May 23, 2024

not on my watch

looking up towards the sky in a forest of redwoods
photo caption: looking up towards the sky through the leaves of redwood trees. these trees are so much taller than we are. they’ve almost certainly been around longer. but they are just as much alive as we are. they deserve to thrive just as much as we do. trees have been around for millions of years and not once did they invent credit scores. that means they’re definitely better than us.

In 1926, Dr. Carter G. Woodson created what we now know of as Black History Month. It began as a weeklong celebration of the legacy and contributions of Black people in america. In the 1950s, the week expanded to a month of education. In 1976, Gerald Ford recognized Black History Month nationwide during america’s bicentennial. In 2015, the Black Lives Matter movement further expanded the February holiday. Black Futures Month became a space for Black people to envision the world they want to see. In some ways, Black Futures Month reminds me of the underlying message of Indigenous resistance. It tells the world, “we are still here. We are still making history. We will be part of the future.”

The world of our present needs to change. We need to reimagine our country and the racist systems we live in. We need to create a world where queer and trans people of all ages can thrive. For me, that future feels both tantalizingly close and so far away. It feels close because of the passion and energy people have for demanding this future. It feels far away because of the people in power who can’t see what we see or don’t want what we want.

Why are leaders so resistant to meaningful change? What can we do about that?

if it ain’t broke

Change is hard. No change is easy! People in power cling to the status quo because it is easy. White powerholders used the framework of white supremacy to create their own rules. Changing the rules would be like adding water to a warm bath. “Why should we change anything when things are comfortable [to me] just the way they are?”

What does this look like for leaders in a workplace? Changing the status quo means getting complaints from people who like the way things are. It means lost time hearing concerns, finding solutions, and then making them happen. Leaders tell themselves it’s most important to focus on year-end earnings or “getting through this quarter.” There’s never a good time for change unless you’re the one harmed by the status quo.

What we can do about it. The hurt of the change can’t be worse than the hurt of the complaints. Show decisionmakers how the broken the current system is. Show your colleagues the problem and ask them for their support. Show that the problem is too big to ignore.

the change could fail

Some powerholders could be on board with the fact that there’s a problem. They might even recognize that they can solve it. But how do we solve it? How do we know the decision they make will be the right one? What if it fails? What will it mean to them, the holder of the power, who let it happen?

Imagine being the person who brought the Trojan Horse into Troy. What a mistake that was! It really set back the novelty hollow horse industry for centuries. No leader wants to be the one who ushers in change that results in the fall of a major Spartan city. Except the change we want is, like, for bereavement leave to cover more than immediate family.

What we can do about it. Learn more about their concerns and see what you can do to address them. People in power might feel flattered that you trust their opinion on this. They might think “that’s not something I want to support” is constructive feedback. The goal here is to address real concerns as much as you can without reducing the change to nothing. Great leaders will know when the potential for success outweighs the risk of failure.

this is not my fight

Some people won’t go out on a limb for change. Once they learn about a problem, they might not care enough to do anything about it. Or they might decide that the time and effort needed to fix it is more than they can give. Either way, they won’t engage with the issue or help you with the solution.

This is a state that’s as common as it is frustrating. Probably a lot of people disengage from struggles they feel able to opt out of. Even if that feeling is normal, it doesn’t have to be permanent. I’ve found that what helps is making it personal.

What we can do about it. How might the problem affect them, now or in the future? Businesses like to frame this question as, “what’s the bottom line?” What they mean is, “how will this affect my material interests?” When a community group demands change, get them in a meeting with the decision makers. Encourage powerholders to empathize with the struggle and make it their own. For some people, they need to know that they can make a difference. They can use their power for good, for fame, or for some future profit.

caught in the headlights

Some leaders are afraid to make a decision, any decision. There’s almost always more than one way to arrive at a solution. Especially in the fight for racial justice, some white leaders freeze instead of act.

When people experience discomfort, they look for the path of the quickest relief. Often that path is simply doing nothing. The ostrich’s approach to racial justice is to hope that the fight goes away before we take our heads out of the sand.

What we can do about it. Persistence is the starting point. We have to make it clear that our concerns have always existed and they won’t go away now. When you play peekaboo with a baby, at some point the baby will figure out that you’re not going to disappear. While they’re looking away, triangulate on solutions. If they’re torn between two plans, collaborate with the other planners. If you can settle your differences, you’ll create a stronger plan and a united front. We can’t let people off the hook as soon as they’re ready to forget about us. Decisionmakers wanted the position they have: if they won’t use it, we need to make them use it or lose it.

lack of support

A decisionmaker who hides is one thing. For me, it’s worse when a person in power likes a plan but can’t garner the support to make it happen. They may say that their hands are tied by other people in power. Your boss might be all for a plan but knows that the CEO won’t go for it. Or that the other directors will have too many questions and the plan will fail. They may even *gasp* ask you to wait until the timing is better.

Don’t fall for this! There’s never a good time to put in the work that’s needed for change. In Washington, our state legislature has a “short” session of 60 days one year, and a “long” session of 105 days the next. Some policy advocates skip the short session altogether. They argue that’s not enough time to push through difficult legislation or the laws we need. This is a stunt. Every year we hold off on change is another opportunity for white supremacy to further entrench itself. It can take decades to undo the harm caused by a single law or practice.

What we can do about it. When a leader says they can’t generate support for a proposal, do it yourself. Start with folks in your network or with trusted colleagues. In a workplace hierarchy they may know other leaders who are willing to champion your plan. Build momentum and stay focused on the goal. If you can’t find supporters even among your colleagues, change your plan or your approach.

you haven’t met the bar

Sometimes there is no pathway to change. Some people you simply can’t convince. I once tried to get my boss to sign off on a change that my program needed. He put up roadblock after roadblock, asking for data at one point or a writeup that included his feedback. Finally, after weeks of trying he told me that he didn’t like the idea and didn’t think it would go anywhere. Worse than having my proposal get nowhere, he wasted my time on something he knew he would never support.

What you can do about it. This one is tough but it happens. It doesn’t mean your work is hopeless; instead, you may want to adjust your expectations. People in power can embed into an organization until they are as much a part of the institution as the light fixtures. That doesn’t mean they will always be there, or always see things the way they do now. I have outlasted people in power who had been there longer than me. But if this is the only option you have left, consider a job change while you’re at it.

If it’s possible, you can always try to appeal to someone’s legacy. Monumental changes don’t come around all that often. Try to convince people in power that this change will only be possible through them. It’s their foresight and vision that will allow this to happen. It won’t work for everyone, but some people do like imagining they’ll be on the right side of history.

fuck it

If none of those work… fuck it. We can’t save every institution. So many of us are inspired by change. We can spent a lot of energy trying to keep an organization afloat when it doesn’t deserve to be. Don’t sacrifice your drive or nerve helping a dinosaur stagger on a little longer. Sometimes, the best we can do is to abandon the institutions that were never created with us in mind. Create something for yourself and for people the current systems don’t serve. Get out and make something for the future.

my name is josh martinez. i have always loved trying to understand systems, and the systems that built those systems. i spend a lot of time thinking about how to get there from here.

i own and operate a consulting practice, Future Emergent.

say hello: josh[at]