playing favorites 2020

a photo of a shelf of pulp fiction titles from the very-worth-it Leather Archives & Museum in Chicago. these novels look like the Penguin Classics of gay erotica. each book’s risqué title is written in a bold all-caps black font on a white background. a single block of color runs across the top of each book’s spine. identical colors are shelved together but not in a gradient, more like a patchwork rainbow. the first version of this caption contained a lot more accidental innuendo. i decided the books should speak for themselves.

Like most millennials, a lot of my reading these days takes the form of news and pop culture. It was a natural progression for the voracious reading habits that began when I was a kid. When you only read about current events, a lot of what you read is useless even a day later. So a few years ago, I decided instead to devote some of my time to reading more books. Last year I started keeping track of the books that I read. This year I wanted to share my five favorites that I read in 2020.

5. The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa

I learned about this book from an article (haha) near the start of the pandemic. The article’s author compared the book to the unsettled start of our 2020 pandemic. In The Memory Police, the narrator describes a town in which things disappear. One day birds disappear. Another day, the concept of a calendar disappears. The calendar on your wall would need to go, or else the memory police may come and do it themselves. At first these things start to disappear from people’s minds, like water seeping out of a crack in a pitcher. Eventually, the memory police arrive to destroy all traces of the items. Possessing these items or talking about the things you’ve lost are crimes. Some people in this town never forget the items or concepts that go away. But for most of the town, there’s only a feeling that things are different.

Reading it through that lens, I found it distressing in places and comforting in others. Distressing in how complicit everyone seemed to be in the undoing of their own society. Comforting in the reminder that life goes on despite it all.

4. Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong

Minor Feelings is a memoir as a collection of essays about being an asian american in the united states. The stories are imbued with race and racialization. Minor feelings, the author writes, are “emotions that are negative, dysphoric, and therefore untelegenic, built from the sediments of everyday racial experience and the irritant of having one’s perception of reality constantly questioned or dismissed.” The book was a meditation on shame and identity and what it means to be a part of… all this.

I read more memoirs this year than I can remember ever reading. I learned about Minor Feelings from Jia Tolentino, a fellow second-generation asian american. I’m exactly six years apart between both of their ages, so there was a lot in this book that I related to. I also kept a series of notes of things referenced in this book that I wanted to look up. I started this book the night of the election and finished it a few days later. I loved it.

3. The Hidden Lives of Owls by Leigh Calvez

A friend of my parents gave us this book as a wedding present. Bev and Frank have lived for years in the pacific northwest. I can’t think of another book that better captures how I feel about this place. Each chapter tells a story about a different owl species. The book is full of facts about each owl, though it reads more like personal stories than reference guide.

The most dramatic story for me was the story of the Great Gray Owls with the Great Horned Owls. My favorite owl is the so-tiny Flammulated Owl, which lives in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. And now, whenever we go out into a stand of trees, I can’t help but look up.

2. The Injustice Never Leaves You by Monica Muñoz Martinez

This book is a history of anti-Mexican violence and lynchings in Texas. Each chapter centers on an individual, a family, or a town. It lay bare the savage brutality of the white settlers and Texas Rangers in the early days my home state.

This was another fast read. It’s also the rare library book where I bought the book soon after finishing it. I started this one near the beginning of 2020, and you know what this year has been like. It was a bleak way to begin a year that seemed to only get bleaker. This book makes clear how little progress we’ve made against the enforcers of white supremacy. It also reminds me why it’s so important to fight, even when it feels futile.

1. The Vanished Birds by Simon Jimenez

Covering an entire millennia or so of the future, this book was a sprawling epic told through a few lifetimes. The story begins on a planet and spreads out to the entire universe. I could have spent an entire book in any of the settings the author created. There’s a brilliant designer of space stations that take centuries to build. A ship captain who spends weeks in space that are decades to the people she meets whenever she lands. A boy who fell from the sky and at first only communicates with music. And, sadly, a universe controlled by ruthless century-spanning corporations.

This book was the novel of my dreams! The immersive storytelling was catnip for my imagination. The characters were diverse and queer and fully realized. I have a stack of books that I still need to get to, but I’ll be coming back to this one soon.


I’m taking next week off, so my next post will be in early 2021. I had a blast working on radical innovations this year. This blog has helped me bring clarity to my ideas and given me confidence when I’ve needed it. And at least once this year, something I wrote for this blog made its way into an official government memo to 500+ organizations across the state. This work is my attempt to build the fractals that adrienne maree brown describes in Emergent Strategy:

“In a fractal conception, I am a cell-sized unit of the human organism, and I have to use my life to leverage a shift in the system by how I am, as much as with the things I do. This means actually being in my life, and it means bringing my values into my daily decision making. Each day should be lived on purpose.”

I know that the qualities we are can lead to the decisions that build the future we need. I’m grateful and lucky that I get to put my ideas into coherent sentences and share them with you. I hope you enjoyed reading.

just stay alive

a photo of a woman ziplining across a canyon outside Salta, Argentina. the woman's sweatshirt is all white, pants are a tan color. she is wearing a yellow helmet that long dark hair is laying out of. her right hand is in a heavy glove, holding a thick metal cable. her left hand is holding the harness and pulley wheel contraption that connects her to the cable. she is hundreds of feet above a placid river, with steep mountains on either side. scrub grass and bushes speckle the brown desert floor below.
a photo of a woman ziplining across a canyon outside Salta, Argentina. the woman’s sweatshirt is all white, pants are a tan color. she is wearing a yellow helmet that long dark hair is laying out of. her right hand is in a heavy glove, holding a thick metal cable. her left hand is holding the harness and pulley wheel contraption that connects her to the cable. she is hundreds of feet above a placid river, with steep mountains on either side. scrub grass and bushes speckle the brown desert floor below. i know it looks high up. it was! but the scariest moment is when you’re the furthest from both sides.

I had a great chat with my friend Clara recently. She and her friend Melo are the hosts of a podcast, Intersectionality in the Diaspora. We talked for a while about our experiences surviving predominantly white institutions (PWIs). We discussed the harms that they can visit on BIPOCs existing in all parts of society. It was a satisfying conversation! If you would like to listen, it’ll link to it once the podcast goes live.

Preparing for the podcast helped me clarify my thoughts on survival. I’ve talked about the webinar series I took hosted by artEquity: BIPOCs surviving PWIs. Over the course of five sessions, the speakers and participants shared many of their own experiences at a PWI. Their perspectives led to a single unblinking message: get out!! Prepare the resources and the network you will need to survive without them. Leave your PWI while you still can.

I struggled with the idea that a series on surviving PWIs was telling me there is no survival. But their arguments were persuasive. For many BIPOCs, staying in a PWI means a career of feeling undervalued, tokenized, or othered. We in PWIs recognize that we may spend a lifetime performing work that we aren’t paid for. Dr. Adia Harvey Wingfield writes about the “racial tasks” that companies ask of workers of color. These tasks reinforce racial hierarchies, maintain the status quo, and limit the impacts of revolution. This stress creates a debt that compounds and is never repaid in full.

These truths have been turning over in my mind for weeks now. I’ve written a handful of essays on this site where I process my thoughts. I started out rejecting those ideas. Why should we abandon all these systems and structures of power? How can they make the progress we need without us? And the money! They have immense networks of donors that may not be available to a person of color just starting out. How are we supposed to pay rent? Even as I processed this, I knew on some level they were right. I also knew that the other side’s grass is a hypersaturated green. It can’t be that good. Right? With all that in mind, I wanted to make a case for both worlds.

for those who stay in a PWI

Predominantly white institutions are all around us. They are the beneficiaries of centuries of unequal power and outsize influence. No matter how good we are, they won’t all implode this year. So how can we live with them?

why you’d want to

For some people, staying in a PWI can feel like seizing the means of production. Here we have a sturdy institution that we know can move. Organizations are people, people are malleable. If we know that all organization must adapt or die, then adapting to a racially just world is in both our interests. There are places to find common ground. For the people who are willing to teach, there are leaders in PWIs who are ready to learn.

what you need to remember

With all that said, you have to remember what you are signing up for. The progress will be slow. There will be months or years where the best you can hope is to be pleasantly surprised. There are leaders out there who’ve never considered these things. And in an instant, they can change their deep-seated beliefs. I’ve worked with groups that one day realized their complicity with white supremacy. For the BIPOCs in their world, this must have felt like some kind of liberation. But those stories are also rare.

Staying at a PWI demands patience and understanding. It’s well-documented that we are changed when we navigate worlds that aren’t made for us. For those of us who dream of a new world, our goals won’t always align with theirs.

With all that said, I have to be really honest here. The longer we work in the systems that were built to oppress us, the longer it will take before we’re free. I grew up internalizing the “twice as good” rule. What I’ve learned is that even after a decade doing what I do, I am still setting my own performance expectations that high to be seen as worthy. And it is still not enough to bend the perspectives of the people holding the keys.

Existing in this structure my whole life still has me believing that I can smile and paint a positive outlook on this approach. I can’t. The people who can will retire at 85 still waiting for someone to save them. I created this website under the belief that the real savior, like a movie with a time travel loop, has to be us (those movies are incidentally my favorite).

No matter where you are or how entrenched you feel, you need to get out. PWIs will eat you alive before they realize you’re even there.

while we’re here, we can:

  • work to understand and refine our goals and intentions
  • radicalize our coworkers and employees
  • speak up! using whatever voice we have
  • support unionization and efforts that create a collective consciousness among staff
  • create a bubble of safety and support and invite fellow BIPOCs in

why you might reconsider

If you can do this, do it for a long as you can. Know that if you do leave, your habits and instincts will carry with you the lessons of your PWI. But also know that leaving is not a failure. Know that any progress you have made is its own success.

for those who leave

Everyone knows the Audre Lorde quote! The place we want to go, we can’t get there from here. PWIs that fear change will survive the longest by maintaining the status quo. No matter how hard we try, it’s too tempting to undervalue workers. This creates its own trauma. If we want real liberation, we will have to do it ourselves.

why you’d want to

The clearest path to liberation is to reject the status quo and make something new. It might not be perfect. There are other donors out there. There are other people who are looking for better things. Reject the low valuation of your worth, and help others find their own future.

You don’t have to start your own organization to get out. BIPOC-led or BIPOC-centered institutions are out there. The jobs may be more scarce because they’re more in demand. And they aren’t always as large, but they still have impact. Many of our colleagues start out as single-person consulting firms and grow from there. You have the power to create something that has a real impact within your community. Your work has the potential to grow, and to go far.

At a PWI, you may be spreading messages you don’t agree with, while trying to get slivers of your ideas into them. Leaving that PWI means you can spread the messages and ideas that hold value with a new audience. Rather than grinding yourself to dust, you could help create authentic, satisfying outcomes.

what you need to remember

Working on your own is not easy. Don’t set out without preparation, because our racist and capitalist society has a specific type of intolerance for BIPOC failure. Know that it is difficult, but remember that it’s necessary. Right now, I don’t know if I’m ready for the hustle or ingratiation required of a full-salary consulting gig. One person in the Surviving PWIs session shared that she was grateful to be on her own and out of the education PWI she used to work at. But now, as a consultant, she works with the same people she was happy to escape.

Even if you leave a PWI, there will always be people who can’t. People who are more junior in their careers. People who need the stability of a steady paycheck from well-established donors. Leaving a PWI doesn’t mean leaving the BIPOCs who are in them. Work with and support each other. Know that they may feel trapped even though they can see you’ve wriggled free.

while we’re here, we can:

  • mentor people at PWIs, and show them what’s possible
  • help people see that the water isn’t as deep as they might fear
  • educate your clients on concepts they couldn’t hear when their BIPOC employees first said them
  • share and refine your ideas with like-minded folks
  • grow your organization and hire in all the ways you wish PWIs would

why you might reconsider

For some people who leave, liberation at first might mean sleeping on a friend’s couch. If that works for you, do it. Not everyone can make that choice yet. It’s horrible that we live in a world where we can’t strike out on our own without connections or a trust fund. No matter where we are right now, we share a common goal.


just stay alive

I oscillate between wanting to be in both of these camps. I’ve seen and felt the impact that I’ve had in PWIs. These accomplishments might not have been possible if I was standing on the outside. I also know that the longer I’m in, small victories feel enormous. I look at my career and feel the changes I’ve made for the causes I believe in. But wouldn’t it also be amazing to work for those causes full-time?

The victories I’ve had in PWIs are also in some ways half-measures. They came with compromises, costs, and delays. By the time we get the nation to a $15/hour minimum wage, the minimum wage adjusted for inflation should be $22/hour.

No matter where we are, we have to do our part to reject white dominant culture. That culture indoctrinates us to believe there is only one right way. We know this is false. There are as many solutions to a problem as there are paths to justice. For as long as someone is trapped in a PWI, there is still work to be done. For people who have gotten out, the work is different but the same. No matter where we are or who we report to, we must keep walking forward.

viewfinder

a photo of the mountains outside Albuquerque, New Mexico. above the mountains in the shadows of dusk sit dark clouds with flecks of light. in front of the mountains are desert trees and grass cast in a ghostly yellow-brown. somewhere between the viewer and the scrub trees, a rainbow floats in the ether. near the center of the image is a second rainbow, barely visible, but perhaps the thing that made this scene so special.

Many in the non-profit industrial complex are pivoting to meet a newish trend. They hope to elevate the voices of people who have long borne the brunt of a racist, capitalist, and artificially-white-supremacist society. In the united states, a narrowing majority has spent generations as the only ones whose voices society uplifted. So how do you elevate others when one group has always held the spotlight? How can we elevate people who white dominant culture long destabilized? How can we finally put them into focus? It starts, and must not end, by moving the camera.

the camera itself

Say you’re holding a camera. It’s a standard point and shoot, any level of technology. You might twist the lens to change focus, or tap a different part of the screen to do the same thing. You’re looking through the viewfinder at two people: one close, and one far.

Say, in this transparent allegory, you’ve been looking at the close person for centuries. You watch them shift and move in the light, but you rarely need to adjust your focus to see them. And the person that’s further away shifts and moves too. Sometimes they move nearer to you; sometimes they move back. Sometimes the nearer person turns around and looks at the one behind them.

How can you look at them both?

the act of looking

Now you find yourself, for the first time, wanting to look at the other person. Get a real good look at them. You can’t just point your camera at this new person and see them, at least not clearly. You have to change the focus. Twisting the lens or tapping the screen brings no pain to the person nearer to you. You’re only looking at a different person, and not even forever.

What you holding the camera might not realize is the focus isn’t all that’s necessary to see the person further away. You might think all that needs changing is who the camera is pointed at. But that would ignore the racist history of film chemistry. It would ignore those who wrote the algorithms the lenses use to capture images. It ignores you, the person who is holding the camera. How long have you been holding this thing? Who held on to the camera before giving it to you? Who taught you how to use the camera, where to point it, and what was important to look at?

It also ignores the history of why that other person has always been out of focus. Why they are so far away. And when you start focusing on other people, who else might emerge from the background? Who else might you have never noticed before? Who else has always deserved to be seen?

reality bites

But for so many leaders in the public sector, they believe that all you need is to gaze towards what now matters. Those of us who have always been around are now at the center of the viewfinder more than we used to be. And suddenly the world is changing for these leaders. Suddenly, they’re or we’re called to do things in a way that’s different, for the first time ever.

But what has changed, really? People in power are still exactly where they’ve always been. We may have a seat at the table, a folding chair placed at the corner of their mahogany boardroom. What is the same? Everyone else at the table. The board that affirms their power. The others in leadership that take their cues. The donors they speak to. The audience they think about.

Some believe they can live an entire life in an artificially-white-supremacist society and emerge unbowed. Or in the space of a single (optional) two-hour session, these leaders will be able to do the new work we must demand. They believe they can use the same equipment and film they have always used. The techniques that feel natural to them. The discomfort that can last for sheer minutes before they insist we change the subject. And the faint awareness, almost out of frame: the only moral act that people now in power should take is to abdicate.

how we get free

I’ve wrestled with these concepts a lot lately. I’ve had some crystallizing conversations with a few people I’m lucky to know.

Abdication is not going to happen in my lifetime. I’ve realized that we have to do it all over. We need a complete reenvisioning. We can’t change the world from the view at their table. We have to take a step back and find a different way towards the future we know we all need.

If we do it another way, and it’s successful, they’ll steal our ideas. Take credit for them. We’ll come up with new approaches. The ideas themselves aren’t even new; what’s new is how we use them. We’ll reimagine the models we’ve lived through and make them better. This continuous adaptation is not without purpose. Our goal is to keep creating until we have something that looks unrecognizable to them.

What we’re doing is decolonizing ourselves. Wave by wave. Until all that’s left is the future we’ve made.

map the future

a photo of an illustrated topographical map of Iceland. the eastern side of the country is visible in the cropped map, though the legend in the corner hints that a much larger map exists in reality. looking at a map can be daunting (for me) or thrilling (for my husband). at the end of the day, they’re tools that show us where we need to go. and sometimes we photograph a map at a rest stop for our husband and then forget to show him until just now. oops! happy early birthday, babe!

Most of the companies I’ve worked for have had a strategic plan. These plans run the spectrum between incremental and ornamental. Some get by with unambitious tweaks to last year’s plan. Others go through months of revisions only for it to end up posted on a wall in a forgotten conference room. But rarely do I see people use strategic plans to dream!

dream the journey

Strategic plans get a bad rap among most people in the working world. One coworker of mine once told me they struggled to do their strategic plan work on top of their regular work. That’s definitely not what a strategic plan should do. The strategic plan work should be the regular work, and vice versa.

At their best, strategic plans sell a vision. They can be blueprints for implementing that vision. They are also a best guess about the future, which humans are notorious for being bad at. The best comparison I can make is that they work like old-school paper maps.

Strategic plans contain a lot of information, but not an infinite amount. If you’re in a rented van with several friends, you can use one to decide where you want to go. All you need to do is pick a destination, and start heading that way. This section was going to be about “finding a north star” but that’s how a thousand other blogs describe strategic planning. No! It’s a map!

finding a north star it’s a map!

Think of an organization as that group of people in a van. They all want to go somewhere, they might even agree on a cardinal direction to drive towards. This is where the dreaming comes into play. Where do we want to go? Is it a city? What does the city look like? Does it have skyscrapers? Incredible restaurants? Or is it an isolated beach with a view of the ocean?

Like with strategic planning, we need to know where we want to go before we can get there. I’ll use as my example a brand new organization. I want to start a non-profit that helps brand new food pantries get off the ground. When we finish our work, what do I want to see?

I want an organization that is accessible to all. I want to create a fire hose of funding and resources that we can direct anywhere it’s needed. I want to seek out community groups and help them get started. I want this organization to run as clusters of individual self-managed entities. These organizations operate under a single umbrella to de-duplicate overhead. Each cluster can make the decisions they need to for the benefit of their communities.

From that vision, we can create goals. I know it will be tempting to take all those simple sentences and turn it into one giant sentence. This doesn’t help people understand what you do! There is no genie that will fulfill your wishes if you separate them with commas instead of periods. Instead, the genie will skim your too-long sentence and only grant the keywords they remember.

how do we know where we want to go?

Strategic plans should reduce down into tangible goals and actions. Review your goals. Does everyone agree with them? Everyone in the organization should find themselves in the strategic plan. Recall my colleague in the story above. If their day-to-day work is not part of our strategy, how are they helping us get where we need to go? If their strategic plan work is separate from their daily work, when will they have time to do it? If their work doesn’t fit into our plan, we should consider (more than once) whether we should be doing it at all.

I’ll further extend my map metaphor. Everyone should know how they contribute to our strategy, as easy as pointing to their city on a map. The reverse is also true. Everyone should know at least a little about the entire strategy that drives our organization. That awareness helps people ground themselves into their work. It helps people, especially in large or complex organizations, feel more grounded.

now, the dreaming

I don’t start by thinking about our five year plan. I start by thinking about the environment we want to see where we’re done. That helps me consider context. If I want a world where nobody goes hungry, how long will that take me? Is it reasonable to think that we can do that in five years? It’s not wrong here to be audacious. Our destination might be very far away. But what small steps can we take today, or this week? What steps can we take next month, or next year?

This is also a good time to consider the scope of your goals. The organization I made a few paragraphs ago will have limited influence in its infancy. There’s a world in which one or two state legislators might have heard of us in a year. We may not have the influence we need to achieve our goals in a year. But what can we do? What can’t we do yet? The answers will be helpful when thinking about the actions for those goals.

how do we get there?

The team responsible for the work should be the same ones who write the goals. But now, each goal needs its own review time. I’ll pick one of my examples above.

A lot of my current job is about network-building, so I’ll use an example goal that’s close to that:

seek out community groups and help them get started

What are the actions I could take to achieve this goal? Here are a few:

  • identify community groups that need support
  • determine the most pressing needs they have
  • find a way to help them get those needs

This is the area where your goals and your scope come into play. Some of the community groups I know need funding to stay afloat. If nobody on the team has fundraising experience, we won’t be able to help them with that. Hiring that kind of staff support could be an action for this year. It could also be a goal for a future plan.

Next, break each action into a workplan. If this is the action we want to take, how will we do it? How much time will it take, or how many staff members will it take? It’s unreasonable, even for startups, to devote hundreds of hours a week to stay afloat. Either staffing should go up, or scope should go down.

how do we know where we’re going?

Key performance indicators (KPIs) are not supposed to be scary. Like the strategic plan, they shouldn’t serve as an extra thing to do or track down. The best KPIs have a direct line to the action they measure. They should tell us if we’re going in the right direction before we get to the end of the highway.

Take one of my actions from above: “identify community groups that need support.” My KPI might be X number of community groups identified this year. Breaking that action down into a workplan might reveal other useful KPIs. Number of community groups in each region we support. Or number of organizations that want what we are offering.

It’s not unambitious to set a low target. I once worked a grant where the KPI felt made up. None of our grant actions helped raise the KPI, but we were going to increase it by 50%. Setting an unrealistic KPI makes it harder to reach. It can also demoralize the people who worked hard and still failed to meet a made-up goal. Trust is important throughout this whole process. Trust the doers to plan. If it’s a place they want to go, they will set challenging targets. If people are uninterested in the destination, we’ll have a bigger problem than one red KPI on a dashboard.

what if we’re wrong?

Something I admire about teal organizations is how they perceive strategic planning. Members of a teal organization don’t spent time on unwieldy strategic plans. Instead, teal organizations describe themselves as having an evolutionary purpose. People in the organization have an intrinsic awareness of what gaps to fill or directions to move into. The tree, they say, does not have a five year growth plan. Yet it grows.

We don’t have to predict the future to create a plan for it. Strategic plans are tools, and tools are only useful if they are useful to us. I use my strategic plan as a guide, or a way to check my work. If the landscape changes, so can we. I will not be sad if my ten year plan to end poverty gets done in three. Setting a destination, no matter how far ahead it might be, is what matters. Whether our plans change or the world changes, we can always adapt and move on.

Strategic plans don’t have to be a nightmare. They don’t have to outlast us if they’re wrong. Make them realistic, use them as a guide, and we’ll end up exactly where we need to be.