Here’s some timely advice on working across difference. Sometimes the hardest cuts to bear are from the very people we view as being ‘on the same side’; non-profit blogger Vu Le offers some powerful medicine for prevention and healing. Source: 7 agreements for productive conversations during difficult times
Since first offering a one day racial equity workshop for white people in Vancouver, I’ve had a few inquiries from local folks asking more about who I am, what the impetus for the workshop was, why I’m offering it, and where the proceeds are going. I’ve done my best to answer those questions here. I also welcome further opportunities for dialogue about how to best advance racial equity locally, in this city that I love and call home.
Q: Who is Suzanne? I’m a white, heterosexual woman of mainly English, Scottish, and Irish descent. I grew up in a working class family in Vancouver’s West End, on the un-ceded Coast Salish territory of the sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), sel̓íl̓witulh (Tsleil-Waututh), and xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam) nations.
I worked in the non-profit sector for several years before becoming a freelance facilitator and leadership trainer, working across the US and Canada. Most of my work involves facilitating leadership development, strategic planning and organizational effectiveness, which I do either alone or in partnership with people of colour. Recently, I’ve begun co-facilitating local equity and inclusion trainings in partnership with a woman of colour who has done this work for many years locally and internationally. I’m also on a mixed-race team at InPartnership Consulting that co-facilitates the Racial Justice Learning Lab, a multi-day leadership training in the US.
In additional to my consulting work, I’m a trainer with the Rockwood Leadership Institute, where we lead retreats for diverse social justice leaders from across the US. There, I co-facilitate Rockwood’s flagship Art of Leadership trainings, plus fellowships for Women in Racial Justice, Racial and Gender Justice Leaders in HIV/AIDS movement, LGBTQ Advocacy, the Service Employees International Union, and the Pipeline Project’s Fellowship for LGBTQ Leaders of Colour. As a multi-racial training team deeply committed to equity, inclusion and working across difference, we are immersed in an exploration of ‘beloved community’ – reflecting, learning and strengthening our work together and with our participants.
Q: What is your background in racial equity work? I started learning about racial equity in a more concerted way about twenty years ago at the Institute for Media, Policy and Civil Society, through staff-led conversations and peer-to-peer education. My learning deepened through several trainings, including components of a year-long fellowship offered through what is now the Social Transformation Project. I continue to seek out even more focused learning opportunities. For example, several years ago I and other white trainers realized we needed to ‘up our game’ without burdening our co-trainers of colour with constantly having to be the ones to ‘handle’ race issues that come up in the room. So we organized our own intensive anti-racist facilitator’s training with a white trainer who works across the US with groups like ours, often at the behest of their colleagues of colour. Learning about privilege and power, especially when it comes to race, has been essential to my own development and capacity to support the leadership of others. And it is ongoing.
Q: Why offer a racial equity training in an all-white space? I’ve long been taught that it is essential for white people to do this work together, sometimes in all-white spaces. That’s where we can make mistakes, ask ‘dumb questions’, share our emotions and learn together, without perpetuating harm (eg. through ignorance, unwitting micro-aggressions or inappropriate space-taking), and without constantly putting the burden of our education on people of colour.
Q: Why here? Here in Vancouver, I’ve noticed that many people talk about the value of diversity and multiculturalism, but seem unfamiliar, if not outright uncomfortable with key concepts such as “white supremacy”, “white privilege” or even the simple act of naming whiteness – much less the multiple ways that structural racism, implicit bias and colonialism pervade every aspect of our lives. All too often, friends and colleagues of colour tell me they are called to educate white people about these concepts – and that it can be tiring.
I designed the workshop to help address this gap; to pay forward the teachings I’ve received from racial justice mentors over the years on both sides of the border. I’m not an ‘expert’. I am keenly aware that the process of unlearning racism and internalized privilege, and enlarging my deepest sense of “we”, will be a lifetime journey. My intention is to offer a supportive place for white people to learn some key concepts, practice getting comfortable with discomfort, and make commitments to advancing racial equity – without burdening people of colour and indigenous people with their education.
Q: What about fees? I’m offering this public training as a volunteer, and am taking no fees for it. Any net revenue (after hard costs such as venue rental, workbooks, etc.) is being donated to organizations focused on reconciliation and racial equity. Scholarships are also available on request. For the November offering, I asked the two participants that did request scholarships to simply ‘pay it forward’ as their means allow. I set the regular fees at $125. Some people said that was too high, even with the offer of scholarships. Others said that this was too low – that white people should commit to this work and value it appropriately. Going forward, I’m going to be more explicit about a sliding scale for fees.
Q: Why now? In the summer of 2016, I offered the workshop (at no charge) to the white caucus of the Health eQT2 Collaborative, which is focused on improving health outcomes for queer, trans and two spirit people across BC. Before that training, two Indigenous leaders from the collaborative’s Indigenous and People of Colour caucuses met with me to review and vet the curriculum. They approved it, and the workshop took place several weeks later. Feedback from the workshop was positive. I was recently asked to offer this workshop again for an arts organization, and we decided to open it up more widely since others were interested. I wasn’t sure there would be demand for the workshop, but to my surprise the workshop sold out in 4 days. There is a waiting list, so at this point, pending the schedule of my paid work, I’ll offer it again in the New Year.
Q: Who ‘vetted’ the curriculum, if anyone? Several other colleagues have offered feedback on this curriculum, or variations of it in other contexts, over several years. Since I only train and facilitate with leaders of colour, where the topic of racial equity is often part of the conversation, I’m lucky to have continuous opportunities to learn from others with lived experience and expertise on working across difference. At the same time, I have no doubt that each group of participants will have different needs and strengths, so I expect a continuously steep learning curve going forward.
But I don’t feel for one second that I have the right or the luxury to stop, delay or wait until I’ve got it ‘just right’. As I’m writing this I hear the words of my colleague Clarence Patton, founder of the Pipeline Project for LGBTQ leaders of colour, in the wake of the 2016 US Election:
“Right-thinking White folks need to sing lead on this if it’s ever going to get fixed. We can sing backup, shake a tambourine, or do the triangle, but White folks fucking sing lead for the foreseeable”
I stand by that and the truth – that will be hard for a lot of White folks to take – is that the folks that voted for Trump out of racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, and yes, even economic anxiety or displacement are not going to be able to listen to me or people like me right now. And despite the empathy I can have for Whites I deal with in the work I do, I’m not sure I can have the same for the great red ocean of Whites out there.
There are simply conversations that Whites need to have with Whites.
The problem, the challenge, the real likelihood is that there aren’t enough right-thinking White people willing to do the work. I hope there are, but understand that it’s very hard to create even positive disruption when we hold our comfort too dear.
For me, Fall always feels like a new beginning. I run faster, breath deeper, and my energy rises with the cooler air and changing colours, even as urgent client demands and exciting new work and learning opportunities start to crowd my inbox. So this is also the time of year when ideas from books and articles on productivity, personal ecology, focusing and habit formation feel especially useful. Rick Hansen’s wonderful blog was particularly timely today. With ease and simplicity, he describes three ways to focus one’s life energy from week to week and day to day on what matters most: know your purpose; clarify your priorities; and take care of yourself. So simple! Here’s a summary, but read the whole thing, it’s worth it:
Know your purpose in life. Actually write it down. Make sure it’s short, simple, and focused on what you’re for, not what you’re against. Recommit to it daily, even moment to momen – and it can become a source of both energy and discernment. This is a core piece of the work we also teach at the Rockwood Leadership Institute.
Clarify your priorities. Identify the big goals in your life. They might relate to the “buckets” or categories of life you’ve identified on a coaching wheel (eg. community service; high performance at work; joyful parenting). Figure out what matters most, then rank each in order of priority. Like your purpose, a short, visible list of your key life priorities can serve as guides for continual discernment and course correction as you navigate what can feel like an avalanche of demands and interests every day.
Take care of yourself. At Rockwood this connects well to much of our work around Personal Ecology. Ensure you have the right nourishment – emotionally, physically, spiritually, intellectually – to support staying clear, focused and centered on what really matters to you. Then you can truly be of service, and present, to others.
“Hire slow, fire fast” may be a well-used management cliche, but it deserves repetition. Vu Le’s excellent post today lays out why many managers avoid or delay firing under-performing staff – and why it’s almost never worth it.
Deep Diversity: Overcoming Us vs. Them is hands-down the most useful, accessible book I’ve read on strategies for achieving deep, enduring racial equity at the personal, organizational and community level. Shakil Choudhury writes with the friendly ease and accessibility of Malcolm Gladwell, mixing compelling stories with cutting edge research, ranging from neuroscience to political theory.
It is simply not possible to be an effective leader without not only emotional intelligence, but what Julie Diamond refers to as “Power Intelligence“. Choudhury sets out a clear map for getting there, and welcomes us all to take the journey. He sets out a four-part framework (emotions; implicit bias; tribes; and power) for understanding and overcoming the devastating effects of racism and marginalization, bolstered by abundant research and his own decades of work as an international leadership trainer, teacher and consultant.
Once we have the awareness of how both unconscious bias and racism play out within ourselves and in the world (yes, racism exists, and it is everywhere; yes, all human brains are hard-wired to both see and respond to difference in ways that are unconscious and instantaneous; and yes, our emotions – not our heads – drive our actual behavior), coupled with the intention to change, Choudhury offers a set of 7 inner skills for shifting our own habits of thinking and becoming potentially powerful change-makers:
- Self-awareness – become aware of our own blind spots, unconscious bias, emotions, body language and body signals
- Mindfulness – through practice, developing our ability to witness and interrupt unhelpful habits of thinking and replace them with new habits
- Self-regulation – develop the inner power and skillfulness to master our own emotional responses, to return from a state of being reactive and brittle (or ‘triggered’) to one of emotional resilience
- Empathy – tapping into the human power of empathy to build bridges of understanding, kindness to enlarge the ‘circle of we’
- Self-education – actively seeking out stories, data and facts directly, blasting out of well-worn assumptions or reliance on ‘conventional wisdom’ from the dominant culture
- Relationship – actively enlarging that circle, personally and professionally
- Conflict skills – developing our skills, comfort and ease with conflict – an inevitable by-product of working across difference – so that we can lean in rather than contract or withdraw
Master these skills – and be a brilliant, compassionate and effective leader in any field – a leader that can help unleash the massive collective power and wisdom of diverse teams, organizations and communities.
The most effective leaders and healthiest organizational systems work skillfully and mindfully with the ever-present dynamics around power, rank and privilege. To help us all on the journey, the team at Racial Equity Tools has just released another wave of outstanding resources, this time from a growing body of work around implicit bias. As they describe it:
Implicit bias is a concept based on an emerging body of cognitive and neural research. It identifies ways in which unconscious patterns people inevitably develop in their brains to organize information actually “affect individuals’ attitudes and actions, thus creating real-world implications, even though individuals may not even be aware that those biases exist within themselves.”
The research confirms what many have known or suspected – that years of exposure to structural and cultural racialization and privilege have embedded stereotypes and biases in our individual psyches and the broader culture. And because of the link among cultural stereotypes and narratives, and systemic policies, practices and behaviors, implicit bias is one part of the system of inequity that serves to justify inequitable polices, practices and behaviors – part of the complex cycle people are trying to disrupt.
Current research on implicit bias offers at least two pieces of good news. One is that individual neural associations can be changed through specific practices (debiasing). And, if those biases can be changed at the individual level, by definition they can be changed at the societal level given sufficient will and investment. Work around debiasing can contribute to slowing down or stopping a rapid, almost automatic response, including in very stressful situations. For those reasons, some practitioners are embedding work on implicit bias in training with law enforcement, teachers, health care providers and juries. Early evidence indicates doing that can spark behavioral change, a very positive result. The other is that making people aware of the concept of implicit bias seems to open them up to discussions about structural racialization and privilege in new ways. This seems to be a particularly useful way of engaging with people reluctant to participate in those discussions.