September 22, 2023

what does it mean to put community first?

a view of port angeles, wa from the water
photo caption: a shoreline view of port angeles, washington. low buildings, apartments, and shopping centers of town sit close together against the waters of the puget sound. a small park and walkway are present in the foreground. the late-winter mists cover the olympic foothills at the rear. port angeles is unique, and one of my favorites in the state, but it is not without pier.

Some articles get my goat and don’t let go. Last year I read an interview with a roundtable of CEOs at major food banks around the country. The headline quote was, “we have power, let’s use it wisely.” I want to unpack that!

The panelists, well-meaning or well-intentioned, are all white or white-appearing. While that’s not unique in food banking, it is unfortunate. The article did include a focus on moving resources and decisions to the community level. One food bank provides large grants to community groups to spend how they see fit. They still choose the community organizations and stakeholders. Another is returning to their clients the option to select the food they receive each week. Clients are still limited to the foods the food bank has to offer. Don’t get me wrong: these ideas are where food banking should be going. More organizations could adopt the principles under these intentions. People in the community should have a bigger say in the support they receive. But power and its origins remain unexamined throughout the article.

These food bank executives have power. Why do they have it? Why do those of us in food banking get to decide? Food security funding during the pandemic is coming to an end while the u.s. military receives billions more than they asked for. Decisions about whether to start, shutter, or reduce a program don’t rest with the people who use it. It’s rare for even the people who work on that program to hold such power. Instead, the power rests far away from the damage that decision will cause.

Just this week, millions of SNAP recipients saw their pandemic-era food benefits expire. Only a small minority of elected officials have ever used these benefits. Lawmakers and staff design social services programs they will likely never use. What gives them that right?

whose seat? whose table?

I’m aware of the power dynamics in pretty much every situation I’m in. I can’t help it! Growing up brown meant I needed quick thinking about who had power in a situation and who didn’t. In this roundtable I saw a group of people who may believe that their food resources give them a seat at any table. We give people food and think we’re in dialogue with them. Would we still have that dialogue if we weren’t holding people hostage?

Most people who have decision-making power don’t automatically deserve it. Every leader should wrestle with these questions. Why do I get to sit in this seat? Why me? How has my background, privilege, and experience earned me this spot? Why do those qualify me to make this call? I push for group decision making because I don’t think one person should ever have that right.

We can solve the problem or we can keep our power. We can’t do both. Decision-makers too quickly answer community needs with our solutions. Or we connect our needs to their needs and call them equal. What if we started with their needs and worked together to find a solution? Think about those needs, and why people have them. Think about our resources, and why we have them. We talk about inviting community to sit at our table without ever asking how that table came to be. Who bought it and with whose money?

we can’t center community without decentering ourselves

How can we fix the world and the work we’ve inherited? We have an obligation to change it at the expense of our own power and authority.

Place community needs over everything else. We need to remember, every chance we get, that we are part of the community. We divide our community when we think of ourselves as the serving and others as the served. We must place our community’s needs above our organization’s needs. One local group says their work is where “civil rights and economic development intersect.” These concepts cannot hold equal importance! At some point, we have to choose. Holding them equal can lead us to 21st century child exploitation.

Remember also that community is not a monolith. A few stakeholders or community leaders cannot represent the entire community. Find many ways to show people that they can trust you. Allow for several different avenues of feedback. Be receptive and open to change when someone shows you a problem.

Change your point of view. How many social programs begin under the oversight of the people who will use them? Imagine an organization that offers a grievance policy to its clients. To file a grievance, the client must first know it exists. The poster that explains the process is only available in English and one other language. The form people must use is complex and requires an understanding of legalese. That person must share their legal name, home address and phone number to file a complaint. How many people would file a grievance? A grievance is a serious thing. People are reporting something that may affect not just them, but lots of people we haven’t heard from. If the bar to file a grievance was too high for a person, how would we know? How can we make the process better support the person who experienced harm?

Instead, start with the outcome we want to achieve. If someone has an issue, we want to know about it. Start from there. How will all sorts of people navigate this process? How do we know? What would make their experience better? How else can we foster trust and dialogue?

untilt the system

Let’s start by improve policies like these that we know are unfair or unjust. Doing so helps us notice similar injustices in the bigger picture. The systems where we’re successful tilt towards our success by design. It takes real courage to be willing to change that.

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]