Color Brave Space — How to run a better equity focused meeting

Today is the start of Ramadan​. Ramadan Mubarak to many of our partners.

This blog post has been a long time coming. We’ve punted this one back and forth for months. Someone will approach Heidi and say: “I really like your Color Brave Space. Can I get a copy and use it?” She’ll say: “Go ask Erin to blog about it.” Or someone will come to the Southeast Seattle Education Coalition meeting and say: “I really like the Color Brave Space table tents, can I take it?” and Erin says “No, no taking the table tents. Tell Heidi to blog about it since she’s the creator of Color Brave Space. And stop stealing my table tents — bad karma will come your way!” We’ll quit cross-referring and write the blog post.

Heidi has been conducting racial equity trainings for over a decade. In that time, she’s had groups come up with their own group norms, used ‘safe space’ agreements, and lots of other standard meeting practices. What she found was those types of meeting norms cater to whiteness. They allow the status quo to continue and don’t push people, both white people and people of color, to understand their roles in undoing racism and challenging long held beliefs. Erin attends a lot of meetings with standard group norms and often sighs and wishes she could refocus the group with the Color Brave Space.

There are elements of ‘safe space’ agreements that we agree with such as ‘respect’ and ‘confidentiality.’ However, too often safe space translates into too comfortable for white people and they take safe to mean, ‘don’t threaten my ways of thinking’ or don’t make me feel uncomfortable. Safety and comfort are the norm for white people, but you can’t be safe and comfortable to learn and grow.

Racial equity work should make us all think and challenge us to think and accept new information. Racial equity work is also about changing systems and centering the experiences and voices of people and communities of color. The Color Brave Space format when used correctly creates a different norms which allows this to happen more easily and readily.

Color Brave Space image

To help you understand the elements/principles we will go a little more in-depth into a few of them.

Put Relationships First – Work to build community and trust with an awareness of power dynamics.

This is about trust building, connecting on a personal level, and helping us humanize each other, especially during conversations that are deeply personal, uncomfortable, and fraught with racialized mistrust. We also remind people trust is built over time so the meeting or training you are in is only the start and people should do the harder work of connecting outside of the meeting as well.

Keep Focused on Our Common Goal – We care deeply about [insert your mission], especially those who are directly impacted by racism. [This line can be your mission instead of filling in the blank.]

Heidi almost always emphasizes this principle, because this is why we are all here. You can personalize it to your organization’s mission or goal. It is important for everyone, even the facilitator to know that you are all there in pursuit of a common goal. When sharing it remind people we are all on the same team. Racial equity work is about reaching the common goal, not a ‘gotcha’ or ‘you’re a bad person’ sort of thing, it is about the work and getting to a common equitable outcomes.

Notice Power Dynamics in the Room – Be aware of how you use your privilege: From taking up too much emotional and airtime space, or disengaging.

We emphasize this one because power shows up in many different ways that people may not be conscious of. There are the obvious forms of power, who talks a lot, who uses their title, or when Erin facilitates she say “I am standing in the front of the room and speaking, I have a lot of power in this moment.” Power isn’t always bad, but it needs to be acknowledged and kept in check.

Some of the ways power shows up that are less obvious are things like who disengages or focuses all of the attention on them when things get uncomfortable. This person is the one who maybe keeps leaving the room to take a call, or picks up their phone and plays with it during the middle of the meeting, or argues or tells long personal stories to defend their ways of thinking. These are forms of using power which doesn’t advance the group agenda.

The best example of an unrecognized power is most of the time in dominant society (white) spaces, we are literally using ‘academic English’ as the tool or language of power. So if English is your first and primary language you will be able to participate quicker, more comfortably, and with deeper nuance. As an example, we have the Color Brave Space translated into Spanish. Erin once had a native Spanish speaker in an otherwise all English speaking room, read the Color Brave Space in Spanish. English only speakers looked uncomfortable because all of a sudden couldn’t understand what was happening though the written English translation was provided. It was a great reminder about the power of language.

Create Spaces for Multiple Truths and Norms – Speak your truth, and seek understanding of truths that differ from yours, with awareness of power dynamics.

A couple weeks ago, Erin signed me (Heidi) up for a meditation class. I’m not sure what she was trying to tell me, but I went despite knowing that I had a preconceived opinion that I don’t really like to meditate. But since Erin signed me up, I tried to stay open. Honestly, it was a struggle. But I am glad I went. I appreciated the instructor shared a Buddhist perspective about working hard to be in a “middle place.” Our brains are wired to be constantly judging (you’ve probably already decided if you like this blog piece or not, I guess if you’re still reading, you must like it), but the key is to use our conscious mind to not just fall directly into your immediate judgement and stay open to the ‘middle place.’ As a side note, I am still not sold on meditating, but willing to stay open to working on the practice. Erin’s note to Heidi: meditation like racial equity work takes practice, if you try meditation again you might resist it less, or we can try to meditate during happy hour.

When Erin facilitates she often reminds people that this shows up when people want to pit policies against people’s lived experiences. Sometimes when things get heated a person with formal power/authority may dismiss another person’s story by saying “Well, the policy says this so that couldn’t have happened,” or “I need evidence…” We need to consciously create space to allow people to share different perspectives and work to figure out the systems creating the discrepancies.

Be Kind and Brave – Remember relationships first, and work to be explicit with your language about race, class, gender, immigration, etc.

One of the greatest disservices we have done to conversations about systemic racism is use coded and ambiguous language like ‘diversity, culture, inclusion, or equity.’

Be clear in your language — when you say equity are you talking about racial equity or gender equity? This vague language actually prevents us from having an effective conversation. So let’s work to be specific with our language, and ask for clarification from others when we hear them use terms like diversity, culture, or equity. Along with being kind and brave, remember we need to build relationships for the long haul so use your language in ways that builds bridges.

Practice Examining Racially Biased Systems and Processes – Individual actions are important, and systems are what are left after all the people in this room leave.

Most of these processes and systems in place are ones we’ve inherited. They existed before us, and will continue to exist after we are all gone if we don’t examine and redesign them. It is important to remember we need to work at a systems level, so while the work may feel personal it isn’t about you it is about undoing institutional and systemic racism.

Look for Learning – Show what you’re learning, not what you already know. Avoid playing devil’s advocate, the devil has enough advocates.

Educators call this having a growth mindset. We all continue to have to continue to learn about dismantling racist systems. The best way to create a learning community is to show what we are learning, not what we already know. Heidi asks people explicitly not to play devil’s advocate; this is a use of power to control the conversation. If you really are thinking of an unpopular idea that you should be able to say what is on your mind, while also being open to others sharing counter narratives. If you want to play devil’s advocate or argue, the meeting/training isn’t the place to do it, doing so is hoarding power. Instead take Heidi out for a beer, but no PBR, just the good stuff. Erin will warn you though if you try to play devil’s advocate with Heidi you are likely to lose, she’s good I have yet to win an argument, unless it is about something like food.

Here are suggestions for using the Color Brave Space Principles (Elements) –

  1. Post them, share them, and take the time to actually read through them (slow down to hear them)- They are meant to help us visualize the type of space we want to create together, so they aren’t helpful if you don’t actually take the time to acknowledge and emphasize them. We often ask the group to popcorn style read them (one bold statement with the italic sentence below) until we hear them all. This way folks are actually paying attention and hearing different people’s voices. 
  2. Pick a few to dig into and give some specific examples of what you want participants to be aware of. See deeper explanations above. I encourage you to add your own personalization and stories.
  3. Highlight certain ones throughout the workshop that you want to emphasize for a specific exercise or conversation.
  4. Hold your group accountable to the principles/elements. This means sometimes stopping a conversation and explaining why, see some of the examples above.
  5. One final ask is credit Equity Matters when you use them.

Let us know how you’ve used them. Share how they impacted your meetings. Offer additions or adaptations.

Finally, we must acknowledge and thank Mellody Hobson who introduced the concept of being color brave in her TED Talk. Give the TED talk a watch, then listen to it again for deeper meaning.

We have Color Brave Space table tents available in PDF format in English and Spanish, other translations may come in the future. The PDF is available for a small donation of $11 generic version as it is in the image or $24 custom (your mission inserted) to Southeast Seattle Education Coalition or a gift (no tax deduction) to fakequity, please email for details and the PDFs.

By Heidi Schillinger and Erin Okuno

Asian American Solidarity — Part II

Editor’s Note: Last week we published Part I of this anonymous blog post. This is the second part. A special thanks to our colleague for this series. 

As a side note, for those of you who subscribe to the blog, thank you. I suggest checking the blog for the latest version of the post. The online version is more up to date and often times with minor grammatical corrections and edits to make it a more pleasant reader experience. The subscription button is on the right sidebar.

altruistic fist 30x22

Solidarity fist with words. Art work from Amplifer Foundation

Dr. David Dao refused to give up his seat so that he could return home to his family and his patients. His strength and the violent response to it set off a chain reaction of news events and associated emotions within me. I’ve been Dr.Dao. I’ve been asked to give up what I believe is mine. To work extra hours. To accept less or nothing. I’ve looked around to see who else. Who else received this treatment? Who else is getting exploited? Who else can play the sucker? And does anyone else even notice? Does anyone else even care? For me this is part of what it means to be a Person of Color in the US and especially an Asian in America.

Reactions were quick and varied. As the videos began to spread, first came the non-apology. Then the woke jokes started calling out United Airlines and the Chicago Police Department. Then the “international,” “Chinese,” or “some minorities” responses swelled to the point that stock prices broke, more apologies were issued, and amends were self-interestedly made. Was this justice? Sort of. Did we get attention? Briefly, but it was better than nothing. Did we see Asians and allies mobilize into activism? YES. I am thankful for this. And I was surprised. And if I’m really honest, I even felt a bit guilty. Why?

Because even before Dr. Dao I lived with the tensions that 18% of our Asians still voted for 45 [Trump], and more of us need to be at the next #BLM [Black Lives Matter], #NoBanNoWall, and #WaterIsLife meetings. Because solidarity, right? And this is real. And this is our work. And this is White Supremacy. And thus this hurts. And then there’s this …

In several different spaces – on social media, in PoC gatherings, and in one-on-one conversations – non-Asian PoC have said something to the effect of “What happened to Dao was racist, BUT if he wasn’t Asian but another PoC he’d be dead.” Or “It’s good that Dao’s getting paid, BUT if he wasn’t Asian but another PoC he’d be getting less if anything at all.” And. I. Flipped. Out.

I could take you through the blow-by-blow here, but PoC – you know how this went down, and white people, I’m not going to put any more of our internal business out there. In fact, I know some PoC are going to push me about why I’m even putting this out there. Here’s why.

This isn’t the first time this has happened. This won’t be the last time this happened. This is how white supremacy is upheld in 2017.

Racism is real. Settler-colonialism is real. Anti-blackness and colorism are real. Islamophobia and White-Judeo-Christian dominance are real. Xenophobia and nativism are real. Orientalism and its grandchildren the model minority and perpetual foreigner myths are real. Many of us, Dr. Dao and myself, wouldn’t even be here if it weren’t for trillions of US dollars spent on decades of war and dictatorship on the Asian continent. And for us this is where the lateral violence began, when the faces and fingers behind those triggers were disproportionately other folks of color.

This is how we’ve been set up against one another. None of our issues get enough attention. We all want to be heard and even more, we all need and deserve justice. With the weight of the pain and oppression we are holding, when our people, our struggles, and our work aren’t recognized, we get triggered. And when it’s other folks of color who get the attention, who rise up with power, and who get a glimmer of justice, we get triggered. And when the oppression of my group triggers someone because of the oppression of their group, I get triggered. Right back at them.

Over the last month of living this dynamic, I’ve stayed up way too late, eaten way too many fries, and written and deleted too many emails, text messages, and social media posts to be healthy, my whole self, and in just relationship with others because of this cycle of triggering. It’s part Oppression Olympics and part Woke Off. I’ve tried to squeeze the entirety of anti-Asian oppression into 140 characters even though I know that you can’t even start the conversation without reading all 368 pages of Edward Said. And I’ve had it all come back at me from other voices and other experiences. It’s just not possible.

And this is why it can feel like we can’t have real solidarity.

And I have had to repeatedly remind and recenter myself – that this is all because of white supremacy. White supremacy started the Crusades and dropped the bombs and funded the dictators and modeled all of us as minorities. White supremacy planted the flags, sailed the slave ships, wrote the Constitution, and constructed the sweatshops, ghettos, reservations, and “third world.” White supremacy built all this and then remodels itself when we go after each other in trying to compare our oppression. We take turns fighting for the spotlight by claiming the ways and moments when our oppression is the worst of all time. We get incensed when our oppression isn’t named but other people’s are. And even when we are able to call for an end to the Oppression Olympics, white supremacy then cashes in by saying All Lives Matter and that all of us suffer in one way or another, so let’s just be equal. That’s what white supremacy does. That’s why white supremacy is white supremacy. We do the work. White supremacy reaps the rewards.

To the white folks reading this – I need your leadership within your communities to address the ways in which you have pitted peoples of color against one another. This is more than diversifying your musical tastes or even showing up at a protest and posting continuously on social media. This is about acknowledging that one reason white supremacy still reigns is because of the way it has categorized and contained folks of color into such different cages that not only can we not come together in solidarity but we actually go at each other. And we’re still going. And you can just step back and watch us and pretend like it’s not because of you. What we need instead is for you to recognize how deep this oppression goes, how what you started is now beyond you. We need you to use this to further motivate you to address each and all the mechanisms of white supremacy. This is your work. Do it.

As folks of color, we are so much more than white supremacy created and needs us to be. We need to know our own stories. We need to hear one another. We survived and thrived as a thousand unique and yet interconnected communities before white supremacy ever existed. We each have developed our own methods of resistance and resilience that have not always been perfect, and yet we are still here. We need to appreciate what each of us specifically needs, and commit to supporting the fulfillment of all of these needs. We need to acknowledge those moments where we’ve been complicit and where we’ve been complacent as others have been oppressed. There are times where I’ve wondered if this is too ambitious or unreasonable. And then moments like this happen, and I remember, inaction is a form in action. If we don’t take the time to tend to and repair our relationships, we will only continue to trigger one another continuously. We’re better than that. We deserve more. Let’s do this.

And so we need solidarity.

Asian American Reflections on Solidarity — Part I

Editor’s Note: When we started the Fakequity blog we reserved the right to publish anonymous pieces. This week we are publishing the first in a two part series written by a colleague who wishes to remain anonymous. We strive to have the majority of our blog posts as authored pieces, however the author has decided adding a name would not be prudent. We believe the views and voice in this piece are valuable and should be shared.


[Mother holding young child connected by vein from heart to heart, near ocean with birds flying] Artwork by Jess X Snow, Amplifier Foundation,

As an Asian American in social justice spaces, I spend a lot of time thinking about solidarity.

I grew up with a strong sense of my Taiwanese ethnic identity in my family and religious communities. As a child, I didn’t see this as being political or racial. It was just us being us. It was cultural. It was relational. Now, twenty years after my childhood, I find myself replaying my memories in my mind and constantly finding new edges to those experiences. I’ve come to realize because we were being Taiwanese in America, everything we were and did was racialized and thus political.

It was in school I learned how to see, experience, and name my place in systemic racism. Specifically it was four Black educators who taught me during elementary school, middle school, and college, and who called me in as a fellow person of color. Each of them shared not only about the oppression they faced but how they survived, resisted against, and thrived in spite of it. Some of my experiences were similar to theirs – e.g. working twice as hard to get half as far. Many were not – e.g. when and how our peoples arrived here. Still, I see my rise in social justice agency starting here, and so l begin this piece by appreciating my ethnic communities for being my first home base and these Black educators for catalyzing my growth as a person of color.

Strange as it might sound, I didn’t see myself as an Asian American until I became an educator. I checked the Asian box on paperwork and I recognized the people I looked most like. Growing up, though, I believed checking that box would put me at a disadvantage to all the other boxes, and I avoided other Asian Americans because I wanted to be seen as just me (years later I would learn to call this “internalized oppression”). As a teacher, I ran out of places to run when word spread that I was the young Asian history teacher, and Asian students would start passing my classroom to see if it was true. They started to share stories of being racialized, about the jokes they heard, the physical bullying they received, and the assumptions their teachers made about their lives and learning while ignoring the harm being done to them. Many of these stories were familiar to me, and I was surprised when I acknowledged this, healing began to take place both for my students and myself.

At first I thought that this was all that I could do – share my stories and let them know I survived and so could they. The more I saw, though, the more I understood our experiences weren’t just painful, they were also unjust. And to be our whole selves, survival was not enough. We needed to resist. Thankfully, I knew about resistance from my more established identity as a person of color and work in social justice. I knew how to see systemic oppression at work, how to bring people together, and how to build coalitions. I also need to say here, the older I’ve gotten, the more I recognize this training also came from my family and ethnic community – how to move through the world with multiple frameworks, how to be a good host, and how to present a united front. Not everything clicked perfectly. The structural and policy changes I had worked for – homes for all, living wages, and restorative classroom justice – weren’t as obvious priorities to me at the time for my Asian students.

My students were split between seeing themselves as people of color, wanting to be white, and actively working to be neither. Some literally wanted to be ghosts – there but unseen. And most wanted so badly not to be American – which most were – but to be seen and treated as Americans. We fight for recognition here, bringing spring rolls, bubble tea, yoga and singing bowls to share – feeding notions that we are but perpetual foreigners trading goods. Let us in, and we’ll give these up to be appropriated and commodified away. We’ll give up critical claim to our Asian homelands where our peoples have experienced and continue to experience the bulk of the racialized violence against us. We give too generously to show that we will do no harm, and we are overly grateful to gain acceptance for being allowed here. In doing this, we forget that what we should be grateful for is survival. We’ve survived, and we’ve buried the bodies, but hopefully not the memories of those killed and tortured by radiation and napalm and drones and dictators. And still – to humbly borrow from Maya Angelou – still we rise.

And so this is about solidarity.

Othering and Belonging

Happy Japanese Kodomo no Hi day, 5 May (5/5). Japanese Children’s or Boys Day. Growing up we fly Koinobori, carp flags. Japanese Girls Day was 3 March (3/3) in case you are wondering. If you want to read more and share a book with a kid about these holidays pick up this one.

candlelightHeidi and I are back from the Haas Institute’s Othering and Belonging Conference. The conversations from the conference flowed through breaks, over meals, and through what Heidi calls sam-cha. Sam-cha in Korean means round-three. Third-round of drinks and conversation, sure why not. Through these conversations with our friends and colleagues, we talked about how to push ourselves to create more belonging and force systems to create equitable change.

This week I’m not going to write an analysis of the conference or talk about the technical lessons learned. Maybe in a few weeks Heidi or I will get to the analysis piece. I try to balance this blog with technical pieces as well as narratives and stories because they both matter in equity work.

Returning to Seattle has popped the conference bubble. Nothing busted that bubble more quickly than hearing sirens and helicopters flying close to my house on Wednesday evening. A shooting left one women dead, and another shot. Less than an hour later there were reports of another shooting five minutes away, and overnight another shooting took place near the University of Washington.  Today brought a stabbing again near where I work and live. It isn’t even summer yet when the heat brings out crimes such as these.

While watching the 11.00 p.m. news the reporter said the detectives were using battery operated candles to mark where the bullet casings fell. The irony of using candles to mark bullets, when candles are often used to mark life through birthdays and remembrance, wasn’t lost on me. It brought home much of what I had learned at the conference and why belonging means so much and why we need to respect and create space for others.

Dollar-Bills and a Hug

Professor john a. powell (he doesn’t capitalize his name), the conference host, made closing remarks in the form of stories. One of his stories was about how he invited homeless people to live on his property when they were evicted and moved around by the city. Over time he got to know them and would help them out by giving them money or other goods. His help wasn’t fixing systems or public policies around homelessness, but it created a sense of community and humanized his neighbors.

In his story, he talked about how one day one of the homeless residents greeted him and said “whatcha got today,” Professor powell reached out to give her some money, it was part of their way of being together. Instead of just accepting the money she said “Can I have something else from you? May I have a hug?” Professor powell paused and asked himself if he wanted to give her, a homeless person, a hug. In that moment, he saw her as an ‘other,’ the overall belonging they co-created was being tested. The belonging had limits and was on Prof. powell’s terms, the bond was being tested. After a moment, he gave her the hug. More than money she wanted to be seen and wanted physical human contact.

When I heard this story, I thought about The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World, by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama. Throughout the book the narrator talks about how these two holy-men continually held hands or embraced. Physical contact and connection isn’t something we do a lot of in racial equity work, we play it safe with talking, rule-making, and in some cases like this blog writing. What I took away from this was we need to challenge ourselves to do what several speakers spoke to “We can see people for more than just one thing at a time” or as Alicia Garza said “We can walk and chew gum at the same time… We can see people as they are and how they want to be seen.”

This story stuck with many of us. Right after the conference we gathered our bags and decided to grab an early dinner before heading to the airport. We walked a block and Heidi pulled out her phone to look at Yelp to find a place to eat. As she was consulting the app, a person of color with limited English walked up to us and said “My Asian sisters can you help me out? I’m looking for a job and I just had an interview. I need $3 to take a bus so I can make it to the shelter for the night.” While we stood there listening to the man we all started mentally asking ourselves “do we give him money?” Many of us have been conditioned to say, “I’m sorry” and ignore the person until they move on. Even at the conference we heard repeatedly we need to work on systems level changes, personal and interpersonal actions are important but we need to get to systems changes if we want to see progress. Helping one person won’t fix homelessness. Yet in that moment the story about humanizing and contact was fresh in our minds and we had a choice to make.

We all gave him a dollar or a few coins, enough for him to have money for the bus. We didn’t give him a hug but we got closer to him than we would have a day before. I know I saw him as more of a person because I allowed myself to do so, I also knew I had my team around me to create safety and comfort for me. I was ready to give but mostly because I was safe and it didn’t cause me too much discomfort; I know I don’t want to bring physical or mental harm to myself (been there done that, I was mugged last year) but I think there is a way to create belonging less on my terms and more in recognition of how others want to be seen which may require less safety and comfort on my part.

Back in Seattle

Now that I’m back in Seattle and my city had a 24-hour spate of violence I think of those damn battery operated candles. The police used those candles to mark where violence took place, where a life was violently taken.

Instead of using candles to mark death can we hold up a candle to ourselves and ask what belonging are we creating, what othering are we forcing, or inversely what othering are we not respecting (i.e. arts, LGQBT, etc.)? What sense of negative space are we holding and what narratives are being written in these spaces?

If we think about candles again instead of using them to mark violence, please hold a candle to someone else and say I see you. In the South African Zulu word ubuntu – humanity, I am because we are, you seeing someone will not diminish you or your place in the world it will make us all stronger.

Posted by Erin Okuno

Can we stop using the box graphic when we talk about racial equity?

XYears ago, I first encountered this graphic showing a visual distinction between equality and equity. It quickly started making the rounds on social media, in presentations, and even in my own presentation slide deck. But something about it never quite resonated with me. I had a hard time articulating why I didn’t think this was the best way to depict the important differences between equity and equality. Erin and I had numerous conversations about the graphic, I even drew some alternatives (with kids in deep holes). But, what Erin correctly pointed out is that this graphic is simple and easy to understand without words. I like text, so this poses a challenge to thinking about an easy-to-understand alternative.

In the last few years, I finally figured out what I don’t like about this graphic and all the adaptations it has inspired. I continue to show it in my workshop, but with a big red X over the picture. I tell participants I don’t like this picture as a way to talk about the difference between equality and equity, specifically racial equity. I ask people to guess why this might be a problematic way to visualize equity. Pause for a moment and ask yourself why this might be misleading graphic and then come back to the post.

What did you come up with? Usually, taking this time to slow down and reflect on why it might be problematic helps us see things that we might not have otherwise noticed. Usually, people mention things such as “the kids are all white” or “they are at a baseball game” or “there is a fence there.” Other smart people noticed these things as well, and have recreated the image to have all black kids, kids at a soccer game, and kids without any fence in front of them.

I realized that what I don’t like about this picture is the “equity” slide is accommodating for height differences. It is perpetuating the differences we are trying to address with equity are inherently biological. It continues this dangerous narrative that racial equity is “helping” people of color and communities of color because we are inherently and biologically deficient. I want to be clear accommodations for physical differences such as height or learning styles is important work. In the education world, this is called differentiation – but this is not racial equity. In fact, the subtle and probably unconscious narrative reinforces the racists ideas that “people of color are not as smart, not as motivated, and not as qualified, and need help to succeed.” It is why I often hear people say things like:

  • If we let all students of color into advanced placement classes, we’ll be lowering the bar.
  • It’s their parents fault. They don’t care enough.
  • This focus on diversity means qualified white people won’t get in or get hired.

Yes, seriously people still say things like this. And, then there are the Fakequity statements from white allies and some people of color:

  • There are not enough qualified people of color.
  • You’re so articulate. You’re good with data and charts.
  • I know they can do higher level math, but we don’t want to add more stress to their already stressful lives. 
  • Asian kids are so obedient they do well in school because they follow the rules.

If you’re having a hard time figuring out why the last set of examples are Fakequity, engage others, preferably people of color, in a dialogue about what they hear or what assumptions are being made in the statements.

Racial equity is about eliminating racism

Equity is the outcome when race will no longer be a predictor of health, education, income, etc. Right now, we can predict graduation rates, discipline data, advanced placement participation, criminal justice involvement, and health outcomes based on race. We can predict community meeting attendance, contractors, grant awards based on race. Achieving racial equity means these predication based on race are gone.

The subtle and insidious systemic racism wants us all to believe the reason race predicts these outcomes is because people of color don’t work as hard, don’t have as good of parents, don’t have enough grit, don’t spend enough time and money on the “right” things. This is why even in the name of “racial equity” schools, organizations, funder, government spend a lot of time trying to “fix” people of color and students of color. Teaching people of color to how write a resume or act in an interview. Or teaching students of color to have grit, better self-esteem, or social-emotional intelligence. Or philanthropic organizations to spend time teaching grassroots community of color organizations to write a grant or logic model. These are all important individual skills, but don’t address very real systemic barriers or biases based on race. This Thich Nhat Hanh quotes helps me re-frame my thinking:

“When you plant lettuce, if it does not grow well, you don’t blame the lettuce. You look for reasons it is not doing well. It may need fertilizer, or more water, or less sun. You never blame the lettuce.”

Systemic racism is about just that – systemic barriers and biases based on race. Racial equity is the elimination of those systemic barriers, so future generations of students of color are not being taught to have more grit or better self-esteem. Here is the thing about systemic racism, the very people (white people) who have the most control over changing organizational policies and practices have never experienced systemic racism.

People always ask, if you don’t like the graphic what would you offer as an alternative. I must admit that I still don’t have a great answer. And, even though I don’t have a great alternative to offer doesn’t mean we should continuing using the one above. I believe it is causing more harm than good. Here is my wordy explanation I give to people as my “right now” answer. Of course, it comes in the form of a good bike analogy (I bike a lot).



The first frame needs to depict the “reality” of systemic racism. We’ve been giving road bikes and gear, training, etc. to white families for centuries, and if we give families of color a bike at all we give them a crappy bike that might not work at all. And, then we wonder why kids of color aren’t succeeding in a road bike race. Think about how this functions with schools, neighborhoods, clean air, etc.

What would equality be in this scenario? Guesses?




Did you guess give everyone a road bike? Yep, this would be “equality” give everyone the same thing. This even means giving white families another bike, even though they might have generations of bikes already. Why is this not the goal? Why is this not racial equity? I mean, I like riding bikes, but maybe not everyone does?

Now this is where my analogy gets tricky and requires words. What would racial equity be in this scenario? Any guesses? I often hear things like, the transportation option of their choice or an electric bike.

The simplest answer is people of color designed and led solutions and strategies.

jobsRestricting our thinking to just bikes is how racism limits us to tweaking ideas and solutions already embedded in our systems. Ideas and solutions that were designed intentionally to uphold white supremacy and keep control and benefits in the hands of white people. In the environmental space, historically white-led organizations want to get people of color to buy into strategies such as planting trees, using bikes, or electric cars. These are all great things (and many people of color do use these strategies), but it ignores what communities of colors often cite as solutions, such as jobs closer to home and anti-displacement efforts as solutions to environmental racism. Whose ideas do you think have historically been funded and continued to be funded?

Equity isn’t just giving boxes to short kids as the original picture at the top shows, equity is the harder work of listening and co-designing solutions with communities of color. Equity is giving up or sharing power and privilege. Equity is getting off of your road bike and slowing down to build relationships and enjoy what people of color bring and offer to the road race. Will you practice equity or fakequity?

Posted by Heidi Schillinger

No You Can’t Pick My Brain

It’s been a while since I have written for the blog, but after a week of seeing how institutions tell me every day to sit down, I need to get my thoughts on paper. Thank you Erin for almost never picking up the phone when I call at my scheduled time in the afternoon. I am finding my rants on your voicemail to be quite therapeutic.

I want to be clear, I am offering no solutions in this post. If it was that simple, the problems we face around community engagement would be fixed. Besides I have offered plenty of suggestions in the past, there are tons of tools and tips for your reference. The time is now to ask “do my values match my practices?” If you are doing your work to unpack privilege, notice how systemic racial bias shows up and leading for equity then perhaps my reflections on my experiences will compel you to work harder. I am also hopeful it will encourage others to call out other white folks when you see systemic and institutional racism being maintained in the workplace.

What set me off this weekmic

I never realized before what I considered best practices when working with community was a special skill. To me this ‘skill’ isn’t a skill, it is part of who I am and how I get my work done. Yet this skill has allowed me the privilege of sitting at a variety of tables, both in the community and sitting at political tables where resources are allocated or decisions are made. I am praised for my ideas and knowledge of community. The truth is as many times as I have been included in the discussion I am being tokenized. I am set up to represent and be the spokesperson for every POC community. In case you were unaware POC communities are made up of a dynamic collective of peoples with distinct and unique experiences. When you put me at the table you think it counts for true and authentic engagement.

Your participation in my exploitation ends today. I am no longer interested in being your thought partner. If you want to lead for equity and change then it is time to stop relying
on POC colleagues to do the heavy lifting for you. My brain is no longer available for picking. My time and knowledge are my most valuable and precious resources. As of today, I am saying goodbye to the following:

  1. Never being acknowledged for all the times I’ve sat at the table and reviewed your proposals and made recommendations. I’ve put in so much effort that it might as well be my project.
  2. Dropping a ton of knowledge and damn near telling you how to do it and you still do it your way in the end anyway. What’s the point of asking me, so you can check the box and say you ‘engaged’ pocs?
  3. Internal stakeholder engagement which is basically code for the “illusion of inclusion.” I get it you really do not want me there, but it is part of the deal. You need to show proof that you talked to some people of color. Gotta get the buy in right?
  4. Reading your final report and watching the institution praise you for your leadership. I read the report and marvel at all the fancy appendices. I look for my name and don’t see it. I read the report again just to make sure I didn’t miss it. Nope it is not there. Why do you only include ‘leadership’ or who paid for the report? Was my knowledge not as valuable? This isn’t about ego, it is about respect. If I left you off a list, oh trust me I would hear about how I overlooked an important detail and it is now a strike against me.

“We really do want to know what you’re thinking”

If you’re thinking “I really want to know what you’re thinking,” that is great, so show me you value what I know. Show me you value the years of relationship building I’ve done. I’ve invested many hours building relationships and trust with people in the community, when you ask me to give you shortcuts by telling you what I think, you should recognize you’re getting my biased version. If you value what I think then show me and the communities I work with respect by listening to what we say, by stop talking to me all the time and building new relationships, and finally act on what we tell you.

Just as you worked hard learning technical skills like building a database, putting together a pretty Excel budget, or a smart-sounding piece of legislation, I’ve been busy learning how to navigate different communities. I’ve been busy learning cultural norms and customs, such as elders eat first, how to bow my head respectfully while someone blesses the food, how to introduce myself in Spanish. I’ve also learned how to order lunch for a mixed group of people – it’s harder than you may think—is it Ramadan (no food or drink), no pepperoni pizza (is that pork in the pepperoni, is it halal, pepperoni pizza isn’t kosher), no dairy– can’t do regular pizza, how to order from POC owned businesses, how to order food and stay within a small budget, tip or no-tip, these are just as important skills as those technical ones you write on your resume.

Don’t dis what I know just because it sounds easy, it isn’t.


White People: Stop and Think Before Giving Feedback


Left to Right: Erin, Heidi, Mindy, CiKeithia, and Michael. Now you know what we look like.

The Equity Matters team had a quick get together to have our headshots taken by the fabulous photographer Michael B. Maine. He made us feel comfortable and because we’re a tight team we were laughing and enjoying each other. Between picture sessions Heidi downloaded notes to me about this week’s blog topic – feedback and how to give it.

Over the years, Heidi and I have facilitated a lot of conversations, trainings, and meetings. Through this work, we’ve received tons of feedback and like most things in life the feel-good feedback is nice, but the harshest criticism sticks more. We are both professionals that have worked in poc centered spaces and with a lot of white people. If we’re being honest (truth telling, which this blog tries to do) the criticism from some white people misses the mark.

This is how the feedback sounds:

“The training was helpful, but the exercise where we had to talk about race should have also included socio-economic status.” Um no, this isn’t a training on economics, we’re talking about race.

“I was really uncomfortable talking about my personal identity. I don’t understand the purpose of having to identify as white. I’m an immigrant and feel like an outsider because of my accent and I had to flee my country because of religious persecution. I was uncomfortable saying I am white, when I don’t believe I have the same privileges as other white people.” No, we’re not playing the oppression Olympics, you have white privilege.

“I didn’t like it, I wasn’t the center of attention.” This isn’t real, but if we boil down bad feedback this is what it sounds like.

Heidi and I welcome feedback, we want to improve our work. I crave and sometimes seek out genuine critique because I want to make my work as useful as possible to partners and not waste time on things that don’t work. That said we are also asking white people and poc’s with privilege to stop and reflect before giving feedback. On our feedback forms, we ask people to circle if they are bi/multiracial, poc, or white – we do this on purpose to disaggregate the feedback data and to make sure we’re being balanced and centering people of color in our work.

It’s Not About You

Racial equity work isn’t about white people or even individual people of color, it is about the greater community and centering communities of color. Racial equity trainings and well-facilitated meetings should challenge all of us in some way. The point of bringing people together to meet and dialogue is to learn from each other. This means as facilitators and trainers our job is to make everyone uncomfortable at some point during the conversation. We don’t aim to make people so uncomfortable they completely check out, but we are there to help push conversations and help create space for people to think and accept new information. For our white partners, it is ok to shift in your seat a little and realize the training and meeting is forcing you to think and accept new information. What isn’t ok is to use the feedback form to rip apart the training because you were uncomfortable or to use the feedback form to say how you would have ran the training ‘better.’

Before You Give Feedback Some Things to Consider

Before you give feedback stop and think, is this feedback about the work or is it about processing your own thoughts about race? If it is the later, the feedback process might not be the place to put your thoughts. If you need to have a thought partner in processing, then ask for one, but don’t criticize as you ask for help thinking about race.

As an example, I once had a white person give me feedback on a meeting I facilitated. Her feedback was “I felt like you constantly cut me off when I’m trying to share information,” and “I feel very white as when I come to these meetings.” Her feedback was about her needs, comfort, and expertise. As we talked she acknowledged the meeting was centered on pocs and I asked her what did she want me to change to make her more comfortable while keeping it poc focused, she didn’t have an answer. Her criticisms weren’t helpful for the group dynamics, they were personally focused. Had she asked for help understanding race  we could have had a good conversation, but as soon as she made judgments and critiques it became about her ego, not growth of herself or the work and the conversation stopped.

Personal Process or Group Learning

When I fill out feedback forms I ask myself is the feedback about me and my feelings or is it about the group and process. Both are valid forms of feedback but as a facilitator it is helpful when people can differentiate between process and their personal learning. It sometimes sounds like this “I didn’t like the part of the training where we had to hold hands and give gratitude’s, because I don’t like having public Oprah moments, but I can see how it was useful for others to get closure.” By nuancing what the person didn’t like and why it is helpful feedback, it was more helpful to read that the person understood the purpose of the exercise was to keep the group moving forward together. Feedback along these lines let’s us know the overall tone and message was right but the activity might need to change — maybe no holding hands or group gratitudes not individual Oprah moments.

Tips for giving feedback

  • Give details and use words you hear in the training, especially words related to race or the topic
  • Say what stuck and what parts you’re still not sure about, it helps us know more about how to alter the training for the next group
  • Differentiate between personal process and group learning
  • If you need help understanding something ask, don’t hide behind making your question sound like feedback.
  • Feel free to be blunt, bold, and honest

Please continue to give feedback, but also think hard about the feedback you’re giving. Helpful feedback strengthens helps us grow, crappy self-centered feedback is more about you than the work.

By Erin with input from Heidi. Photo by Heidi and her selfie stick.

Oppression Olympics and White Speak

facebookLast week I blogged about LEGO and their bias towards featuring only white children in their pictures. Another person posted a similar thought on LEGO’s Facebook page. Wow, were some of the comments rude and racist. My favorite racist comment was “If I wanted to see little brown people, I’d buy Nat. Geo. [National Geographic].” The comment was reported to Facebook and subsequently deleted, but not before this screenshot was taken. Racism runs free on Facebook, but we already knew that. [Update: Looks like the LEGO post was deleted.]

We also need to acknowledge the US missile attack on Syria in response to the chemical attack the Syrian government launched on the Syrian people. While all of this is unfolding, we have to be ready to open our borders and services to immigrants and refugees from the country, and work to continue protecting our current immigrants. The Trump administration has made it clear they do not value immigrants, so we must continue to push and resist bad policies and work hard to create a welcoming environment.


Earlier today Hana, a reader, emailed asking us to share insights on how to handle conversations that sound like this: “I am a [white] woman and I have suffered discrimination, so for you to assume I do not understand [fill in the blank] is unfair.” Independent of the email request, Heidi sent a text saying we need to write about “white speak,” meaning how we have to re-frame conversations so white people hear what people of color are saying without shutting down. Both topics deserve their own blog posts, but tonight I want to write about them together.

Let’s define ‘white speak.’ White speak is the verbal dance people of color do to make others, mostly white people, but sometimes pocs who aren’t woke (self-aware around race), understand what we are saying around race without losing their marbles. In this verbal tango pocs have to make things sound less threatening and gently explain why something is racist, privileged, or annoying to people of color. In white speak, we cater to white people’s fragility afraid to offend them or afraid of pushing too far and then having to deal with their tears, anger, or obsessions around being seen as perfect and non-offensive. When we white speak we also use coded language; we are catering to white people’s fragility and making them feel comfortable around hard messages associated with race. It is taxing to police words and to have to ‘code switch’ or mentally rewrite messages and judge if someone can understand what we want them to understand. Many times white speak hides or masks the poc truths and we give a tamer version at the risk of not losing people entirely.

As an example of Oppression Olympics, it sounds like this: “I’m a white women who’s experienced discrimination and hardship. My kid is in a class of 26 and his needs are not being met.” What I hear is “What about me? You’re not saying anything about my needs.” The white speak that has to take place to keep her from falling apart then sounds like this example: “Yes, I understand you have faced hardship and your son is in a classroom with 26 other children and that is a large class size. AND we must recognize there are other schools more under resourced then your school. It isn’t fair and the system isn’t resourced well enough to provide everyone everything they need.” What happened in the talk-back was we had to cater to the white person and say, “we see you, and you’ll be ok.”

It is human nature to want to feel included, but when white people want their problems seen first, we need to ask is it at the expense of focusing on people of color’s needs. If the answer is yes, then white people need to step back and check their privileges. Being able to articulate and voice a problem is a privilege, not all people of color have the ability or agency (ability to make the decision) to voice problems and be heard fairly or at all. As an example, while the white parent in the above example can say their kid (and therefore they) are experiencing hardship because their kid’s class is at 26-students, there may be additional outside resources to make sure their needs are met including parent education, community assets, etc. If we were to find a comparable 26-student classroom filled with students of color there is a greater likelihood the student’s needs are not being as well-met and the overall needs of the students are more because of historical legacies of under resourcing schools in communities of color. The parents of color in the predominately poc school probably are upset too but they don’t have the same agency to be heard, and/or the burden of speaking up is greater (i.e. organizing to testify at a school board meeting, having time to call policy makers, access to policy makers, etc.).

The white parent talking about how they are facing oppression or discrimination may even get praised for speaking up. We need white advocates, especially parent advocates, to share their stories and talk about how systems are failing children. But we also need white partners to understand how to share the advocacy burden and not fall into the role of playing Oppression Olympics by saying my need is greater than yours so you should follow my lead and my voice. Please don’t do this, it hurts the overall cause and it takes away from the need to be seen as a united front. Centering communities of color and people of color does not diminish people from seeing white people. White people and pocs of privilege our job is to create access and use our resources to highlight voices (in a non-tokenizing way) to people of color.

Wrapping Up

White people our asks are simple, stop with the oppression Olympics of saying “I’m discriminated/oppressed/hurt/etc. because I’m white.” We’re all oppressed in some ways and we’re all privileged in some ways; own your white privilege and do something good with it for people of color.

One of the ways you can do good is by listening and allowing people of color to speak honestly and fully. Create space to listen without censorship. Recognize the verbal gymnastics we sometimes do to have you hear us. I have a colleague who is bi-racial with white passing privilege. He grew up with both the white side of his family, as well as deeply ingrained with communities of color. With his white passing privilege, he is privy to how conversations sound with people of color are in the room, and how they change when the pocs step out. The conversations are different, with the pocs it is guarded and safe for fear of being offensive. How much more freeing would it be if we were all able to say what is needed and to have open conversations where we can check assumptions and hear each other. Let’s work on that and maybe we can stop having to white speak and play Oppression Olympics.

By Erin Okuno

Fakequity of the Week, with pictures

Today, is a special day, my kid has a birthday. This means I remember exactly where I was all those years ago. I was eating a grilled cheese sandwich and fries in a hospital cafeteria before having a baby. This year we skipped the grilled cheese but still had French fries and birthday cake. Because of the birthday celebration I’m too lazy to think about writing a thought-provoking and deeply meaningful blog post, instead we’ll do a Fakequity roll call of bad behaviors I’ve encountered this week.

#1 LEGO So White

My kid loves LEGO. He has LEGO bricks coming out of every cervices of his room. If you ask him what he wants to be when he grows up he earnestly answers, “a LEGO engineer.” I’m cool with that if it pays the bills and I don’t ever step on a LEGO brick. Last year I took the kids to a LEGO exhibit at a mall not too far from Seattle. It was the LEGO Americana Roadshow, featuring LEGO structures of American landmarks such as the White House, US Capitol, Statue of Liberty, etc. They had a passport card where you answered questions and turned it in at the LEGO store for a prize. The prize was this gem of a poster (sorry for the quality) of all white kids.

2016-10-30 16.09.51

Also, check out this picture from their website, more white kids.


And finally, yesterday the LEGO magazine arrived in the mail. Look at this page of all white kids.

IMG_20170330_235148 (1)

Hmm, I’m seeing a trend #LEGOSoWhite. Hey LEGO, can you diversify and feature some children of color, maybe disabled children, and think a little more broadly in your picture selection? Kids of color really like LEGOs too. Don’t tell me children of color aren’t submitting pictures, if they aren’t then do the harder work of recruiting and creating relationships with families of color.

#2 Unchecked Implicit Bias

This infographic was posted on Facebook. What do you notice? I noticed some racial bias showing up, the only brown kid shows a kid melting down and words like “I’m not easy,” overwhelming, and terrible attached to it. The other pictures of mostly white and an Asian kid are all cute and happy.  Hmm…


Originally from Learning and Exploring Through Play

I posted a comment pointing out the racism and implicit bias projected. Immediately people started posting-back saying “You’re not serious?,” “Don’t being [sic] your issues to our table. These children don’t need stereotyped [sic] by adults– like you just did! You stereotyped her, no one else did. That’s on you.,” and “Ummm, take a closer look…..[sic] the child is white with curly brown hair. All that ranting for nothing, moron.” These were a few of the numerous comments, majority overwhelmingly negative. These comments are not unexpected, lots of white fragility and colorblindness displayed.

What made the situation sad was the owners of the Facebook page didn’t step in to moderate the conversation. They posted more content afterwards which tells me they were active on Facebook. I sent a private message to the page owners. They replied nine-days later reply saying because they had over 4-million page views and over 775,000 Facebook interactions last week they are unable to reply to everyone. This is unacceptable, especially for a company who’s stated goals include wanting to be accessible to people of color and promotes relationship building.

Because they didn’t moderate their Facebook page they tolerated bad-behavior which created an unsafe (online) place for people of color. I didn’t feel welcomed in the online conversation after I voiced my views. I will own my views around race and my privileges, and I don’t need others to protect me when I share those views. However, I don’t condone the organization allowing name-calling, racism, and what could be characterized as online-bullying to happen. (Because it was on Facebook I’m not taking it super seriously. I’m more annoyed with the response and lack of response by the org than the silliness of fragile white people.)

If you are a Facebook admin on a page or for a group, you must monitor and moderate conversations to make sure they are welcoming of diverse voices and people of color. Set expectations of how you want people to behave online and call out bad behavior when people violate the expectations, otherwise conversations will default to centering whiteness.

#3 Lunch Meeting Gone Wrong

Two weeks ago (still holding a grudge) I had lunch with a white male. This meeting was a long-time coming and it was one of the first times we talked outside of a group meeting setting. Dude clearly has work to do around race, especially after he said “I’m married to an Asian,” to justify his stance and beliefs. Face+palm=zero poker face.

Please do work around learning what race means and its impact. Realize what you don’t know, and as Jondou calls “what you know, you don’t know,” and go do some thinking. Be humble and learn. Read diverse media, force yourself to really listen to communities of color — shut up and just listen, and stop trying to justify yourselves. If you want to say something ask nicely and humbly.

#4 Something Happy, a Good Bun Bowl

Because I’m trying to practice more gratitude this year I’ll end with one happy picture. This is a picture of my Plate of Nations lunch at Rainier Restaurant. If you haven’t checked out Plate of Nations yet please do. I try to stack as many business meetings during Plate of Nations week. Plate of Nations week offers pre-fixe $15 or $25 meals, perfect for relationship building and sharing a delicious meal. Sharing food and supporting local people of color owned businesses is part of racial equity work. Today I checked out another restaurant, Banana Grill and had a wonderful lunch with a colleague. We talked about our Japanese-American experiences and what it means for the current generation of students. Go enjoy a good meal with colleague and talk about what is happening in communities of color. If you need a question prompt here is one: “Tell me what you eat at your family celebrations.” This will probably open up into a deeper conversation about self-identity. If you want to jump two feet into race and identity, you could ask “What is your race and ethnicity, and what evidence do you have to support this.” (hat-tip to Jondou and Heidi of the fakequity team for the second question.)


Thanks for hanging with us this week. Sometimes we just need to focus on things like a good bun bowl, it is one of the best anti-fakequity cures around. Next week I’ll try to be less grouchy and more introspective. If you have something on your mind or want to explore a topic ping me, would love to have some thought partners on how to fight fakequity,

Posted by Erin

Humanizing or Weaponizing Data – Treating People as Subject or Objects, get your data right

Earlier today my colleague Jondou Chen joined my organization’s advocacy and policy cohort to talk about weaponizing data (using a community’s own data against that community). Jondou is a mind-blowing presenter and partner in racial equity work, he also has a little goatee which if he stroked while presenting would make him look very professorial and add to his equity-aura.


Illustration by Grant Snider of Axes of Evil in graph form

One of the concepts he shared is how data can be used against a person or community. This happens when data from people is objectified, or turned into an object. Let me break this down into non-wonky language: Data starts with people. People are at the heart of data – people generate the research questions, they give information, people interpret data through quantitative or qualitative means. People have ‘agency’ and power over their data and are the subject in relationship to  their own data.

The problem becomes when we turn other people’s data into our object. That is we take and we use someone else’s data without allowing the subject (the people behind the data) to have power or control over it. Nicole in our group today observed: “By writing we turn subjects into objects,” as in who controls the narrative behind the data. What does it mean to do this and why and when do we trust them to tell an accurate story?

Turning a Subject into an Object

Over the past few months my organization has been partnering with a group of Chinese immigrant parents to help shape several policy asks. The longer back story is about a year ago my organization served as the backbone organization for a large community based survey on family engagement in schools. Many of these Chinese parents had previously taken the survey and were pleased to see we were closing the feedback loop to share what their data showed. After presenting their data several of the parents began to share stories and talk about what they wanted to see happen next, they were continuing to be ‘subjects’ in relationship to their data and refused to become an object where others would define their experiences with the data.

In a reverse example, there are many times we’ve seen data used against communities. This Seattle Times article on library usage shows double-digit declines in the number of library visits made in South Seattle library branches. Affluent neighborhoods saw increases in library attendance.

The subject of the data are library patrons. The library system does not track race in their count of who is using the library; overall I would characterize their tracking as race neutral with the belief they are open and accessible to all (in another blog post we’ll unpack why access isn’t equity) and defenders of freedom of information, if user data isn’t collected it can’t be used for evil is one belief strand of librarians. When we turn the subject of the data, library patrons, into objects we strip away the story and other important data on why people of color may not be using the library.

When people of color have agency/power to control the narrative around their own data the questions become deeper and nuanced. Such as how many of the books in the library are written by authors of color? Do libraries in the south end (less affluent) have children’s librarians and programming for families that would increase patron counts. Is the programming culturally enriching and co-designed with the community? How many of the patrons have fines blocking them from borrowing books – a $15 fine (the threshold when an account is blocked) is less of a burden in affluent communities. How many immigrant families know how to get a library card and what paperwork will it take?

When we weaponize data against a community it sounds like this fictitious example: “Library usage is down in South Seattle. We need to make budget cuts, so let’s cut hours at the Rainier Beach branch because it has the lowest visit count and the highest percentage of fees on record.” Taking data in this way without allowing the subject, Rainier Beach library patrons, to have power over their data (e.g. usage rates, fees, staff availability) is turning them into the object of a policy decision.

This same weaponizing phenomenon is seen in so many other sectors. In education, we see it happen with achievement gap data, family engagement where families are blamed for not participating, English Language Learner programs, and disciple rates to name a few. Asian and Pacific Islander communities where API data is lumped together hiding the disparities within the race category and playing into the Asian Myth. In elections policy makers may use data to gerrymander districts by saying we need to even out people count versus looking at where communities reside and may want to stay together for political power or vice versa look at where certain communities congregate and redraw lines to give one community more political clout.

How Not to Objectify or Weaponize Data

It is important to actively work against weaponizing data and turning people into data objects. One way we can do that is to remember that data comes from humans and people have important stories behind their data.

Here are some questions to ask to ensure you’re keeping your data as human as possible:

  • Who controls the narrative around data? Is it the communities and people who gave you the data?
  • Reframe the question of “What data is being counted?” to “Whom [people] is being counted?”
  • Who controls the research funding and how is it being allocated? (Data projects are often backed with money, be honest and transparent with your funding sources and allocation.)
  • Create and maintain feedback loops with communities who participate. What are researchers missing? What are they mis-measuring? What are they misinterpreting?
  • Believe in and use qualitative data.
  • Ask yourself “What don’t I know?” and be humble in acknowledging “What I don’t know, I don’t know,” and be ok with not being the expert and in control of everything.

Posted by Erin Okuno, with special thanks to Jondou Chen, PhD, for dropping some serious knowledge. *Note for Jondou: I think half our grant report is written.

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