the strings that bind

a photo of oak trees towering over gravestones at a cemetery in Savannah, Georgia. Spanish moss grows in thick clumps on every visible branch. a row of headstones peek out from the bottom of the cropped photo. i grew up believing Spanish moss was a parasite on the mighty trees that did all the work. but they’re both just plants in an complex ecosystem. the real parasites are billionaires. also, i spelled “cemetery” right on the first try. 😎

I’m suspicious of nonrandom acts of charity. In my college ethics class, I learned most selfless acts aren’t completely selfless. They can give someone a warm feeling or a return on their investment. In the industrialized world of non-profits, these good works can come with a lot of strings.

Take grant applications, for instance. I have been a funder, and a grantee, for different organizations. Right now I do a little of both, depending on how much money we’re talking about. Some grant applications I read request a mountain of information. Narrative, budget, logic model, letters of recommendation. And once I receive the grant money, I have to turn in another mountain of information to keep receiving it. Monthly reports, client stories, survey results, year-end reports.

It got me wondering about the practice of exchanging stories for funding or services. How did it start? I tried looking it up, but I’m not a great researcher. Instead, I thought about how I’ve used this practice across my career. During my funder days, we used to ask grantees for client success stories. On the occasions we received them, the stories were great. We packaged those stories into quotes that we repackaged and sent up the chain in our own reports. These stories went from a few paragraphs to a bullet point list. Further up the chain, the list trimmed down to an anecdote in a briefing. Paraphrasing the anecdote might land on the desk of an elected official. At some organizations, client stories add personality to fundraisers and impact reports. As my boss once said to me, stories can move a donor to give, but data tells them how much money you need.

But where do we go from there? What happens when we feed this narrative, that X story will earn Y impressions or Z dollars? People who actually do research call this poverty porn. Poverty porn creates a cycle that begets more poverty porn. It teaches people that the pain they see has a remedy, and we can only apply that remedy if they write us a check. There is no path out of exploitation that is made through more exploitation.

What needs to happen is removing donors from the center of what we do. They should not be the first or only beneficiaries of our good works. I’ll look at this through three transactional lenses: applications, client data, and stories.

“please note: this application requires a second mortgage to complete”

It’s already a cliché that grant applications are more complicated than they need to be. But it’s that way for a good reason, right? These answers help the selection committee decide who should and shouldn’t get funding. I get it: staring at a pile of applications, all requesting the same shallow pot of our money. But it’s a bit like teaching for the test. The applicants who get funding are the ones who are good at grant writing. It doesn’t mean their plan is good. It only means that their application is. What about when we zoom out and see that we all breathe the air of an artificially white supremacist society? Some of the biggest large-dollar donors are recipients themselves of generational wealth. They pass those dollars onto organizations that share their values. How do organizations getting off the ground ever manage to compete? This is more challenging as white-dominant organizations adopt the language of racial equity.

What if we made things different?
What if we funded organizations that were at different stages in their development? “Before you finish your business plan, here’s seed money to work on it full-time,” or “Before you write that logic model, here’s funding and training on how to do it.” What if the grant application worked more like a sales pitch? What if the selection committee included only people with current and past lived experience? What if that selection committee met with potential grantees? What if they had a conversation about the goals of the grant and how we’d use the money? Holding onto money doesn’t mean you should hold it over people.

“don’t worry about PII, your clients are numbers to us.”

My first question about data collection is usually, “why do you need to know?” I’m serious. Why do you need to collect this information? This goes doubly true when the data includes Personally Identifiable Information (PII). Some organizations collect metrics that they have no intention of using. Data that might be useful later. Or, funders might ask grantees to analyze the data to create a report that never gets read. Worse, the power relationship between grantor and grantee prevents that kind of dialogue. Grantees feel like they have no grounds to push back on the data they’re asked to collect. They act like DaVinci wrote down exactly what his patron paid him to do and made it all to spec. He definitely would not pose his male lover as the most mysterious woman in the world (allegedly)! But when we pull apart the power dynamic, we create a stronger relationship with our own patrons.

What if we made things different?
Think about your program. How do you use the data you already collect? What could you stop collecting and nobody would notice? What information could we ask to create a better program? What if funders requested data, then paid to have it analyzed and shared? How could we collaborate with our clients and our funders to collect data that makes a program of value? What if all the grantees in a cohort decided together what was important to study? What if receivers of the service told funders what was important to know? What could we do with an environment of mutual respect between people with and without institutional power?

“enough about me! how do you feel about me?”

The most sinister side of charity is the things we demand from people in need. Data is huge, but stories are so much more personal. The way we collect most stories exploits the power dynamic of people who feel like they can’t refuse. Like means testing, stories and data set qualifications in exchange for help. I’ve written elsewhere about why I am very cautious when I ask for and use stories.

What if we made things different?
Start with awareness. Start by compensating people for their stories or their time. Promise a cut of the fundraising dollars you earn from their face on the side of a bus. Client stories can be exploitative, but they don’t have to be. What if client stories were more like enthusiastic YouTube videos? Uploading them is voluntary. Production values vary wildly among creators. But their creators tell their story, whatever it is, exactly how they want to tell it.

“ensign, what if we reversed the polarity of funding to power on the deflector array?”

What if we asked funders to hold themselves accountable to their grantees? What if organizations were accountable to the people who need the help?

We can push back on invasive data requests, or find another way to collect the data. Non-profits are offering basic safety net services. What harm do we cause when we ask invasive questions before they qualify? Do our benefits outweigh their dehumanization? Is any dollar amount worth that?

Many of us already think of our clients as the most important part of our work. So why would we take part in a system that demands their exploitation? Let’s take these recent feelings of political relief and zoom out on the system we live in. Let’s start to be really clear about who is tying the strings, and who should be holding the scissors.

boxed in

a photo of a stand of tomato plants at a hardware store. the green leafy plants are in black plastic tubs with a cage to keep them from falling over. i don’t have much of a green thumb. i would love to eat food that i grow, but given my track record we’d starve. i still love visiting nurseries, though!

At the start of the pandemic, my organization faced a new challenge. Business across sectors closed, making thousands of people unemployed overnight. The need for food spiked across our state, to a number that we hadn’t ever seen before. We started the pandemic like we would any disaster. We started importing in boxes of pre-packed shelf-stable food. But the pandemic is of course not like most disasters. Most disasters affect one city of region in the entire country. COVID spread itself around the whole world. Most disasters, like hurricanes, only last a few hours. COVID has lasted for almost a year since the earliest known cases.

Given the market forces, and our own supply chain, we made some decisions. One of those was to start mass-producing boxes of shelf-stable food. We designed these boxes to fit most communities’ needs. The subtext here is we did not design them to fit all communities’ needs. After a few months of this, supply chains started to return to normal. The enormous demand for food slowed to a more fathomable number. But now that we’re out of the woods, I have a chance to try a little hindsight.

what’s gained in a food box?

easier and safer. We had a lot of food to get out the door in a short amount of time. Food boxes made sense. They cut the contact time between two people. This was critical at the start of the pandemic because nobody knew all the ways the virus could spread. 

storage capacity, to some extent. While many of the people who need food pantry had refrigerators, not every food pantry does. Shelf-stable products are easier to store, even if they are bulkier. That said, food pantries can only store so many boxes, no matter what’s inside. As demand ballooned, some food pantries struggled to store the boxes they needed to serve.

what’s lost in a food box?

one size fits some but not all. we produced many thousands of boxes using a menu that was the same across the state. This means that some people receiving these boxes did not want to eat the items we packed into them. 

food for an emergency time, not a long time. we prioritized shelf-stable food over fresher but more perishable food. This makes sense in a disaster. If power has gone out across a large region, you wouldn’t want to give someone in that region a freezer’s worth of food. But COVID didn’t cause the same disruption that something like a tornado would have. Most people had working refrigerators and freezers. Eviction moratoriums protected many (but not everyone) from losing their homes. Those protections did not save anyone from having to pay back rent. 

the spices of life. And more than that, eating a diet of industrialized food can be very hard on the body. Industrialized food often lacks flavor, which it compensates for with excess salts. People can wash off the salt if they’re concerned about sodium, but that won’t make them more flavorful. If you don’t have spices at home, you’re going to be eating a lot of bland meals. As the disaster stretched on for months, people who could not afford food were still eating from cans. One of my coping mechanisms during the pandemic has been cooking. I also have the time and stability to be able to cook. Not everyone has that ability. 

what could we have done instead?

a greater variety of boxes. Even though one size doesn’t fit all, we could have planned for variety in the boxes. Or, we could have created boxes with a smaller base of items. Add-on or specialty items could have fit into these boxes. This would give food pantries the ability to customize boxes beyond some basics. In fact, we did move to a build-your-own system for most of our partners.

go bigger on perishable products. Later in the pandemic, we increased our access to fresh fruits and vegetables. This meant we could distribute fresher options to go with our shelf-stable offerings.

make ourselves obsolete. Imagine what we could do with a system that works for everyone! SNAP benefits (subsidized money for food) available to everyone who needed it. Removing means-testing from charity food programs. Free PPE for all essential workers. These are not ambitious programs, but they’re much more than we’ve had to work with.

the crisis next time

There’s so much more we could do in the food system to end hunger for everyone. My friend Clara recently shared with me the work of Chris Newman, a Black and Indigenous farmer, and the owner of Sylvanaqua Farms. He is part of a cooperative of farms in Washington, D.C. that seek to modernize the food industry. I hope that I won’t live to see another pandemic. No matter what comes next, we have to move beyond what we do now. We have to invest in a system that will serve us all.

power is magic

a photo of the countryside as seen from the window of a plane. the upper third of the picture contains slowly undulating hills in misty blues and greens. the rest of the frame is a birds-eye patchwork of farms and natural features. at one time, the heavens were the domain of all-powerful, terrifying gods. now, any idiot with a couple hundred bucks can get up there and take a picture.

What are the agreements that hold society together? Currency, especially the concept of fiat money, is a big one. Unlike the gold standard, where a person’s dollar equaled a certain amount of gold, fiat money is fake. Where does the money come from? I’ve read some very complicated explanations for why we can’t simply print more money. But the government does anyway! We’ve vested in it the ability to spend more money than we have on hand. Only the federal government can do this, because they wrote the law that says they can.

In many ways, the concept of power functions like fiat money. It’s made up! It has arbitrary value that depends on the context where it’s used. My importance in one circle doesn’t always mean I’m important in other circles. In an institutional hierarchy, power can be coercive. People with power can make others carry out decisions that they know are bad or unhelpful. People with power can redirect attention or slow down progress. They can do this even when they themselves know it’s the wrong thing to do. People with power can also confer power unto another person. That person’s qualifications are sometimes scrutable, sometimes not. At least some monarchies had the good sense to declare their power came from holy authority. It’s hard to dispute power vested in a person or their lineage by a capital-g god. But there are points in history when a couple of capital-g guillotines demonstrated that no power is absolute.

We navigate structures of power and dynamics every day, everywhere. This week’s controversy is about Trump’s refusal to concede his electoral loss. People are asking themselves, “can he do that??” The real question is, “why are we letting him do that?”

A colleague and I were talking at work recently. She noticed the efforts I make to help new managers feel welcome in our halls of power. I see it as my role to do more than that. I’m trying to dispel the mysticism of management. Like money, a leader’s power only means something if we let it mean something. People are fallible and human. Power bestowed upon them by the system doesn’t make their instincts better by default. In fact, relying on power as authority can create blindspots in a person’s reasoning.

Take for example the bigger role that race and equity issues now play in many organizations. The leaders of those organizations may not be particularly experienced in these things. The skill sets for their roles may have changed, but they still hold the power. Only someone else with more power can do anything about that.

Another example involves asking who has the power to make decisions. In the public sector, decision-making doesn’t always rest with the public. Transferring decision-making to impacted communities can give them power they did not have. It gives people in need the ability to make decisions that are best for them, even if those decisions feel wrong to us.

Some people in power convince themselves that they alone have the right answer. They might believe their place in the system grants them that exclusive power. They may think that empowerment can function as a token or rubber-stamp of their plans. When I work to empower the communities I serve, I keep in mind this truth: given power and the authority to wield it, someone might act a different way than I would have. True empowerment must include giving up my ability to veto decisions I wouldn’t have made.

how do you rebalance power?

If you have power, start by finding ways to share it. Then, relinquish it. Historic racial inequities and injustices should make it clear why most power in the united states is ill-gotten.

Sustaining Community has a great post about the Spectrum of Public Participation. It’s a framework developed by the International Association of Public Participation. The framework describes actions along a gradual transition of power to the public: inform, consult, involve, collaborate, and empower. Each action contains tangible steps used to engage the community we serve. The goal of empowerment is empowering for traditional power-holders as well! There is a burden or cost to making unpopular decisions. Instead, join the discussion as one of many people, all with unique ideas and perspectives.

These apply to both personal and professional life. Work to restore power to the masses through unions, organizing, and collective action. Support community groups and mutual aid projects. Collaborate with others to hold people in power accountable.

Power is magic. It doesn’t always make sense, though it sometimes leads to incredible things. But whether you are the magician or the audience, you have to be aware of what’s happening. Don’t forget the fact that it’s all a trick.

stoke the fire

a photo of a sunset on the rocky shores of Cádiz, Spain. the still-bright yellow sun tints the sky golden. a building with a pointed roof lies in dark silhouette on the right side of the photo. sunsets in photos are great. is this a sunset, or a sunrise? is the sun leaving or did it just wake up? the answer is both.

I write my blog posts early in the week, but I publish them on Fridays. I’m writing this one before the election, but it will come out after election day. I had ambitions to hedge my bets by writing a double post call to action: “what if he wins?”, “what if he wins instead??” But no matter who wins, we will still have to fight. Nobody is going to hand us outright the world that we need. For that to happen, people in power will have to give up some or all of their power. We have to organize, work in collective, bring our strengths to the work, and leave no one behind.

No matter what happens or happened this week, our work isn’t over. So let’s get to it!

the traps we lay our future selves

I’ve spent 20 years working full time (or mostly-full-time in college). In that time, I’ve only reported to a handful of managers who were Black or a person of color. And now, here I am, in management myself. At my current job, almost all my direct reports, including managers, identify as BIPOC.

As a BIPOC manager of other BIPOC managers, it’s tempting to pass my survival skills onto them. It’s tempting to instill in them crash course lessons on how to navigate very white leadership structures. It’s easy (I’m guilty of this) to try teaching them how to be a manager in the way that I learned. It’s a trap! We shouldn’t do this.

The conditioning I’ve had is not worth passing down. I walk on eggshells sometimes. I temper my recommendations to fit the norms and comforts of white supremacist culture. There may be value in sharing those lessons with a young mentee. Someone who does not report to you might find it helpful to know where the landmines are buried. But as a leader? As someone’s boss? It’s my job to help my direct reports hack away at the vines that hold us all back. Teaching people to obscure their identity does a disservice to the fights I’ve had to get where I am.

don’t light the way…

What if we stopped teaching BIPOC staff early in their careers how to mold themselves to white culture? What if instead, we used our power as leaders to give them cover? What if we lent public support to their ideas, and persuaded our peers to do the same? This is obviously true guidance for anyone who has more radical ideas. (I emphasize BIPOC staff here on purpose. I can’t tell you how many times people above me in the hierarchy will private message me to say, “I agree!” but won’t support my ideas in public.)

In my career, I’ve shaped myself based on the advice and feedback I’ve received. I learned how to meet the expectations of my bosses. I taught myself strict business-culture professionalism. I code switch when I’m at work and it seeps into my personal life. It’s likely that I thrived in my career because of my own assimilation. White supremacist culture teaches its norms to people as a condition of survival. The lessons are explicit: observing which ideas received praise, and which did not. Losing a job for not adhering enough. The lessons are implicit: in the form of culture fit, unspoken organizational norms, in-groups and out-groups.

When I talk with other BIPOC leaders, we sometimes talk about the ways we have minimized ourselves. Some of us have succeeded through a process of assimilation. But for those of us who have climbed the ladder, it’s our job to build an elevator. The metaphor here is precise. It’s not enough to make advancement and survival easier for our BIPOC successors. We should also reject the ableism that may have been critical to our success. We have to make conditions easier and more inclusive. It’s what we owe our future colleagues.

Undoing my own learned habits will take time. For now, I must support people below me on the institutional hierarchy. I must look for their talents and help them grow. When I teach my managers how to manage, my goal is not to teach them how I manage. They watch me do that every day. Instead, I teach them how I approach a problem, then let them find their own path to the solution. I listen. I ask questions that I don’t already know the answers to. I talk with them about the challenges they may face as a leader of color. Not to say that those challenges don’t exist, or that they’re not important. I explain why someone above us might say no to them⏤not to discourage their ideas but to sharpen them.

…illuminate the possibilities

I get paid to be a leader. I am responsible for helping to lead my organization into the future. I can’t do that through strict adherence to outdated rules and norms. People entrenched in power get used to saying, “no.” Savvy people in power are able to say, “no, and here’s why,” but the answer is still no. We must create a different world. We must use our hard-won power and influence to finally say, “yes.”

If our staff is more radical than we are, it’s our job to give them legitimacy. It’s our job to shape the next generation better than we had to shape ourselves. Our goal is not to install dim automatons that will succeed us. It’s to help create great leaders with their fires still intact.