April 23, 2024

moving the unmovable

view from a plane of mount rainier above the clouds
photo caption: view of Tahoma from a plane. a thick layer of clouds hides all but the top third of the mountain. the sky is blue, the mountain a faint shade of purple. reaching this place is a little like ending racism: getting there is the hard part.

[Hi everyone, quick note from me here. I recently wrote this blog post alongside a training I led for the Washington Society of Association Executives and their learning series, ‘Shop Talk.’ I was able to go into a bit more detail in some parts of that presentation. I also made a digression into talking about the racism of the term sacred cows (the planned title of this post/training) that I did not cover in the essay below. Please feel free to check that out if you’re interested.]

Every industry has its taboo subjects. There’s sometimes a mystery or unshakable sanctity around them. Other times it’s a known issue that everyone dislikes but nobody has gotten around to fixing. I’ve been in places where no one can remember where a practice started. I’ve also worked in places where everyone knows exactly who instituted some practice. “It would be an insult to their memory to change it now!”

Regardless of whether someone has moved on, we live in a world of inequity. Committing to antiracism often means committing to changing a system built unfairly. Even when our cause is righteous, it can still be hard to change what people have gotten used to.

Roy Eidelson at Psychology Today describes this resistance as status quo bias. He says that people generally would rather keep things as they are. They would prefer a system that’s familiar—even if it’s inconvenient—over a system that isn’t. No matter how helpful you think a system is, it might be holding you back from achieving true social justice.

Many people hope that the problem will somehow, one day, fix itself. What I’ve found is that rarely do unjust policies or practices “die out.” Instead, they are more likely to become selectively enforced. This means that for most people, those practices are no longer a barrier to access. For others, especially those who raise suspicion in some way, those rules may still apply. In just one example, studies show that white and Black people use cannabis at very similar rates. But police arrest Black people for possession more than three times as often.

what do you hold sacred?

I often think about the meeting I was in a couple years ago to discuss food purchased with government funds. We were talking about how much money a family could make before they no longer qualified. The cap at the time, 185% of the federal poverty limit (FPL), was about $40K/year for a family of three. My colleagues and I advocated for an increase to 400% of the FPL. This meant that a family of three could make as much as $86,880 before they no longer qualified for this food.

There were folks in the room who worried about this change. Some people felt, as some readers might feel right now, that earning $41.77 per hour was way too much for someone to deserve food. Others feared that this change would drive a rush of new people to using the food bank. People who didn’t “need” food would have an easier time of getting it. We’d run out of food and much poorer people would suffer. But a lower cap would have helped white families more than families of color. We had to raise the limit because it was the only way to help everyone get what they needed.

I’m thankful that we did change the rules. Two years later, no food banks have run out of food. The number of people who need help getting food has grown, but covid-19 certainly played a role in that. For anyone new to the food bank, the higher income cap was certainly one fewer barrier to getting food.

Upholding a racist status quo makes us complicit in that racism. If we are in a position to do so, we must change it.

how to change it

If you have the power to change the status quo yourself. Do it! Like, as soon as you can. Be sure to engage with the community or people affected by the change, and do what they need you to do. That’s it! If you can’t do it alone or need help doing it, read on.

Acknowledge that it served a purpose. Even an unfair system helps some people. Show its defenders that you understand its value or why it came to exist in the first place. People can feel sentimental about systems they helped create or have gotten used to. Change won’t erase their good intentions. It will only spread those intentions to cover more people.

Ask questions that challenge the status quo. Why do we ask people for a photo ID? What purpose does it serve? Who is using that information? What would we do if someone didn’t have one? If we’d let them through, why can’t we do that all the time? Help people think through the equity or access implications. The simple act of asking questions may interrupt the “go with the flow” long enough to avoid a bad decision.

Find the decision-maker (or makers). Who has the authority to change an unjust policy, practice, rule, or procedure? Be persuasive. Talk in no uncertain terms about the positive effects of a change. Recall how the organization’s values or vision may emphasize the need for a change. Remember that lengthy debate is only a dead-end if you allow it. Be clear but firm about finding milestones or creating a plan to act. Dig deep to find what they would need to help you. If they can’t do it alone, ask them to join your cause. Keep pushing!

Appeal to justice. Be clear about why we’re doing this. It’s common for people to know something isn’t right but lack the confidence to speak up about it. Or they’ll get the change made but downplay the reasons why. We could rely on someone else who shares our feelings to speak up. But speaking up alone, every time, can become exhausting. Even the most outspoken among us don’t want to be the only ones fighting to change the status quo. The load is lightest when we all share it.

things to remember

This is a pretty big call to action. If we’re not the ones who need to commit to antiracist practice, who will be? Trick question, it’s still everyone. We all have to commit to ending a status quo that does not serve us all. This can’t only be the responsibility of your organization’s diversity or DEI expert. It’s definitely not the job of your BIPOC or colleagues of color to speak up and fight for change every time. Instead, follow their leadership. Use your own analysis of antiracist practices to envision a path forward. Find where you have power, work alongside others, and advocate for change wherever you can.

It’s all made up. We’re not moving actual mountains here. We’re trying to make policies less shitty for people who aren’t white, cis, straight, or men. Don’t forget, then, that it’s all fake. Our policies, organizations, laws, practices, and rules were all made by people. We’re people too. We can change that which is unfair. No part of our society is infallible.

If the moral arc of the universe is going to bend towards justice, somebody’s gotta do the bending. What if this time it’s you?

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]bethefuture.space