Race Neutral? No Way. We Must Live our Values

I just came home from the Rainier Valley Corps‘ (RVC) community gathering. RVC is a leadership development organization focused on recruiting emerging leaders of color, and placing them with community of color focused nonprofits in the Rainier Valley (Seattle). RVC provides their Fellows with leadership training and skill development. The host organizations also receive capacity building support and an amazing Fellow to work with for a year. My organization, Southeast Seattle Education Coalition, host a Fellow – Mindy, our Fellow is fabulous, despite what she said on stage about my sending her to meetings I don’t want to go to—I would never do that, I call it exposure to leadership opportunities.

RVC is so successful because they are values and mission driven. While many organizations claim to be mission and values driven, few are rooted and connected to the community and live their values and grapple with how to practice their values as RVC. Everything about their organization exudes a commitment to their racial equity values. Their leadership, staffing and hiring structures, recruitment of their staff and fellows, programming, and way they operate can be tracked back to their values. I’ve also watched where the organization has faltered and strayed from their racial equity values, but their values around community and equity allowed them to adjust and recommit themselves to their mission.

No Such Thing as a Race Neutral Process
Recently I participated in an organization’s strategic planning process. The facilitator is well respected, knowledgeable, and understands organizational development, however she doesn’t lead with a racial equity lens. Her process is purposefully ‘race neutral,’ “which allows people to see a magnitude of possibilities which is necessary for re-envisioning work.” It was fascinating to watch how the race neutral process clashed with those who insisted on framing the process with race and equity. Anytime someone brought up race the comment was put aside; in the neutral process, race wasn’t named and didn’t have a place.

As we moved through the day, many of the participants questioned the assumption of how a race neutral process would benefit the organization and ultimately students of color. For too many students of color race is a predictor of success and outcomes. We pushed the organization and each other to think about values and to speak more openly about race and racial equity. We were asking the organization to live their racial equity values and to actualize it by being explicit and clear about how race fit into the planning process. We also challenged the assumption that a race neutral process would benefit children of color. On the positive side it was impressive to see younger colleagues step up and stretch their racial equity values by pushing for race to be included in the conversation. Parents in the room also spoke up and talked about how race impacted theirs and their friends experiences with educational systems. These stories and voices contain important information that can help with the planning process.

Organizational values need to be lived if they will have an impact, just documenting them doesn’t bring about change. Talk/writing with no action = fakequity.

How to Lead with Race and Racial Equity Values
In order for our work and organizations to succeed in closing racial gaps we need to acknowledge that race matters. We need to be bolder, transparent, and open about our commitment to racial equity. We need to name race, we need to talk about its impact on people, and we need to frame our organization’s commitment to racial equity work (not literally, although I give you permission to frame the Fakequity chart).

Leading with racial equity values helps us focus our work with communities of color. In my work we focus on race and we do our best to lead with race. At the start of our coalition meetings I devote time to talking about we operate our meeting and ‘live’ our equity value– openly talk about race, focusing on relationships, and recognizing that there are many different perspectives to learn from. By being clear about how we talk about race, we can then talk about race. Our conversations are different than at other tables, our conversations go deeper and faster because we are clear about our values and how we live our values. Rainier Valley Corps also leads with race and they are respected because of it.

By being clear about our values and how we work we center our work more keenly to the needs of communities of color, and people who are uncomfortable with talking about race tend to self-select out. Partners are willing to work with us because they know where we stand and how we prioritize our work.

Five Steps to Lead with Racial Equity Values
Living our values around race and equity is simple, but at the same time not simple. Start with the simple parts, then begin to embed the harder parts and soon you’ll be an Equity Champion.

1. Name your values and describe how you will work towards them: If equity is one of your values, what does this actually mean? How will your organization practice equity? Make a list of the synonyms that mean equity. We did this at my organization and it allowed us to clarify what words meant to each of us. There can be just as many definitions of equity as there are people in your meeting.
2. Tape your values to your desk, make a note in your smart phone, put them as a footer on your agendas, make a modern art piece depicting the values—It is really easy to forget all of our values, but the words have meanings and are only as good as how we live and practice them. I turned our values into ice, seriously: Integrity, Community, Courage, and Equity — ICCE. I’m going to make an equity ice sculpture.

3. Align and partner with those who share your values—This one gets a little harder. Living our values means saying yes, and saying no. Aligning an organization’s work to align with racial equity means we have to do things differently. It can be as simple as changing the wording on a document to be more inclusive and then clarifying how to be more inclusive, to the harder steps of questioning a funder’s priority to racial equity and potentially saying “thank you for the opportunity to apply for your funding, but our racial equity values are not aligning with your priorities, let’s revisit this next year.”

4. Admit when you’ve strayed from your values—There are times where the bright and shiny object distract us away from our values. It is important to admit when we’ve chased the wrong shiny object.

5. Values can be fun—Values don’t have to be dry and seen as limitations, they can be fun and allow your organization to embrace exciting work. In my organization we practice our community value by hosting Final Friday Lunch (our colleagues at Vietnamese Friendship Association co-host the lunch). On the last Friday of the month we open our office and invite people to brown bag lunch with us. It is a way to grow our network, support each other, vent a little, and unwind. At today’s lunch we chatted with a colleague in the housing sector and learned what is going on in the ‘hood. This networking benefits us all.

Posted by Erin Okuno

How to begin to ‘do equity’ when you’re not ‘doing equity’

A few years ago several friends and I had a conversation about how to ‘do equity’ when an organization isn’t ‘doing equity.’ In other words, someone in her organization heard the buzz word ‘equity’ and mandated it, but hadn’t figured out how to adjust the organization to be more community centered and aligned to the principles of equity.  My poor friend Tyler was frustrated her colleagues expected her to be the ‘equity expert.’ So we had a huddle (a.k.a. we went to happy hour) to whine and problem solve.

Tyler works for an informal learning organization. As a general principle they are open to everyone, and as long as people follow the rules they can access services. Pretty straightforward service model: people come into their buildings, participate, leave, and hopefully come back. Because of the drop-in nature of their programs her colleagues didn’t know how to ‘do equity.’

The conversation Tyler shared sounded like this:1589583
“How are we supposed to do equity if we serve everyone?,” “If we start serving only some people, what about the others? We’re supposed to be open to everyone who wants to come in. This isn’t fair,” and “If we only tell some people about our program, we have to tell everyone—otherwise it isn’t fair. That is preferential treatment.”

Tyler needed several drinks to get through the retelling of these meetings and conversations. Tokenism = happy hour. We needed to help her figure out how to support her colleagues as they realigned their expectations and start working proactively rather than complain about changing their ways of working.

Do you Know Who is [not] Using your Program?
Hearing some of the comments from Tyler’s colleagues led us to ask about demographic data. Did her colleagues know who was using their programs? The answer sounded like this “Umm… no…” Tyler knew who visited her programs because she did the hard work of recruiting participants from the community and communities of color. Others relied upon traditional means of getting the word out – fliers, online postings, and word of mouth referrals. Their programs were often full, so the staff didn’t feel a need to realign their expectations of service. They had head counts of participants, but beyond a quick scan of who was in the room, they couldn’t always tell who was using the program and if they were reaching populations who would benefit the most from their programs.

We suggested having her organization start collecting demographic data. The collection could be voluntary/opt-in and done in a way that kept it anonymous. Such as have a sheet where people could fill out their demographic data and turn it into an envelope for collection. This way the program staff can begin to count and see who was attending their program — were people of color attending their programs, were they from harder to reach groups (non-English speakers, lower income, etc.) participating.

Why Counting is Important
Demographic data allows us to evaluate who is using our programs. Without this data we make guesses which allows us to make excuses that sound like this: “Sana came today, she likes the program so I must be doing something right,” or “I looked across the room and it looked diverse,” “The program today was great, we were really full.”

Demographic data is important for so many reasons. Having demographic data allows us to look objectively and remove some of the bias and affinities that we have. It also allows us to do a deeper look at how the goals of the program line up against actual service delivery:

  • Are resources deployed in ways that are reaching priority populations?
  • Are clients reflective of the overall demographics of the neighborhood? Are priority service clients (people of color) over represented in the service data (which is good)?
  • Are some communities taking advantage of a program more than others? It is important to disaggregate data to determine this answer.

Having demographic data is the beginning of ‘doing equity’ right. We need to know who we are serving and why we are choosing to serve them.

How to Collect Demographic Data While Being Open to All
As we continued happy houring with Tyler we talked about how the drop-in nature of her program needed to figure out how to begin collecting data on participants. The collection methods for demographic data had to be opt-in, quick, and anonymous. Several strategies emerged:

  • Simple forms that people chose to fill out and return in a box
  • Optional questions on sign-up forms
  • Have a tablet computer or laptop set up where people quickly answer demographic questions

Once the data is collected it is important to look at the data and figure out what is the data telling you.

  • Are the attendees or program participants reflective of the community?
  • Are outreach methods need to be adjusted to recruit more from priority populations?
  • Does translation and interpretation services need to be brought in to help find families who might not have heard of the program?
  • Does the program have to rethink the content of the program to attract the priority population?

These strategies and questions gave Tyler a starting place to helping her colleagues begin to understand how to adjust their programs to get towards more equitable results.

More Happy Hours
These were the beginning steps to building more equitable programs. Our small Fakequity Fighters team stands ready for the next time Tyler (and others) comes up with more questions about how to move their programs and organizations toward finding more equitable results—that is what happy hour is for.

Posted by Erin

I’ve Got Your Back, Do You Have Mine? Let’s Stop Backstabbing Each Other

2918540A few days ago I discovered an anonymous social media post calling me out for somethings I said at a public event. At the event I shared personal views about race and a hot button topic, the post was related to my statements at the event. What I say in public is open to interpretation and fair game for criticism. I hope people feel comfortable approaching me and they know I am open to conversation. I need to be held accountable for my views, especially when race and racial equity are involved. Discovering the anonymous posting sucked like the pungent bitter salty crack seed candy from my little kid days.

After the event no one reached out to say “Hey I heard you say this, can we talk?” or “I don’t agree with what you said, I’d like to share my perspective.” The event was attended by people of color and allies, which made the posting sting even more. I believed the meeting was a ‘safe’ or ‘brave’ space to share ideas and build trust, and I still believe the overall event accomplished what it was meant to do — open a dialogue about race. This one isolated incident doesn’t overshadow the good it accomplished.

While my comment was made in a professional context, it felt personal and when I saw the post I took it personally. I can’t separate my leadership from being a person of color or other parts of my life. My history and views are informed by my experiences as a person of color, and I am seen as a person of color. In order for me to be effective I have to bring my whole self, including my identity to the work.

The Three Levels of Action – Head, Heart, and Hands
A few months ago Heidi and I led a conversation around education, race, and history. To frame the conversation Heidi talked about how we must work with our head, heart, and hands. In other words, we have to be able to intellectualize and look at data, but also connect it to our hearts and begin to empathize and understand what the data means for a person living the experience behind the data. Moving through our head and heart allows us to move to action, hands, and use what we learn to create change.

Being called out anonymously on social media may have been an intellectual exercise for the person writing the post, but it struck at the heart and gut level for me. When I spoke up I knew I was taking a risk and I didn’t expect others to agree, but I expected my comments would be respected as one of many viewpoints.

A friend who is in elected office told me he thought by now he would make him more immune to criticism and to let things go, but even today criticism still stings like lemon juice in the eye. Leadership, especially as it relates to race and politics around race, is personal.

I’ve Got Your Back, Do you Have Mine?
When we share our views on race, we are stepping forward and taking a risk. We don’t have to agree with each other, in fact I sometimes get uncomfortable being in the majority. Being in the majority means I’m not hearing from a wide diversity of people. We need to show respect and be willing to have conversations that are different and challenge us. When it comes to talking about race we must have each other’s back by being honest, open, conversing, and committed to moving forward together.

In having each other’s back, we also need to have conversations where communities of color and allies can build relationships and work through differences. Communities of color are not homogeneous. As a community we benefit when we share our thoughts, relate, empathize, and look for learning. We don’t have to agree with each other, but we do need to see value in the differences. When we don’t spend time working together, divide and conquer strategies emerge which hurts all of us. We also have to commit to building relationships, not gossip or its social media equivalents, and commit to working towards the common good of equity not fakequity.

This coming Monday is Martin Luther King Day, a day to reflect on the civil rights movement and Dr. King’s leadership. In his speech “I Have a Dream” he wrote “We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline.” In today’s world of faster and anonymous communication we still need to practice dignity and discipline, nothing will replace the getting to know each other part of our work. Racial equity work, has been and will continue to be, built upon understanding each other and working together. Let’s move forward on making his dream our reality.

Posted by Erin

Are you Centering or Off-Centering?

A few weeks ago Heidi and I had an email conversation around the word ‘centering.’ Heidi kept using the word and I kept emailing her back saying the word is jargon. She pushed back saying there is no other word to convey the feeling of ‘centering’ work around people of color. It was a good back-and-forth email conversation where we worked through what exactly centering means. We thought we’d share some of what we learned.

Many of us have heard about the Black Lives Matters movement. The Black Lives Matter movement rose out of the African American and Black communities. It is ‘centered’ on the African American and Black community’s needs, messages, hopes, and dreams. Others have co-opted and changed the message to All Lives Matters, in the vein of being inclusive and saying their lives matter too. We are taught that inclusiveness is important. We should work to make our meetings, programs, and efforts open and include those traditionally left out. However, in this context, centering and staying focused on the messages of the Black Lives Matter movement are fundamental to their intent and success. Your life and my life matters but we do not need to be the center of the movement or have the attention diverted away. Saying All Lives Matters doesn’t make a person an ally or show support. The Black Lives Matter movement needs to stay centered on the African American/Black community, it is their movement and they are in control.

What is Centering? It is like Grandma’s house.


This isn’t my Grandma’s house, but she lived in a similar looking planation style one.

Heidi’s research yielded this background on centering:
“One of the origins of the term “centered” comes from the medical world, as a way to draw a distinction from “doctor-centered” medicine to “patient-centered” medicine. The term “centered” or “community of color-centered” is defined as intentionally focusing on people of color, to physically and mentally shift, and pivot from the default habit of centering and prioritizing whiteness.” — Heidi Schillinger, 2015


Other centering movements are growing, including centering pregnancy, a model that allows pregnancy women to have a group experiences and to support each other through pregnancy and post-partum. Centering in environmental justice, centering on race in education, etc.

I think of centering like my Grandma’s home. Her house was a centralizing place where the family gathered, were fed (‘go eat,’ or ‘you hungry?’ were constant utterances), shared information, hashed out our differences, and made decisions. My grandma’s house was the hub, the center of extended family life. Family life was centered around what happened and what we learned at the home.

In a community context centering means the project or organization is rooted and anchored, like Grandma’s house, in the community. Centering a project means meetings are a place where decisions are made with communities of color at the center of the decision making, where people of color from communities most impacted have decision making control, where we share and receive key information in an open and honest way, and communities of color control timelines, goals, and other key aspects of the project. A project that is centered in the community also allows the community members a space to disagree with each other, but then emerge with a united message and voice.

Let’s have some fun with off-centering. Off-centering is like that feeling when you first meet your boyfriend’s/girlfriend’s parents, or better yet their grandparents. Everything is lovely and nice, the elders are courteous and everyone is on their best behavior (or not), but it just feels weird. The weirdness comes from being new and not knowing the rules, preferences, or having much control over the situation.

A colleague shared a story of how off-centering impacted her community. My colleague leads an organization that is embedded in a housing community where many refugees live. Many of her families are newly arrived immigrants and refugees who aren’t accustomed to American parenting and unspoken child safety rules (i.e. unattended children, discipline, etc.). For a long while Child Protective Services (CPS) was called to the housing complex to investigate child abuse and neglect cases on a weekly basis. It was incredibly stressful for everyone involved. The parents didn’t understand why people were talking about or removing their children, CPS was frustrated they continually had to show up in the housing complex, and when children are removed from a family they don’t always understand why. By not having a focus, or putting the refugee community and their children in the center of what is needed, CPS was forced to use a heavy handed approach to ensure child safety, which was ultimately what everyone wanted including the parents.

Finally, the parties came together to put children in the center. A round table discussion started and over several months, CPS, parent representatives, school leaders, and a few others began to listen to each other. The community and parents became key allies, rather than adversaries, in helping to solve the problem. The parents helped with information flow between the round table and others in the community. They also had control and power over agenda items when the group met. This allowed parents to say to CPS “Your practices are harmful to our children. We don’t understand why you take our children away,” which was an important message to share. CPS was also able to share their responsibilities in keeping children safe and how the community could respond to keep children safer. My colleague’s organization did their part by listening to her parents and starting a Play & Learn group to support parents of young children, parenting support groups, after-school sports programs for youth, and continues to host monthly gatherings for the community to talk and raise issues.  Last year they had zero CPS referrals in their housing community.

Be the Center
In our everyday work we need to be a force that anchors ourselves to allow communities of color own the ‘center.’ Much like how my grandma’s house was a welcoming and inviting anchor for my family, we can do this in our everyday community work by:

  • Opening leadership tables to people of color from the communities impacted.
  • Giving decision making authority to communities of color, be clear about what decisions are open and what parts of a project cannot be changed due to budget, policies, etc.
  • Hold meetings in the community.
  • Facilitating meetings that encourage an open dialogue about race and its impact.
  • Pausing and checking in to make sure communities of color are on board with the course of action, and if they aren’t than stopping to make adjustments.
  • Allowing community members to set the agenda, or at minimum put their agenda items on the meeting agenda.
  • Allocating resources for the priorities that the community brings up, especially if they are different than where the planners originally wanted to do.

As my grandma used to say “Come now, we go visit,” which was code for getting things done. Now let’s go center ourselves.

Posted by Erin