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.

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.