Targeted Universalism Step 1: Establish a Universal Goal

A grocery store aisle of boxed cereals, stretching from one end of the photo to another. I grew up on malt-o-meal cereals as a kid. These were the generic version of the popular but more-expensive cereals. I started buying some name-brand cereals when I got older. As a treat. They really do taste different, though!

Awhile ago I wrote about targeted universalism. There are five steps to creating a plan. I’m using the Othering and Belonging Institute‘s primer on the subject.

To use the targeted universalism framework, we first need to establish a goal. The goal must be a broadly-shared understanding of a common problem. Once the problem is commonly-held, the collective defines their aspiration. In this case, I would define the problem as: not everyone has enough to eat. Food access depends on a person’s wealth, their dietary needs, and their location.

understanding the problem
If a person, or a person’s family has enough money, they can afford high quality food. If a person’s family has less available wealth, they may have to eat lower-quality food. They may need to accept whatever food they can get for free. It’s not universal. Get it?? That’s half of the plan’s name! The other half comes later.

Food offered at food banks (or even at discount stores) works for some people, but not everyone. People who can’t digest gluten or lactose may find their options limited. Same with people who are vegan, vegetarian, or don’t eat specific animals for religious reasons. People who don’t like the taste or texture of a certain food. For people with money, these are all valid reasons to reject food. But when a person doesn’t have money, society tells them to accept what they can get.

Now imagine a person who lives far from a nearby town or grocery store. Or a person who uses a wheelchair or scooter in a city with uneven or dangerous sidewalks. Or a person who must use a bus to travel on pre-set routes. I recently read the story of Dashrath Manjhi. His wife needed medical help but the Gelhour hills separated them from the nearest town. The small mountain range forced him to travel 40 miles around them to the medical center. By the time he returned with a doctor, his wife had died. In his pain, he spent the next 22 years carving a road through the mountain to connect his village to the town. This experience is not universal! Providing universal access to food means we must account for a person’s geography as well.

setting the collective aspiration
The Targeted Universalism primer describes how to establish a collective. In building the table, they recommend forming a group like the one we use in an advice process. The participants should include, from the start:- People most affected by the problem. Go out of your way to include people who are often excluded from these types of decisions. Include them in a way that honors them as individuals with their own power and choice whether to take part. I’ll summarize:

  • people who receive benefits from the proposed change.
  • people tasked with implementing the change.
  • people tasked with documentation.
  • people with an expert understanding of the issues.

Since we’re talking about food access, I would look to people covered by the limitations described earlier. I would include:

  • people whose first or primary language isn’t english.
  • people with physical disabilities.
  • people of different races and cultures.
  • people who know how to cook, and people who don’t.
  • people who sell groceries.
  • people who own farms, and people who work farms.

I expect the collective will grow and change over time as we engage more people in this work.

This collective would definitely come up with more limits to their food access than I have. But for this step I’ll use the three factors I named above: wealth, dietary needs, and location.

My universal goal would be:
Everyone should have access to food that is free. The food should be nutritious and appropriate to them. The food should be accessible within a 15 minutes walk.

I’ll get around to Step 2 at some point.

this will take all of us

a photo of a large white sheet turned into a hand-painted banner. in red paint, the lettering reads, “Our Food System Is Built On WHITE SUPREMACY.” they’re not wrong!! a logo for the organization Uprooted and Rising is painted at the bottom in black paint.

I ended my last post with what I thought was a fitting coda: “All I had to do was speak up.” I should have added an asterisk to the end of that statement. There’s an immense amount of privilege and access that lives within the simple act of speaking up. Here are an easy dozen:

  1. I’m a cis man
  2. I speak fluent English
  3. The decision-makers in the meeting spoke fluent English
  4. I hold a leadership position at my organization
  5. I knew my organization’s leadership would agree with my argument
  6. My organization holds a place of authority with this group
  7. The meeting I attended is part of my job
  8. I had the know-how to google a study before the conversation changed
  9. The study, which highlighted racial disparities in access to services, already existed
  10. I’ve spent large amounts of free time trying to understand structural racism
  11. Structural racism has been in the news lately. More White people than usual are feeling aware of their own privilege
  12. The issue mattered enough to me that I spoke up

What I did was not unique, or it should not be unique. But what if enough of the variables above weren’t true? Not everyone would have had the success that I did. The study was available to the public. Plenty of people on the call had the same or greater level of authority and respect that I have. And I’m sure that many of us would have said we support broad civil rights and oppose structural racism. But of all the people in the room, I had to speak up. I was the right combination of variables where I could do so with minimal risk. Those variables should not be a prerequisite for speaking up, but right now they may be.

There’s a reason why so many of us pay the emotional and mental taxes that come with teaching anti-racism. It’s why equity and inclusion efforts can’t be the responsibility of a single person at the office. It’s why change so often feels bound by inertia—until one day, it doesn’t seem so farfetched.

The reality here is that we powerholders made a decision that, win or lose, will likely never touch us. That is a system out of balance. We must, must change that. There’s no alternative, only temporary fixes. But. Until then. On the road to then. We need people in power to risk their stability and make change happen. We all have to learn these things because we have to be there.

I’m not in every room. I need you. But you’re not in every room. We need them. But they’re not in every room. They need us.

Change is coming, but it will take all of us.

the revolution is no place for templates

sugar-scoop flowers peek out from behind a damp, moss-covered log. the white flowers are bell-shaped on a spindly twig standing above a patch of green wet leaves. it’s been a hard month. like these flowers, i wanted to say hello.

2020 has felt like every single month will someday be its own chapter in a history textbook. Two weeks into global protests, leaders are promising change that once felt like a pipe dream. At the same time, we know that capitalism will monetize everything it can, even protests. Police forces will take a knee with protestors one minute, and tear gas them the next. It didn’t take long for public opinion to reach a tipping point. Corporations jumped over each other to issue their own statements of support.

But what do those statements mean?
After George Floyd’s murder, Adam Rapoport wrote an article titled, “Food has always been political.” A few days later, he resigned after a photo of him in brownface resurfaced. Reading the article now, it’s clear that he believed he was the vanguard. As Bon Appetit’s Editor in Chief, he was leading the way towards the anti-racist future we need. And then it became clear that he wasn’t. What did his words mean, in retrospect? Anti-racism sells now, but it doesn’t pay people of color for their work. It doesn’t disrupt the balance of white supremacy culture in a 30-year-old magazine. The photo of him in brownface was not new. If it wasn’t resurfaced to an audience that now rejected it, he would still have his job. His statement would have assured his readers that he was on the right side of history.

The last few weeks have shown most white people and some POCs the harm that Black people face every day. If we want to end that trauma, we have to do more than write a statement. I have a couple ideas about what not to do.

Don’t use a template
This isn’t a time to use someone else’s words. Black people and people of color are all feeling this in different ways. I can’t speak to how my Black colleagues and friends are experiencing this moment. Recycling someone else’s words, or worse, quoting MLK, comes across as hollow. This isn’t a time to dissociate. It’s a time to feel, be uncomfortable, and live in that.

Don’t write beyond what you are willing to do
The worst thing we can do now is provide empty promises. I’ve read a lot of statements from my own organization and from others in my field. I’ve felt frustrated wishing these statements went further. I’ve gnashed my teeth at all the euphemisms for “murder” and “state-sanctioned violence”. But when the statement hits the website, people deserve to know where you actually stand.

When I conduct job interviews, I always use pronouns to identify myself, then leave it up to a candidate whether they will share their own. It’s a hiring practice I do that says something about our workplace culture. We have a trans-supportive office, and we’ve dealt swiftly with the rare transphobic staff member. When I talk about anti-racist and gender-affirming hiring practices, I warn people about using these practices before the office culture is ready. If your workplace is anti-trans, don’t fool trans people into working there. In the same vein, don’t let your company’s anti-racist statement fool people into believing something that you’re not.

The statement is not enough
I stressed about the statements that were flying around after George Floyd’s murder. When I made my own statements to our network of partners, I worried about how my words would come across. I realized after I hit send that the words themselves weren’t what mattered. What matters is what we do after that. We need anti-racism to seep through the pores of every non-Black person on earth. It’s not enough to join book clubs or sit in guilt. We have to change things.

There’s one achievement of mine that is going to be the highlight of my year. My state recently increased the income level that a person could earn and still receive food. Our earlier standard, 185% of the federal poverty level (FPL), was set to change to 300%. I found a study that said that an income of 300% FPL was where food insecurity dropped for most people. But for people of color, they needed to earn 400% of the FPL before they felt the same effects. I helped persuade the group to adopt the higher limit for our entire state. We now have the highest income level limit in the country! Significantly more people will be able to eat because of a decision made by people the rule will never affect.

All I had to do was speak up.

equity in the time of coronavirus

A photo of a potato hauler that was once used by a Mexican laborer in Washington State. A large burlap sack at the bottom of the photo is decorated by a caricature of a Native American chief with the words “BIG CHIEF” above it. The sack is fastened to a block of wood with the name “Pepe” on it, which in turn is fastened to a canvas belt with leather straps. Farmworkers in normal times are often mistreated and undercompensated for their labor. Now that we are in a crisis, these essential workers are treated even more unfairly.

I took the last couple days off work, which has given me a little time to clear my head. It’s given me some time to reflect on how non-profit organizations navigate a crisis. Some organizations are now waking up to the racial inequities that impact their work. A world ruled by grants and philanthropy spends decades trying to “move the needle”. It’s easy to focus on changing a number on a dashboard to 70 from 68, even if that still ignores huge swaths of people.

And what happens during a pandemic? Exactly that, but faster. Emergency situations are the hardest times to try out new things, so we rely on old habits to see us through. Who do we forget when we move faster? People with special needs. People who are already disenfranchised. People we hadn’t meaningfully engaged before the crisis. People we don’t have time to engage now.

Tema Okun‘s paper on white supremacy culture is a resource I go back to over and over. There could be a different-but-almost-identical version of this paper for use during Coronavirus. Reading through it is so often like scratching an itch I can’t reach. She gives a name (and antidotes) to the vague sense of dread I sometimes have about a project or approach. I use these antidotes to try to craft a different course with my colleagues.

What can we do about it?
We can start by acknowledging that we don’t often work better by working faster. We make mistakes when we rush. We accept new opportunities without giving them a more thorough review. A group that we don’t have time to engage could cost us time and reputation when we have to fix what we did in a hurry.

I also have to remember that discomfort can lead to greater understanding and growth. No matter what decisions we make, I can still learn from our actions and consequences. I hope there won’t be another pandemic in my lifetime, but I will take lasting lessons from this crisis.

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.