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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

ableism is invisible if you are able

I missed a week! I’ve been trying to stay consistent on the blog but the COVID-19 response has sucked up all my free time. In the meantime, here is a quick post I wrote recently.

Graphic of a matrix titled “Just use ____ straws!” with a list of alternatives to single-use plastic straws. Each alternative (metal, paper, glass, silicone, etc.) is marked with a variety of reasons why that type of straw would not work for some people. The original graphic was made by Hell on Wheels. Rambling Justice has a great round-up of straw infographics and alt text describing the graphic.

ableism is invisible if you are able
oppression is invisible if you are the oppressor
transphobia is invisible if you are not transgender
homophobia is invisible if you are not homosexual
white supremacy is invisible if you are white

I used to think it was okay to ban straws because they play such an invisible role in society. I could replace single-use plastic straws with any of the alternatives (paper, bamboo, glass, metal) that work for me. Straws damage wildlife and the environment, meaning their drawbacks outweigh their benefits. In fact, I can even choose to enforce consumerism by proudly purchasing a reusable straw. When I do that, I’m filling a need I didn’t have. My need for them was invisible. 

People who can’t drink without straws have tried or know about the alternatives. Many still stick with single-use plastic straws. Why did I instinctively doubt this? When I look for something to meet a need of mine, I research it for hours before settling on my solution. For example, I spent hours researching electric toothbrushes. I tried a few different kinds, I read reviews, and I chose my favorite. Why wouldn’t I imagine others doing the same for their own needs? I could declare that my alternative solution, such as metal straws, is the best for everyone. If someone still prefers plastic single-use straws over metal, they aren’t enlightened enough. One might consider expense to be the biggest factor. Metal straws are more costly than plastic single-use straws. Blake Mycoskie, founder of TOMS, created TOMS Shoes for this reason. By giving shoes for people who are shoeless, he is filling a need that they did not have. He assumes that people without shoes lack them only because of their cost.

Because I am able, using a straw is not something I spend more than a few minutes each month thinking about. Because I am able, I should trust what differently abled people tell me is true for them. Many of us are part of at least one socially-dominant group. It’s our responsibility to listen to the needs and concerns of people who are different from us. Once we have listened, we should work together to act.