January 26, 2023

what is a room to a person uninvited?

a person stands in a rice paddy in the Sri Lankan lowlands
a person stands out in the middle of a rice paddy. a mountain is visible on the horizon, with the trees of the jungle off to the right. trees might make better boards. but what if it was all grasses?

I hate being othered! My brown skin is often the first thing a person notices about me. I was once in the office (when people worked in offices together) talking to a friend (when people did that too). A coworker we both knew approached us with warm greetings and stepped forward to give my friend a hug (when… I’ll stop). Their hug complete, she turned towards me and backed away. “I’m so sorry,” she said, “I don’t know if people gave hugs where you’re from.”

“People don’t give hugs in Texas?” I thought. But the experience stayed with me. I felt like an alien in the place where I had worked for three years. This was at a place where she and I were equals. What if she had been my boss? What if she had been my doctor? In all cases, it’s less about the act of othering itself (the hug) and more about how a person sees you.

Othering happens all the time in the non-profit industry. Non-profits aren’t always run by people with lived experience. Board members often come from a for-profit sector. They may join the board because they have a particular privilege the non-profit wants. We court board members who donate a lot of money or are good with finance or business. Or they could be retirees with plenty of free time and a drive to “give back.” They’re often racially homogenous, too. This article from the Nonprofit Times in 2018 says, “Nonprofit boards are 78.6% white, 7.5% African American, 4.2% Latino American, and 2.6% Asian American.”

Those attributes or experiences rarely overlap with the ones we need to understand and solve poverty. People with privilege are often used to having power and holding onto their own agency. They may see people without power or agency and other them, even in subtle ways. Some may even start to think of “the other” less as a person and more as “the problem.” In these scenarios, it’s easy to hunker down in a room you created and try to solve a problem you may not understand.

how rooms get created, stockpiled, and enforced

Say I’m planning a party for someone. Unless it’s a surprise party, the person whose party it is might need to know about it. They might want to have a say in the food I order, or the decorations, or the music. Everyone’s different. Say the person hates party planning but loves to attend them. That’s fine! I love planning parties, by the way. But that person had agency in choosing not to help with planning.

The same is true for non-profits, especially on their boards. Across the sector, non-profit boards can function more as a social club or a hobby. This can be true even for board members who are 100% passionate about an issue. I’m super passionate about croissants, but I don’t have the lived experience of a French baker. We may have a room full of pâtisserie enthusiasts, but we’d be winging it when it comes to running an actual bakery.

So now we have a room created by a group of mostly-white, affluent, and retired people. And we want to bring diversity to this room, at last. The people who created the room think about this, and they might even ask the question, “why isn’t [group] in the room?” Is it because we have said, with intention, “No, you’re not allowed to come in.”? Do we need to have that intent for the impact to matter?

What are all the ways that people show outsiders that there’s no power for them in a room like theirs? Are the meetings at an inconvenient time for people who aren’t retired? Are their priorities different from a person with passive income and a great car? Do we spend our meeting time on the things that are important to us alone? Do we spend time on tangible plans to end poverty, class inequality, structural racism, or the pay gap? Or do we fill our meetings with time spent on ritual, with pomp and circumstance? None of these are neutral decisions.

We are making choices that focus our agendas over the priorities of people without our power. It’s likely we made these choices with very little effort. We still made them to meet our needs and comfort first. When that happens, our needs and comfort become paramount to the work that we do. The smaller, thornier issues that we can’t solve in a meeting get pushed aside. The bigger, complex issues (ending capitalism) go unaddressed. This can cause us to forget what’s vital to the health of the communities around us. This can cause us to gloss over the hard parts of the work and focus instead on what we’re good at. Focus on managing conflict by avoiding it.

It is still possible to expand the walls of our rooms. I first have to share with you what not to do.

stop the revolving door

Please don’t do this: begin by recruiting a new person to the room. They come with lived experience. They are from a community that faces systemic persecution or state violence. They have or are currently experiencing poverty. And they, alone, feel the full weight of your way of doing things. How “we do things here.” They push back, they burn out, they leave. The cycle continues.

Values and practices must begin to change first. I have a responsibility not to expose new people to situations or threats they don’t know about in advance. I won’t help a problem organization attract people of color or people who are Black or Indigenous. I don’t want to bring in people who society implies are less valuable than people who are white and in power. Not when that company and society are in lockstep about who deserves power and who doesn’t.

Not without their consent. The pendulum swings the other way when I “spare” someone without granting them agency. Instead, I’m outlining the situation or confirming what they may already suspect. I can talk about the support they’ll receive, and where they might not receive it. I can work with the company to change their practices to be more inclusive. But I have to be honest with people about the environment they’re stepping into. You should too, even if it means you get more “no”s than “yes”es. Every “no” is proof that something needs to change.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t welcome in new perspectives or invite new ideas into this work.

what is a room to a person invited?

Vu Le knocks it out of the park again with his piece about Community-Centric Boards. As far as I can tell, he’s the first in the field to write about the idea. He lists 7 principles of a Community-Centric Board that you should digest in full:

1. The work of the board must be grounded in racial, economic, and social justice.
2. Boards must constantly reflect the communities being served.
3. The board’s ultimate goal is ensuring the community’s well-being, not the organization’s survival.
4. The board encourages mutual support and collaboration among different missions.
5. Boards are equal, not superior, to staff, volunteers, clients, and other members of the community.
6. Lived-experience is valued above wealth and the connection to wealth.
7. Boards must play a critical role in collective efforts to bring about racial, economic, and social justice.

A couple years ago I wrote up an idea that’s smaller in scope called Building a Better Board. This was back when advisory boards were in vogue but still subject to tokenizing. Rather than having an advisory board give feedback to the more powerful board board, I suggested we swap the titles. Give the advisory board the real power to guide an organization. Give the board board a chance to “give feedback” once a year or so and keep the checks rolling in. But even that idea is too limiting (and honestly a little glib). True governance and oversight should come from the board, staff, and community at large.

Roxana Pardo Garcia is a person I deeply admire. She runs Alimentando al Pueblo, the first Latinx food bank in the united states. In the short video Recipes of Resilience, she and her co-founder teach the audience while making Enchiladas Michoacanas. Roxana says, “We have the solutions. We don’t need to look to anyone else, or for anyone else, for the problems that we face.”

We all have to work together if we want to change our society. For those of us in power, what barriers hold people back? What role can we play in removing them? Why do we think we belong in this room? Who made that decision?

Remember that it’s not always about sharing power. It’s also about relinquishing it. And so, “what is a room to a person uninvited?” It might be a room that shouldn’t exist at all.

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