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.

when the work is interesting

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

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

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

the things that we do are art

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

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

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

how would i rebuild an institution?

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

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

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

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.

implementing the advice process: first update

A meme featuring an “Ask the candidates”-style fact sheet between 2020 presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. The questioner asks, “can cats have salami?” Elizabeth Warren’s photo says “cats should only eat cat food” while Bernie Sanders’ photo says “cats can have a little salami.” This is one of the many decisions that people have to face in their lives. If the advice process was more widely used, cats might be able to vote for president.

I first learned about the advice process less than a year ago. I like the advice process for many reasons. The biggest is that it pushes back on the dominant-culture notion that there’s only one solution to a given problem. In truth, there can be many solutions to a problem. The best solution is more likely to come from a person closest to the problem at hand. It very rarely comes from that person’s boss, or their boss’ boss.

Since then, I wrote a guide for how to use it at a medium-sized non-profit organization. About seven months ago, I launched it in a committee on which I was the chair. This is a quick update on my experience using the advice process to make better decisions at work.

How I implemented it
I lead a large team, but I decided not to launch this process with my employees. Even though I introduced the advice process to my boss, and she supported the goals of this work. The advice process works by design in an ecosystem of distributed self-management. My non-profit is still a hierarchy, with a CEO and a typical decision-making structure. Decisions go up the chain, then they go back down the chain. I didn’t want my first experiment using the advice process to lead to a situation where I have to veto a decision. Instead, I chose to test the advice process in a committee I’m on. Every member of the committee represents a department or team. We are all considered equals, and experts in our fields. It was easier to justify the advice process in a setting where no one held power over another. The committee still operated in a hierarchy, though. The Chief Operating Officer sat on the committee, and could overrule any decision any of us made.

Ranking problems
When we started, we had a lot of issues on the table that were languishing without a decision. I created a very simple ranking scheme that anyone with five fingers can do. I asked each committee member to rank every issue using 1-5 fingers for these two questions:

  1. what is your personal interest or energy in solving this problem?
  2. how necessary is it for us to solve this problem soon?

These two questions helped us get a sense of urgency around each issue we faced. It also allowed us to land some easy wins once we got started.

Blocking a decision
I added to the advice process the ability to “block” a decision. The guidance acknowledges that my organization operated as a hierarchy (for now). In an ideal advice process scenario, the person with the power to veto is someone we would have consulted. With that in mind, we ask that before anyone in power vetoes an idea, they consider the following:

  • does the decision make things worse?
  • are you blocking the decision because you don’t love it? are you blocking the decision because you think your solution is better?

This part of the process has worked well for us, so far. Decisions made through the advice process are often well-reasoned. We know it’s okay if they are not perfect.

Questions of Impact
Another issue we ran into on this committee was the question around impact. Because we are a service non-profit, our recipients are the ones most affected by what we decide. We don’t have an advisory board, and our decisions are much too small to consult a group every time we need to make one. Instead, we say the impact falls most on the team affected by the proposed change. That team’s representative becomes the person who gets to make the decision. It’s also their responsibility to share their decision once it’s made.

What I’ve learned so far
Before the advice process, decision-making was haphazard at best. Someone would ask a question, and then we would talk about it for a while before tabling it for the next meeting. Someone would offer to do research, but that never paid off into real decisions. Using this process, we resolved six issues in five months. These issues had plagued us for at least a year. Once we started making decisions, we realized the decision-maker needed to share. I created a decision-making share-out document to archive our decisions.

Sometimes, many teams are the “most impacted” by a decision. Sometimes nobody was more impacted than anyone else. In these cases, the advice process says that anyone who wants to make the decision, can. Sometimes everyone is busy, but the issue is too important to delay. In those cases, we had to assign the issue to someone.

What I am still exploring
Some of the decision-makers reported difficulty getting started. This is still an unfamiliar practice for most of us. It’s not easy getting used to being the sole decision-maker. While individual consults are easier to schedule, it’s still nice to sit around a table and brainstorm with your colleagues. And as I mentioned above, we need to get clear about who we should include in the advice process. Often decisions can cascade outside a team in ways we don’t predict. But the advice process, like all tools, is not perfect.

I am still very impressed with the advice process. I am still thinking about ways to build the process into a formal hierarchy. I am also curious to see if the process continues when I move on from leading the committee. We’ll see how it goes!