centering people when collecting information

A white lighthouse with a red roof sits against a deep blue sky with streaks of clouds. Like the lighthouse, data collectors sometimes serve as beacons or warnings… eh, I just liked this picture of a lighthouse.

I have a stable job that pays me well. I live in a nice apartment with my husband. We can afford to buy the things we need. My job pays me to provide social services to others, but it’s not likely that I will ever need those services myself. And yet, I am responsible for collecting data from this group of people.

Government and non-profit organizations operate in a racist and classist world. Our culture supports the idea that people in need deserve some punishment for that need. This shows up as needlessly bureaucratic forms, means testing, and othering practices. It also shows up in how we collect information. The questions we ask are often invasive and embarrassing. Many people see it as the price someone must pay to get that service. But we don’t have to do it that way.

People who need help should be able to design for themselves how they want to receive that help. In our world, that almost never happens! So we collect information. Sometimes we collect it because we’re used to collecting it. Sometimes it’s because a funder asks for it.

I ask questions because I want to use the answers to design better programs. I ask myself questions like these:

  1. What information would be useful to share with the person needing help?
  2. What information do I need to do my program well?
  3. What information could I use to plan for the future, or improve the program?
  4. What information do my funders want? What requests of theirs could I push back or negotiate on?

Information I can share
I start with the information that would be valuable to the person receiving services. They might like to know how their A1C levels have changed or improved over time. If they shared their ZIP code, I could make referrals closer to their home. You can also ask people what they would like to learn or know if they take part in data collection.

Information I need now
This category information is different than what a funder might want. The beneficiary of this information should be me and my program staff. I ask, what do I need to keep my program running? I want to know how many people I’m serving. If I know the usual time that people come in for services, I can make sure I have enough staff to support them. I try to work around requests for more invasive data. What would we do with their name and address? If we collect it, ICE could subpoena that information from us. That’s a reality that no one in data collection should ignore. 

Information for the future
This is information I can use to grow or improve my program. Take my earlier example about schedules. If I knew what hours we could be open, I could serve people with busier schedules. This would take me into parts of the community who don’t already come in to see us.

Information for funders
Many funders want to see improvement over time. We scratch our heads for good metrics, then come up with measurements that are hard to collect. I inherited a grant that claimed a weekly class on diabetes could lower patients’ A1C levels in six weeks. This isn’t realistic. It puts needless pressure on the program team and participants. In reality, most funders wouldn’t expect that if we didn’t claim we could do it. We could instead check the program’s impact by measuring patients’ satisfaction. We could test if they’ve learned more about their condition over time. 

I try to do a lot of hard thinking about why to ask a question before I ask it. What will I use the answers for? What answers am I prepared or not prepared to receive? How could I get a more useful answer by asking this in a different way?. How could I learn this without putting it on a survey? What questions could I ask later, when I’m ready to use the information? We questioners hold immense power over people who need our services.

race and ethnicity questions

A flock of birds flies above the camera on a backdrop of a sunny blue sky with scattered clouds. Trees and a building fill the view in silhouette. Nobody is asking the birds where they are from. It doesn’t matter!

I’ve filled out a lot of questionnaires in my life. The question I hate the most is the one asking me my race or ethnicity. Nobody standardizes these questions. Sometimes I have to choose one; sometimes I can “check all that apply.” Sometimes questions about race and ethnicity combine into one question. Sometimes, if I check “Hispanic,” they grey out all the other options. If the questioner is trying to be thoughtful, they will give me a blank field where I can type whatever I want. Every one of these questions asks me to explain what group someone else has assigned me to. 

If people believed in equality, why would this question matter? Everyone should be “treated the same.” If people believed in equity, they would use this information to right the wrongs of racism. They would try to repair the need for us to ask this question at all. Some places only ask this question so they can update their website with a statistic. Please do more than this!

I choose not to ask this question on any survey I design. Some believe they can offer better services if they know the racial mix of the population they serve. But many non-profits say that everyone should receive the same services regardless of their race. Or they might want to use the answer to know the language a person speaks or reads. But a person’s ethnicity doesn’t tell you anything about the language they speak or read. Someone might be able to speak English, but would rather read and sign legal documents in Spanish. At a colleague’s food bank, she uses the data to know what fruits and vegetables her community prefers. But I love plenty of food outside my family’s cultures, and I explain none of that with my ethnicity. 

So what do we use it for? In a white-dominant society, race and ethnicity is a way to put non-white people into groups. It’s done to make assumptions about the needs of each group. Time and again, I find that the best way to know what a person needs, is to ask.

Instead of asking for a person’s race or ethnicity, why not target your question to what you really want to know?

  • What kind of foods do you like to eat?
  • What language do you prefer to speak?
  • What language do you feel comfortable reading in?
  • What would be important for me to know?

To me, that last question is like the empty box I described earlier. There’s nothing more powerful than letting someone speak for themselves. To use the words they want to use, to describe themselves in all the ways they think is important.

Until we can feel like we don’t need to ask this question anymore, it’s the least we can do.

why you should move on

a small passenger plane with propellers readies to take off. maybe it’s for you. just kidding. …unless?

Two to three years is the ideal amount of time for working in the same job. This is mostly true, for most industries. Some exceptions for if you’re in an executive level position or work at an extremely small company. It’s rare nowadays for someone to work at the same place for decades. As a manager, I want to help my employees challenge themselves and grow. I don’t expect them to find the same level of fulfillment from the same job for the rest of their lives. It’s up to them to decide their own goals, of course.

Organizations suffer when we do things a certain way only because we’ve always done it that way. Regular turnover is the most natural way a company can adapt fast enough to a world that is changing around them. Turnover is especially important among management. Stagnating managers create decisions based on the way things have always been. People who make decisions are often nostalgic about those decisions. Their coworkers or employees risk offending them if they challenge ingrained policies.

I also want to be able to continue to challenge and grow the employees my organization has invested in. I hope that my employees can take what they’ve learned and turn it into a promotion or a new job somewhere else. With regular management turnover, new and entry-level employees can imagine a future at a place they like working.

I seek challenges and self-reflection as a way to keep my own skills sharp. I think about what I like doing in my current job, and what I would like to do more of. I think about the parts of my job that I don’t like, and why I don’t like them. Do I have something to dig in and explore? I ask myself how I know the things I know to be true. I listen to my coworkers, old and new, and wonder if they are still true. I wonder if they were ever true. And when I’m ready, I grow, and I move on.

race-based affinity groups

Besides climate change, racism is the single-biggest threat to humanity that we face. People use many methods in the work to end racism. This is one of them.

why do we caucus?
“The work we do is hard, but we do it anyway.”
Race-based caucusing is sometimes known as affinity groups. Caucusing provides a space to talk in community with those who share our racial identity. Caucusing can also provide belonging to people who feel isolated in white-dominant culture.

how do we caucus?
Caucuses can group people into whatever racial characteristics are present in your team. White, black and indigenous, people of color, and multi-racial folks are some of the most common. People with many racial identities can caucus with whichever group they choose.

what do we talk about?
Caucuses provide us a space to talk about race with people outside of work. It’s not enough to get together and talk. The framing for each group is how to support people who face oppression because of their race.

a note on confidentiality
Confidentiality is common in affinity groups. Talking about race requires vulnerability. Sharing our experiences can be deeply personal. When you leave a caucus, please don’t share what you hear. Instead, share how your caucus-mates’ stories make you feel. Share the perspectives or lessons you learned. Leave the details behind.

why do we caucus by race?
Think about something you’ve lived with for a long time, or know a lot about. For me, that’s the TV show Battlestar Galactica (BSG). If you don’t know anything about BSG, I’m going to talk to you about it in a different way. If you’re like me, you’ve lived and breathed the show (and own both the board game and two expansion packs). You and I are going to have a deeper conversation than I will with the person who has never seen the show.

For many people of color, race is like Battlestar Galactica. When we caucus by race, we can talk about our experiences freely. We don’t have to explain or introduce entry-level concepts to visitors. We can learn from each other while staying within a specific context.

I adapted some of the concepts from Dialogue for Affinity Groups, a publication of Everyday Democracy.

distributed decision-making

People in organizations make decisions all the time. This is sometimes a time-consuming or unsatisfying experience. We want to empower employees to make better decisions faster. Some organizations use a technique called the Advice Process. Here’s a summary of how it works. 

when you identify a problem
When you see a problem, you can do (at least) three things: 

  1. Solve the problem yourself 
  2. Identify a person who could better solve that problem 
  3. Log the problem for others to review 

solve the problem yourself
Before you can make a decision, you need to understand the problem. How would you describe the problem? Who does the problem affect? Who does it affect the most? What problems have we already solved that are like this problem? Who solved those problems? Ask yourself, “Am I the best person for this decision?” 

Once you describe the problem, you can then collect advice. Find time to talk about the problem with the people it affects. Use their experience and advice to inform your decision. Consult people who might also have experience you can use. Then, make the decision. Share your decision with everyone you consulted. Thank them for their input. Make yourself available for feedback. 

identify a person who could better solve that problem
If you see a problem but think someone else is better able to solve it, you might be a person affected by the decision. Explain the problem to them and ask for their help. “Hey, I see this opportunity. What do you think? Given your role should you initiate this?” Give advice based on your experience and perspective. Let them decide according to the framework above. If the person doesn’t have interest or capacity to do this, anyone can. If no one does, the issue is not important right now. Log the problem so you don’t forget it. 

log the problem for others to review
If this problem needs a decision but you don’t have time to make it, write it down! Post problems in a public space with your name and the date. If someone wants to take on that problem, they can write their name next to it. This person might make a decision or form a task force. Anyone can take on this problem if they follow this process. If no one does, the issue is not important right now. Keep the problem on the log so you don’t forget it. 

task forces: when the problem is too big
Some problems may need solving through a team discussion. Generally, the bigger the issue, the more people you need to consult. Complex problems may need several decisions. In this case, you can form a task force or workgroup using the guide above. Bring together the people affected by the problem. Also invite people with relevant experience. There is no leader in a task force, only a convener. 

Discuss the problem. Talk about potential solutions. Talk about who should make decisions. Talk about who can do what. Ask who else the decision-maker should consult. Ask what else the decision-maker needs to move forward. Decide if you need a second meeting. 

I adapted this material from Reinventing Organizations. There’s even more detail on the wiki.

boom times

“Everyone thinks they live in a boom time,” I turned the words over and over in my mind like I was polishing them for something. I was looking for hope within them and kept finding none, but I couldn’t stop. I’m standing in one of the three different lines at the spaceport, watching the different people lining up. Watching the wealthy elites casually submit to a blood scan, the thin probes flicking into their skin like a snake tongue, watching them brush it off like it’s their burden in this world. 

I watch the snaking line of the discount class straggle through their inspection. The ones who didn’t pay the extra ten thousand or so dollars to precheck their suits are dragging their crumpled person-shaped husks along with them. The empty suits are varied in their conformity, mirroring the unique styles and tastes of their owners, as if each person in line was holding a dehydrated clone of themselves. Some of them have activated the built-in drink sack holders on the front of their suits, and bulging sacks from Starsbucks peek out from the molded hard plastic. 

The third line is full of mechs and the dispassionate faces of the permanent gig workers. They’re standing in for the people relaxing in lounges nearby, ready to swan aboard their vessels when the hours of processing are done. There is, of course, a fourth line that nobody on this side of the terminal will ever see, the ones who believe that things have gotten better for their societymates. There is no line for them. They skim the headlines and note that protests are down, prisons are full, and they sit with placid contentment knowing their investments are secure. 

Things have gotten so bad out there that some of us don’t even leave the spaceport between our visits to distant lands. A seat with a VR port is only 20 bucks an hour, and personally I’d rather clock out for a few days than pass through the endless stops and checkpoints so I can get home. Sometimes I wonder where it all went wrong but I know that it happened decades before my lifetime.

Things are better than they’ve ever been. I’ve seen the holos before my time, the people who talk about how it used to be. I’m glad that we’ve made so much progress in just 500 years since slavery ended. I know that we all were slaves once, at one time or another. I realize that we have so much freedom now to envision a bright future that our children’s children can enjoy in another 500.  

I toss my empty suck bag into a container nearby as I make my way forward. Everything is made of seaweed now, and everything composts on a long enough time scale. I saw a holo recently about the jellyfish colonies that live in the plastic piles of older generations, and I marvel at the wonders of nature. I don’t know how I would’ve survived in another life. I don’t know what kind of world that would be.

It’s so hot here. Maybe I would have hated the cold. The waters are great for the seaweed, and the jellyfish get turned into food for our aquaponic fields out in the newer parts of the coastline. Some of the best fruit used to come from the equator, and we can grow that stuff anywhere now. Mangos are such an extravagance, though they’re honestly not even that good. When I see them languishing under lights in stores I think about how the best versions of them can be tasted anytime through VR. It’s no contest. Every molecule of every scent has been preserved in vast memory banks I can access for half the price. Only the rich crave the excesses of produce that can go bad, experiences that are uneven. I think they love the variety. 

But the phrase, again, hangs on my mind like a tendril. If everything is a boom time, how can anything be? And if this isn’t a boom, what would be? The thoughts linger for a moment, then the line moves forward and it is forgotten. 

radical innovations

radical innovations is a place where i can envision and refine new ways for people to work in systems together. devil’s advocacy is not welcome here.

we must work together to take radical approaches out of theory and into practice. we want to do more than envision a new world: we will work to make it. we share definitions for terms and concepts to spread common understanding.

we can’t wait for the future to arrive before we act. we must be the future we are waiting for.