i made you dinner!

a cropped photo of Sanamluang Thai diner in north Hollywood. part of a neon sign is visible on the restaurant’s facade. a circular open sign in neon hangs on a window.

“Hey, you should come over for dinner,” I say in kind of an abrupt way. It’s the after-times, when the pandemic is over, but it was the first time it started to feel like the before-times.

“That’d be great! What’s the occasion?” You ask.

I give you a placid, friendly smile. “I wanted to do something nice for you. I know you’ve had a rough time recently, and I thought I could do a little something to help you out.”

“That’s so nice, thank you!” Your mood brightens. “Sure, I’d love to come.”

“Oh that’s great!” I say. “So what kinds of food do you like to eat?”

You give an exaggerated sigh and fan your face dramatically. “It’s been so hot recently! I’ve been eating a lot of summer meals, you know? Cool weather foods. Salads, fresh vegetables, things like that.”

“Oh, that’s perfect,” I say, nodding with enthusiasm. “I love those. Okay, so I’ll make a beef stew.”

Your expression flashes to puzzled, then shifts to cockeyed. Is this a joke?
“That’s…” you stammer.

I interrupt you with, “Okay, great! See you tomorrow at 3 PM for dinner!”

This very scripted example is how some organizations build their programs. We cook up an amazing meal, something we ourselves might like to eat. We spend the day buying groceries, putting the placemats justso. And for all our good intentions, we spend countless dollars and effort doing the wrong things. And why should we go through all the trouble of making someone dinner when the end result is stew? (if you love stew, this example is perfect for you).

Why do we seek the voice of the customer?
We don’t know what people need. We often must take educated guesses when we build programs. But rarely do we have such intimate knowledge of the problem that we craft the perfect solution. If we’re going to put the work into doing something, we should make sure that it’s wanted.

If I want to make you dinner but I don’t care what you like, there’s a slim chance you won’t like it. Some people will love it (some people love stew!), but others will hate it or be non-plussed.

It takes work to involve people. It can slow down our timelines, but arbitrary deadlines are another trap we fall in. But if I’m going to go through the trouble of making you dinner, why not make it something you want? Why isn’t it worth it to take the time to get to know you?

lived experience is not enough

building a better board

a photo of a forest on the Rattlesnake Ledge trail. tall straight evergreens cover the image as wide and as far away as the eye can see. the sky is a bright white with a slight yellow tint. one can see a small green patch of brush in the foreground that continues off camera. i love the temperate rainforests of the Pacific Northwest. anyway, i chose this picture because if you want to build a better board, you’ll need a good stand of trees. that’s it, that’s the joke.


Board members are almost never the ones using the services their organization provides. Some may have lived experience: they experienced first-hand the problems their non-profit aims to solve. While some people dream of a board full of lived experience, lived experience is not enough. Instead, we should want people who currently need our non-profits to be the ones who lead them.

In an ideal world, a board is a representative group of owners with current lived experience. These board members would consult with each other and their communities. Their collaboration would define the goals and end statements in our strategic plan.

lived experience is not enough
There’s an old joke about the non-profits who exist to end poverty. If you want to end poverty, the joke goes, give money to people in poverty. But the COVID response is showing that… this is actually true. Instead, we dream up countless programs that treat poverty like a problem we have to sneak up on. We aim to lift our neighbors out of traps we can’t see, but that they can define with sublime precision.

I struggled to make ends meet while I was in college. That experience is real, and true to me. But it doesn’t tell me about the problems that someone else in my shoes might face today. Instead, my lived experience should serve to remind me that when I was in need, I knew what I needed.

People who are currently struggling have experience and expertise that outweighs our own. Their ideas will be more relevant to current state and the environment where they live. We’re not the ones experiencing poverty, so why would we look to ourselves for the solutions?

the trap of advisory boards
Now we agree that it helps to have people with current lived experience call the shots. The next pitfall is tokenizing those people. Sometimes that tokenization manifests as an advisory board. These groups have “board” in their name, but they’re more like focus groups. Most advisory boards serve to consult on or tweak the best ideas that we come up with. At their worst, we use them to rubber-stamp the ideas that we had without their involvement.

Other times, that tokenization shows up as an “honorary” board membership. One person with current lived experience joins the board as a kind of special envoy. First off, this forces a single person to represent a vast diaspora of situations and needs. This can bog us down with the very different needs of that token board member. That person can’t afford to take time off work: we should pay them for their time. But nobody else on the board gets that compensation. It feels weird to pay only one person. The person can’t raise thousands for the organization: okay, so they don’t have to. But that’s a responsibility the rest of the board has. These contribute to a dynamic of a “real” board that sits alongside the “token” member. It’s hard to get this dynamic right while making their participation meaningful.

The approaches above are all missing the obvious: we have power that we should entrust to people who need it. We must create a space for people to articulate and actualize their own needs. We need to create a structure that gives outsized power to the people we serve. We need to create a structure that moves people in need past consultation and into ideation.

building it better
There are plenty of resources on how to build a board with a community-driven governance model. But there’s actually an easier way. Take a regular board, and an advisory board. Then swap the titles!

Now, your regular board is nothing but people with lived experience. Pay them for their time. Pay for their childcare. Make sure they have what they need to attend all the meetings. Invest actual decision-making power within this body. Recruit people who are Black and indigenous. Add other people of color. Look for a range of geographic and cultural diversity. Ask these board members to engage others in board recruitment.

And over on the advisory board, you have your industry experts. Advisory board members would bring needed corporate, non-profit, and fundraising experience. Consult with them on the ideas generated by the board. They can help operationalize the actual stated needs of the community. The advisory board would have more time to fundraise, network, and dig into the mission. This group would learn so much from your board members. Make that happen!

in the meantime
It’s of course not enough to create an advisory board and call it “the board.” You first have to acknowledge that a standard board structure doesn’t work. How many non-profits have closed because they solved the problem? Not a lot of them! We can look to smaller steps on the path to a true community-run board. Start by recruiting people from a local speakers bureau. Speakers bureaus train people with lived experience to speak about their experience. They also establish a compensation structure that the speakers have already agreed to. It’s often less than what they’re worth; speakers, too, do this work as a labor of love.

Recognize that your community already has many of the tools and ideas they need to succeed. What holds back so many people is not ideas, but money, power, and the ability to fail and try again.

We have the power to reject the dynamic of a disconnected or out-of-touch board. We can create something better. We can let the true experts lead the way.

asking for ID in the surveillance age

a photo peering into a display case at a Mexican bakery in Houston. taped to the glass is a green speech bubble that reads, “PLEASE DO NOT LET CHILDREN TOUCH THE BREAD.” behind this very good sign are two shelves of pan dulce. the upper shelf contains flower-shaped girasoles. the lower shelf is full of horn-shaped cuernitos. neither of these are my favorite pan dulce. that would of course be a churro, empanada de piña, a pan de queso, all to-go please. i…i’ll eat some of them later!

The vast majority of us have internalized data collection as a fact of life. It feels natural, doesn’t it? I show my ID to get into a concert (those were the days!). The websites I browse collect huge amounts of data from me. Security cameras dot my periphery in most public spaces. I’m sure that my credit card data is floating around. But when I go to the grocery store to buy a loaf of bread, nobody asks me for my ID. If I choose, I can pay cash, and nobody will even have to know how much bread I eat (it’s a lot ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ ).

But my experience might be different if I can’t afford that bread. My experience accessing a food bank, for instance, might depend on where I live, what I look like, the vehicle that I use to travel there. It may depend on how many children I have, and how many children I look like I have. It would depend on how one or two gatekeepers of donated food felt about me.

If they believe me, I pass. If they don’t, I starve.

A food bank is the last place in the world to restrict access to food. It is an abuse of power to ask someone for ID, for even a piece of mail, to prove they deserve to receive food.

who might not want to show their ID?
First think about why asking for ID or a piece of mail might be an imposition to someone. Here are a few to get started:

  • People who are trans or non-binary. Their ID might not match their gender identity. It might list a name or photo that does not represent them.
  • People who live in the US outside the legal immigration system.
  • People who feel stigma or shame from having to use a food bank.
  • People who are afraid of identity theft.
  • Children who are seeking food for themselves or their family.
  • People who forgot their ID that day, or left it on the bus, or don’t have one.

Everyone on this list, and even people I didn’t describe, still deserve food! If this is someone’s first time at that food bank, a demand for ID may cause them to never come back. How can that person feed their family now? Where else should they turn? Fewer people accessing food banks can mislead a community about the true level of need in their area. It means more people will go hungry in a nation where there is plenty of food.

what’s good for the goose has nothing to do with the gander
Some people defend their decision to ask for identification or a piece of mail. They say something like, “I wouldn’t ask anyone anything that I wouldn’t be willing to give myself.” But their privilege is that they’re not the ones asking for food. They’re not in the same situation. In this case, they are the holders of power. They are the gatekeepers of food donated to help people in need.

A food bank policy, or a personal decision (or a hunch or feeling), to request ID means the person at the door is now a gatekeeper to food. It means they get to decide who can eat and who cannot. When we leave decisions up to humans, even when humans write the policies, we know they bring their own biases into their decision. If they don’t believe a person’s story, or believe that they have four kids at home, they have the power to ask that person to prove it. And what happens if they can’t? The cashier doesn’t ask me how many children are going to eat the bread I buy. I don’t have to bring a handful of birth certificates or medical records to buy the sheer volume of bread that I eat.

Access to food should not be subjective. The people who ask for ID should consider the real risks of requiring this information. Not the risks to themselves, but the risk that others perceive for themselves.

Some gatekeepers interpret an ID as an indicator of legitimacy. They might say ID is no problem for people with “nothing to hide.” But nothing worth hiding should prevent you from being able to eat. It’s easy to forget the amount of time it takes a person to get an ID. It’s easy to forget that every food bank’s rules are different. If you get them wrong you have to come back with the right documents. If it’s a two hour bus ride round trip from the food bank, it might take days to come back. It’s easy to forget that if I am worried about my safety, or my family’s safety, giving a stranger my ID is a risk. It’s easy to forget that if the gatekeeper doesn’t like me, or doesn’t trust me, thinks I’m an outsider, I am the one who suffers.

the good could be gooder
The programs my organization operates are all self-declare, no-proof programs. A self-declare program means people give us the information themselves. We still collect some data, but do not require personally-identifying information in order to receive food. A no-proof program means we don’t ask anyone to prove what they tell us.

The most common federal food assistance program asks us to collect the name and address of the person receiving food. It also asks them to affirm that their household income is below 400% of the federal poverty line. We ask them to name the number of people in their household. this helps represent the accurate number of people using these services. We are not allowed to verify this information. And why should we need to?

But we don’t even have to do it this way. The first rule of storing data is simple: you can’t turn over what you don’t collect. If you collect no personal information, no one can force you to give it to them. Nobody can steal it from you. The strongest decryption program can’t unlock what doesn’t exist.

Funders that restrict food to a specific population or territory are part of the problem. We need to remove these restrictions from all programs that perform a public service like food assistance.

We have to end the needless hoops we put up for people in need. It’s scary enough to go without food, to be in a situation where things are going so wrong you have nothing to eat. It’s scary to feel helpless, but it’s even worse to have an empty stomach too.

We in the non-profit world should be serving the public good, not creating more barriers for them.

the unbearable being of whiteness

Photo by jmz. An over-saturated photo of a family of ducks swimming in a small pond. The pond is surrounded by lush greenery, grasses, bushes, and small trees. “Show me a racist duck,” I say. There are none!

In an earlier post, I shared a resource I use by Tema Okun. People suspicious of phrases like “white supremacist culture,” will dismiss it immediately. But even for someone who believes we live in an anti-Black racist society, I struggle with it sometimes.

“Really??” I ask myself. “Being on time is… an aspect of white supremacy??” How can speaking with civility and being on time perpetuate white culture? The answer of course lies in who set those norms, who enforces them now, and who they exclude. A dominant culture integrated them into society for their sole benefit. “Professionalism” dictates what kind of hair is employable. It enforces in workers that the boss knows best and disagreements are not polite.

But these rules feel permanent to us because we’ve always lived them. Even as children, schools operate on a business schedule. Many principles of management came from running plantations in the most efficient way. Modern business carries these principles to this day, as metrics and productivity, always at the expense of the worker.

And large groups of people in the US have always felt separate from a society ruled by whites. For them, these edicts feel unnatural, arbitrary, and hard to adhere to. But these are unspoken norms that I have steeped in my entire life.

This leads to the isolation and suppression of people who don’t fit those norms. It excludes the neurodivergent. The queer. The fat. The loud. How do you live in a society that was born for the benefit only of straight white men? How do you survive with a one-size-fits-all government?

Many people in a white dominant culture are now growing aware of their own privilege. It’s still we the harmed who they ask for patience: “I’m still learning.” Excuses: “They haven’t spent enough time sitting with this.” Gradual progression: “I admit that I’m not very far on my journey.” But we are rarely afforded the same luxury of patience.

If I grew up speaking with an accent, I could be shunned or bullied at school. If I disagree with coworkers in the wrong way, I am punished and written up. I speak up less. I am fired or pressured to resign for making these mistakes.

So now we are in a curious space. Entrenched people in power, mostly white, are learning at a socially-acceptable pace. They are learning what it means to live in a society that has always been multicultural. They ask for patience while they learn that we are worth as much as they are. They seek credit for basic decency, or for hearing our concerns and not acting on them. Some invent new oppressions for themselves. Some force other people to adopt their culture while stealing liberally from others’.

It’s a lot.

For many people of color, approaching whiteness, “white passing,” is a hollow privilege. It mesmerizes us into thinking we belong. Often it means we have to put down our heritage, our language, “stinky” cuisines that are not yet Columbused.

As I interrogate what I am steeped in, I sense that our equals can’t learn this fast enough. Anti-racism is not necessary for them to survive in a world that feels comfortable. The work becomes a hobby, or worse, a lifestyle. And that’s not enough.

There’s no ending here, that’s it.

choosing between two options in an inequitable world

An artificial ancient mammoth half submerged in the watery tar of La Brea (the the tar pits tar pits). Its sculpted cry of anguish is apparent even in suspended animation. Past the weirdly tranquil scene into the background are modern-day buildings, a streetlight, and a palm tree.
An artificial ancient mammoth half-submerged in the watery tar of La Brea (the the tar pits tar pits). Its sculpted cry of anguish is apparent even in suspended animation. Past the weirdly tranquil scene into the background are modern-day buildings, a streetlight, and a palm tree. It’s not too tortured a metaphor to say that I ask myself often what is the tar that we are stuck in today. I mean, it’s racism, misogyny, capitalism, ableism… and I could go on. At least there’s hope for whoever is standing nearby watching us. It’s octopus, right?

My organization brought on a handful of new partners during the first phase of the COVID-19 response. Our network grew by about 10% in a few short months. Many of these groups were the kind of partners who aren’t often represented in our network. Others, we were bringing on board before COVID halted our usual onboarding process. Then, facing the urgent need to get food to more people, we brought some of them in on a temporary emergency basis.

Now we are contemplating a gradual but eventual return to normal. My team has started talking about how to keep all these new partners within our network. But as is the case at most non-profits not named after a billionaire, resources are finite (they probably think resources are finite there, too). It’s during this pondering that a super-common question comes up. Someone has asked it at least a dozen times since I started here, and it’s always the same hypothetical. If we had two potential partners and could only choose one, which one should we choose?

the aforementioned unknowably different options
Say there are two food pantries. One is small, focused on meeting the needs of a specific cultural group or neighborhood. The other is large, serving five hundred to a thousand people in a single day. The smaller pantry serves 50, tops, each week. The larger food pantry has a few paid full-time staff, the smaller group is all-volunteer. The larger pantry is big, yes, but that also means their resource needs are much greater. The smaller one has few donors and fewer partners. The larger pantry knows someone on our board, who said they were eager to join our network. The smaller pantry doesn’t know anyone on our team. They completed our partner interest form, but they don’t have a truck and might need a delivery. And of course, we only have the resources to bring on one partner this year.

who would you want to partner with? why?
This question has vexed me for a long time, but I only recently realized why. The question, “who do you choose,” is difficult to answer because I already know the answer. I should choose the larger organization, right? The question feels uncertain to me because I want to choose the smaller organization. My professional instincts tell me I should be seeking the biggest bang for my buck. But I’m starting to think that the opposite is actually true.

why do we pit these organizations against each other?
If I had to choose between these two agencies, I should first want to choose both. Vu Le describes the alternative as the Non-Profit Hunger Games. In the ideal world, both food pantries have advantages, and I should want to bring them both in. In the long term, I should be working to expand my resources or find partnership opportunities for both food pantries.

rethinking what I know
But in this world with finite resources, I should invest mine in the smaller food pantry. I’d start by asking different questions. What do I know about the respective agencies’ impact? How much support do both agencies receive? Which organization is filling a niche in their community? Which organization dedicates itself to serving “all people equally”? Would a person receiving food at the smaller organization find what they need by going to the larger one? What about vice versa? What would my support do for each organization? What perspectives would they bring to our work? How might those perspectives be different from mine?

in an inequitable world, decisions based on equity may feel wrong
In a zero sum game, we always choose the larger organization. The one that feels like they have their shit together. The one who is already doing well. The one that fits our culture. But that means the same organizations always thrive, and the same ones always struggle. Organizations that have been around the longest almost always get the limited resources, because the resources are always limited.

Choose the smaller organizations first. Choose the new partners first. Think about how we’ve always done it, and ask what it would look like if we did something else.

We live in a society that is unjust to its core, one that has always favored the powerful. Sometimes we should strive to pick the bet that we’re conditioned to believe is the bad one.

Targeted Universalism Step 1: Establish a Universal Goal

A grocery store aisle of boxed cereals, stretching from one end of the photo to another. I grew up on malt-o-meal cereals as a kid. These were the generic version of the popular but more-expensive cereals. I started buying some name-brand cereals when I got older. As a treat. They really do taste different, though!

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.

To use the targeted universalism framework, we first need to establish a goal. The goal must be a broadly-shared understanding of a common problem. Once the problem is commonly-held, the collective defines their aspiration. In this case, I would define the problem as: not everyone has enough to eat. Food access depends on a person’s wealth, their dietary needs, and their location.

understanding the problem
If a person, or a person’s family has enough money, they can afford high quality food. If a person’s family has less available wealth, they may have to eat lower-quality food. They may need to accept whatever food they can get for free. It’s not universal. Get it?? That’s half of the plan’s name! The other half comes later.

Food offered at food banks (or even at discount stores) works for some people, but not everyone. People who can’t digest gluten or lactose may find their options limited. Same with people who are vegan, vegetarian, or don’t eat specific animals for religious reasons. People who don’t like the taste or texture of a certain food. For people with money, these are all valid reasons to reject food. But when a person doesn’t have money, society tells them to accept what they can get.

Now imagine a person who lives far from a nearby town or grocery store. Or a person who uses a wheelchair or scooter in a city with uneven or dangerous sidewalks. Or a person who must use a bus to travel on pre-set routes. I recently read the story of Dashrath Manjhi. His wife needed medical help but the Gelhour hills separated them from the nearest town. The small mountain range forced him to travel 40 miles around them to the medical center. By the time he returned with a doctor, his wife had died. In his pain, he spent the next 22 years carving a road through the mountain to connect his village to the town. This experience is not universal! Providing universal access to food means we must account for a person’s geography as well.

setting the collective aspiration
The Targeted Universalism primer describes how to establish a collective. In building the table, they recommend forming a group like the one we use in an advice process. The participants should include, from the start:- People most affected by the problem. Go out of your way to include people who are often excluded from these types of decisions. Include them in a way that honors them as individuals with their own power and choice whether to take part. I’ll summarize:

  • people who receive benefits from the proposed change.
  • people tasked with implementing the change.
  • people tasked with documentation.
  • people with an expert understanding of the issues.

Since we’re talking about food access, I would look to people covered by the limitations described earlier. I would include:

  • people whose first or primary language isn’t english.
  • people with physical disabilities.
  • people of different races and cultures.
  • people who know how to cook, and people who don’t.
  • people who sell groceries.
  • people who own farms, and people who work farms.

I expect the collective will grow and change over time as we engage more people in this work.

This collective would definitely come up with more limits to their food access than I have. But for this step I’ll use the three factors I named above: wealth, dietary needs, and location.

My universal goal would be:
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.

I’ll get around to Step 2 at some point.

this will take all of us

a photo of a large white sheet turned into a hand-painted banner. in red paint, the lettering reads, “Our Food System Is Built On WHITE SUPREMACY.” they’re not wrong!! a logo for the organization Uprooted and Rising is painted at the bottom in black paint.

I ended my last post with what I thought was a fitting coda: “All I had to do was speak up.” I should have added an asterisk to the end of that statement. There’s an immense amount of privilege and access that lives within the simple act of speaking up. Here are an easy dozen:

  1. I’m a cis man
  2. I speak fluent English
  3. The decision-makers in the meeting spoke fluent English
  4. I hold a leadership position at my organization
  5. I knew my organization’s leadership would agree with my argument
  6. My organization holds a place of authority with this group
  7. The meeting I attended is part of my job
  8. I had the know-how to google a study before the conversation changed
  9. The study, which highlighted racial disparities in access to services, already existed
  10. I’ve spent large amounts of free time trying to understand structural racism
  11. Structural racism has been in the news lately. More White people than usual are feeling aware of their own privilege
  12. The issue mattered enough to me that I spoke up

What I did was not unique, or it should not be unique. But what if enough of the variables above weren’t true? Not everyone would have had the success that I did. The study was available to the public. Plenty of people on the call had the same or greater level of authority and respect that I have. And I’m sure that many of us would have said we support broad civil rights and oppose structural racism. But of all the people in the room, I had to speak up. I was the right combination of variables where I could do so with minimal risk. Those variables should not be a prerequisite for speaking up, but right now they may be.

There’s a reason why so many of us pay the emotional and mental taxes that come with teaching anti-racism. It’s why equity and inclusion efforts can’t be the responsibility of a single person at the office. It’s why change so often feels bound by inertia—until one day, it doesn’t seem so farfetched.

The reality here is that we powerholders made a decision that, win or lose, will likely never touch us. That is a system out of balance. We must, must change that. There’s no alternative, only temporary fixes. But. Until then. On the road to then. We need people in power to risk their stability and make change happen. We all have to learn these things because we have to be there.

I’m not in every room. I need you. But you’re not in every room. We need them. But they’re not in every room. They need us.

Change is coming, but it will take all of us.

the revolution is no place for templates

sugar-scoop flowers peek out from behind a damp, moss-covered log. the white flowers are bell-shaped on a spindly twig standing above a patch of green wet leaves. it’s been a hard month. like these flowers, i wanted to say hello.

2020 has felt like every single month will someday be its own chapter in a history textbook. Two weeks into global protests, leaders are promising change that once felt like a pipe dream. At the same time, we know that capitalism will monetize everything it can, even protests. Police forces will take a knee with protestors one minute, and tear gas them the next. It didn’t take long for public opinion to reach a tipping point. Corporations jumped over each other to issue their own statements of support.

But what do those statements mean?
After George Floyd’s murder, Adam Rapoport wrote an article titled, “Food has always been political.” A few days later, he resigned after a photo of him in brownface resurfaced. Reading the article now, it’s clear that he believed he was the vanguard. As Bon Appetit’s Editor in Chief, he was leading the way towards the anti-racist future we need. And then it became clear that he wasn’t. What did his words mean, in retrospect? Anti-racism sells now, but it doesn’t pay people of color for their work. It doesn’t disrupt the balance of white supremacy culture in a 30-year-old magazine. The photo of him in brownface was not new. If it wasn’t resurfaced to an audience that now rejected it, he would still have his job. His statement would have assured his readers that he was on the right side of history.

The last few weeks have shown most white people and some POCs the harm that Black people face every day. If we want to end that trauma, we have to do more than write a statement. I have a couple ideas about what not to do.

Don’t use a template
This isn’t a time to use someone else’s words. Black people and people of color are all feeling this in different ways. I can’t speak to how my Black colleagues and friends are experiencing this moment. Recycling someone else’s words, or worse, quoting MLK, comes across as hollow. This isn’t a time to dissociate. It’s a time to feel, be uncomfortable, and live in that.

Don’t write beyond what you are willing to do
The worst thing we can do now is provide empty promises. I’ve read a lot of statements from my own organization and from others in my field. I’ve felt frustrated wishing these statements went further. I’ve gnashed my teeth at all the euphemisms for “murder” and “state-sanctioned violence”. But when the statement hits the website, people deserve to know where you actually stand.

When I conduct job interviews, I always use pronouns to identify myself, then leave it up to a candidate whether they will share their own. It’s a hiring practice I do that says something about our workplace culture. We have a trans-supportive office, and we’ve dealt swiftly with the rare transphobic staff member. When I talk about anti-racist and gender-affirming hiring practices, I warn people about using these practices before the office culture is ready. If your workplace is anti-trans, don’t fool trans people into working there. In the same vein, don’t let your company’s anti-racist statement fool people into believing something that you’re not.

The statement is not enough
I stressed about the statements that were flying around after George Floyd’s murder. When I made my own statements to our network of partners, I worried about how my words would come across. I realized after I hit send that the words themselves weren’t what mattered. What matters is what we do after that. We need anti-racism to seep through the pores of every non-Black person on earth. It’s not enough to join book clubs or sit in guilt. We have to change things.

There’s one achievement of mine that is going to be the highlight of my year. My state recently increased the income level that a person could earn and still receive food. Our earlier standard, 185% of the federal poverty level (FPL), was set to change to 300%. I found a study that said that an income of 300% FPL was where food insecurity dropped for most people. But for people of color, they needed to earn 400% of the FPL before they felt the same effects. I helped persuade the group to adopt the higher limit for our entire state. We now have the highest income level limit in the country! Significantly more people will be able to eat because of a decision made by people the rule will never affect.

All I had to do was speak up.

intersectionality in the diaspora

A blurry photo of an elementary school building at night, in a small town in central Texas. The darkness is illuminated with several sodium lights that cast an eerie but comforting glow to the street in front of it. A person is just barely visible in silhouette in the corner of the frame. This photo is at least 15 years old. Texas as a place comes with some complicated memories, but it still feels like home.

I recently listened to a podcast called Intersectionality in the Diaspora. It’s co-hosted by my friend Clara. The podcast feels like listening in on a conversation between two friends. Clara and her co-host Melo have been friends for several years. They describe themselves as Centro Americanxs raised in Los Angeles. From their first episode, I felt deep connection with the stories from their cultures.

The first episode is a conversation on mental health in and among BIPOC communities. In my own home growing up, we didn’t talk about mental wellbeing. Therapy was not something that was available to us: it carried with it the stigma of the nineties. People who went to therapy were punchlines, or they were too wealthy for real problems. I thought about this while listening to this episode. I appreciated the reflection on mental health as it pertains to our culture.

Nowadays, I go to therapy on a regular basis. I find it raises my awareness of things I “know” to be true that are not actually universal truths. I don’t go as often as I used to, but the practice has helped me become a more thoughtful person. I recommend giving this podcast a listen.

equity in the time of coronavirus

A photo of a potato hauler that was once used by a Mexican laborer in Washington State. A large burlap sack at the bottom of the photo is decorated by a caricature of a Native American chief with the words “BIG CHIEF” above it. The sack is fastened to a block of wood with the name “Pepe” on it, which in turn is fastened to a canvas belt with leather straps. Farmworkers in normal times are often mistreated and undercompensated for their labor. Now that we are in a crisis, these essential workers are treated even more unfairly.

I took the last couple days off work, which has given me a little time to clear my head. It’s given me some time to reflect on how non-profit organizations navigate a crisis. Some organizations are now waking up to the racial inequities that impact their work. A world ruled by grants and philanthropy spends decades trying to “move the needle”. It’s easy to focus on changing a number on a dashboard to 70 from 68, even if that still ignores huge swaths of people.

And what happens during a pandemic? Exactly that, but faster. Emergency situations are the hardest times to try out new things, so we rely on old habits to see us through. Who do we forget when we move faster? People with special needs. People who are already disenfranchised. People we hadn’t meaningfully engaged before the crisis. People we don’t have time to engage now.

Tema Okun‘s paper on white supremacy culture is a resource I go back to over and over. There could be a different-but-almost-identical version of this paper for use during Coronavirus. Reading through it is so often like scratching an itch I can’t reach. She gives a name (and antidotes) to the vague sense of dread I sometimes have about a project or approach. I use these antidotes to try to craft a different course with my colleagues.

What can we do about it?
We can start by acknowledging that we don’t often work better by working faster. We make mistakes when we rush. We accept new opportunities without giving them a more thorough review. A group that we don’t have time to engage could cost us time and reputation when we have to fix what we did in a hurry.

I also have to remember that discomfort can lead to greater understanding and growth. No matter what decisions we make, I can still learn from our actions and consequences. I hope there won’t be another pandemic in my lifetime, but I will take lasting lessons from this crisis.