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