Sitting With Discomfort, Moving Towards Action: Developing a Racial Equity Lens

Thursday, March 16th, 2017

During these trying times, when I ask people the question, “What are you looking forward to this spring?” responses range from “Nothing; fascism has arrived” to “My grandchild’s first steps.” As we each individually engage in cycles of resistance, rest, and renewal, we find ourselves in very different places, with very different energies, even among friends and family. My husband and son just returned from a music-making and photo-documenting trip to Bogota, Colombia. There, our friends who have endured decades of political repression, violence, and corruption, welcomed my family to their unfortunate club with a resigned shrug.

I am a white woman living in multi-racial Brooklyn, and much of my work involves supporting other white people on their journey toward understanding, advocating, and working towards racial justice, both because it is so clearly and obviously the moral, right way for us to be, but also to help liberate white people from the isolation of white supremacy that cuts us off from being fuller, better human beings.

… and folks listened, shaking their heads as they tried to understand, 
while their mouths agreed: it ain’t how I’d done it, but the thing is done.
the river, by adrienne maree brown

In brown’s speculative fiction, published in Octavia’s Brood, white upstart ingénues in Detroit are swallowed by the river, while the lives of local black people remain untouched. The river haunts me, moves me, stirs me. It reminds me of my black Caribbean neighborhood and my place within it. The river is silent, violent, and a physical manifestation of justice and judgment that makes sense but I hope will never manifest.

If white people are not in solidarity with the lives of people of color, we are irrelevant.

For the past 18 months, I have been supporting the William Caspar Graustein Memorial Fund as they undertake the journey to transform their internal organizational culture, build capacity, and develop strategy that aligns with their new mission to “achieve equity in education by working with those affected and inspiring all to end racism and poverty”.

This work is exciting, scary, edgy, righteous, and just.  It is a change lab, both internally and externally. As a white woman consulting with a black-led, multi-racial organization, I most definitely do not hold all the keys that yield change and growth.  One of the most useful things for the organization’s transformation has been engaging in group change processes that are collaboratively designed and facilitated by myself and people of color, both external consultants and internal staff, including Enroue Halfkenny, whose focus on individual internal processes complemented the group level work I facilitated and Janée Woods, Director of Organizational Culture, whose deep experience in social justice activism has allowed for the change work to continue on a daily basis.

The work with the Fund has had three phases, so far, which I loosely call: Transitioning, Experimenting, and Re(de)fining.
The Transitioning phase focused on Staff developing, practicing, and reflecting on new ways of working together. We developed norms; examined our past, current, and desired organizational cultures; articulated our individual roles; created new organizational graphics that depict both who we report to and –equally important– how we want to work together; and began to think about how to operationalize the Fund’s mission.

The Experimenting phase involved supporting Staff to develop the capacity, anchored in deeper personal sharing, to work collaboratively to design and implement projects in support of a first year of grantmaking under the new mission. We engaged in deep learning and practice regarding systemic racism and white privilege.

The Re(de)fining phase involves Board development as well as continued work with Staff. The Board is examining and changing their internal culture and practices to be more fully in alignment with the new mission, and together, the Board and Staff are developing a shared understanding of equity and crafting a Theory of Change around how to achieve equity in education.

This third phase heralds back to the first (Transitioning) phase, as we practice feedback loops, where we are continually checking in with ourselves, each other, and our stated values to determine how our work is progressing and assuring we have the level of reflection and clarity that we need to work effectively with both internal and external stakeholders.

I have changed and grown quite a bit, as well, over the years. Born from middle-class white privilege, my social change lens heavily relied on a typical white, progressive, class-based analysis of social inequity. For years, I thought of economic inequality trumping (no pun intended!) all other power differentials in society.  After much conversation, reflection, and sensitization, I now have a very different understanding of how race –separate from class– uniquely contributes to social injustice. My lens has changed, and so has my approach with organizations.

Waves of water sweep white people away. Black people shrug.

If white people are not in solidarity with the lives of people of color, we are irrelevant.

I am hopeful about change and growth in this world, including for white people.


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