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Centering Our Values: How Nonprofit Leaders Should Prepare To Wrestle With The Discomfort

Centering Our Values: How Nonprofit Leaders Should Prepare to Wrestle with the Discomfort

“To what extent are we willing to push people into, what I like to think of as productive discomfort, in this work? Are you we going to water things down so we can, at least, get people to the table? Are we just going to call it equity and put it off to the side? Or are we going to dig in and say no decolonization, white supremacy, oppression? Where are we going to fall on that as a group? And if it means that some folks say hey, I’m out that’s not for me, maybe we take that chance… some folks said when they first entered into this work they thought that the equity conversation was supposed to be a side conversation, it wasn’t supposed to be a center conversation…but I think for me, I would not continue to be a part of this conversation if equity weren’t a central part of the conversation.” 

– April Hathcock, virtual group debrief, May 21, 2019

To read more about April’s reaction to the meeting read her blog post

Expectations of leaders have shifted, big time. Regardless of level, industry or discipline, leaders are expected to deal with issues for which they have little or no formal training, specifically white supremacy and anti-oppression. For leaders in mission-driven organizations, ensuring “diversity” is included in formal statements and supporting minority recruitment and retention programs is often applauded – whether meaningful efforts ever occur. Diversity and inclusion were once part of a larger portfolio of core operational responsibilities, which left diversity in a competitive position vis-a-vis the organization’s “strategic priorities.” Say goodbye to those days. Diversity is no longer a bonus. It’s officially moved, to quote bell hooks, “from margin to center” and expanded to focus sharply on uprooting inequitable systems.

Shifting expectations leave leaders feeling unprepared to navigate complex subject-matter and significant feelings of discomfort—both others’ and their own. That’s why we’re sharing our story. Code for Science partnered with DeEtta Jones and Associates (DJA) to facilitate their process of learning and growing. We thought is would be helpful to describe the process as we want other leaders to benefit from what Code of Science discovered and to establish a sense of urgency about actions that can and should be taken to align with organizational values and changing cultural expectations. 

Background

At the Open Source Alliance Open Science (OSAOS) Hackathon discussion in July 2018, a statement of values was brought to the group for discussion. The text reads:

Values statement

We want a system that is built for everyone. A system where all identities, bodies, and stories are valued, where your geography is not your destiny, and where your bank account doesn’t determine your access. Open scholarship is an invitation and an aspiration and we continue to work towards it until every voice is included.

The existing structures and systems of scholarly production are built on capitalism, white supremacy, settler colonialism, hetero-patriarchy, and misogyny. Our institutions use exclusion as an indicator of excellence and see labor as a commodity. Open scholarship, as defined in X, challenges these structures and provides an opportunity to embed anti-racism, anti-capitalism, and intersectional feminism in our scholarly communication system. When marginalized people are actively excluded, our scholarly record misses out on what could be a richer, fuller, more nuanced, and beautiful account of the world.

The discussion that grew out of this statement did not result in the adoption or rejection of the statement, but organizers felt it important to learn from the process and from the difficult conversation that happened at the event. To that end, a survey was shared with participants and a facilitated conversation hosted to debrief, learn from, and share learnings from the conversation.

Following the meeting, Code for Science & Society President and Co-Executive Directors Danielle Robinson and Joe Hand focused on supporting a project to formally reflect on, document and share the experience. The process included inviting all meeting participants to respond to written survey questions followed by a group call. The questions shared in the survey also served as a framework for the call that was recorded and transcribed to give facilitators rich data to pull from to inform these themes.  During the call, six key themes from the call were identified by DJA. They were:

  1. Decentering whiteness and the redistribution of comfort;
  2. Using direct versus “watered down” language;
  3. A desire to be prepared for–and have skilled facilitation during—discussions;
  4. Define terms such as “white supremacy” or “decolonization;”
  5. Defining the target audience; and
  6. Creating learning opportunities or radical change.

Though each of the themes is important and requires consideration, only four will be the focus of this blog post.

1. Decentering Whiteness and the Redistribution of Comfort. 

This is the major emphasis of anti-oppression work, and it’s complicated. Decentering whiteness is not just about changing systems, like scholarship and education, but also the mental models by which every single one of us interprets and navigates the world. It is also the umbrella under which all of the other themes fall. The real questions associated with decentering whiteness are to what extent are we: 1) willing to acknowledge that whiteness has been and continues to be the center of everything?; 2) willing to shift our frame?; and 3) courageous enough to actually do difficult things that are necessary in order for the shift to actually occur?

If you’re reading this blog you might be thinking, “I answer ‘yes’ to all those questions, but the question she didn’t ask is, ‘Am I qualified to talk about decentering whiteness?’” I know that’s the question, and I didn’t overlook it. I think that the preoccupation with “doing it perfectly” is making my point exactly. If you are too uncomfortable to try, knowing that it will be difficult and messy then, in fact, you’re actually answering ‘no’ to the previous questions. Perfectionism is a privilege. It rests on the backbone of “Truth”. “Truth” is centering whiteness; many truths that are not predicated on one “Truth” is decentering whiteness.

As mentioned, redistribution of comfort is a through-thread in other call themes. For example, there was solid agreement among participants that more direct language, calling out white supremacy, was preferred and reflective of the group’s values. Though there was disagreement about this approach during and directly following the initial meeting, over time and upon reflection, several members of the group shifted their thinking. This shift is important because that’s how culture changes—through the expression of shared values. If direct language—that several members of the group initially found to be alienating—wasn’t introduced, the shift, and rich learning, that has now taken place would not have happened.

Other ways that discomfort shows itself is through the expectation that everything be planned and communicated in advance, that meetings stay “on topic,” and expressing concerns that deeply diving into equity issues is “out of scope.” In 2019, equity, diversity and inclusion are going to come up, whether it’s on the agenda or not. Leaders can prepare for unexpected use of direct language and intense feelings by exploring one’s own perspectives, reflecting on skills for engaging others across differences, and taking a proactive approach to agenda design.

2. Group Process Skills

The people participating in the meeting were and are incredibly competent communicators. They are fully capable of expressing thoughts clearly and in ways that respect a variety of views. However, when emotions are high and people’s most fundamental values are being debated, it is very difficult to facilitate the full engagement of others. In this meeting, there was not a “pure” facilitator; rather, someone was facilitating while being a full participant. Though that model is efficient and practical, it puts a tremendous burden, and frankly unrealistic expectation, on the person with the dual role. From a practical point of view, having an outside facilitator for all meetings is not feasible. At the beginning of a new group or project, it is worthwhile, especially for a project of this magnitude and reach, to engage an external process facilitator who is not a content contributor.

Having an outside facilitator isn’t always possible, nor practical. There are certain things that leaders can do to be prepared to rise to unexpected occasions.

  1. All groups work best with structure. Establish norms when the group is being formed, then revisit them at the beginning of every meeting. Include them in virtual workspaces, list them on meeting agendas.
  2. Clarify your role. Make sure that the group knows that you will be facilitating the process and contributing at a content level.
  3. When a complex topic is on the agenda, or one for which you know you will want to be a substantive contributor, ask someone else to facilitate that meeting or portion of the discussion. You can also ask for a co-facilitator if that is a more practical solution.
  4. As facilitator, you are responsible for managing group process. That means that you will need to design clear agendas, track time, move discussions from one agenda item to the next, and use structured tools for ensuring all members contribute. Those are the science. The artful elements of facilitation are related to listening and interpreting nuances, including silence. You will need to encourage the group to avoid quickly moving to decision, solicit dissenting or minority points of view, create space for “going deeper” on issues that may not directly reflect the agenda but that are important for gaining fuller meaning, perspective and ownership among group members, and share your ideas last.

3. Create Shared Working Definitions

Typical of many collaborations, a number of the members in this group were not born in and/or do not live in the United States. Every national culture has a unique history; unique ways of interpreting words and making meaning. The words white supremacy, for example, have different meaning to people who are from Germany and may make an immediate affiliation with Nazi-ism and the Holocaust. In the United States, the ways in which anti-oppression are addressed are unique to its national culture. Certainly, white supremacy and colonization exist in many parts of the world, but the way the language is used and what it means will take on cultural nuances, from one national culture to the next.

Further, even within one cultural context—the United States for example—white supremacy and decolonization are not universally used or understood. Why should they be? As a national culture, they haven’t been discussed in fulsome and broadly accessible ways. There is no discussion in public education about white supremacy. There’s no mention of the impacts of colonization on higher education as part of a first-year college experience. In workplaces, people have been actively discouraged for 40 plus years from talking about anything that could make another person feel uncomfortable. There is little to no formal and expected preparation for dealing with issues of white supremacy and decolonization beyond individuals’ personal commitment. Explicitly developing and using shared working definitions of words and phrases is a step that should not be glossed over. Making the space to define important terms under discussion can help to surface assumptions and support the inclusion of more voices in the process.

4. Learning or Radical Change?

About two-thirds into the call the group’s focus went to the shifts in thinking that were catalyzed by the values statement’s direct language followed by thoughtful reflection and structured debrief. They were beginning to make a case for how this experience can help inform criteria for identifying new collaborators. This is the point at which we identified the core question: “Is the purpose of this group to promote individuals’ learning or radical change?” Drop the mic.

Decentering whiteness, creating shared working definitions, using solid group process skills for engagement are important—they are the “how” of your work. The “why” question for nonprofit leaders in 2019 is about purpose. What is the purpose of your organization and/or project vis-à-vis your values? How do you authentically and courageously live out those values as you approach strategy, partnerships, decision-making and language? As you explore options, use criteria and strategic questions to guide you.

  1. To what extent is your organization’s success tied to radical change? To learning and engagement?    What needs to be present for radical change to occur? What needs to be absent or removed? What needs to be present for learning to occur? What needs to be absent or removed?
  2. To what extent do your key constituents—those upon whom you depend—understand and agree with your answers to questions one and two?
  3. Do you have the skills necessary to push a radical change agenda? Do you have the skills necessary to promote learning and engagement?
  4. To what extent do you anticipate identifying new and desirable collaborators by pursuing a radical change agenda? To what extent do you anticipate identifying new and desirable collaborators by pursuing a learning and engagement agenda?
  5. Are you willing to lose some of your current affiliates in pursuing a radical change agenda? Are you willing to lose some of your current affiliates in pursuing a learning and engagement agenda?
  6. Do the two – radical change or learning and engagement – have to be mutually exclusive? What potential benefits and consequences could come from pursuing both?

Key Take-aways for Nonprofit Leaders

The areas of focus emphasized in this blog post represent what is happening in most organizations—the perfect storm of experiences where EDI and organizational effectiveness intersect. I can’t think of any organizations that are truly wrestling with EDI issues without bumping into, over and over again, the ways in which organizational practices are either causing or supporting some of the very issues to be overcome. While there is certainly a need to continue to learn about anti-oppression issues and ways of overcoming oppressive systems, there also exists an expectation that leaders are emotionally intelligent, culturally competent and skilled group process facilitators.

DeEtta Jones

DeEtta Jones is an invited speaker, equity, diversity and inclusion strategy consultant and author with more than twenty years of experience working with people from around the world to on personal effectiveness and building workforce capacity.

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