Targeted Universalism Step 1: Establish a Universal Goal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

this will take all of us

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

the revolution is no place for templates

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All I had to do was speak up.

intersectionality in the diaspora

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

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

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

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

equity in the time of coronavirus

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

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

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

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

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

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

writing my name in lower case started with y’all

A picture of Big Tex at night. Big Tex, the giant statue of a white guy in hideous clothing, used to welcome visitors to the Texas State Fair. That night he watched me eat fried Coca-cola (we say Coke) and nearly die.

Whenever I can help it, I write my name using only lowercase letters. I’ve done this since college at least. I’ve always signed my emails that way. “Proper” nouns in general feel snooty. Sentence case is fine. I guess.

I remember starting to use y’all around the same time I dropped the capital letters in my name. When I started college, I worked at a fancy restaurant in a small town in Texas. I didn’t give y’all-the-word much thought back then. But working at this restaurant made the expression critical to my success as a server. “Y’all” was shorthand for who I was and how long I had lived in the state. It signified to my rich and white clientele that I was from around here. I could affect a Texas drawl though it didn’t often stick, but y’all came out easy and unforced.

People of color navigate and survive in society through many different means. My strategy in those days was to survive through assimilation. Many of those techniques have stayed with me, though I am more aware of them now. I reject assimilation the more I feel comfortable in my own skin. Using y’all in this context established rapport with my customers. It meant I got bigger tips and repeat customers. I used it so much back then that y’all soon became part of my regular vocabulary.

But after I moved from the hospitality industry to an office, y’all disappeared. I’ve spent most of my career feeling like I had a lot to prove. I worried that using unprofessional language would harm my career advancement. It became a part of myself that I felt like I had to hide if I wanted to get anywhere.

After a few career moves and increased responsibilities, I started to bring y’all with me. Y’all was finally a part of me that I felt comfortable revealing. It was a nonissue almost everywhere. If anything, it humanized me. At the start of my career I worried about appearing too perfect. I thought that people would interpret my ambition and competence as arrogance. Y’all became a personal touch. It was more than an informal plural, non-gendered way to address a group of folks. My career success helped bring “unprofessional” slang into my professional world.

The spelling of my name traveled a similar but longer path. Everyone in America learns that you must capitalize your name and others’. It doesn’t matter what you like, those are the rules. But I started writing my name in work emails the way I do in personal emails. I started to feel more comfortable writing it everywhere. To my surprise, with no reinforcing, people in my office took notice.

Nowadays the people in my life use them both interchangably. But the spelling of my name isn’t that serious. People who are trans, non-binary, or gender nonconforming should be able to affirm their identity without issue. But this is how I like my name to look. In a world of typed documents and email, it’s the name I prefer to use. Y’all was something I felt comfortable doing as a junior employee. josh is something I can call myself as a director.

In a very small way—in my own way—I am helping to disrupt the status quo of what people consider professional. I prove that you can do good work and still define yourself against type. I must also tell people that my identity is separate from the value that I bring to an organization. It’s part of who I am. And no matter who you are, it should be easy for (y’)all of us to respect.

the cultural legacies of our elders

My achchi in a busy produce market, her face full of pleasant surprise. She is wearing a purple jacket and holding a breadfruit the size and shape of a green coconut. She’s standing in front a whole display of them, which she was clearly not expecting to see.

My achchi, or grandmother, passed away last weekend at 87 years old. She and I were 50 years and a couple weeks apart. Mourning a loved one in the age of coronavirus gives me a sense of how it must have felt before planes or trains existed. That said, I was lucky enough to see her on Zoom the final week before she passed away.

I’ve been thinking about her a lot this week. My grandparents live on through me and the rest of my family. We tell jokes like they did (though we also tell our own). Many of the things we do or don’t value have a connection to the things they did or didn’t value. Looking through old photos, I also recalled how much time we spent cooking and eating with each other.

I have a lot of memories of us spending time together while someone cooked. I remember my seeya scraping coconuts in the kitchen sink, which achchi turned into pol sambol. I found a photo of her eating a shabby birthday s’more I made for her in my college-era duplex. Another photo depicts her at my all-time favorite market in Atlanta. She’s clutching a breadfruit with obvious glee. She told me that day it had been so long since she had last seen one.

My grandparents were famous for throwing huge parties on New Year’s Eve. Dozens of friends would come over with dishes of Sri Lankan curries. We would set out a huge platter of spiced yellow rice. We’d gorge on short eats till midnight: fried mackerel cutlets, samosa-like patties, and more. At midnight, we’d sing auld lang syne and hug our loved ones before getting down to a 12:30 AM dinner.

With three of my grandparents now gone, I am reflecting on all the ways in which they aren’t. We cook parripu using my achchi’s recipe. When we don’t want to do something, we say “we’ll see…” like she used to. My family and I will tell each other the stories we remember and the good times we shared until we, too, are someone else’s fond memories.

coronavirus update

Hills and trees in Washington wine country at sunset. The sky is light blue with gorgeous peach-colored clouds. A pond in the foreground reflects the sky like a mirror. I’ve been inside for the vast majority of 30 days now. I miss the outside more than when I couldn’t go outside. “When will I see another sunset?” I think wistfully. I am still healthy, so I shut up.

It’s been an unbelievably long seven weeks working the COVID-19 response. I’ve spent a lot of time working with my part of an interconnected network of partners across the state. Our response changes at least once or twice each week. We make plans, we communicate those plans, and then they change again. I’ve grown a mustache!

In the past seven weeks, I interviewed two candidates for a job. I twice interviewed for a new job. I didn’t get it, but I’m feeling okay about that. Especially now, I have plenty to do.

Communication matters
I make no secret about my love of Hemingway the app. Everything I write for an audience of ten or more I write in Hemingway. Making something easy to read is the highest form of respect that I can give my audience. I used to write languid, embellished prose. I wouldn’t do that to an audience that gets an avalanche of emails every day. I have gotten overwhelming positive feedback for this decision. My words cut through the vagueness that covers up the unknown. And if I don’t know something yet, I say that. It’s easy!

Plans matter
Plans change, all the time. But they still matter! Plans communicate vision. They convey intent. What we put into our plans tells other people what we value and how we focus our attention. I’m reading Emergent Strategy right now, so I see fractals in everything. I notice that even the new things we are doing sometimes feel like the old habits we’ve tried to break. It’s hard to reinvent yourself while you’re doing something new. I have to check my biases when I create new programs, or else I will repeat them.

The collective matters
I am reminded every day why we must fight for a better world. This one treats people like shit! We are stuck fighting every day for small improvements. We are fighting against decades of people destroying the social contract. We still don’t acknowledge that the social contract was never made to support people of color, women, renters. We in the public sector make programs that benefit and support white culture without even realizing it. When we as a society lapse into panic mode, we go for what’s easy. That means prioritizing dominant culture. It doesn’t have to be this way. We have to choose to stop it. There is no time like the present.

We can’t afford to wait.

how do workers grow?

A forest in the Pacific Northwest. Scrub trees and ferns litter the ground. Hints of cloudy sky peek out from behind the trees. Ferns don’t have a five year plan. Plants don’t grow according to their boss plant’s wishes. Must be nice? It is!!

I see professional advancement as the incremental development of skills. I identify a task or role, then compare it to my existing accomplishments. The more I learn, the more I can apply to the next challenge. I approach employee advancement the same way. I give guidance on new challenges and provide feedback along the way. I use those accomplishments to lead to larger and more complex assignments later. But are there limitations to that approach?

in a typical hierarchy
A person’s supervisor usually sets their opportunities for growth or advancement. Advancement could depend on favoritism, luck, or other uncontrollable factors. When I’ve had a good job or a supportive boss, advancement feels so easy! I’ve also had jobs where my boss doubts my potential, and has worked to limit my opportunities.

there is a better way
In a self-managing organization, each team determines and distributes their responsibilities. People who want to advance can seek support from their team, rather than one person. In a distributed leadership, management responsibilities spread across an entire team. Team members could add new responsibilities or rotate them among their teammates.

for people who aren’t ready for the responsibilities they want
This is often a hard decision for a manager to make. I don’t want to limit a person’s potential for growth. But in a traditional hierarchy, advancement is usually a series of steps, not a slope. There is a whole host of responsibilities involved in going from being a team member to manager. Lots of organizations treat a promotion into management as sink or swim. Management trainings are often given only to people who are already managers.

what can I do in a traditional hierarchy?
We offer trainings for employees at every level of the company. We set aside funding for them to attend conferences and other learning opportunities. I could try distributing leadership to junior members of my team. I assign them project leadership and track their progress over time. We already rotate who facilitates team meetings and other gatherings.

But it wouldn’t be right to ask an employee to approve time sheets or lead my weekly check-ins. I use those to track the progress of my team and correct their course as needed. I also get paid more to do those things. Sharing management duties should mean sharing compensation that I receive. Would people be happy if their pay fluctuated based on their current role? Would I take a pay cut if someone else did part of my job? For how long should someone do work for their own growth before they’re paid for it?

Managers should contribute to a culture of feedback and support the growth of their teams. People who want advancement should be able to decide what that’s worth to them. I will keep looking for ways to do that.

why would we write policies based on extremes?

An isolated palm tree practices physical distancing in silhouette across an artificially blue sky. A bird in flight is near the bottom of the frame, flapping somewhere else. The bird hasn’t been confined to its house for ten days now, I can tell you that much.

I recently listened to an episode of a podcast called Activist Class, where they interviewed one of my heroes, Nikkita Oliver. Nikkita talks about the new youth jail in Seattle. She points out that it was designed to be the nicest public building that kids of color might access. What if we invested in communities, rather than paying any price to “solve” their problems?

While I’m buried under COVID-19 response, I thought I would share. Here’s my favorite quote from her:

“Why not write our policies based on the world that we would want to see, as opposed to the world that we’re afraid of?”

Please check it out!