If you haven’t watched the TED talk The Danger of the Single Story by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, watch it. Ms. Adichie is eloquent about why diverse stories matter. No single story encompasses a whole community’s narrative. Too often we listen to the loudest or nosiest stories. Sadly too often the loudest voices aren’t from communities the most impacted by hardship or furthest from opportunities.
When I started my current job Stephan, a mentor, asked me “Where are you getting your information?” I couldn’t answer him. I really didn’t know where I would get my information– from friends, people I like, colleagues, Facebook, the news. Benita Horn, a well-respected equity leader, calls this access F.B.I.– Friends, Brothers, and In-Laws. Quickly I realized the Yoda-like wisdom they gave me. They were telling me to be careful of listening to the loudest and nosiest voices or people whom I like and think like me.
Communities are diverse and sadly systems (government, institutions, organizations, etc.) are designed to hear the nosiest, loudest, and most organized voices. Change often comes via the majority or those who have connections. However the majority or those with access to power is not always the most impacted by a decision.
Here is an example…
A popular restaurant, Tacos for the People, decided to democratize their menu and are open to input from the community. I really love marinated tofu tacos with cilantro and want them kept on a menu, I’m flirting with vegan/vegetarianism so I will claim minority status (for the sake of this example). For Tuesday’s lunch I decide to “vote with my wallet” and order a fistful of tofu tacos.
When I arrive at Tacos for the People I can’t get past the front door because twenty people wearing matching colored shirts and holding signs are lined up to testify in favor of fish tacos. They knew to show up because they organized via Facebook and Twitter. A member of the group alerted the media, and others in the group went to college with the founder of Tacos for the People.
If we believe that tofu tacos versus fish tacos on a menu is a zero-sum-game, in other words only one taco will remain on the menu, the odds are much more in favor of the fish tacos. Tofu tacos, even though they serve an important need for a minority (vegan-vegetarian) community, has little chance of saving their place on the menu. This is the danger in only listening to the loud matching t-shirt people, their agendas rise up and overcast voices of others who have important needs.
“If you’re not at the table, it means you’re on the menu.”
Now before we start poking holes in the example and say the tofu taco lovers should organize and get their own shirts let’s add another layer to this example. Let’s say the tofu taco community is actually a community of color, an immigrant or refugee community, or another community such as foster care, special needs, etc. that have additional hurdles to overcome in order to mobilize and make their voices heard. Showing up to testify at a State Capitol or school board meeting often means having to rearrange work and parenting schedules quickly, figure out and budget for transportation, and navigate the weird politics of testifying (i.e. how to sign in, when to step forward, what to say in two-minutes, speaking in English if English isn’t their preferred language, etc.)—those are a lot of barriers. An equitable approach would be to have the system open up their table and ensure more voices are heard. A mentor told me “If you’re not at the table, it means you are on the menu,” which means you need to be at decision making tables to influence decision making.
How to Listen and Who to Listen to
Thinking back to the advice I received from my mentor, I’ve tried to act upon it. It is easy to get swept up in the voices of the majority and to think everyone thinks their way. It is also easy to default to those we know and their voices, this is fakequity. We have to remember communities are diverse and those farthest from opportunity have important stories we need to seek out.
As leaders and community builders we need to seek out the voices and messages, not just the noisy voices. It takes time and effort to get out and find different voices, but the return on the investment of time and energy is worth it. Start with people you know then ask them to introduce you to others, and keep doing that. Ask someone to take you to a meeting you wouldn’t normally attend because their community is different and sit and listen, and go back again and again. Don’t talk at the meeting, just listen. Over time trust builds and people will share their thoughts with you and relationships start. Going fast and listening to noise is easy—fakequity. Going slow and building relationships is EQUITY.
UPDATE 10.20.15: We’re excited to see more voices reinforcing the message of the need for multiple stories. Sheri Brady, from the Aspen Forum, published Building Many Stories into Collective Impact which looks at the need for diverse stories in collective impact efforts. Check it out and leave her a comment, for that matter leave a comment here too.
posted by Erin