coronavirus update

Hills and trees in Washington wine country at sunset. The sky is light blue with gorgeous peach-colored clouds. A pond in the foreground reflects the sky like a mirror. I’ve been inside for the vast majority of 30 days now. I miss the outside more than when I couldn’t go outside. “When will I see another sunset?” I think wistfully. I am still healthy, so I shut up.

It’s been an unbelievably long seven weeks working the COVID-19 response. I’ve spent a lot of time working with my part of an interconnected network of partners across the state. Our response changes at least once or twice each week. We make plans, we communicate those plans, and then they change again. I’ve grown a mustache!

In the past seven weeks, I interviewed two candidates for a job. I twice interviewed for a new job. I didn’t get it, but I’m feeling okay about that. Especially now, I have plenty to do.

Communication matters
I make no secret about my love of Hemingway the app. Everything I write for an audience of ten or more I write in Hemingway. Making something easy to read is the highest form of respect that I can give my audience. I used to write languid, embellished prose. I wouldn’t do that to an audience that gets an avalanche of emails every day. I have gotten overwhelming positive feedback for this decision. My words cut through the vagueness that covers up the unknown. And if I don’t know something yet, I say that. It’s easy!

Plans matter
Plans change, all the time. But they still matter! Plans communicate vision. They convey intent. What we put into our plans tells other people what we value and how we focus our attention. I’m reading Emergent Strategy right now, so I see fractals in everything. I notice that even the new things we are doing sometimes feel like the old habits we’ve tried to break. It’s hard to reinvent yourself while you’re doing something new. I have to check my biases when I create new programs, or else I will repeat them.

The collective matters
I am reminded every day why we must fight for a better world. This one treats people like shit! We are stuck fighting every day for small improvements. We are fighting against decades of people destroying the social contract. We still don’t acknowledge that the social contract was never made to support people of color, women, renters. We in the public sector make programs that benefit and support white culture without even realizing it. When we as a society lapse into panic mode, we go for what’s easy. That means prioritizing dominant culture. It doesn’t have to be this way. We have to choose to stop it. There is no time like the present.

We can’t afford to wait.

how do workers grow?

A forest in the Pacific Northwest. Scrub trees and ferns litter the ground. Hints of cloudy sky peek out from behind the trees. Ferns don’t have a five year plan. Plants don’t grow according to their boss plant’s wishes. Must be nice? It is!!

I see professional advancement as the incremental development of skills. I identify a task or role, then compare it to my existing accomplishments. The more I learn, the more I can apply to the next challenge. I approach employee advancement the same way. I give guidance on new challenges and provide feedback along the way. I use those accomplishments to lead to larger and more complex assignments later. But are there limitations to that approach?

in a typical hierarchy
A person’s supervisor usually sets their opportunities for growth or advancement. Advancement could depend on favoritism, luck, or other uncontrollable factors. When I’ve had a good job or a supportive boss, advancement feels so easy! I’ve also had jobs where my boss doubts my potential, and has worked to limit my opportunities.

there is a better way
In a self-managing organization, each team determines and distributes their responsibilities. People who want to advance can seek support from their team, rather than one person. In a distributed leadership, management responsibilities spread across an entire team. Team members could add new responsibilities or rotate them among their teammates.

for people who aren’t ready for the responsibilities they want
This is often a hard decision for a manager to make. I don’t want to limit a person’s potential for growth. But in a traditional hierarchy, advancement is usually a series of steps, not a slope. There is a whole host of responsibilities involved in going from being a team member to manager. Lots of organizations treat a promotion into management as sink or swim. Management trainings are often given only to people who are already managers.

what can I do in a traditional hierarchy?
We offer trainings for employees at every level of the company. We set aside funding for them to attend conferences and other learning opportunities. I could try distributing leadership to junior members of my team. I assign them project leadership and track their progress over time. We already rotate who facilitates team meetings and other gatherings.

but??
But it wouldn’t be right to ask an employee to approve time sheets or lead my weekly check-ins. I use those to track the progress of my team and correct their course as needed. I also get paid more to do those things. Sharing management duties should mean sharing compensation that I receive. Would people be happy if their pay fluctuated based on their current role? Would I take a pay cut if someone else did part of my job? For how long should someone do work for their own growth before they’re paid for it?

Managers should contribute to a culture of feedback and support the growth of their teams. People who want advancement should be able to decide what that’s worth to them. I will keep looking for ways to do that.

why would we write policies based on extremes?

An isolated palm tree practices physical distancing in silhouette across an artificially blue sky. A bird in flight is near the bottom of the frame, flapping somewhere else. The bird hasn’t been confined to its house for ten days now, I can tell you that much.

I recently listened to an episode of a podcast called Activist Class, where they interviewed one of my heroes, Nikkita Oliver. Nikkita talks about the new youth jail in Seattle. She points out that it was designed to be the nicest public building that kids of color might access. What if we invested in communities, rather than paying any price to “solve” their problems?

While I’m buried under COVID-19 response, I thought I would share. Here’s my favorite quote from her:

“Why not write our policies based on the world that we would want to see, as opposed to the world that we’re afraid of?”

Please check it out!

the R in SARS

A patch of clover-like redwood sorrel fills the picture. Each plant is a cluster of three heart-shaped leaves drooping downward in direct sunlight. My sister told me about a plant identifying app called Picture This. I can finally identify plants for people without having to make something up!


I started my career in public health. In school I wanted to be a doctor, but I hated memorization and preferred working to studying. My first public health job was in disease intervention. I spent my days tracking down people exposed to HIV and syphilis. At the health department, I latched immediately to the all ways we try to help people. We operate behind the scenes and appear when people are at their most bewildered. We emerge from the fabric of a collective society to offer people our ears and a hand. Even the mere threat of infection can make people feel helpless. It can feel like they’ve landed in the bleakest possible future. We try to lead them out of that bleakness into a more realistic and thus brighter world.

When my friends went overseas to support the Ebola outbreak, I was desperate to join them. I tried explaining this desire to my then-boyfriend, now husband. The public health archetype is a scientist rushing towards the danger without fear. Being on the front lines feels thrilling. You are changing the world on the most granular level: one person at a time. I joined the response but I was thousands of miles from the action. But even from my vantage in the emergency operations center I felt the thrill of the chase.

I work at a food bank now. Those public health ideals have stayed with me, though we only fill short-term needs here. When Coronavirus hit, the familiar adrenaline of the response returned. Our threadbare safety net looks even more tattered in the face of mass layoffs and social distancing. This weekend I’m coming down from about three weeks of non-stop planning. We don’t know how long this disease will spread. A week ago we didn’t know for sure how it spread. We are creating infrastructure at a rapid pace. We are unsure of what is coming. I pivot every time the response changes.

This week I had to take a step back from the front lines. I’ve had asthma for most of my life, but I forgot about all that when the number of COVID-19 cases increased. Another food bank director told me he sent home sick all his staff in the “high risk” category of the infection. It knocks out people over 60 and those with chronic disease, including asthma. In an instant I realized I was at risk (my husband said, “uh.. yeah, hello?”). Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome isn’t an abstract disease. I don’t need anything severe or acute attacking my respiratory system!

As a person who wants to help, I’m conflicted being the person who needs help. Even though my risk of catching the infection is low, it’s higher than I think. So now I’m working from home full time. Still busy (so busy), but not in the office. I’m helping to lead a response even though I’m off the front lines. I can make a difference without taking up a hospital bed.

I’ve seen the camaraderie created during a response, and I’ll miss the bonding that will happen. But even at home, I am living through this pandemic. I’m still trying to make a difference. I’m in the bleakness with others who are at higher risk of COVID-19. I can still help people survive while we find a way out.

In a few short weeks, the scope of our response has changed. People most at risk were already navigating a rigged system. We already know that we moved too slow when the crisis began. For most people, we’re only a month in. There’s no telling how long it will last.

ableism is invisible if you are able

I missed a week! I’ve been trying to stay consistent on the blog but the COVID-19 response has sucked up all my free time. In the meantime, here is a quick post I wrote recently.

Graphic of a matrix titled “Just use ____ straws!” with a list of alternatives to single-use plastic straws. Each alternative (metal, paper, glass, silicone, etc.) is marked with a variety of reasons why that type of straw would not work for some people. The original graphic was made by Hell on Wheels. Rambling Justice has a great round-up of straw infographics and alt text describing the graphic.

ableism is invisible if you are able
oppression is invisible if you are the oppressor
transphobia is invisible if you are not transgender
homophobia is invisible if you are not homosexual
white supremacy is invisible if you are white

I used to think it was okay to ban straws because they play such an invisible role in society. I could replace single-use plastic straws with any of the alternatives (paper, bamboo, glass, metal) that work for me. Straws damage wildlife and the environment, meaning their drawbacks outweigh their benefits. In fact, I can even choose to enforce consumerism by proudly purchasing a reusable straw. When I do that, I’m filling a need I didn’t have. My need for them was invisible. 

People who can’t drink without straws have tried or know about the alternatives. Many still stick with single-use plastic straws. Why did I instinctively doubt this? When I look for something to meet a need of mine, I research it for hours before settling on my solution. For example, I spent hours researching electric toothbrushes. I tried a few different kinds, I read reviews, and I chose my favorite. Why wouldn’t I imagine others doing the same for their own needs? I could declare that my alternative solution, such as metal straws, is the best for everyone. If someone still prefers plastic single-use straws over metal, they aren’t enlightened enough. One might consider expense to be the biggest factor. Metal straws are more costly than plastic single-use straws. Blake Mycoskie, founder of TOMS, created TOMS Shoes for this reason. By giving shoes for people who are shoeless, he is filling a need that they did not have. He assumes that people without shoes lack them only because of their cost.

Because I am able, using a straw is not something I spend more than a few minutes each month thinking about. Because I am able, I should trust what differently abled people tell me is true for them. Many of us are part of at least one socially-dominant group. It’s our responsibility to listen to the needs and concerns of people who are different from us. Once we have listened, we should work together to act.

exploring Targeted Universalism

the view from a plane above a layer of bumpy cloud cover. a sunrise peeks over the scene from the right. streaks of clouds texture the sky. up here, this is what targeted universalism feels like.

Targeted Universalism has fascinated me since I first heard about it on a podcast. john a. powell was explaining a system that he calls “equity 2.0.” In simple terms he uses, the goals are universal but the strategies are targeted. As he says, we should not be trying to close the gap between 55% and 70%. We should be imagining how to get everyone to 100%.

This took some processing for me. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how to apply equity to my work. Equity is sometimes described as a way to close the gap, or end disparities between races. Targeted universalism acknowledges why racial equity is not popular in dominant culture. For white people who are suffering, they have not felt the righting of wrongs that we say they already have. Some people get indignant when we say that people of color suffer more than them. Targeted universalism says instead that we all have a lot to do. Rather than working to close gaps between racial groups, we should imagine the goal. What should we want everyone to achieve? Once we know the ideal, we can come up with strategies to address what each group needs to reach that goal.

Five Steps for Targeted Universalism

  1. Establish a universal goal based upon a broadly shared recognition of a societal problem and collective aspirations. 
  2. Assess general population performance relative to the universal goal. 
  3. Identify groups and places that are performing differently with respect to the goal. Groups should be disaggregated. 
  4. Assess and understand the structures that support or impede each group or community from achieving the universal goal. 
  5. Develop and implement targeted strategies for each group to reach the universal goal.
    – from Targeted Universalism: Policy and Practice

Groups interested in targeted universalism should engage a large group of stakeholders. You can’t create a universal standard without widespread invovlement and buy-in. With that caveat, I’m going to try imagining the process myself. What would designing this process look like? What might a universal goal look like in the world of food access? How do we transcend but honor racial inequities and historic disparities between groups?

I am going to use the Targeted Universalism primer from the Othering and Belonging Institute as my guide.

questions about effective management

A metal statue of a bear standing atop a small granite pedestal outside a building in Reykjavík. Like this statue, effective managers are calm, clear-eyed, shaped like a bear, and made of metal. It is nice if the manager’s sturdy foundation is also made of granite.

I was recently interviewed by a student taking a class on effective management. So, here is that.

Please describe a typical day at work. What do you do all day?

I’m in a lot of meetings! I am one of three directors in my department, and I supervise 12 people across three teams. There are about 30 managers and directors in the whole organization. I lead or take part in several workgroups. I also have weekly check-ins with my boss and each of my three direct reports. We meet monthly as a leadership cohort, and I meet every other week with my other department leads. I am also in lots of meetings for recurring or emergent issues.

The rest of my work falls into two broad buckets, management and strategy.

Strategy is planning the big-picture stuff. My three teams have different but overlapping areas of focus. I need to make sure they are all on the same page about where we’re going. I also try to have them collaborate across teams as often as possible. I also consult on other people’s projects as often as I can. It’s a chance to align our visions and show them what’s important to me.

Management is important because I have to align visions within my own team. I provide guidance on projects and consult when they are unsure of how to move forward. I review drafts, contracts, and other policy documents relevant to my work when needed. This doesn’t include the more traditional management responsibilities like:

  • approving timecards and expense reports
  • regular check-ins and team meetings with staff
  • communicating our vision inside and outside the organization
  • finding professional development opportunities for staff based on their interests and skills

What are the most critical problems you face as a manager?

I find that as a non-profit we’re always more ambitious than our capacity. Prioritization is a big part of our work. I have to ask, “how critical is this need? Is it urgent or can it wait? Is this a potential learning opportunity for junior staff? Do we have the time to set those expectations to improve their chance of success?”

My teams work in opposite ends of our building, and communication is central to our performance. After I was hired, I noticed that while two of my teams felt they were distinct, their work was very similar. I put in effort from the beginning to get the teams talking and working together more. In a way, this doubled the available brainpower we had to solve problems. We share a lot within our department, but we still have the rest of the organization to talk to! We have a responsibility to define our work for others (or else they’ll do it for us).

What are the most critical skills needed to be a successful manager in your line of work?

Collaboration is the most used skill in my toolbox. I need to be able to guide my teams towards the best decision we can make. That means asking probing questions. After I get a summary from them, I like to ask, “what would you recommend?” Some managers do this so they can lead their employee to the answer the manager wants them to guess. If this is your plan, you’re wasting time. Just tell them the answer if that’s what you want to do. Instead, I ask them questions to refine an approach based on our collective expertise. The goal is not to ask questions with a solution in mind, it’s to think through a problem without knowing what the solution will be.

The other most critical skill I use as a manager is respect. When you’re the boss, you don’t need to raise your voice or be rude to get your work done. I stay professional with my staff, but I still like joking around. I want people to enjoy their work time and value their colleagues.

What are the major reasons managers fail in positions like yours?

Some managers fail when they change their programs without understanding them first. This may happen with new managers who want to prove themselves worthy of the role. Others fail by taking on too much at once, which can burn out their team. Some managers find it difficult to give clear, critical feedback to their employees.

Semi-related, but the most cringeworthy thing a manager can do is call their coworkers “family.” Ugh! The concept of family means different things to different people. Families ask a lot of each other in non-transactional ways that I would never ask of a colleague. I have strong relationships with former colleagues, but none of them are my family. Some people don’t have great relationships to their families. Some people are children or spouses of abusers. Some queer and trans people have negative or traumatic connections to their relations. I want to work with people I respect, without having to make it as personal as family can sometimes be.

What are the outstanding skills or abilities of other effective managers you have known?

All the best managers I’ve known have been active listeners. It’s a fact that you won’t always have the best solution. An effective manager is someone who can listen to others and refine their own thinking on a subject. I take extensive notes when I’m in meetings. I use those to reflect after the fact or clarify what I took from the meeting.

Effective managers must also focus on staff development. My first foray into management in an office was when my boss was out on leave for two weeks. She named me as the interim team lead in her absence. While I was “manager”, we had one minor issue that I was able to work through. This experience improved my confidence and helped me realize I found management thrilling.

I also appreciate when managers can communicate big-picture strategy and expectations. As an employee, I am always curious about the “why” of a task given to me by management. How will this get us to where we want to go? What should this look like when I’m done? Why is this more critical than whatever else I was doing? How does this task fit in with everyone else’s work. Though the hierarchy gives a manager power, managers often fail when that’s all they wield.

If you had to train someone to replace you in your current job, what key abilities would you focus on?

The most important thing I do is understand how racial and social injustice relates to our work. White supremacy and dominant culture created every problem that non-profits try to solve. Racial injustice is present in how we “serve” people in need to how we administer programs. We need to rebuild many of the systems that we exist in.
Another valuable skill I would want in my successor is relationship management. A lot of my work is relationships! Most days I work with at least 20 people in roles across the organization. I need to be able to hear what’s important to them, share what’s important to me, then find common ground.

Strategic ability is important, too. Right now, my team is working to expand the network of partners we use to do our work. I started laying the groundwork for this almost 18 months ago! At the beginning, most of the plan only lived in my head. I had to generate buy-in among my bosses, my team, and in other departments. This means having a clear (but flexible) picture of where you want to go, and then persuading others to go there with you.

//

The last thing I would say about effective management is that everyone has their own style. My style has been successful for me as a brown person navigating a hierarchy built by white people. It’s not successful for everyone, not even other people who look like me. As a man, I am praised for being assertive and direct. I am also not expected to invest in soft skills (like joining the social committee). And when I use soft skills, such as volunteering to take notes in a meeting, I am praised for that too.

We managers have a responsibility to change the professional norms we were born into. We all deserve to work in a place that is inclusive and supportive of us being ourselves.

implementing the advice process: first update

A meme featuring an “Ask the candidates”-style fact sheet between 2020 presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. The questioner asks, “can cats have salami?” Elizabeth Warren’s photo says “cats should only eat cat food” while Bernie Sanders’ photo says “cats can have a little salami.” This is one of the many decisions that people have to face in their lives. If the advice process was more widely used, cats might be able to vote for president.

I first learned about the advice process less than a year ago. I like the advice process for many reasons. The biggest is that it pushes back on the dominant-culture notion that there’s only one solution to a given problem. In truth, there can be many solutions to a problem. The best solution is more likely to come from a person closest to the problem at hand. It very rarely comes from that person’s boss, or their boss’ boss.

Since then, I wrote a guide for how to use it at a medium-sized non-profit organization. About seven months ago, I launched it in a committee on which I was the chair. This is a quick update on my experience using the advice process to make better decisions at work.

How I implemented it
I lead a large team, but I decided not to launch this process with my employees. Even though I introduced the advice process to my boss, and she supported the goals of this work. The advice process works by design in an ecosystem of distributed self-management. My non-profit is still a hierarchy, with a CEO and a typical decision-making structure. Decisions go up the chain, then they go back down the chain. I didn’t want my first experiment using the advice process to lead to a situation where I have to veto a decision. Instead, I chose to test the advice process in a committee I’m on. Every member of the committee represents a department or team. We are all considered equals, and experts in our fields. It was easier to justify the advice process in a setting where no one held power over another. The committee still operated in a hierarchy, though. The Chief Operating Officer sat on the committee, and could overrule any decision any of us made.

Ranking problems
When we started, we had a lot of issues on the table that were languishing without a decision. I created a very simple ranking scheme that anyone with five fingers can do. I asked each committee member to rank every issue using 1-5 fingers for these two questions:

  1. what is your personal interest or energy in solving this problem?
  2. how necessary is it for us to solve this problem soon?

These two questions helped us get a sense of urgency around each issue we faced. It also allowed us to land some easy wins once we got started.

Blocking a decision
I added to the advice process the ability to “block” a decision. The guidance acknowledges that my organization operated as a hierarchy (for now). In an ideal advice process scenario, the person with the power to veto is someone we would have consulted. With that in mind, we ask that before anyone in power vetoes an idea, they consider the following:

  • does the decision make things worse?
  • are you blocking the decision because you don’t love it? are you blocking the decision because you think your solution is better?

This part of the process has worked well for us, so far. Decisions made through the advice process are often well-reasoned. We know it’s okay if they are not perfect.

Questions of Impact
Another issue we ran into on this committee was the question around impact. Because we are a service non-profit, our recipients are the ones most affected by what we decide. We don’t have an advisory board, and our decisions are much too small to consult a group every time we need to make one. Instead, we say the impact falls most on the team affected by the proposed change. That team’s representative becomes the person who gets to make the decision. It’s also their responsibility to share their decision once it’s made.

What I’ve learned so far
Before the advice process, decision-making was haphazard at best. Someone would ask a question, and then we would talk about it for a while before tabling it for the next meeting. Someone would offer to do research, but that never paid off into real decisions. Using this process, we resolved six issues in five months. These issues had plagued us for at least a year. Once we started making decisions, we realized the decision-maker needed to share. I created a decision-making share-out document to archive our decisions.

Sometimes, many teams are the “most impacted” by a decision. Sometimes nobody was more impacted than anyone else. In these cases, the advice process says that anyone who wants to make the decision, can. Sometimes everyone is busy, but the issue is too important to delay. In those cases, we had to assign the issue to someone.

What I am still exploring
Some of the decision-makers reported difficulty getting started. This is still an unfamiliar practice for most of us. It’s not easy getting used to being the sole decision-maker. While individual consults are easier to schedule, it’s still nice to sit around a table and brainstorm with your colleagues. And as I mentioned above, we need to get clear about who we should include in the advice process. Often decisions can cascade outside a team in ways we don’t predict. But the advice process, like all tools, is not perfect.

I am still very impressed with the advice process. I am still thinking about ways to build the process into a formal hierarchy. I am also curious to see if the process continues when I move on from leading the committee. We’ll see how it goes!

centering people when collecting information

A white lighthouse with a red roof sits against a deep blue sky with streaks of clouds. Like the lighthouse, data collectors sometimes serve as beacons or warnings… eh, I just liked this picture of a lighthouse.

I have a stable job that pays me well. I live in a nice apartment with my husband. We can afford to buy the things we need. My job pays me to provide social services to others, but it’s not likely that I will ever need those services myself. And yet, I am responsible for collecting data from this group of people.

Government and non-profit organizations operate in a racist and classist world. Our culture supports the idea that people in need deserve some punishment for that need. This shows up as needlessly bureaucratic forms, means testing, and othering practices. It also shows up in how we collect information. The questions we ask are often invasive and embarrassing. Many people see it as the price someone must pay to get that service. But we don’t have to do it that way.

People who need help should be able to design for themselves how they want to receive that help. In our world, that almost never happens! So we collect information. Sometimes we collect it because we’re used to collecting it. Sometimes it’s because a funder asks for it.

I ask questions because I want to use the answers to design better programs. I ask myself questions like these:

  1. What information would be useful to share with the person needing help?
  2. What information do I need to do my program well?
  3. What information could I use to plan for the future, or improve the program?
  4. What information do my funders want? What requests of theirs could I push back or negotiate on?

Information I can share
I start with the information that would be valuable to the person receiving services. They might like to know how their A1C levels have changed or improved over time. If they shared their ZIP code, I could make referrals closer to their home. You can also ask people what they would like to learn or know if they take part in data collection.

Information I need now
This category information is different than what a funder might want. The beneficiary of this information should be me and my program staff. I ask, what do I need to keep my program running? I want to know how many people I’m serving. If I know the usual time that people come in for services, I can make sure I have enough staff to support them. I try to work around requests for more invasive data. What would we do with their name and address? If we collect it, ICE could subpoena that information from us. That’s a reality that no one in data collection should ignore. 

Information for the future
This is information I can use to grow or improve my program. Take my earlier example about schedules. If I knew what hours we could be open, I could serve people with busier schedules. This would take me into parts of the community who don’t already come in to see us.

Information for funders
Many funders want to see improvement over time. We scratch our heads for good metrics, then come up with measurements that are hard to collect. I inherited a grant that claimed a weekly class on diabetes could lower patients’ A1C levels in six weeks. This isn’t realistic. It puts needless pressure on the program team and participants. In reality, most funders wouldn’t expect that if we didn’t claim we could do it. We could instead check the program’s impact by measuring patients’ satisfaction. We could test if they’ve learned more about their condition over time. 

I try to do a lot of hard thinking about why to ask a question before I ask it. What will I use the answers for? What answers am I prepared or not prepared to receive? How could I get a more useful answer by asking this in a different way?. How could I learn this without putting it on a survey? What questions could I ask later, when I’m ready to use the information? We questioners hold immense power over people who need our services.

race and ethnicity questions

A flock of birds flies above the camera on a backdrop of a sunny blue sky with scattered clouds. Trees and a building fill the view in silhouette. Nobody is asking the birds where they are from. It doesn’t matter!

I’ve filled out a lot of questionnaires in my life. The question I hate the most is the one asking me my race or ethnicity. Nobody standardizes these questions. Sometimes I have to choose one; sometimes I can “check all that apply.” Sometimes questions about race and ethnicity combine into one question. Sometimes, if I check “Hispanic,” they grey out all the other options. If the questioner is trying to be thoughtful, they will give me a blank field where I can type whatever I want. Every one of these questions asks me to explain what group someone else has assigned me to. 

If people believed in equality, why would this question matter? Everyone should be “treated the same.” If people believed in equity, they would use this information to right the wrongs of racism. They would try to repair the need for us to ask this question at all. Some places only ask this question so they can update their website with a statistic. Please do more than this!

I choose not to ask this question on any survey I design. Some believe they can offer better services if they know the racial mix of the population they serve. But many non-profits say that everyone should receive the same services regardless of their race. Or they might want to use the answer to know the language a person speaks or reads. But a person’s ethnicity doesn’t tell you anything about the language they speak or read. Someone might be able to speak English, but would rather read and sign legal documents in Spanish. At a colleague’s food bank, she uses the data to know what fruits and vegetables her community prefers. But I love plenty of food outside my family’s cultures, and I explain none of that with my ethnicity. 

So what do we use it for? In a white-dominant society, race and ethnicity is a way to put non-white people into groups. It’s done to make assumptions about the needs of each group. Time and again, I find that the best way to know what a person needs, is to ask.

Instead of asking for a person’s race or ethnicity, why not target your question to what you really want to know?

  • What kind of foods do you like to eat?
  • What language do you prefer to speak?
  • What language do you feel comfortable reading in?
  • What would be important for me to know?

To me, that last question is like the empty box I described earlier. There’s nothing more powerful than letting someone speak for themselves. To use the words they want to use, to describe themselves in all the ways they think is important.

Until we can feel like we don’t need to ask this question anymore, it’s the least we can do.