

The video moves me because it is both modern and historical. People with indigenous ancestry handle artifacts that once sat in someone’s home. At what precise moment does an item shift from “everyday object” to “artifact”? Set in a museum’s archives, the video also made me think about these pieces as art. I compared them to what American culture is used to seeing in museums: baroque paintings, snuff boxes, marble sculptures. Someone owned these priceless paintings before they landed in a museum. The cards nearby often state the former owner or the fact that it is a gift. What do these Indigenous artifacts say about their owners? Did they give these items in the same way?

The stereotypical Native American war bonnet is a classic example of cultural appropriation. An item worn by male leaders in some Plains Indian tribes is now divorced from its original intents. Now, colonizers wear it at outdoor festivals and halloween parties. We call it cultural appropriation because it’s stolen. It’s used without permission. It’s used without respect, by a person who has no connection to the object’s origin.

For me, an important component of cultural appropriation is profit. Another is power. Another is context. Rick Bayless took medium-low heat for making his fortune on mass-produced Mexican recipes. He argues that his knowledge of Mexican culture justifies his profit. But as many critics have pointed out to him, a white man in Oklahoma is likelier to receive a business loan. His family supported him while he spent his teenage years studying Mexican cuisine. He had to learn these recipes and techniques from experts in the field. But what happened to those teachers? What happened to the restaurant that inspired Taco Bell?

What I find interesting about Jeffrey Gibson’s work is his remix of cultures. The beadwork on punching bags links his heritage with that of his oppressors. With his art, he creates new artifacts for a culture that never went away.

i made you dinner!

a cropped photo of Sanamluang Thai diner in north Hollywood. part of a neon sign is visible on the restaurant’s facade. a circular open sign in neon hangs on a window.

“Hey, you should come over for dinner,” I say in kind of an abrupt way. It’s the after-times, when the pandemic is over, but it was the first time it started to feel like the before-times.

“That’d be great! What’s the occasion?” You ask.

I give you a placid, friendly smile. “I wanted to do something nice for you. I know you’ve had a rough time recently, and I thought I could do a little something to help you out.”

“That’s so nice, thank you!” Your mood brightens. “Sure, I’d love to come.”

“Oh that’s great!” I say. “So what kinds of food do you like to eat?”

You give an exaggerated sigh and fan your face dramatically. “It’s been so hot recently! I’ve been eating a lot of summer meals, you know? Cool weather foods. Salads, fresh vegetables, things like that.”

“Oh, that’s perfect,” I say, nodding with enthusiasm. “I love those. Okay, so I’ll make a beef stew.”

Your expression flashes to puzzled, then shifts to cockeyed. Is this a joke?
“That’s…” you stammer.

I interrupt you with, “Okay, great! See you tomorrow at 3 PM for dinner!”

This very scripted example is how some organizations build their programs. We cook up an amazing meal, something we ourselves might like to eat. We spend the day buying groceries, putting the placemats justso. And for all our good intentions, we spend countless dollars and effort doing the wrong things. And why should we go through all the trouble of making someone dinner when the end result is stew? (if you love stew, this example is perfect for you).

Why do we seek the voice of the customer?
We don’t know what people need. We often must take educated guesses when we build programs. But rarely do we have such intimate knowledge of the problem that we craft the perfect solution. If we’re going to put the work into doing something, we should make sure that it’s wanted.

If I want to make you dinner but I don’t care what you like, there’s a slim chance you won’t like it. Some people will love it (some people love stew!), but others will hate it or be non-plussed.

It takes work to involve people. It can slow down our timelines, but arbitrary deadlines are another trap we fall in. But if I’m going to go through the trouble of making you dinner, why not make it something you want? Why isn’t it worth it to take the time to get to know you?

lived experience is not enough

building a better board

a photo of a forest on the Rattlesnake Ledge trail. tall straight evergreens cover the image as wide and as far away as the eye can see. the sky is a bright white with a slight yellow tint. one can see a small green patch of brush in the foreground that continues off camera. i love the temperate rainforests of the Pacific Northwest. anyway, i chose this picture because if you want to build a better board, you’ll need a good stand of trees. that’s it, that’s the joke.


Board members are almost never the ones using the services their organization provides. Some may have lived experience: they experienced first-hand the problems their non-profit aims to solve. While some people dream of a board full of lived experience, lived experience is not enough. Instead, we should want people who currently need our non-profits to be the ones who lead them.

In an ideal world, a board is a representative group of owners with current lived experience. These board members would consult with each other and their communities. Their collaboration would define the goals and end statements in our strategic plan.

lived experience is not enough
There’s an old joke about the non-profits who exist to end poverty. If you want to end poverty, the joke goes, give money to people in poverty. But the COVID response is showing that… this is actually true. Instead, we dream up countless programs that treat poverty like a problem we have to sneak up on. We aim to lift our neighbors out of traps we can’t see, but that they can define with sublime precision.

I struggled to make ends meet while I was in college. That experience is real, and true to me. But it doesn’t tell me about the problems that someone else in my shoes might face today. Instead, my lived experience should serve to remind me that when I was in need, I knew what I needed.

People who are currently struggling have experience and expertise that outweighs our own. Their ideas will be more relevant to current state and the environment where they live. We’re not the ones experiencing poverty, so why would we look to ourselves for the solutions?

the trap of advisory boards
Now we agree that it helps to have people with current lived experience call the shots. The next pitfall is tokenizing those people. Sometimes that tokenization manifests as an advisory board. These groups have “board” in their name, but they’re more like focus groups. Most advisory boards serve to consult on or tweak the best ideas that we come up with. At their worst, we use them to rubber-stamp the ideas that we had without their involvement.

Other times, that tokenization shows up as an “honorary” board membership. One person with current lived experience joins the board as a kind of special envoy. First off, this forces a single person to represent a vast diaspora of situations and needs. This can bog us down with the very different needs of that token board member. That person can’t afford to take time off work: we should pay them for their time. But nobody else on the board gets that compensation. It feels weird to pay only one person. The person can’t raise thousands for the organization: okay, so they don’t have to. But that’s a responsibility the rest of the board has. These contribute to a dynamic of a “real” board that sits alongside the “token” member. It’s hard to get this dynamic right while making their participation meaningful.

The approaches above are all missing the obvious: we have power that we should entrust to people who need it. We must create a space for people to articulate and actualize their own needs. We need to create a structure that gives outsized power to the people we serve. We need to create a structure that moves people in need past consultation and into ideation.

building it better
There are plenty of resources on how to build a board with a community-driven governance model. But there’s actually an easier way. Take a regular board, and an advisory board. Then swap the titles!

Now, your regular board is nothing but people with lived experience. Pay them for their time. Pay for their childcare. Make sure they have what they need to attend all the meetings. Invest actual decision-making power within this body. Recruit people who are Black and indigenous. Add other people of color. Look for a range of geographic and cultural diversity. Ask these board members to engage others in board recruitment.

And over on the advisory board, you have your industry experts. Advisory board members would bring needed corporate, non-profit, and fundraising experience. Consult with them on the ideas generated by the board. They can help operationalize the actual stated needs of the community. The advisory board would have more time to fundraise, network, and dig into the mission. This group would learn so much from your board members. Make that happen!

in the meantime
It’s of course not enough to create an advisory board and call it “the board.” You first have to acknowledge that a standard board structure doesn’t work. How many non-profits have closed because they solved the problem? Not a lot of them! We can look to smaller steps on the path to a true community-run board. Start by recruiting people from a local speakers bureau. Speakers bureaus train people with lived experience to speak about their experience. They also establish a compensation structure that the speakers have already agreed to. It’s often less than what they’re worth; speakers, too, do this work as a labor of love.

Recognize that your community already has many of the tools and ideas they need to succeed. What holds back so many people is not ideas, but money, power, and the ability to fail and try again.

We have the power to reject the dynamic of a disconnected or out-of-touch board. We can create something better. We can let the true experts lead the way.

asking for ID in the surveillance age

a photo peering into a display case at a Mexican bakery in Houston. taped to the glass is a green speech bubble that reads, “PLEASE DO NOT LET CHILDREN TOUCH THE BREAD.” behind this very good sign are two shelves of pan dulce. the upper shelf contains flower-shaped girasoles. the lower shelf is full of horn-shaped cuernitos. neither of these are my favorite pan dulce. that would of course be a churro, empanada de piña, a pan de queso, all to-go please. i…i’ll eat some of them later!

The vast majority of us have internalized data collection as a fact of life. It feels natural, doesn’t it? I show my ID to get into a concert (those were the days!). The websites I browse collect huge amounts of data from me. Security cameras dot my periphery in most public spaces. I’m sure that my credit card data is floating around. But when I go to the grocery store to buy a loaf of bread, nobody asks me for my ID. If I choose, I can pay cash, and nobody will even have to know how much bread I eat (it’s a lot ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ ).

But my experience might be different if I can’t afford that bread. My experience accessing a food bank, for instance, might depend on where I live, what I look like, the vehicle that I use to travel there. It may depend on how many children I have, and how many children I look like I have. It would depend on how one or two gatekeepers of donated food felt about me.

If they believe me, I pass. If they don’t, I starve.

A food bank is the last place in the world to restrict access to food. It is an abuse of power to ask someone for ID, for even a piece of mail, to prove they deserve to receive food.

who might not want to show their ID?
First think about why asking for ID or a piece of mail might be an imposition to someone. Here are a few to get started:

  • People who are trans or non-binary. Their ID might not match their gender identity. It might list a name or photo that does not represent them.
  • People who live in the US outside the legal immigration system.
  • People who feel stigma or shame from having to use a food bank.
  • People who are afraid of identity theft.
  • Children who are seeking food for themselves or their family.
  • People who forgot their ID that day, or left it on the bus, or don’t have one.

Everyone on this list, and even people I didn’t describe, still deserve food! If this is someone’s first time at that food bank, a demand for ID may cause them to never come back. How can that person feed their family now? Where else should they turn? Fewer people accessing food banks can mislead a community about the true level of need in their area. It means more people will go hungry in a nation where there is plenty of food.

what’s good for the goose has nothing to do with the gander
Some people defend their decision to ask for identification or a piece of mail. They say something like, “I wouldn’t ask anyone anything that I wouldn’t be willing to give myself.” But their privilege is that they’re not the ones asking for food. They’re not in the same situation. In this case, they are the holders of power. They are the gatekeepers of food donated to help people in need.

A food bank policy, or a personal decision (or a hunch or feeling), to request ID means the person at the door is now a gatekeeper to food. It means they get to decide who can eat and who cannot. When we leave decisions up to humans, even when humans write the policies, we know they bring their own biases into their decision. If they don’t believe a person’s story, or believe that they have four kids at home, they have the power to ask that person to prove it. And what happens if they can’t? The cashier doesn’t ask me how many children are going to eat the bread I buy. I don’t have to bring a handful of birth certificates or medical records to buy the sheer volume of bread that I eat.

Access to food should not be subjective. The people who ask for ID should consider the real risks of requiring this information. Not the risks to themselves, but the risk that others perceive for themselves.

Some gatekeepers interpret an ID as an indicator of legitimacy. They might say ID is no problem for people with “nothing to hide.” But nothing worth hiding should prevent you from being able to eat. It’s easy to forget the amount of time it takes a person to get an ID. It’s easy to forget that every food bank’s rules are different. If you get them wrong you have to come back with the right documents. If it’s a two hour bus ride round trip from the food bank, it might take days to come back. It’s easy to forget that if I am worried about my safety, or my family’s safety, giving a stranger my ID is a risk. It’s easy to forget that if the gatekeeper doesn’t like me, or doesn’t trust me, thinks I’m an outsider, I am the one who suffers.

the good could be gooder
The programs my organization operates are all self-declare, no-proof programs. A self-declare program means people give us the information themselves. We still collect some data, but do not require personally-identifying information in order to receive food. A no-proof program means we don’t ask anyone to prove what they tell us.

The most common federal food assistance program asks us to collect the name and address of the person receiving food. It also asks them to affirm that their household income is below 400% of the federal poverty line. We ask them to name the number of people in their household. this helps represent the accurate number of people using these services. We are not allowed to verify this information. And why should we need to?

But we don’t even have to do it this way. The first rule of storing data is simple: you can’t turn over what you don’t collect. If you collect no personal information, no one can force you to give it to them. Nobody can steal it from you. The strongest decryption program can’t unlock what doesn’t exist.

Funders that restrict food to a specific population or territory are part of the problem. We need to remove these restrictions from all programs that perform a public service like food assistance.

We have to end the needless hoops we put up for people in need. It’s scary enough to go without food, to be in a situation where things are going so wrong you have nothing to eat. It’s scary to feel helpless, but it’s even worse to have an empty stomach too.

We in the non-profit world should be serving the public good, not creating more barriers for them.

the unbearable being of whiteness

Photo by jmz. An over-saturated photo of a family of ducks swimming in a small pond. The pond is surrounded by lush greenery, grasses, bushes, and small trees. “Show me a racist duck,” I say. There are none!

In an earlier post, I shared a resource I use by Tema Okun. People suspicious of phrases like “white supremacist culture,” will dismiss it immediately. But even for someone who believes we live in an anti-Black racist society, I struggle with it sometimes.

“Really??” I ask myself. “Being on time is… an aspect of white supremacy??” How can speaking with civility and being on time perpetuate white culture? The answer of course lies in who set those norms, who enforces them now, and who they exclude. A dominant culture integrated them into society for their sole benefit. “Professionalism” dictates what kind of hair is employable. It enforces in workers that the boss knows best and disagreements are not polite.

But these rules feel permanent to us because we’ve always lived them. Even as children, schools operate on a business schedule. Many principles of management came from running plantations in the most efficient way. Modern business carries these principles to this day, as metrics and productivity, always at the expense of the worker.

And large groups of people in the US have always felt separate from a society ruled by whites. For them, these edicts feel unnatural, arbitrary, and hard to adhere to. But these are unspoken norms that I have steeped in my entire life.

This leads to the isolation and suppression of people who don’t fit those norms. It excludes the neurodivergent. The queer. The fat. The loud. How do you live in a society that was born for the benefit only of straight white men? How do you survive with a one-size-fits-all government?

Many people in a white dominant culture are now growing aware of their own privilege. It’s still we the harmed who they ask for patience: “I’m still learning.” Excuses: “They haven’t spent enough time sitting with this.” Gradual progression: “I admit that I’m not very far on my journey.” But we are rarely afforded the same luxury of patience.

If I grew up speaking with an accent, I could be shunned or bullied at school. If I disagree with coworkers in the wrong way, I am punished and written up. I speak up less. I am fired or pressured to resign for making these mistakes.

So now we are in a curious space. Entrenched people in power, mostly white, are learning at a socially-acceptable pace. They are learning what it means to live in a society that has always been multicultural. They ask for patience while they learn that we are worth as much as they are. They seek credit for basic decency, or for hearing our concerns and not acting on them. Some invent new oppressions for themselves. Some force other people to adopt their culture while stealing liberally from others’.

It’s a lot.

For many people of color, approaching whiteness, “white passing,” is a hollow privilege. It mesmerizes us into thinking we belong. Often it means we have to put down our heritage, our language, “stinky” cuisines that are not yet Columbused.

As I interrogate what I am steeped in, I sense that our equals can’t learn this fast enough. Anti-racism is not necessary for them to survive in a world that feels comfortable. The work becomes a hobby, or worse, a lifestyle. And that’s not enough.

There’s no ending here, that’s it.

choosing between two options in an inequitable world

An artificial ancient mammoth half submerged in the watery tar of La Brea (the the tar pits tar pits). Its sculpted cry of anguish is apparent even in suspended animation. Past the weirdly tranquil scene into the background are modern-day buildings, a streetlight, and a palm tree.
An artificial ancient mammoth half-submerged in the watery tar of La Brea (the the tar pits tar pits). Its sculpted cry of anguish is apparent even in suspended animation. Past the weirdly tranquil scene into the background are modern-day buildings, a streetlight, and a palm tree. It’s not too tortured a metaphor to say that I ask myself often what is the tar that we are stuck in today. I mean, it’s racism, misogyny, capitalism, ableism… and I could go on. At least there’s hope for whoever is standing nearby watching us. It’s octopus, right?

My organization brought on a handful of new partners during the first phase of the COVID-19 response. Our network grew by about 10% in a few short months. Many of these groups were the kind of partners who aren’t often represented in our network. Others, we were bringing on board before COVID halted our usual onboarding process. Then, facing the urgent need to get food to more people, we brought some of them in on a temporary emergency basis.

Now we are contemplating a gradual but eventual return to normal. My team has started talking about how to keep all these new partners within our network. But as is the case at most non-profits not named after a billionaire, resources are finite (they probably think resources are finite there, too). It’s during this pondering that a super-common question comes up. Someone has asked it at least a dozen times since I started here, and it’s always the same hypothetical. If we had two potential partners and could only choose one, which one should we choose?

the aforementioned unknowably different options
Say there are two food pantries. One is small, focused on meeting the needs of a specific cultural group or neighborhood. The other is large, serving five hundred to a thousand people in a single day. The smaller pantry serves 50, tops, each week. The larger food pantry has a few paid full-time staff, the smaller group is all-volunteer. The larger pantry is big, yes, but that also means their resource needs are much greater. The smaller one has few donors and fewer partners. The larger pantry knows someone on our board, who said they were eager to join our network. The smaller pantry doesn’t know anyone on our team. They completed our partner interest form, but they don’t have a truck and might need a delivery. And of course, we only have the resources to bring on one partner this year.

who would you want to partner with? why?
This question has vexed me for a long time, but I only recently realized why. The question, “who do you choose,” is difficult to answer because I already know the answer. I should choose the larger organization, right? The question feels uncertain to me because I want to choose the smaller organization. My professional instincts tell me I should be seeking the biggest bang for my buck. But I’m starting to think that the opposite is actually true.

why do we pit these organizations against each other?
If I had to choose between these two agencies, I should first want to choose both. Vu Le describes the alternative as the Non-Profit Hunger Games. In the ideal world, both food pantries have advantages, and I should want to bring them both in. In the long term, I should be working to expand my resources or find partnership opportunities for both food pantries.

rethinking what I know
But in this world with finite resources, I should invest mine in the smaller food pantry. I’d start by asking different questions. What do I know about the respective agencies’ impact? How much support do both agencies receive? Which organization is filling a niche in their community? Which organization dedicates itself to serving “all people equally”? Would a person receiving food at the smaller organization find what they need by going to the larger one? What about vice versa? What would my support do for each organization? What perspectives would they bring to our work? How might those perspectives be different from mine?

in an inequitable world, decisions based on equity may feel wrong
In a zero sum game, we always choose the larger organization. The one that feels like they have their shit together. The one who is already doing well. The one that fits our culture. But that means the same organizations always thrive, and the same ones always struggle. Organizations that have been around the longest almost always get the limited resources, because the resources are always limited.

Choose the smaller organizations first. Choose the new partners first. Think about how we’ve always done it, and ask what it would look like if we did something else.

We live in a society that is unjust to its core, one that has always favored the powerful. Sometimes we should strive to pick the bet that we’re conditioned to believe is the bad one.