just stay alive

a photo of a woman ziplining across a canyon outside Salta, Argentina. the woman's sweatshirt is all white, pants are a tan color. she is wearing a yellow helmet that long dark hair is laying out of. her right hand is in a heavy glove, holding a thick metal cable. her left hand is holding the harness and pulley wheel contraption that connects her to the cable. she is hundreds of feet above a placid river, with steep mountains on either side. scrub grass and bushes speckle the brown desert floor below.
a photo of a woman ziplining across a canyon outside Salta, Argentina. the woman’s sweatshirt is all white, pants are a tan color. she is wearing a yellow helmet that long dark hair is laying out of. her right hand is in a heavy glove, holding a thick metal cable. her left hand is holding the harness and pulley wheel contraption that connects her to the cable. she is hundreds of feet above a placid river, with steep mountains on either side. scrub grass and bushes speckle the brown desert floor below. i know it looks high up. it was! but the scariest moment is when you’re the furthest from both sides.

I had a great chat with my friend Clara recently. She and her friend Melo are the hosts of a podcast, Intersectionality in the Diaspora. We talked for a while about our experiences surviving predominantly white institutions (PWIs). We discussed the harms that they can visit on BIPOCs existing in all parts of society. It was a satisfying conversation! If you would like to listen, it’ll link to it once the podcast goes live.

Preparing for the podcast helped me clarify my thoughts on survival. I’ve talked about the webinar series I took hosted by artEquity: BIPOCs surviving PWIs. Over the course of five sessions, the speakers and participants shared many of their own experiences at a PWI. Their perspectives led to a single unblinking message: get out!! Prepare the resources and the network you will need to survive without them. Leave your PWI while you still can.

I struggled with the idea that a series on surviving PWIs was telling me there is no survival. But their arguments were persuasive. For many BIPOCs, staying in a PWI means a career of feeling undervalued, tokenized, or othered. We in PWIs recognize that we may spend a lifetime performing work that we aren’t paid for. Dr. Adia Harvey Wingfield writes about the “racial tasks” that companies ask of workers of color. These tasks reinforce racial hierarchies, maintain the status quo, and limit the impacts of revolution. This stress creates a debt that compounds and is never repaid in full.

These truths have been turning over in my mind for weeks now. I’ve written a handful of essays on this site where I process my thoughts. I started out rejecting those ideas. Why should we abandon all these systems and structures of power? How can they make the progress we need without us? And the money! They have immense networks of donors that may not be available to a person of color just starting out. How are we supposed to pay rent? Even as I processed this, I knew on some level they were right. I also knew that the other side’s grass is a hypersaturated green. It can’t be that good. Right? With all that in mind, I wanted to make a case for both worlds.

for those who stay in a PWI

Predominantly white institutions are all around us. They are the beneficiaries of centuries of unequal power and outsize influence. No matter how good we are, they won’t all implode this year. So how can we live with them?

why you’d want to

For some people, staying in a PWI can feel like seizing the means of production. Here we have a sturdy institution that we know can move. Organizations are people, people are malleable. If we know that all organization must adapt or die, then adapting to a racially just world is in both our interests. There are places to find common ground. For the people who are willing to teach, there are leaders in PWIs who are ready to learn.

what you need to remember

With all that said, you have to remember what you are signing up for. The progress will be slow. There will be months or years where the best you can hope is to be pleasantly surprised. There are leaders out there who’ve never considered these things. And in an instant, they can change their deep-seated beliefs. I’ve worked with groups that one day realized their complicity with white supremacy. For the BIPOCs in their world, this must have felt like some kind of liberation. But those stories are also rare.

Staying at a PWI demands patience and understanding. It’s well-documented that we are changed when we navigate worlds that aren’t made for us. For those of us who dream of a new world, our goals won’t always align with theirs.

With all that said, I have to be really honest here. The longer we work in the systems that were built to oppress us, the longer it will take before we’re free. I grew up internalizing the “twice as good” rule. What I’ve learned is that even after a decade doing what I do, I am still setting my own performance expectations that high to be seen as worthy. And it is still not enough to bend the perspectives of the people holding the keys.

Existing in this structure my whole life still has me believing that I can smile and paint a positive outlook on this approach. I can’t. The people who can will retire at 85 still waiting for someone to save them. I created this website under the belief that the real savior, like a movie with a time travel loop, has to be us (those movies are incidentally my favorite).

No matter where you are or how entrenched you feel, you need to get out. PWIs will eat you alive before they realize you’re even there.

while we’re here, we can:

  • work to understand and refine our goals and intentions
  • radicalize our coworkers and employees
  • speak up! using whatever voice we have
  • support unionization and efforts that create a collective consciousness among staff
  • create a bubble of safety and support and invite fellow BIPOCs in

why you might reconsider

If you can do this, do it for a long as you can. Know that if you do leave, your habits and instincts will carry with you the lessons of your PWI. But also know that leaving is not a failure. Know that any progress you have made is its own success.

for those who leave

Everyone knows the Audre Lorde quote! The place we want to go, we can’t get there from here. PWIs that fear change will survive the longest by maintaining the status quo. No matter how hard we try, it’s too tempting to undervalue workers. This creates its own trauma. If we want real liberation, we will have to do it ourselves.

why you’d want to

The clearest path to liberation is to reject the status quo and make something new. It might not be perfect. There are other donors out there. There are other people who are looking for better things. Reject the low valuation of your worth, and help others find their own future.

You don’t have to start your own organization to get out. BIPOC-led or BIPOC-centered institutions are out there. The jobs may be more scarce because they’re more in demand. And they aren’t always as large, but they still have impact. Many of our colleagues start out as single-person consulting firms and grow from there. You have the power to create something that has a real impact within your community. Your work has the potential to grow, and to go far.

At a PWI, you may be spreading messages you don’t agree with, while trying to get slivers of your ideas into them. Leaving that PWI means you can spread the messages and ideas that hold value with a new audience. Rather than grinding yourself to dust, you could help create authentic, satisfying outcomes.

what you need to remember

Working on your own is not easy. Don’t set out without preparation, because our racist and capitalist society has a specific type of intolerance for BIPOC failure. Know that it is difficult, but remember that it’s necessary. Right now, I don’t know if I’m ready for the hustle or ingratiation required of a full-salary consulting gig. One person in the Surviving PWIs session shared that she was grateful to be on her own and out of the education PWI she used to work at. But now, as a consultant, she works with the same people she was happy to escape.

Even if you leave a PWI, there will always be people who can’t. People who are more junior in their careers. People who need the stability of a steady paycheck from well-established donors. Leaving a PWI doesn’t mean leaving the BIPOCs who are in them. Work with and support each other. Know that they may feel trapped even though they can see you’ve wriggled free.

while we’re here, we can:

  • mentor people at PWIs, and show them what’s possible
  • help people see that the water isn’t as deep as they might fear
  • educate your clients on concepts they couldn’t hear when their BIPOC employees first said them
  • share and refine your ideas with like-minded folks
  • grow your organization and hire in all the ways you wish PWIs would

why you might reconsider

For some people who leave, liberation at first might mean sleeping on a friend’s couch. If that works for you, do it. Not everyone can make that choice yet. It’s horrible that we live in a world where we can’t strike out on our own without connections or a trust fund. No matter where we are right now, we share a common goal.


just stay alive

I oscillate between wanting to be in both of these camps. I’ve seen and felt the impact that I’ve had in PWIs. These accomplishments might not have been possible if I was standing on the outside. I also know that the longer I’m in, small victories feel enormous. I look at my career and feel the changes I’ve made for the causes I believe in. But wouldn’t it also be amazing to work for those causes full-time?

The victories I’ve had in PWIs are also in some ways half-measures. They came with compromises, costs, and delays. By the time we get the nation to a $15/hour minimum wage, the minimum wage adjusted for inflation should be $22/hour.

No matter where we are, we have to do our part to reject white dominant culture. That culture indoctrinates us to believe there is only one right way. We know this is false. There are as many solutions to a problem as there are paths to justice. For as long as someone is trapped in a PWI, there is still work to be done. For people who have gotten out, the work is different but the same. No matter where we are or who we report to, we must keep walking forward.

viewfinder

a photo of the mountains outside Albuquerque, New Mexico. above the mountains in the shadows of dusk sit dark clouds with flecks of light. in front of the mountains are desert trees and grass cast in a ghostly yellow-brown. somewhere between the viewer and the scrub trees, a rainbow floats in the ether. near the center of the image is a second rainbow, barely visible, but perhaps the thing that made this scene so special.

Many in the non-profit industrial complex are pivoting to meet a newish trend. They hope to elevate the voices of people who have long borne the brunt of a racist, capitalist, and artificially-white-supremacist society. In the united states, a narrowing majority has spent generations as the only ones whose voices society uplifted. So how do you elevate others when one group has always held the spotlight? How can we elevate people who white dominant culture long destabilized? How can we finally put them into focus? It starts, and must not end, by moving the camera.

the camera itself

Say you’re holding a camera. It’s a standard point and shoot, any level of technology. You might twist the lens to change focus, or tap a different part of the screen to do the same thing. You’re looking through the viewfinder at two people: one close, and one far.

Say, in this transparent allegory, you’ve been looking at the close person for centuries. You watch them shift and move in the light, but you rarely need to adjust your focus to see them. And the person that’s further away shifts and moves too. Sometimes they move nearer to you; sometimes they move back. Sometimes the nearer person turns around and looks at the one behind them.

How can you look at them both?

the act of looking

Now you find yourself, for the first time, wanting to look at the other person. Get a real good look at them. You can’t just point your camera at this new person and see them, at least not clearly. You have to change the focus. Twisting the lens or tapping the screen brings no pain to the person nearer to you. You’re only looking at a different person, and not even forever.

What you holding the camera might not realize is the focus isn’t all that’s necessary to see the person further away. You might think all that needs changing is who the camera is pointed at. But that would ignore the racist history of film chemistry. It would ignore those who wrote the algorithms the lenses use to capture images. It ignores you, the person who is holding the camera. How long have you been holding this thing? Who held on to the camera before giving it to you? Who taught you how to use the camera, where to point it, and what was important to look at?

It also ignores the history of why that other person has always been out of focus. Why they are so far away. And when you start focusing on other people, who else might emerge from the background? Who else might you have never noticed before? Who else has always deserved to be seen?

reality bites

But for so many leaders in the public sector, they believe that all you need is to gaze towards what now matters. Those of us who have always been around are now at the center of the viewfinder more than we used to be. And suddenly the world is changing for these leaders. Suddenly, they’re or we’re called to do things in a way that’s different, for the first time ever.

But what has changed, really? People in power are still exactly where they’ve always been. We may have a seat at the table, a folding chair placed at the corner of their mahogany boardroom. What is the same? Everyone else at the table. The board that affirms their power. The others in leadership that take their cues. The donors they speak to. The audience they think about.

Some believe they can live an entire life in an artificially-white-supremacist society and emerge unbowed. Or in the space of a single (optional) two-hour session, these leaders will be able to do the new work we must demand. They believe they can use the same equipment and film they have always used. The techniques that feel natural to them. The discomfort that can last for sheer minutes before they insist we change the subject. And the faint awareness, almost out of frame: the only moral act that people now in power should take is to abdicate.

how we get free

I’ve wrestled with these concepts a lot lately. I’ve had some crystallizing conversations with a few people I’m lucky to know.

Abdication is not going to happen in my lifetime. I’ve realized that we have to do it all over. We need a complete reenvisioning. We can’t change the world from the view at their table. We have to take a step back and find a different way towards the future we know we all need.

If we do it another way, and it’s successful, they’ll steal our ideas. Take credit for them. We’ll come up with new approaches. The ideas themselves aren’t even new; what’s new is how we use them. We’ll reimagine the models we’ve lived through and make them better. This continuous adaptation is not without purpose. Our goal is to keep creating until we have something that looks unrecognizable to them.

What we’re doing is decolonizing ourselves. Wave by wave. Until all that’s left is the future we’ve made.

map the future

a photo of an illustrated topographical map of Iceland. the eastern side of the country is visible in the cropped map, though the legend in the corner hints that a much larger map exists in reality. looking at a map can be daunting (for me) or thrilling (for my husband). at the end of the day, they’re tools that show us where we need to go. and sometimes we photograph a map at a rest stop for our husband and then forget to show him until just now. oops! happy early birthday, babe!

Most of the companies I’ve worked for have had a strategic plan. These plans run the spectrum between incremental and ornamental. Some get by with unambitious tweaks to last year’s plan. Others go through months of revisions only for it to end up posted on a wall in a forgotten conference room. But rarely do I see people use strategic plans to dream!

dream the journey

Strategic plans get a bad rap among most people in the working world. One coworker of mine once told me they struggled to do their strategic plan work on top of their regular work. That’s definitely not what a strategic plan should do. The strategic plan work should be the regular work, and vice versa.

At their best, strategic plans sell a vision. They can be blueprints for implementing that vision. They are also a best guess about the future, which humans are notorious for being bad at. The best comparison I can make is that they work like old-school paper maps.

Strategic plans contain a lot of information, but not an infinite amount. If you’re in a rented van with several friends, you can use one to decide where you want to go. All you need to do is pick a destination, and start heading that way. This section was going to be about “finding a north star” but that’s how a thousand other blogs describe strategic planning. No! It’s a map!

finding a north star it’s a map!

Think of an organization as that group of people in a van. They all want to go somewhere, they might even agree on a cardinal direction to drive towards. This is where the dreaming comes into play. Where do we want to go? Is it a city? What does the city look like? Does it have skyscrapers? Incredible restaurants? Or is it an isolated beach with a view of the ocean?

Like with strategic planning, we need to know where we want to go before we can get there. I’ll use as my example a brand new organization. I want to start a non-profit that helps brand new food pantries get off the ground. When we finish our work, what do I want to see?

I want an organization that is accessible to all. I want to create a fire hose of funding and resources that we can direct anywhere it’s needed. I want to seek out community groups and help them get started. I want this organization to run as clusters of individual self-managed entities. These organizations operate under a single umbrella to de-duplicate overhead. Each cluster can make the decisions they need to for the benefit of their communities.

From that vision, we can create goals. I know it will be tempting to take all those simple sentences and turn it into one giant sentence. This doesn’t help people understand what you do! There is no genie that will fulfill your wishes if you separate them with commas instead of periods. Instead, the genie will skim your too-long sentence and only grant the keywords they remember.

how do we know where we want to go?

Strategic plans should reduce down into tangible goals and actions. Review your goals. Does everyone agree with them? Everyone in the organization should find themselves in the strategic plan. Recall my colleague in the story above. If their day-to-day work is not part of our strategy, how are they helping us get where we need to go? If their strategic plan work is separate from their daily work, when will they have time to do it? If their work doesn’t fit into our plan, we should consider (more than once) whether we should be doing it at all.

I’ll further extend my map metaphor. Everyone should know how they contribute to our strategy, as easy as pointing to their city on a map. The reverse is also true. Everyone should know at least a little about the entire strategy that drives our organization. That awareness helps people ground themselves into their work. It helps people, especially in large or complex organizations, feel more grounded.

now, the dreaming

I don’t start by thinking about our five year plan. I start by thinking about the environment we want to see where we’re done. That helps me consider context. If I want a world where nobody goes hungry, how long will that take me? Is it reasonable to think that we can do that in five years? It’s not wrong here to be audacious. Our destination might be very far away. But what small steps can we take today, or this week? What steps can we take next month, or next year?

This is also a good time to consider the scope of your goals. The organization I made a few paragraphs ago will have limited influence in its infancy. There’s a world in which one or two state legislators might have heard of us in a year. We may not have the influence we need to achieve our goals in a year. But what can we do? What can’t we do yet? The answers will be helpful when thinking about the actions for those goals.

how do we get there?

The team responsible for the work should be the same ones who write the goals. But now, each goal needs its own review time. I’ll pick one of my examples above.

A lot of my current job is about network-building, so I’ll use an example goal that’s close to that:

seek out community groups and help them get started

What are the actions I could take to achieve this goal? Here are a few:

  • identify community groups that need support
  • determine the most pressing needs they have
  • find a way to help them get those needs

This is the area where your goals and your scope come into play. Some of the community groups I know need funding to stay afloat. If nobody on the team has fundraising experience, we won’t be able to help them with that. Hiring that kind of staff support could be an action for this year. It could also be a goal for a future plan.

Next, break each action into a workplan. If this is the action we want to take, how will we do it? How much time will it take, or how many staff members will it take? It’s unreasonable, even for startups, to devote hundreds of hours a week to stay afloat. Either staffing should go up, or scope should go down.

how do we know where we’re going?

Key performance indicators (KPIs) are not supposed to be scary. Like the strategic plan, they shouldn’t serve as an extra thing to do or track down. The best KPIs have a direct line to the action they measure. They should tell us if we’re going in the right direction before we get to the end of the highway.

Take one of my actions from above: “identify community groups that need support.” My KPI might be X number of community groups identified this year. Breaking that action down into a workplan might reveal other useful KPIs. Number of community groups in each region we support. Or number of organizations that want what we are offering.

It’s not unambitious to set a low target. I once worked a grant where the KPI felt made up. None of our grant actions helped raise the KPI, but we were going to increase it by 50%. Setting an unrealistic KPI makes it harder to reach. It can also demoralize the people who worked hard and still failed to meet a made-up goal. Trust is important throughout this whole process. Trust the doers to plan. If it’s a place they want to go, they will set challenging targets. If people are uninterested in the destination, we’ll have a bigger problem than one red KPI on a dashboard.

what if we’re wrong?

Something I admire about teal organizations is how they perceive strategic planning. Members of a teal organization don’t spent time on unwieldy strategic plans. Instead, teal organizations describe themselves as having an evolutionary purpose. People in the organization have an intrinsic awareness of what gaps to fill or directions to move into. The tree, they say, does not have a five year growth plan. Yet it grows.

We don’t have to predict the future to create a plan for it. Strategic plans are tools, and tools are only useful if they are useful to us. I use my strategic plan as a guide, or a way to check my work. If the landscape changes, so can we. I will not be sad if my ten year plan to end poverty gets done in three. Setting a destination, no matter how far ahead it might be, is what matters. Whether our plans change or the world changes, we can always adapt and move on.

Strategic plans don’t have to be a nightmare. They don’t have to outlast us if they’re wrong. Make them realistic, use them as a guide, and we’ll end up exactly where we need to be.

boxed in

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


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

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

what’s gained in a food box?

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

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

what’s lost in a food box?

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

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

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

what could we have done instead?

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

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

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

the crisis next time

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

Targeted Universalism Step 2: Assess general population performance relative to the universal goal

a photograph of a semi-urban city. multi-colored train cars stretch from the upper-left to lower-right of the picture. the train is mostly boxcars, though there is a black tanker in the middle. the tracks run next to a few buildings on one side. they’re all about five stories tall. on the other side of the track is a bike/run path that curves slightly to the left. a single cyclist is on this side of the tracks. if there were a grocery store in one of those buildings, that person would not be in a food desert. but they’d have a pretty dangerous trip if they wanted to eat something. i was watching a train video while i wrote this and decided to just go with it.

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

Welcome back to the series! This post’s focus is on the second step of creating a targeted universalism framework. In Step 1, I established this as my goal:

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

Now that we have a universal goal, we have to assess how close the general population is to that goal. A big note here: the general performance measure is a starting point, not a baseline. It can help us understand exactly how much of the general population we need to move. We’ll later compare the relative performance of specific groups to the general population. Again, not as a way to close the gap between groups, but to create distinct strategies so each group can achieve 100%.

performance measures

In step 1, I created a universal goal using three factors: wealth, dietary needs, and location. I don’t have the data handy to create a true baseline, but I can imagine how I’d do it. I’ll first start with location.

Location

The location part of our universal goal is that food is available within a 15 minute walk of every person. I can approximate this using the USDA’s data on food deserts. In 2009 they published Access to Affordable and Nutritious Food: Measuring and Understanding Food Deserts and Their Consequences (pdf).” This report popularized the concept of food deserts as a measure of food access. For urban areas, a census tract is a “food desert” if the center of the tract is more than 1 mile from a large grocery store. The food desert concept has its flaws. Small produce stands don’t count as supermarkets but offer fresh produce in that area. And a mile as the crow flies doesn’t consider that people may have to take a more circuitous route to get there.

For rural areas, a food desert means a grocery store or supermarket is more than 10 miles away. Most people can’t walk 10 miles one way to buy groceries, but this measure is for the general population. In the same way, the average human can walk a mile in 15-20 minutes. But that doesn’t mean everyone can get there in that amount of time. Here again we encounter a limitation that we can address in Step 4.

The USDA found that 23.5 million people live in a low-income area defined as a food desert. The population of the u.s. in 2009 was 306.8M. That means 7.7% of the country must travel more than 1 mile (urban) or 10 miles (rural) to shop for groceries.

Dietary Needs

Having a grocery store nearby is important, but what if the store doesn’t carry the food you need to eat? For example, the Food Empowerment Project conducted a study in Santa Clara County, CA. Shining a Light on the Valley of Heart’s Delight (pdf) studied food access in low-income and communities of color. They found that grocery stores offered less variety in low-income communities.

Non-organic produce was available at 33.7% of the high-income retailers they studied. In low-income neighborhoods, only 17.3% of stores carried fresh produce. For those of us (me again) seeking non-dairy products, 0.0% of stores in low-income areas carried these items. In high-income areas, 6.1% of stores carried these items. We must address these disparities as we start to understand specific communities’ needs.

Wealth

The data I started to gather for the first two factors are important for sure. But there’s of course a greater gateway to accessing the food we want to eat. People need to be able to afford the food. Access alone is not enough. I’ll refer to another USDA study, Characteristics and Influential Factors of Food Deserts (pdf). The earlier study found that, on average, low-income and minority populations were closer to supermarkets than higher income individuals and non-Hispanic Whites.” If you can’t afford to buy food, why would it matter how close you are to it?

The USDA defines a household as food insecure if they have limited or uncertain access to food. In Washington, 849K people are food insecure, or 11.5% of the total state population. Nationally, 35.2M people are defined as food insecure.

conclusion

So with this information, I can cobble together some performance measures. If this were a real framework, we could create a more complete performance measure. But for now, we have a good idea of where we are as a society. 23 million people have to travel more than 15 minutes to find a grocery store. Access to appropriate foods depends on the area where you live. And 849K people in Washington (35.2M nationally) don’t have the food they need to thrive.

We have a lot of work to do! Step 3 is coming soon.

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.