the real villain

photograph of a sculpture in Borgarnes, Iceland titled “Brákin.” the sculpture overlooks a body of water and then a mountain range covered in black dirt. the sculpture is a curl of concrete, six feet tall, curled with ridged sides to resemble a ram’s horn. a piece of metal looks like stylized wings coming off the horn, which is meant to resemble a cloth being pulled away from the center of the horn. the sculpture itself is on a stone pedestal, which is itself on a wide wooden pedestal. i learned this sculpture represents the saga of an enslaved Celtic nursemaid killed while defending her charge from his father. it’s an interesting story (and this article delightfully compares her staying power to Drag Race’s Miss Vanjie).

Last weekend I was talking with my friend Tom about a webinar we are taking together. The facilitators created a five-week session series about BIPOCs surviving predominately white institutions. The first session was an introduction to the program and a foundation-laying for where we are meant to go. Peppered throughout our two hours together, panelists and participants shared their workplace horror stories. Each story described a racist act or microaggression that that person had experienced.

When he and I debriefed a few days later, I learned that the session affected us in different ways. When I hear stories like the ones told last week, in a morbid way I find them somewhat validating. Sometimes I share my own stories with others just to vent. Other times I do so to make a point. Sharing my experiences can help me feel less alone in the world. But for Tom, hearing story after story started to feel overwhelming. The stories start to blur until they repeat, over and over, with minute variations. The perpetrators were colleagues, bosses, customers. They were tone deaf or threatening. It happened in an office, at the park, or in a grocery store. Our conversation has had me thinking ever since.

a story about stories

I was in another zoom meeting (I’m relatable, right?) with a focus on ending hunger. I participated in a breakout session with four women who identified as white. One person told a story about a young woman she had met at her local food pantry. This person “shared” the young woman’s story with us all. She rattled off a litany of life experiences that the woman had faced. In doing so, she reduced this person’s entire life into a list of hardships. None of us knew her, or knew her story the way she would tell it. The speaker’s goal for the story may have been to elicit empathy for the young woman. But she shared this story not to inform or persuade. It could have been one in a collection. In an article about Amy Comey Barrett describing her adopted Haitian children, Régine Jean-Charles characterized this type of reduction as the person being the sum of their trauma.

and what are stories among fellow BIPOCs?

Many organizations employ a lot of white people. At the least, their representation is more proportional to the region’s demographic. For the few or even one BIPOC staff member, sharing stories can help remind us that these experiences are wrong. Sometimes that’s all we need avoid feeling gaslit at the place they pay us to be. If you immerse yourself in the stories, it’s easy to feel like there’s no safe quarter anywhere. This is especially true if you already feel powerless at your own job. We may feel surrounded by whiteness, with no visible escape route. Some people can experience microaggressions or worse several times a week for a lifetime. These stories, too, need to have a purpose. They must embolden us to join together and demand change.

“there’s no story because you don’t deserve a story”

In the stories above, I was careful not to give too many details. They weren’t necessary. You have already heard the stories, or ones that are close to the stories I could’ve shared. I believed too many stories with oppression as their feature would dilute the message behind them. For the listeners, if the pain is commonplace, how do you persuade someone that it’s wrong? For the storytellers, how do you get away from something that is so pervasive?

I don’t force people who are supported by my programs to talk about their experiences. For some people, telling their story can be like experiencing the trauma all over again. It can be healing for some and triggering for others. We shouldn’t risk potential trauma if we aren’t willing to do anything about it. Stories can be valuable lessons for how we design our services for others who need them. They can help us better understand the effects and consequences of our work. Most importantly, they shed light on the true villain in many of the stories we hear: systemic racism!

stories are for fighting

I use stories to draw people’s attention to the larger picture. I share stories not as a list of individual struggles, but as a pattern of systemic issues. When you share what you learned from the stories, you remove the anonymous victim that your audience didn’t get the chance to know. You don’t need to air their trauma to tell people what we should do about it. You can talk about your takeaways. You can talk about the urgency of this cause. You can focus on the villain.

I’m part of a few race-based affinity groups or caucuses. These spaces are confidential to ensure we can share our story without others retelling it. There’s an explicit agreement at the core of groups like these: “Share the lesson, not the story.” Rather than taking a person’s story as your own, you share how that story made you feel. To some receivers of stories, it can feel like our goal is to soften the tone, convey urgency, or create empathy where there was none. Instead, these stories should horrify us. We don’t need to be passive receivers of the traumatic stories that others share. We don’t need, for example, to transmit videos of police murdering Black people before society should take notice.

I share my stories as a way of saying, “this shouldn’t happen anymore.” Whether we hear a story or tell our own, we should be demanding a world where it won’t.

we aren’t heroes in a system we thrive in

a close up photo of a portugal laurel shrub. the leaves are green with yellow ribs. a leaf in the forefront is edged with a reddish brown color. near the center of the image, off to the left, is a single cherry, reddish and grapelike. wikipedia says that the fruit is toxic if it tastes bitter, but can be eaten when ripe. i think i’ll skip it this time.

We live in a society built under capitalism. Under this system, people sometimes describe others as selfless if they don’t seek to earn the absolute most money that they can. It’s commonly understood that people who volunteer, or work for a non-profit, are doing an altruistic act. This includes people who work for the common good: feeding the poor, sheltering the unsheltered, and the like. Those who benefit in a direct or indirect way from these works may even call them heroes. But that lets us off the hook, a bit. There’s a power imbalance between the hero and the victim, between the savior and the saved. The truth is, we do not have a supernatural gift to help others. We do it because it’s the right thing to do.

we’re not heroes, we’re human

There is a greater value in seeing ourselves as humans, not heroes. Being human means we are fallible. We can make mistakes, pivot, and try again. Being human means we are not mere enforcers of the system, we are part of it.
In this age, it’s time for us as humans to stop and think. Who created the system we now reinforce? Who was it created for? Which of our policies exist to serve people in need, and which ones exist to serve us? Here are some examples to get started that I haven’t used before.

A few restrictive policies and some remedies

Operating hours. My pantry’s hours may favor some groups of people over others. Daytime hours may not work for people who commute, or have one or more jobs.
Remedies: Offer a variety of consistent open hours, including weekends, evenings, and mid-day. Create an appointment system to prevent long lines or lengthy waiting periods.

Limited food variety. People have all sorts of dietary needs. I recently became lactose intolerant (thanks, I hate it). If I am hungry and receive a gallon of milk, I can either be sick or stay hungry. The same is true for people who can’t process gluten, can’t or don’t eat meat, or even hate eating peas.
Remedies: Asking my constituents about their priority foods. Bringing in a wider variety of products. Allowing people to choose what they like to eat.

Relying on volunteers. Many non-profits rely on volunteer labor to keep their costs down. This can deflect the true cost of these needed services. Many organizations that rely on elderly volunteers lost them during the pandemic. If volunteers serve a critical role at my organization, I need to plan to fill that role in an emergency.
Remedies: Hiring workers from the community. Hiring volunteers as paid staff.


If we truly want to end hunger, we must do that for everyone. That means accessing food without fear or harassment, intimidation, or shame. In a society that vilifies and curses people in need, we need all the help fighting this perception as we can get. But we have to be careful about what we tell ourselves to do or not do. We need to be careful about tempering our plans based on the comfort level of our peers in power. We are enjoying the fruits of an unjust system. We should all be working to eliminate that injustice wherever we see it.

We don’t have to be heroes to do that. In fact, it helps if we’re not.

the stars belong to us

an old photo of the author as a lil baby. my dad is standing away from the camera in jeans and a t-shirt. we’re standing along the edge of a creek, california scrub brush standing ten to fifteen feet above our heads. he’s holding me in his left arm, at two years old, in a red onesie. he’s pointing towards the camera and i’m gazing in that direction.

camping

I don’t remember the first time I went camping. I was a baby. I don’t remember the experience but I remember the photos with a vivid intensity. My family ate well on these trips. When my dad was a boy scout, he remembers grilling a steak on a fire made in a Folgers can. He brought that spirit to our camping trips. I remember my dad’s breakfast tacos, a coleman propane stove and an enamel blue percolator. I remember my mom’s peach cobbler cooked on a fire in a cast iron dutch oven. The flanged lid that held the hot embers. I remember the heat, the cicadas, the fireflies. I remember being older and helping to pitch the tent on a hard dirt platform. I remember feeling the nylon’s clammy slickness from dew when helping to pack the tent in the morning.

Camping is an inexpensive family activity. My family hiked and relaxed at several parks in California and the Texas hill country. I now remember only a small percentage of the camping trips we took, but the feeling of those days stays with me. As an adult, my husband and I moved across the country to live in a temperate rainforest, our favorite biome. Even though I’m out of practice now, even for car camping, I have always felt at home in the outdoors.

another photo of me as a baby. my mom is holding me while sitting on the banks of another small creek. large rocks litter the background, with more scrub trees filling out the picture. the image keeps going back until it reaches the distant ranges of southern california. she’s wearing a black and white bathing suit, and i am sporting a very cool looking hat.

the outdoors

Dominant culture has painted the great outdoors as the home of rugged explorers. But these explorers are white in our history books. The Hollywood image of white geriatric cowboys ignores the reality that most were young Black, Mexican, and Indigenous men. White dominant culture paints Lewis and Clark exploring virgin land headed out west. They ignore the people who lived here for millennia.

White dominant culture calls John Muir the father of the modern naturalism movement. But whose nature was he in? Muir saw as untouched the wilderness groomed by Indigenous people who lived there. He saw the tribes with many centuries of history as simple features of the environment. The natural beauty that Muir fought to preserve was the result of years of their careful tending. Racism exits in that we remember Muir and honor him for what he fought to protect. Dominant culture ignores the work of the people who taught him.

the stars

When I was in college, my friends and I camped at Lost Maples State Natural Area in Texas. I had upgraded from car camping at the time, and we were about a mile and a half from the parking lot. My friend Jesse and I volunteered to hike our leftover food back to the car. We left well after sundown, but the moon was full enough that we could see the roots in the dark. Near the end of the walk to the car, we reached a clearing in the woods. In the clearing I looked up and saw more stars than I had seen since I was a kid. I gawked and spun, only looking up, at the billions of stars that are visible from earth. It remains one of the nicest memories of my life.

We have an obligation to disrupt the expectations of a white dominant culture. It’s easy to look at capitalist culture and imagine that nature only belongs to the people in the ads. It belongs to everyone. It belongs to us.

why do people with power still work on the margins?

photo of the lava-strewn Thingvellir National Park in Iceland. mossy and jagged volcanic rock dominates the lower two-thirds of the image, with tiny vehicles in the distance for scale. beyond, the top part of the photo is where horizon, mountain, and water meet. here, the north american and eurasian tectonic plates are drifting apart. this demonstrates how, if you truly want to get away from the united states, you just have to keep trying.

I got into management for reasons that people rarely say out loud. I have seen many examples of people abusing or neglecting the power their system gave them. I wanted to do it better. The pace of change has always frustrated me: who are we waiting for? How do we get them to speed up? I spent so long watching others use their power that I daydream about all the ways I would use it.

being marginalized but in power

It comes up a lot in the government and non-profit arenas where I’ve worked. In public health, people run by the adage, “when we do our jobs well, you don’t even notice us.” Unfortunately, the sober, behind-the-scenes government worker is an antiquated notion. This self-defeating view is like an early-release Imposter Syndrome. We are experts in our fields, but nobody will take us seriously. We can do, but can we lead?

In our reality, people who are afraid to rock the boat are minimally rewarded. Nowadays, governments don’t fund the things people don’t care about. Police departments are a great example of this. They and their unions proclaim in a screech the dire consequences if we cut their budgets. Amid weeks of police brutality, the Seattle city council pledged to cut SPD’s budget by 50%. The police and other city actors made their displeasure known to anyone who would listen. When the dust settled, the council overrode a mayoral veto to affirm a measly $3M cut to the current year’s $409M budget. Most of this cut won’t even impact the department: it’s too late to lay off staff before this budget year ends. They will have to start the negotiations all over in just a few weeks. Meanwhile for decades, austerity budgets have slashed all the parts of government that don’t kill people.

So why do we do it? Why are people with power so afraid of using it?

at the mercy of themselves

Most people in non-profits think of themselves as progressive. Or at least, progressive enough. It’s true for me, too! I worry all the time about whether my innovations are radical enough for the name of my blog. So we take this mindset and think that things are moving enough. We’re fighting the good fight, but going further would be going too far.

But what if we never fight for as much as people really need? What if the space that I occupy is taking up sufficient oxygen to snuff out the efforts of others? What if I’m the Pete Buttigieg of the non-profit world? What if our progressive values are just milquetoast centrism? What if we’re stifling actual good ideas with our own narrow-minded approach? (side note: one of Buttigieg’s campaign slogans is “win the era,” so thanks Pete for making me regret another of my taglines).

what’s worked for me
When I’m at the mercy of myself, I tap into emotion. I do enough doomscrolling to remember that things are not getting better on their own. I get angry enough with the system to want to do something about it. And then I remember that my position of power means that I can!

at the mercy of peers

Feeling out of step with peers can be an awkward experience. It’s easy to worry about what people will think about us, even when we’re fighting for the same things. It’s hard to have hard conversations, especially if their answer might be “no.” It can feel isolating, but gentle conversation shouldn’t make someone a pariah.

what’s worked for me
I try to mix things up. I keep myself educated by reading a lot. I write and sharpen my arguments. And I dare myself to try selling my audacious visions. It doesn’t always work, but people know where I stand. They know I won’t be happy upholding a harmful status quo.

at the mercy of the powerful

I’ve spent most of my life working on the money-losing side of businesses. This includes a stint selling gelato in Austin, where I ate almost as much as I sold. I know that funding has to come from somewhere, whether it’s taxpayers, donors, or funders. But it could also include peers in power, or a CEO, or the person taking notes when I complain about capitalism near an Echo.

what’s worked for me
Those people are all human. If we go into conversations expecting “no,” then we dare our listeners to meet our expectations. I’ve found that most of the time, people are afraid even to ask. I’ve never met a funder who said, “this was such a terrible idea that I am going to revoke all my funding to you, for all time.” But even if they do say no, that’s an opportunity to find out why. It’s a chance to engage them, educate them, and invite them into a solution.

how else can we break the cycle?

We can find a new job or a new perspective on the old one. We can ask more questions and listen to the answers. We can take more risks and learn from those that don’t pay off. We can keep fighting to do things in different ways. Those ways won’t be perfect. We can’t give up. We must take the wins and the losses and keep trying.

The core of each of the categories above is fear. Fear of failure. Fear of the unknown. Fear of never being good enough. Like any source of fear, we can’t run from it. The people I’m fighting for are fighting alongside me. They’ve been fighting longer and harder than me, and their fight is personal. I’ve taken their fight on as my fight. I’m not going to give up.