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.

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.

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.

why you should move on

a small passenger plane with propellers readies to take off. maybe it’s for you. just kidding. …unless?

Two to three years is the ideal amount of time for working in the same job. This is mostly true, for most industries. Some exceptions for if you’re in an executive level position or work at an extremely small company. It’s rare nowadays for someone to work at the same place for decades. As a manager, I want to help my employees challenge themselves and grow. I don’t expect them to find the same level of fulfillment from the same job for the rest of their lives. It’s up to them to decide their own goals, of course.

Organizations suffer when we do things a certain way only because we’ve always done it that way. Regular turnover is the most natural way a company can adapt fast enough to a world that is changing around them. Turnover is especially important among management. Stagnating managers create decisions based on the way things have always been. People who make decisions are often nostalgic about those decisions. Their coworkers or employees risk offending them if they challenge ingrained policies.

I also want to be able to continue to challenge and grow the employees my organization has invested in. I hope that my employees can take what they’ve learned and turn it into a promotion or a new job somewhere else. With regular management turnover, new and entry-level employees can imagine a future at a place they like working.

I seek challenges and self-reflection as a way to keep my own skills sharp. I think about what I like doing in my current job, and what I would like to do more of. I think about the parts of my job that I don’t like, and why I don’t like them. Do I have something to dig in and explore? I ask myself how I know the things I know to be true. I listen to my coworkers, old and new, and wonder if they are still true. I wonder if they were ever true. And when I’m ready, I grow, and I move on.

race-based affinity groups

Besides climate change, racism is the single-biggest threat to humanity that we face. People use many methods in the work to end racism. This is one of them.

why do we caucus?
“The work we do is hard, but we do it anyway.”
Race-based caucusing is sometimes known as affinity groups. Caucusing provides a space to talk in community with those who share our racial identity. Caucusing can also provide belonging to people who feel isolated in white-dominant culture.

how do we caucus?
Caucuses can group people into whatever racial characteristics are present in your team. White, black and indigenous, people of color, and multi-racial folks are some of the most common. People with many racial identities can caucus with whichever group they choose.

what do we talk about?
Caucuses provide us a space to talk about race with people outside of work. It’s not enough to get together and talk. The framing for each group is how to support people who face oppression because of their race.

a note on confidentiality
Confidentiality is common in affinity groups. Talking about race requires vulnerability. Sharing our experiences can be deeply personal. When you leave a caucus, please don’t share what you hear. Instead, share how your caucus-mates’ stories make you feel. Share the perspectives or lessons you learned. Leave the details behind.

why do we caucus by race?
Think about something you’ve lived with for a long time, or know a lot about. For me, that’s the TV show Battlestar Galactica (BSG). If you don’t know anything about BSG, I’m going to talk to you about it in a different way. If you’re like me, you’ve lived and breathed the show (and own both the board game and two expansion packs). You and I are going to have a deeper conversation than I will with the person who has never seen the show.

For many people of color, race is like Battlestar Galactica. When we caucus by race, we can talk about our experiences freely. We don’t have to explain or introduce entry-level concepts to visitors. We can learn from each other while staying within a specific context.

I adapted some of the concepts from Dialogue for Affinity Groups, a publication of Everyday Democracy.