stoke the fire

a photo of a sunset on the rocky shores of Cádiz, Spain. the still-bright yellow sun tints the sky golden. a building with a pointed roof lies in dark silhouette on the right side of the photo. sunsets in photos are great. is this a sunset, or a sunrise? is the sun leaving or did it just wake up? the answer is both.

I write my blog posts early in the week, but I publish them on Fridays. I’m writing this one before the election, but it will come out after election day. I had ambitions to hedge my bets by writing a double post call to action: “what if he wins?”, “what if he wins instead??” But no matter who wins, we will still have to fight. Nobody is going to hand us outright the world that we need. For that to happen, people in power will have to give up some or all of their power. We have to organize, work in collective, bring our strengths to the work, and leave no one behind.

No matter what happens or happened this week, our work isn’t over. So let’s get to it!

the traps we lay our future selves

I’ve spent 20 years working full time (or mostly-full-time in college). In that time, I’ve only reported to a handful of managers who were Black or a person of color. And now, here I am, in management myself. At my current job, almost all my direct reports, including managers, identify as BIPOC.

As a BIPOC manager of other BIPOC managers, it’s tempting to pass my survival skills onto them. It’s tempting to instill in them crash course lessons on how to navigate very white leadership structures. It’s easy (I’m guilty of this) to try teaching them how to be a manager in the way that I learned. It’s a trap! We shouldn’t do this.

The conditioning I’ve had is not worth passing down. I walk on eggshells sometimes. I temper my recommendations to fit the norms and comforts of white supremacist culture. There may be value in sharing those lessons with a young mentee. Someone who does not report to you might find it helpful to know where the landmines are buried. But as a leader? As someone’s boss? It’s my job to help my direct reports hack away at the vines that hold us all back. Teaching people to obscure their identity does a disservice to the fights I’ve had to get where I am.

don’t light the way…

What if we stopped teaching BIPOC staff early in their careers how to mold themselves to white culture? What if instead, we used our power as leaders to give them cover? What if we lent public support to their ideas, and persuaded our peers to do the same? This is obviously true guidance for anyone who has more radical ideas. (I emphasize BIPOC staff here on purpose. I can’t tell you how many times people above me in the hierarchy will private message me to say, “I agree!” but won’t support my ideas in public.)

In my career, I’ve shaped myself based on the advice and feedback I’ve received. I learned how to meet the expectations of my bosses. I taught myself strict business-culture professionalism. I code switch when I’m at work and it seeps into my personal life. It’s likely that I thrived in my career because of my own assimilation. White supremacist culture teaches its norms to people as a condition of survival. The lessons are explicit: observing which ideas received praise, and which did not. Losing a job for not adhering enough. The lessons are implicit: in the form of culture fit, unspoken organizational norms, in-groups and out-groups.

When I talk with other BIPOC leaders, we sometimes talk about the ways we have minimized ourselves. Some of us have succeeded through a process of assimilation. But for those of us who have climbed the ladder, it’s our job to build an elevator. The metaphor here is precise. It’s not enough to make advancement and survival easier for our BIPOC successors. We should also reject the ableism that may have been critical to our success. We have to make conditions easier and more inclusive. It’s what we owe our future colleagues.

Undoing my own learned habits will take time. For now, I must support people below me on the institutional hierarchy. I must look for their talents and help them grow. When I teach my managers how to manage, my goal is not to teach them how I manage. They watch me do that every day. Instead, I teach them how I approach a problem, then let them find their own path to the solution. I listen. I ask questions that I don’t already know the answers to. I talk with them about the challenges they may face as a leader of color. Not to say that those challenges don’t exist, or that they’re not important. I explain why someone above us might say no to them⏤not to discourage their ideas but to sharpen them.

…illuminate the possibilities

I get paid to be a leader. I am responsible for helping to lead my organization into the future. I can’t do that through strict adherence to outdated rules and norms. People entrenched in power get used to saying, “no.” Savvy people in power are able to say, “no, and here’s why,” but the answer is still no. We must create a different world. We must use our hard-won power and influence to finally say, “yes.”

If our staff is more radical than we are, it’s our job to give them legitimacy. It’s our job to shape the next generation better than we had to shape ourselves. Our goal is not to install dim automatons that will succeed us. It’s to help create great leaders with their fires still intact.

Targeted Universalism Step 2: Assess general population performance relative to the universal goal

a photograph of a semi-urban city. multi-colored train cars stretch from the upper-left to lower-right of the picture. the train is mostly boxcars, though there is a black tanker in the middle. the tracks run next to a few buildings on one side. they’re all about five stories tall. on the other side of the track is a bike/run path that curves slightly to the left. a single cyclist is on this side of the tracks. if there were a grocery store in one of those buildings, that person would not be in a food desert. but they’d have a pretty dangerous trip if they wanted to eat something. i was watching a train video while i wrote this and decided to just go with it.

Awhile ago I wrote about targeted universalism. There are five steps to creating a plan. I’m using the Othering and Belonging Institute‘s primer on the subject.

Welcome back to the series! This post’s focus is on the second step of creating a targeted universalism framework. In Step 1, I established this as my goal:

Everyone should have access to food that is free. The food should be nutritious and appropriate to them. The food should be accessible within a 15 minutes walk.

Now that we have a universal goal, we have to assess how close the general population is to that goal. A big note here: the general performance measure is a starting point, not a baseline. It can help us understand exactly how much of the general population we need to move. We’ll later compare the relative performance of specific groups to the general population. Again, not as a way to close the gap between groups, but to create distinct strategies so each group can achieve 100%.

performance measures

In step 1, I created a universal goal using three factors: wealth, dietary needs, and location. I don’t have the data handy to create a true baseline, but I can imagine how I’d do it. I’ll first start with location.

Location

The location part of our universal goal is that food is available within a 15 minute walk of every person. I can approximate this using the USDA’s data on food deserts. In 2009 they published Access to Affordable and Nutritious Food: Measuring and Understanding Food Deserts and Their Consequences (pdf).” This report popularized the concept of food deserts as a measure of food access. For urban areas, a census tract is a “food desert” if the center of the tract is more than 1 mile from a large grocery store. The food desert concept has its flaws. Small produce stands don’t count as supermarkets but offer fresh produce in that area. And a mile as the crow flies doesn’t consider that people may have to take a more circuitous route to get there.

For rural areas, a food desert means a grocery store or supermarket is more than 10 miles away. Most people can’t walk 10 miles one way to buy groceries, but this measure is for the general population. In the same way, the average human can walk a mile in 15-20 minutes. But that doesn’t mean everyone can get there in that amount of time. Here again we encounter a limitation that we can address in Step 4.

The USDA found that 23.5 million people live in a low-income area defined as a food desert. The population of the u.s. in 2009 was 306.8M. That means 7.7% of the country must travel more than 1 mile (urban) or 10 miles (rural) to shop for groceries.

Dietary Needs

Having a grocery store nearby is important, but what if the store doesn’t carry the food you need to eat? For example, the Food Empowerment Project conducted a study in Santa Clara County, CA. Shining a Light on the Valley of Heart’s Delight (pdf) studied food access in low-income and communities of color. They found that grocery stores offered less variety in low-income communities.

Non-organic produce was available at 33.7% of the high-income retailers they studied. In low-income neighborhoods, only 17.3% of stores carried fresh produce. For those of us (me again) seeking non-dairy products, 0.0% of stores in low-income areas carried these items. In high-income areas, 6.1% of stores carried these items. We must address these disparities as we start to understand specific communities’ needs.

Wealth

The data I started to gather for the first two factors are important for sure. But there’s of course a greater gateway to accessing the food we want to eat. People need to be able to afford the food. Access alone is not enough. I’ll refer to another USDA study, Characteristics and Influential Factors of Food Deserts (pdf). The earlier study found that, on average, low-income and minority populations were closer to supermarkets than higher income individuals and non-Hispanic Whites.” If you can’t afford to buy food, why would it matter how close you are to it?

The USDA defines a household as food insecure if they have limited or uncertain access to food. In Washington, 849K people are food insecure, or 11.5% of the total state population. Nationally, 35.2M people are defined as food insecure.

conclusion

So with this information, I can cobble together some performance measures. If this were a real framework, we could create a more complete performance measure. But for now, we have a good idea of where we are as a society. 23 million people have to travel more than 15 minutes to find a grocery store. Access to appropriate foods depends on the area where you live. And 849K people in Washington (35.2M nationally) don’t have the food they need to thrive.

We have a lot of work to do! Step 3 is coming soon.

the real villain

photograph of a sculpture in Borgarnes, Iceland titled “Brákin.” the sculpture overlooks a body of water and then a mountain range covered in black dirt. the sculpture is a curl of concrete, six feet tall, curled with ridged sides to resemble a ram’s horn. a piece of metal looks like stylized wings coming off the horn, which is meant to resemble a cloth being pulled away from the center of the horn. the sculpture itself is on a stone pedestal, which is itself on a wide wooden pedestal. i learned this sculpture represents the saga of an enslaved Celtic nursemaid killed while defending her charge from his father. it’s an interesting story (and this article delightfully compares her staying power to Drag Race’s Miss Vanjie).

Last weekend I was talking with my friend Tom about a webinar we are taking together. The facilitators created a five-week session series about BIPOCs surviving predominately white institutions. The first session was an introduction to the program and a foundation-laying for where we are meant to go. Peppered throughout our two hours together, panelists and participants shared their workplace horror stories. Each story described a racist act or microaggression that that person had experienced.

When he and I debriefed a few days later, I learned that the session affected us in different ways. When I hear stories like the ones told last week, in a morbid way I find them somewhat validating. Sometimes I share my own stories with others just to vent. Other times I do so to make a point. Sharing my experiences can help me feel less alone in the world. But for Tom, hearing story after story started to feel overwhelming. The stories start to blur until they repeat, over and over, with minute variations. The perpetrators were colleagues, bosses, customers. They were tone deaf or threatening. It happened in an office, at the park, or in a grocery store. Our conversation has had me thinking ever since.

a story about stories

I was in another zoom meeting (I’m relatable, right?) with a focus on ending hunger. I participated in a breakout session with four women who identified as white. One person told a story about a young woman she had met at her local food pantry. This person “shared” the young woman’s story with us all. She rattled off a litany of life experiences that the woman had faced. In doing so, she reduced this person’s entire life into a list of hardships. None of us knew her, or knew her story the way she would tell it. The speaker’s goal for the story may have been to elicit empathy for the young woman. But she shared this story not to inform or persuade. It could have been one in a collection. In an article about Amy Comey Barrett describing her adopted Haitian children in terms like “happy-go-lucky,” Régine Jean-Charles characterized this type of reduction as the person becoming the sum of their trauma.

and what are stories among fellow BIPOCs?

Many organizations employ a lot of white people. At the least, their representation is disproportionate to their region’s demographic. For the few or even one BIPOC staff member, sharing stories can help remind us that these experiences are wrong. Sometimes that’s all we need avoid feeling gaslit at the place they pay us to be. If you immerse yourself in the stories, it’s easy to feel like there’s no safe quarter anywhere. This is especially true if you already feel powerless at your own job. We may feel surrounded by whiteness, with no visible escape route. Some people can experience microaggressions or worse several times a week for a lifetime. These stories, too, need to have a purpose. They must embolden us to join together and demand change.

there’s no story because you don’t deserve a story

In the stories above, I was careful not to give too many details. They weren’t necessary. You have already heard the stories, or ones that are close to the stories I could’ve shared. I believed too many stories with oppression as their feature would dilute the message behind them. For the listeners, if the pain is commonplace, how do you persuade someone that it’s wrong? For the storytellers, how do you get away from something that is so pervasive?

I don’t force people who are supported by my programs to talk about their experiences. For some people, telling their story can be like experiencing the trauma all over again. It can be healing for some and triggering for others. We shouldn’t risk potential trauma if we aren’t willing to do anything about it. Stories can be valuable lessons for how we design our services for others who need them. They can help us better understand the effects and consequences of our work. Most importantly, they shed light on the true villain in many of the stories we hear: systemic racism!

stories are for fighting

I use stories to draw people’s attention to the larger picture. I share stories not as a list of individual struggles, but as a pattern of systemic issues. When you share what you learned from the stories, you remove the anonymous victim that your audience didn’t get the chance to know. You don’t need to air their trauma to tell people what we should do about it. You can talk about your takeaways. You can talk about the urgency of this cause. You can focus on the villain.

I’m part of a few race-based affinity groups or caucuses. These spaces are confidential to ensure we can share our story without others retelling it. There’s an explicit agreement at the core of groups like these: “Share the lesson, not the story.” Rather than taking a person’s story as your own, you share how that story made you feel. To some receivers of stories, it can feel like our goal is to soften the tone, convey urgency, or create empathy where there was none. Instead, these stories should horrify us. We don’t need to be passive receivers of the traumatic stories that others share. We don’t need, for example, to transmit videos of police murdering Black people before society should take notice.

I share my stories as a way of saying, “this shouldn’t happen anymore.” Whether we hear a story or tell our own, we should be demanding a world where it won’t.

we aren’t heroes in a system we thrive in

a close up photo of a portugal laurel shrub. the leaves are green with yellow ribs. a leaf in the forefront is edged with a reddish brown color. near the center of the image, off to the left, is a single cherry, reddish and grapelike. wikipedia says that the fruit is toxic if it tastes bitter, but can be eaten when ripe. i think i’ll skip it this time.

We live in a society built under capitalism. Under this system, people sometimes describe others as selfless if they don’t seek to earn the absolute most money that they can. It’s commonly understood that people who volunteer, or work for a non-profit, are doing an altruistic act. This includes people who work for the common good: feeding the poor, sheltering the unsheltered, and the like. Those who benefit in a direct or indirect way from these works may even call them heroes. But that lets us off the hook, a bit. There’s a power imbalance between the hero and the victim, between the savior and the saved. The truth is, we do not have a supernatural gift to help others. We do it because it’s the right thing to do.

we’re not heroes, we’re human

There is a greater value in seeing ourselves as humans, not heroes. Being human means we are fallible. We can make mistakes, pivot, and try again. Being human means we are not mere enforcers of the system, we are part of it.
In this age, it’s time for us as humans to stop and think. Who created the system we now reinforce? Who was it created for? Which of our policies exist to serve people in need, and which ones exist to serve us? Here are some examples to get started that I haven’t used before.

A few restrictive policies and some remedies

Operating hours. My pantry’s hours may favor some groups of people over others. Daytime hours may not work for people who commute, or have one or more jobs.
Remedies: Offer a variety of consistent open hours, including weekends, evenings, and mid-day. Create an appointment system to prevent long lines or lengthy waiting periods.

Limited food variety. People have all sorts of dietary needs. I recently became lactose intolerant (thanks, I hate it). If I am hungry and receive a gallon of milk, I can either be sick or stay hungry. The same is true for people who can’t process gluten, can’t or don’t eat meat, or even hate eating peas.
Remedies: Asking my constituents about their priority foods. Bringing in a wider variety of products. Allowing people to choose what they like to eat.

Relying on volunteers. Many non-profits rely on volunteer labor to keep their costs down. This can deflect the true cost of these needed services. Many organizations that rely on elderly volunteers lost them during the pandemic. If volunteers serve a critical role at my organization, I need to plan to fill that role in an emergency.
Remedies: Hiring workers from the community. Hiring volunteers as paid staff.


If we truly want to end hunger, we must do that for everyone. That means accessing food without fear or harassment, intimidation, or shame. In a society that vilifies and curses people in need, we need all the help fighting this perception as we can get. But we have to be careful about what we tell ourselves to do or not do. We need to be careful about tempering our plans based on the comfort level of our peers in power. We are enjoying the fruits of an unjust system. We should all be working to eliminate that injustice wherever we see it.

We don’t have to be heroes to do that. In fact, it helps if we’re not.

the stars belong to us

an old photo of the author as a lil baby. my dad is standing away from the camera in jeans and a t-shirt. we’re standing along the edge of a creek, california scrub brush standing ten to fifteen feet above our heads. he’s holding me in his left arm, at two years old, in a red onesie. he’s pointing towards the camera and i’m gazing in that direction.

camping

I don’t remember the first time I went camping. I was a baby. I don’t remember the experience but I remember the photos with a vivid intensity. My family ate well on these trips. When my dad was a boy scout, he remembers grilling a steak on a fire made in a Folgers can. He brought that spirit to our camping trips. I remember my dad’s breakfast tacos, a coleman propane stove and an enamel blue percolator. I remember my mom’s peach cobbler cooked on a fire in a cast iron dutch oven. The flanged lid that held the hot embers. I remember the heat, the cicadas, the fireflies. I remember being older and helping to pitch the tent on a hard dirt platform. I remember feeling the nylon’s clammy slickness from dew when helping to pack the tent in the morning.

Camping is an inexpensive family activity. My family hiked and relaxed at several parks in California and the Texas hill country. I now remember only a small percentage of the camping trips we took, but the feeling of those days stays with me. As an adult, my husband and I moved across the country to live in a temperate rainforest, our favorite biome. Even though I’m out of practice now, even for car camping, I have always felt at home in the outdoors.

another photo of me as a baby. my mom is holding me while sitting on the banks of another small creek. large rocks litter the background, with more scrub trees filling out the picture. the image keeps going back until it reaches the distant ranges of southern california. she’s wearing a black and white bathing suit, and i am sporting a very cool looking hat.

the outdoors

Dominant culture has painted the great outdoors as the home of rugged explorers. But these explorers are white in our history books. The Hollywood image of white geriatric cowboys ignores the reality that most were young Black, Mexican, and Indigenous men. White dominant culture paints Lewis and Clark exploring virgin land headed out west. They ignore the people who lived here for millennia.

White dominant culture calls John Muir the father of the modern naturalism movement. But whose nature was he in? Muir saw as untouched the wilderness groomed by Indigenous people who lived there. He saw the tribes with many centuries of history as simple features of the environment. The natural beauty that Muir fought to preserve was the result of years of their careful tending. Racism exits in that we remember Muir and honor him for what he fought to protect. Dominant culture ignores the work of the people who taught him.

the stars

When I was in college, my friends and I camped at Lost Maples State Natural Area in Texas. I had upgraded from car camping at the time, and we were about a mile and a half from the parking lot. My friend Jesse and I volunteered to hike our leftover food back to the car. We left well after sundown, but the moon was full enough that we could see the roots in the dark. Near the end of the walk to the car, we reached a clearing in the woods. In the clearing I looked up and saw more stars than I had seen since I was a kid. I gawked and spun, only looking up, at the billions of stars that are visible from earth. It remains one of the nicest memories of my life.

We have an obligation to disrupt the expectations of a white dominant culture. It’s easy to look at capitalist culture and imagine that nature only belongs to the people in the ads. It belongs to everyone. It belongs to us.

why do people with power still work on the margins?

photo of the lava-strewn Thingvellir National Park in Iceland. mossy and jagged volcanic rock dominates the lower two-thirds of the image, with tiny vehicles in the distance for scale. beyond, the top part of the photo is where horizon, mountain, and water meet. here, the north american and eurasian tectonic plates are drifting apart. this demonstrates how, if you truly want to get away from the united states, you just have to keep trying.

I got into management for reasons that people rarely say out loud. I have seen many examples of people abusing or neglecting the power their system gave them. I wanted to do it better. The pace of change has always frustrated me: who are we waiting for? How do we get them to speed up? I spent so long watching others use their power that I daydream about all the ways I would use it.

being marginalized but in power

It comes up a lot in the government and non-profit arenas where I’ve worked. In public health, people run by the adage, “when we do our jobs well, you don’t even notice us.” Unfortunately, the sober, behind-the-scenes government worker is an antiquated notion. This self-defeating view is like an early-release Imposter Syndrome. We are experts in our fields, but nobody will take us seriously. We can do, but can we lead?

In our reality, people who are afraid to rock the boat are minimally rewarded. Nowadays, governments don’t fund the things people don’t care about. Police departments are a great example of this. They and their unions proclaim in a screech the dire consequences if we cut their budgets. Amid weeks of police brutality, the Seattle city council pledged to cut SPD’s budget by 50%. The police and other city actors made their displeasure known to anyone who would listen. When the dust settled, the council overrode a mayoral veto to affirm a measly $3M cut to the current year’s $409M budget. Most of this cut won’t even impact the department: it’s too late to lay off staff before this budget year ends. They will have to start the negotiations all over in just a few weeks. Meanwhile for decades, austerity budgets have slashed all the parts of government that don’t kill people.

So why do we do it? Why are people with power so afraid of using it?

at the mercy of themselves

Most people in non-profits think of themselves as progressive. Or at least, progressive enough. It’s true for me, too! I worry all the time about whether my innovations are radical enough for the name of my blog. So we take this mindset and think that things are moving enough. We’re fighting the good fight, but going further would be going too far.

But what if we never fight for as much as people really need? What if the space that I occupy is taking up sufficient oxygen to snuff out the efforts of others? What if I’m the Pete Buttigieg of the non-profit world? What if our progressive values are just milquetoast centrism? What if we’re stifling actual good ideas with our own narrow-minded approach? (side note: one of Buttigieg’s campaign slogans is “win the era,” so thanks Pete for making me regret another of my taglines).

what’s worked for me
When I’m at the mercy of myself, I tap into emotion. I do enough doomscrolling to remember that things are not getting better on their own. I get angry enough with the system to want to do something about it. And then I remember that my position of power means that I can!

at the mercy of peers

Feeling out of step with peers can be an awkward experience. It’s easy to worry about what people will think about us, even when we’re fighting for the same things. It’s hard to have hard conversations, especially if their answer might be “no.” It can feel isolating, but gentle conversation shouldn’t make someone a pariah.

what’s worked for me
I try to mix things up. I keep myself educated by reading a lot. I write and sharpen my arguments. And I dare myself to try selling my audacious visions. It doesn’t always work, but people know where I stand. They know I won’t be happy upholding a harmful status quo.

at the mercy of the powerful

I’ve spent most of my life working on the money-losing side of businesses. This includes a stint selling gelato in Austin, where I ate almost as much as I sold. I know that funding has to come from somewhere, whether it’s taxpayers, donors, or funders. But it could also include peers in power, or a CEO, or the person taking notes when I complain about capitalism near an Echo.

what’s worked for me
Those people are all human. If we go into conversations expecting “no,” then we dare our listeners to meet our expectations. I’ve found that most of the time, people are afraid even to ask. I’ve never met a funder who said, “this was such a terrible idea that I am going to revoke all my funding to you, for all time.” But even if they do say no, that’s an opportunity to find out why. It’s a chance to engage them, educate them, and invite them into a solution.

how else can we break the cycle?

We can find a new job or a new perspective on the old one. We can ask more questions and listen to the answers. We can take more risks and learn from those that don’t pay off. We can keep fighting to do things in different ways. Those ways won’t be perfect. We can’t give up. We must take the wins and the losses and keep trying.

The core of each of the categories above is fear. Fear of failure. Fear of the unknown. Fear of never being good enough. Like any source of fear, we can’t run from it. The people I’m fighting for are fighting alongside me. They’ve been fighting longer and harder than me, and their fight is personal. I’ve taken their fight on as my fight. I’m not going to give up.

getting there from here

a photo of a field in Golden, Colorado. the grass is mottled green and brown. a single scrubby tree is off to the right, and the blue-grey Rocky mountains lie to the left. horse trailers and human trailers sit in the middle distance. slate grey storm clouds are brewing in the pale yellow sky. by the way, i didn’t mean anything when i called that tree scrubby. i know it’s trying its best.

I am not convinced that our society will naturally get better over time. There is no ideal that human civilization will achieve without active intervention. I am instead bound by determination to make things better. If I want a just and equitable world, I have to make it happen. I have to find people who want to help make our society better.

We live in a nation founded on the principles of white male landowners. The people who live here are drowning in those ideals. People who aren’t white male landowners are made secondary to serving their great purpose. Even as people in our society dream of a better future, the dominant culture sees that change as aberrant. But people are not immune to change. Most of us are not immune to the suffering of others.

understanding what they mean

People will show you who they are. I find that mission statements articulate an organization’s collective ideal. But those lofty goals have to go somewhere. I start with the mission, then dig into details. When people talk about their priorities, how do they want to get there? How will they know when they’re done? Asking questions here is key. I can’t assume their justice is the same as my justice.

dreaming to get there

My job at work is to show up as my full self. This means bringing my values and perspectives into a workplace that was not built for them. I start by thinking about how my values reflect the mission. What is the natural end point of their goals? How can my ideas help them get there?

I applied these thoughts to food insecurity and the food system we have created to solve it. We are facing a level of human need that most people aren’t aware of. The hunger relief system is establishing massive infrastructure to serve all those people. That infrastructure may never go away. But how could we repurpose it into something better? What would that look like?

At most non-profits, people joke about putting themselves out of business. They think it’s a joke because they can’t envision a world where it will happen. I see that as a failure of imagination. This is why I encourage dreaming of that end state. Once you’ve defined the end state, what’s the step right before that? And the step right before that?

sharing those dreams

With all these ideas, it’s important to know your audience. How are people in power usually convinced that something is the right decision? What will they want to know about the destination? What will feel real to them? Sharing these thoughts and ideas with others will help make them more real. People can build on them and think for themselves what is possible.

being the future

I am tired of dreaming of compromises. I want to dream bigger. My job, even when it is not my job, is to think in radical ways. It gives others the freedom to do the same. It gives us something to talk about, to dream about, to create dialogue. In the workplace, it’s our job to ground those dreams in our reality.

I am resigned to the fact that I won’t see in my lifetime the amount of change that I want to make. I could be wrong, though! Change happens only as fast as the people willing to do something about it. Plenty of people are hellbent on making things worse. I can’t let them get away with it. None of us can afford to give up. We can’t go away.

changing the wind

A photograph from the bow of a small sailing craft on calm blue waters. Grassy brown hills dotted with green shrubs on the horizon separate the light blue sky and the sea below. A white and blue sail hangs from the mast, with rigging here and there. Kind of a weird flex way to say I’ve been on a sailboat.

One of my strengths at work is creativity. I enjoy coming up with new ideas and different approaches to problems. Some of these ideas are pretty out there! When I started my career, I had to learn how to gain buy-in from leaders in a traditional hierarchy. I would make minor tweaks to their ideas, judge where I could push and where I couldn’t.

Several years later, I’m a senior manager leading a small department. I have the institutional power I need to act on my ideas. I can also encourage, elevate, and expand on ideas that come from my staff or colleagues. My ideas, too, have expanded. I now spend time daydreaming about systems-level changes. These ideas have the potential to affect a whole company, or even an entire ecosystem.

But I’m not an executive director. I still have hierarchical superiors. These leaders are often less excited about disruptive change that challenges power structures. It doesn’t make my ideas bad, but it does make them risky.

if the executive won’t do it, nobody should

You can often tell what a leader values by the workgroups they create. Leaders show us their priorities in explicit and implicit ways. They will talk more about the ideas they like, and less about ones they don’t care about. Their intent here doesn’t even have to be malicious. There are only so many hours in the day. If the executive is not on board with an idea, it doesn’t have to go anywhere.

A leader can show a project is important by assigning it to someone. They can make regular check-ins on their progress. The opposite end of the spectrum is also true. They could assign a ‘priority’ task to a committee that rarely meets. Or they could approve a vague plan with distant timelines or impossible milestones.

If leaders show no reward for success and no consequence for inaction, why would anyone spend time on it?

Early in my career, I interpreted inaction or ignorance as permission to do something. This created renegade cells that ran counter to the status quo. Working in this way sometimes made me feel worse about my ideas. What does success look like? If my boss found out, would the idea excite them? Would they think this was all a waste of time? Would they feel undermined because I was doing this without their explicit support?

ok then so how do we get new ideas off the ground?


Any time I do something on my own, I need more power and energy to get it done. I have to get all my other work done before I can work on my “passion projects.” I enlist others who have similar interests. I find allies across the company who support these changes and will advocate on their behalf.

I find it’s helpful to study what ideas executives do like. What kind of metrics do they consider valuable? When an idea does get off the ground, how did it happen? What approach did the person use? Easily-approved ideas generate funds, make a process more efficient, or have tangible benefits.

There is of course the worst approach, for when all other options fail. Incrementalism can help get an idea’s foot in the door. I don’t support it, though. You might help create a one-and-done decision that nobody has the capital to ever revisit. And if that incremental step does fail, the more ambitious idea will never get off the ground. This happens in politics all the time. For all the electoral costs of the Affordable Care Act, we lost the ability to push for true universal healthcare coverage. Now, progressives are forced to defend a healthcare plan with serious flaws.

what would this look like with a distributed leadership structure?

I’ve spent my career navigating white-dominant workplace hierarchies. I dream about finding a workplace with true power distribution (without having to create it). In such a structure, people can create new ideas without the threat of an override from a person with power. An idea can be reviewed, tested, accepted, or rejected on its merits.

The advice process is well-suited to create decisions that affect a large group. Autonomous teams can scope and test their own smaller ideas. If those ideas are a success, other teams can choose to adapt them. All of this can happen without a person in power unfairly moving the scale in either direction.

Changing an organization’s direction can feel like having to change the wind itself. It can happen! It’s so satisfying when it does. For all the work that entails, it’s sometimes easier to find a ship that believes in sails.

when the work is interesting

a photo of Myrtle Falls, a trickling stream near Paradise, WA. Mount Rainier looms in the background against a saturated blue sky. a lush valley separates the falls from the mountain. it’s mostly green with a few flowers here and there. if Paradise was boring, i would simply leave Paradise. but it was kind of fun (we left eventually).

There is a video that has gone around leadership seminars for years now. The video is of a person dancing alone at an outdoor concert. This person starts out alone, but is soon joined by one and then dozens of dancing people. There are a few easily-shared lessons that come from this example. Some might say it means that you don’t need a large following to start a movement. For others, it’s that it only takes one person to begin something.

All these lessons are true, if generalized past the point of being meaningful. To me, the most important part of that video is simple: the person at the start of the movie is having fun. We wouldn’t see this example if someone else had put them up to it, or if the dancer wasn’t plain enjoying themself. It’s not easy being someone you are not. Sure, some successful people are disingenuous. Yet most movements begin with a passionate, charismatic leader, leaders, or cause.

the things that we do are art

If our work is an art, then for whom are we artists? I’m not much of a painter, but I like to write. I’ve been writing for almost as long as I’ve been reading. But in school, I agonized every time I had to write an essay. It’s a funny (expensive) story that I took seven months to write the last term paper I needed to graduate. I took a long time to learn that if I didn’t enjoy writing something, why would someone else enjoy reading it?

Nowadays, I write things that I want to read. I create things that are interesting to me. I put my energy towards things I already have energy around. Even in my day job: when we have a list of group projects to work on, I ask the group which projects excites them the most. If there are no pressing deadlines for the other projects, we do the most inspiring projects first.

I am one of five leaders in a local anti-racism coalition. We’re all volunteers supporting a sixteen-year-old institution with a noble purpose. My colleagues and I have ideas and goals we want to pursue, ways to grow ourselves and further our mission. I also feel the obligations of a coalition that has made many leadership changes over the years. But old programs woven with nostalgia make it hard to do new things and still keep the old ones running. The conflict is a conflict because those old programs don’t mean as much to me.

how would i rebuild an institution?

We don’t need to focus on the parts that don’t matter to us. We can create things that we want to see and do and interact with. I would make membership easy to join. I would make it easy to join us on the leadership team. And then I would let those leaders do the things that interest them.

We don’t need to follow “tradition” for people who are not around to enjoy it. If the work is important, we will find someone who likes to do it. If we don’t, it might not be in our lane to do. Rather than trying to uphold the old, we could spend our time uplifting the new. We could stretch ourselves as learners, not educators. We could let people create their own spaces.

It’s a function of capitalism that insists we have to be all things to all people. If we aren’t expanding our market share, we must be doing something wrong. I think we can instead try being ourselves, and see who ends up joining us.

normal wasn’t working

a photo from 2007 of a poster in Mendoza, Argentina that i thought was hilarious. a bus ad for Diario Ciudadano features a cartoon of a first-, second-, and third-place podium. Diario Ciudadano is third place. two unnamed newspapers, “Diario 1” and “Diario 2” are ahead of them. large letters at the top of the poster says, “Somos el tercero diario de Mendoza”, or “we are the third-place newspaper in Mendoza.” in small letters at the bottom of the poster is what i assume is their tagline. “vamos por más,” or “let’s go for more.” this is something i can get behind! though i was once on a team that got bumped up from last place when another team was disqualified. “let’s go for more!,” i said.

We’re now entering month 6 of people in the united states talking non-stop about COVID-19. The terrifying rush of March through May is over. I spent all summer talking about racialized police killings and the ethics of masks. And now, people who are six months exhausted are ready for things to “get back to normal.”

I agree. I want things to get better. But “getting back to normal” is also a little bit of a tell. Whose normal are we getting back to?

For some people, the subtext is that they were pretty comfortable in the before-times. It means they did not spend their days consumed by stress, or worry for their family. People in the u.s. are suffering right now at uncommon levels. People in and outside the u.s. have been suffering for much longer than the pandemic. It’s only now, when suffering is at a peak, that we are speaking with a loud enough voice.

What unsettles me now is that for some people, their solidarity is only as strong as their discomfort. Their fight for justice may only last long enough to return to their relative measure of safety. But normal is not a place everyone wants to return to. This is why so many people now are demanding something better.

when you realize this
Food banking has changed in minuscule ways since 1967. This is the year St. Mary’s Food Bank in Phoenix, Arizona became the first food bank in the u.s. In the intervening 53 years, the safety net has gotten worse. The number of people in poverty has grown to the exclusive benefit of a handful of billionaires. There is no reason why we should fight as hard as we must to turn back the clock only a few years. We should not want to dream of a world where poverty still existed. We should be demanding a world without poverty.

We have a unique opportunity here to move past what we thought of as normal. I was on a call this past week, an Imagination Lab hosted by the organization Closing the Hunger Gap. The facilitators invited us to be radical in our ideas to end hunger. My group talked about the goal I’ve had for a while: food all food should be free. Free at grocery stores. Free at food banks. No restrictions, no means testing. Home delivery for people with mobility issues, or those who live in rural areas.

There are better futures than the one we came from. It will take as much work to get there as the future that recalls the past. The future we should be dreaming of is one that we all build together. I’m not as interested in knowing what it will take to get us back to normal. Let’s talk instead about what is worth saving from this world, the one we’ve left in ashes.