the strings that bind

a photo of oak trees towering over gravestones at a cemetery in Savannah, Georgia. Spanish moss grows in thick clumps on every visible branch. a row of headstones peek out from the bottom of the cropped photo. i grew up believing Spanish moss was a parasite on the mighty trees that did all the work. but they’re both just plants in an complex ecosystem. the real parasites are billionaires. also, i spelled “cemetery” right on the first try. 😎

I’m suspicious of nonrandom acts of charity. In my college ethics class, I learned most selfless acts aren’t completely selfless. They can give someone a warm feeling or a return on their investment. In the industrialized world of non-profits, these good works can come with a lot of strings.

Take grant applications, for instance. I have been a funder, and a grantee, for different organizations. Right now I do a little of both, depending on how much money we’re talking about. Some grant applications I read request a mountain of information. Narrative, budget, logic model, letters of recommendation. And once I receive the grant money, I have to turn in another mountain of information to keep receiving it. Monthly reports, client stories, survey results, year-end reports.

It got me wondering about the practice of exchanging stories for funding or services. How did it start? I tried looking it up, but I’m not a great researcher. Instead, I thought about how I’ve used this practice across my career. During my funder days, we used to ask grantees for client success stories. On the occasions we received them, the stories were great. We packaged those stories into quotes that we repackaged and sent up the chain in our own reports. These stories went from a few paragraphs to a bullet point list. Further up the chain, the list trimmed down to an anecdote in a briefing. Paraphrasing the anecdote might land on the desk of an elected official. At some organizations, client stories add personality to fundraisers and impact reports. As my boss once said to me, stories can move a donor to give, but data tells them how much money you need.

But where do we go from there? What happens when we feed this narrative, that X story will earn Y impressions or Z dollars? People who actually do research call this poverty porn. Poverty porn creates a cycle that begets more poverty porn. It teaches people that the pain they see has a remedy, and we can only apply that remedy if they write us a check. There is no path out of exploitation that is made through more exploitation.

What needs to happen is removing donors from the center of what we do. They should not be the first or only beneficiaries of our good works. I’ll look at this through three transactional lenses: applications, client data, and stories.

“please note: this application requires a second mortgage to complete”

It’s already a cliché that grant applications are more complicated than they need to be. But it’s that way for a good reason, right? These answers help the selection committee decide who should and shouldn’t get funding. I get it: staring at a pile of applications, all requesting the same shallow pot of our money. But it’s a bit like teaching for the test. The applicants who get funding are the ones who are good at grant writing. It doesn’t mean their plan is good. It only means that their application is. What about when we zoom out and see that we all breathe the air of an artificially white supremacist society? Some of the biggest large-dollar donors are recipients themselves of generational wealth. They pass those dollars onto organizations that share their values. How do organizations getting off the ground ever manage to compete? This is more challenging as white-dominant organizations adopt the language of racial equity.

What if we made things different?
What if we funded organizations that were at different stages in their development? “Before you finish your business plan, here’s seed money to work on it full-time,” or “Before you write that logic model, here’s funding and training on how to do it.” What if the grant application worked more like a sales pitch? What if the selection committee included only people with current and past lived experience? What if that selection committee met with potential grantees? What if they had a conversation about the goals of the grant and how we’d use the money? Holding onto money doesn’t mean you should hold it over people.

“don’t worry about PII, your clients are numbers to us.”

My first question about data collection is usually, “why do you need to know?” I’m serious. Why do you need to collect this information? This goes doubly true when the data includes Personally Identifiable Information (PII). Some organizations collect metrics that they have no intention of using. Data that might be useful later. Or, funders might ask grantees to analyze the data to create a report that never gets read. Worse, the power relationship between grantor and grantee prevents that kind of dialogue. Grantees feel like they have no grounds to push back on the data they’re asked to collect. They act like DaVinci wrote down exactly what his patron paid him to do and made it all to spec. He definitely would not pose his male lover as the most mysterious woman in the world (allegedly)! But when we pull apart the power dynamic, we create a stronger relationship with our own patrons.

What if we made things different?
Think about your program. How do you use the data you already collect? What could you stop collecting and nobody would notice? What information could we ask to create a better program? What if funders requested data, then paid to have it analyzed and shared? How could we collaborate with our clients and our funders to collect data that makes a program of value? What if all the grantees in a cohort decided together what was important to study? What if receivers of the service told funders what was important to know? What could we do with an environment of mutual respect between people with and without institutional power?

“enough about me! how do you feel about me?”

The most sinister side of charity is the things we demand from people in need. Data is huge, but stories are so much more personal. The way we collect most stories exploits the power dynamic of people who feel like they can’t refuse. Like means testing, stories and data set qualifications in exchange for help. I’ve written elsewhere about why I am very cautious when I ask for and use stories.

What if we made things different?
Start with awareness. Start by compensating people for their stories or their time. Promise a cut of the fundraising dollars you earn from their face on the side of a bus. Client stories can be exploitative, but they don’t have to be. What if client stories were more like enthusiastic YouTube videos? Uploading them is voluntary. Production values vary wildly among creators. But their creators tell their story, whatever it is, exactly how they want to tell it.

“ensign, what if we reversed the polarity of funding to power on the deflector array?”

What if we asked funders to hold themselves accountable to their grantees? What if organizations were accountable to the people who need the help?

We can push back on invasive data requests, or find another way to collect the data. Non-profits are offering basic safety net services. What harm do we cause when we ask invasive questions before they qualify? Do our benefits outweigh their dehumanization? Is any dollar amount worth that?

Many of us already think of our clients as the most important part of our work. So why would we take part in a system that demands their exploitation? Let’s take these recent feelings of political relief and zoom out on the system we live in. Let’s start to be really clear about who is tying the strings, and who should be holding the scissors.

boxed in

a photo of a stand of tomato plants at a hardware store. the green leafy plants are in black plastic tubs with a cage to keep them from falling over. i don’t have much of a green thumb. i would love to eat food that i grow, but given my track record we’d starve. i still love visiting nurseries, though!


At the start of the pandemic, my organization faced a new challenge. Business across sectors closed, making thousands of people unemployed overnight. The need for food spiked across our state, to a number that we hadn’t ever seen before. We started the pandemic like we would any disaster. We started importing in boxes of pre-packed shelf-stable food. But the pandemic is of course not like most disasters. Most disasters affect one city of region in the entire country. COVID spread itself around the whole world. Most disasters, like hurricanes, only last a few hours. COVID has lasted for almost a year since the earliest known cases.

Given the market forces, and our own supply chain, we made some decisions. One of those was to start mass-producing boxes of shelf-stable food. We designed these boxes to fit most communities’ needs. The subtext here is we did not design them to fit all communities’ needs. After a few months of this, supply chains started to return to normal. The enormous demand for food slowed to a more fathomable number. But now that we’re out of the woods, I have a chance to try a little hindsight.

what’s gained in a food box?

easier and safer. We had a lot of food to get out the door in a short amount of time. Food boxes made sense. They cut the contact time between two people. This was critical at the start of the pandemic because nobody knew all the ways the virus could spread. 

storage capacity, to some extent. While many of the people who need food pantry had refrigerators, not every food pantry does. Shelf-stable products are easier to store, even if they are bulkier. That said, food pantries can only store so many boxes, no matter what’s inside. As demand ballooned, some food pantries struggled to store the boxes they needed to serve.

what’s lost in a food box?

one size fits some but not all. we produced many thousands of boxes using a menu that was the same across the state. This means that some people receiving these boxes did not want to eat the items we packed into them. 

food for an emergency time, not a long time. we prioritized shelf-stable food over fresher but more perishable food. This makes sense in a disaster. If power has gone out across a large region, you wouldn’t want to give someone in that region a freezer’s worth of food. But COVID didn’t cause the same disruption that something like a tornado would have. Most people had working refrigerators and freezers. Eviction moratoriums protected many (but not everyone) from losing their homes. Those protections did not save anyone from having to pay back rent. 

the spices of life. And more than that, eating a diet of industrialized food can be very hard on the body. Industrialized food often lacks flavor, which it compensates for with excess salts. People can wash off the salt if they’re concerned about sodium, but that won’t make them more flavorful. If you don’t have spices at home, you’re going to be eating a lot of bland meals. As the disaster stretched on for months, people who could not afford food were still eating from cans. One of my coping mechanisms during the pandemic has been cooking. I also have the time and stability to be able to cook. Not everyone has that ability. 

what could we have done instead?

a greater variety of boxes. Even though one size doesn’t fit all, we could have planned for variety in the boxes. Or, we could have created boxes with a smaller base of items. Add-on or specialty items could have fit into these boxes. This would give food pantries the ability to customize boxes beyond some basics. In fact, we did move to a build-your-own system for most of our partners.

go bigger on perishable products. Later in the pandemic, we increased our access to fresh fruits and vegetables. This meant we could distribute fresher options to go with our shelf-stable offerings.

make ourselves obsolete. Imagine what we could do with a system that works for everyone! SNAP benefits (subsidized money for food) available to everyone who needed it. Removing means-testing from charity food programs. Free PPE for all essential workers. These are not ambitious programs, but they’re much more than we’ve had to work with.

the crisis next time

There’s so much more we could do in the food system to end hunger for everyone. My friend Clara recently shared with me the work of Chris Newman, a Black and Indigenous farmer, and the owner of Sylvanaqua Farms. He is part of a cooperative of farms in Washington, D.C. that seek to modernize the food industry. I hope that I won’t live to see another pandemic. No matter what comes next, we have to move beyond what we do now. We have to invest in a system that will serve us all.

power is magic

a photo of the countryside as seen from the window of a plane. the upper third of the picture contains slowly undulating hills in misty blues and greens. the rest of the frame is a birds-eye patchwork of farms and natural features. at one time, the heavens were the domain of all-powerful, terrifying gods. now, any idiot with a couple hundred bucks can get up there and take a picture.


What are the agreements that hold society together? Currency, especially the concept of fiat money, is a big one. Unlike the gold standard, where a person’s dollar equaled a certain amount of gold, fiat money is fake. Where does the money come from? I’ve read some very complicated explanations for why we can’t simply print more money. But the government does anyway! We’ve vested in it the ability to spend more money than we have on hand. Only the federal government can do this, because they wrote the law that says they can.

In many ways, the concept of power functions like fiat money. It’s made up! It has arbitrary value that depends on the context where it’s used. My importance in one circle doesn’t always mean I’m important in other circles. In an institutional hierarchy, power can be coercive. People with power can make others carry out decisions that they know are bad or unhelpful. People with power can redirect attention or slow down progress. They can do this even when they themselves know it’s the wrong thing to do. People with power can also confer power unto another person. That person’s qualifications are sometimes scrutable, sometimes not. At least some monarchies had the good sense to declare their power came from holy authority. It’s hard to dispute power vested in a person or their lineage by a capital-g god. But there are points in history when a couple of capital-g guillotines demonstrated that no power is absolute.

We navigate structures of power and dynamics every day, everywhere. This week’s controversy is about Trump’s refusal to concede his electoral loss. People are asking themselves, “can he do that??” The real question is, “why are we letting him do that?”

A colleague and I were talking at work recently. She noticed the efforts I make to help new managers feel welcome in our halls of power. I see it as my role to do more than that. I’m trying to dispel the mysticism of management. Like money, a leader’s power only means something if we let it mean something. People are fallible and human. Power bestowed upon them by the system doesn’t make their instincts better by default. In fact, relying on power as authority can create blindspots in a person’s reasoning.

Take for example the bigger role that race and equity issues now play in many organizations. The leaders of those organizations may not be particularly experienced in these things. The skill sets for their roles may have changed, but they still hold the power. Only someone else with more power can do anything about that.

Another example involves asking who has the power to make decisions. In the public sector, decision-making doesn’t always rest with the public. Transferring decision-making to impacted communities can give them power they did not have. It gives people in need the ability to make decisions that are best for them, even if those decisions feel wrong to us.

Some people in power convince themselves that they alone have the right answer. They might believe their place in the system grants them that exclusive power. They may think that empowerment can function as a token or rubber-stamp of their plans. When I work to empower the communities I serve, I keep in mind this truth: given power and the authority to wield it, someone might act a different way than I would have. True empowerment must include giving up my ability to veto decisions I wouldn’t have made.

how do you rebalance power?

If you have power, start by finding ways to share it. Then, relinquish it. Historic racial inequities and injustices should make it clear why most power in the united states is ill-gotten.

Sustaining Community has a great post about the Spectrum of Public Participation. It’s a framework developed by the International Association of Public Participation. The framework describes actions along a gradual transition of power to the public: inform, consult, involve, collaborate, and empower. Each action contains tangible steps used to engage the community we serve. The goal of empowerment is empowering for traditional power-holders as well! There is a burden or cost to making unpopular decisions. Instead, join the discussion as one of many people, all with unique ideas and perspectives.

These apply to both personal and professional life. Work to restore power to the masses through unions, organizing, and collective action. Support community groups and mutual aid projects. Collaborate with others to hold people in power accountable.

Power is magic. It doesn’t always make sense, though it sometimes leads to incredible things. But whether you are the magician or the audience, you have to be aware of what’s happening. Don’t forget the fact that it’s all a trick.

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.

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.