I’m Standing Here – It’s Not About You


photo by Erin O.

Earlier this week I learned of the Maori word Tūrangawaewae, translated literally to mean tūranga (standing place), waewae (feet), meaning “a place to stand;” places where we feel empowered and connected. I learned of this concept at a lecture hosted by the University of Washington’s Center for Child and Family Well-Being and their mindfulness initiative. Rick Hanson, PhD, lectured on happiness, resilience, contentment, and how to turn these into lasting experiences for our brain.

One take-away from his lecture is our brains are hardwired to remember bad experiences over good ones. This basic concept kept humans alive in prehistoric days: Oh, crap – that big animal is going to eat me, must remember to stay away from big animal. Good experiences are less likely to stick and we have to work harder to infuse these into our brains. The good experiences allow us to stand firm and to be understood. While this lecture wasn’t focused on racial equity, my brain jumped to filtering his talk through a race and social justice filter.

“It was so nice to be seen and understood.”
I attended Catholic schools and the good nuns made sure I learned the Prayer of St. Francis, although I confess I can’t recite it. The line “to be understood as to understand” stands out for me, I’ve never fully understood its meaning. The line often pops into my head during conversations where I feel like I have to press a point about racial equity, or even worse when I say something about race and the conversation moves on without acknowledging my comment. In so many ways the need to be understood and to understand comes from also feeling like we have a place to stand.

Heidi (of the fakequity team) recently facilitated a conversation for a Immigrant and Refugee Affinity Group. When she went home her partner was suspicious and asked why she was so happy, her reply “it was so nice to be seen and understood.” Heidi felt like she had a place to stand, a conversation where she understood and others understood her, and participants didn’t need to make a fuss to be seen or heard. There was also a sense of hope.

CiKeithia (also of the fakequity team) shared her experience attending a conference session called “The ‘Problem Women of Color’ Chronicle and Institutional Change.” During the conversation she realized how we have to armor ourselves. The session was a ‘rich experience;’ being surrounded by women of color having a conversation focused on their experiences gave her a sense of good.

During Dr. Hanson’s lecture on happiness he talked about how we need to work harder to ensure we remember good experiences. As I listened to Dr. Hanson’s lecture I made note about trying to focus more on the good and reveling in the moments where we make gains for communities of color. Dr. Hanson talked about how we need to slow down and record these moments, we need sit with the moment for 10-20 seconds so they can imprint on our brain. We need to overload on the good racial equity moments to over compensate for the crappy moments that stay with us more easily. Drop by drop, one by one, these small good moments will surround and isolate the bad incidents.

A Place to Stand
In Dr. Hanson’s book Hardwiring Happiness, he writes about 21 Jewels – practices to help create responsive brains. If you want the full list of practices buy his book or borrow it from the library. One of the particularly relevant practices is the sense of refuge, “anything that gives you a sense of sanctuary, refueling, uplift … rest and recharge… even as pain or difficulty swirls around you.” In our work we need to create refuges and places where we can stand and be ok.

Allies can help create these spaces. A colleague shared a story about how she led a People of Color centered silent retreat at her Buddhist temple. For her religion is a refuge, a place where she seeks renewal and uplifting experiences. As she prepared for the retreat several of her White friends asked to attend. After conversations her White allies saw the importance of having the retreat stay a People of Color experiences, their participation in the retreat was to offer service – prepare and serve food, tidy the space, and to create a sense of caring around their fellow members. This created a sense of healing and renewal for everyone.

Even as people of color we need to claim places to stand and respect each other’s spots. A colleague convenes African American families to talk about their children’s educations. I often attend because I want to support and learn. I often check in before attending to ask if it is ok for me to attend since I don’t want to take away from their conversation, it is their place to be. I also try to respect the ‘space’ by only offering my thoughts if asked and not taking what I learn for personal gain.

Places to Stand — Being Allies
Having a place to stand means we respect each other’s places to stand. We need to create our own places and be allies to each other:

  • Practice talking about the good. Dr. Hanson talked about focusing on the good and reveling in them and staying with it for 10-20 seconds or longer. Create a practice of starting or ending meetings with “One Good Racial Equity Moment,” or another friend sends out “FFGM” Friday Feel Good Moments emails. We need to practice feeling, not jumping to doing.
  • Respect each other’s places to stand. We need to be ok with not having attention and allowing each other space to stand. We each need a place to stand and be seen.
  • Be quiet. Having a place to stand also means being seen, heard, and understood. When we quiet ourselves, we are more open to understanding and seeing others.
  • Create places for children and youth of color to stand. Youth of color especially need places to stand and be seen. Open up safe spaces for youth of color to create a space for themselves.

Center for Child and Family Well-Being made Dr. Hanson’s lecture available online, starts at the 8.50 minute mark.

Posted by Erin Okuno

By the way you’re now White. How to make Asians invisible.

When I became an executive director a colleague reached out to invite me to join the Asian Pacific Directors Coalition (APDC). I hadn’t really done a lot of work with the Asian community so it was a new experience to be surrounded by so many Asian leaders, many of whom had paved the way for me to be in my present job. At one meeting a colleague said “too often Asians are left out of conversations around race.”

At the recent Oscars the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite was trending because of the lack of diversity and several skits projecting stereotypes of Asians. Many in the Asian community hoped with the recent Supreme Court vacancy an Asian would be named to further diversify the court. Asians in the Seattle Metro Area are the second largest minority group and it continues to grow — this trend probably holds true in other parts of the United States, which means we are here and we cannot be made invisible.

Other racial groups are sometimes left out of data presentations, but for the purposes of this blog post I’m focusing on Asians because I am Asian and can speak to my Asian experience. I hope others will choose to share their perspectives as well, please email fakequity@gmail.com if you are willing to share.

“Hey, I’m missing from that chart.”
Recently I was looking at an education report, pretty standard stuff – charts on graduation rates, kindergarten readiness, etc. Where it got interesting was the chart labeled “opportunity gap.” I paused and started reading more carefully, but couldn’t make sense of the chart or the table. My colleague and I puzzled over it until we read the footnote and it became real. In the chart Asians were grouped with Whites in order to present their opportunity gap data. We went from “no way, they didn’t do that…” to “oh, shit they did…”

Several weeks later, in another meeting (for a separate organization) several charts were passed around to demonstrate how students of color are doing academically and where the ranking of the schools where students of color attend. These charts were much simpler to read so it took me only a few seconds to zoom in on the bar line labeled “White or Asian.” I could feel my blood pressure rising and the facilitator could see I was getting agitated. She graciously came over and asked what was going on. When the group reconvened I ‘soapboxed’ and passionately explained why grouping Asians with Whites is a bad practice. Several in the room nodded their heads, while others stared blankly or their eyes glazed over with confusion.

Invisible Asians — Can you see me?
Many Asians, myself included, receive the benefits passed on to us with Asian privilege. For the most part I don’t worry about safety and I’m not treated differently because of language or faith beliefs. That said I can’t ‘turn off’ how I look, or control how people perceive me because of my Asian background. There are still systemic and institutional barriers holding many Asians back. Disaggregated Asian data shows many Asians are still struggling.

Data is an important way to demonstrate the disparities that continue to exist for Asians. Data can either be used for good or as my colleague Dr. Jondou Chen describes as ‘weaponizing’ data against communities of color. Grouping Asians with Whites plays into the myth of the ‘model minority.’ While many Asians are doing well, many others still struggle or have to work twice as hard to find the same gains as our White counterparts.

As an example my organization just completed a big data project. Through our partners, we surveyed over 600 families including many East Asians. Two of the questions asked were:

  • “How often have you received positive communication about your child?,” and
  • “How often have you received negative communication about your child?”

When we looked at this question broken out by race, Asian families reported receiving more negative communications about their child than positive. Could this be because of the ‘myth’ that Asian students are expected to do well in school, or is it because of language barriers, or teacher biases? The data set showed us where we need to dig deeper and examine the systems involved and work with partners to close and improve the gaps. Had Asians been grouped with Whites we wouldn’t have this level of specificity and Asian student’s needs would have been lost.

Within the Asian race category are 48 distinct ethnic groups – each with their own histories and cultures, different languages, and unique migration story. We must honor these legacies and richness in order to understand opportunity and achievement gaps or other gaps in health care, justice systems, etc. At an event hosted by partners in the African American community a gentleman said “I cannot learn your song, until I learn to sing my own.” In this case we cannot expect to close gaps until we understand the Asian experience and recognize the richness and the needs of Asian communities.

3927082Grouping Asian with White people  shifts the burden of closing gaps to Asians rather than identifying factors that continue to marginalize Asian communities. When we look at disaggregated data, such as this chart from the Washington State Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs (CAPAA) we can clearly see not all Asians are academically achieving at high rates. If Asians were grouped with Whites this data would be invisible and we would continue to wonder and at worst blame Asians for not academically achieving. With this data we can begin to look more closely at the systems holding Asians back.

Making Asians and People of Color Visible
We need to adopt practices that intentionally makes visible Communities of Color. We need to ensure Communities of Color own and have a say in how data is presented and used, here are some suggestions:

  • At a minimum stop grouping Asians with Whites, or other combinations. Disaggregated data is a best practice.
  • Learn about different Asian experiences, recognizing each Asian experience is unique and we need to create space for multiple voices, stories, and truths.
  • Listen to and work with communities of color on how data can be used to highlight needs and drive towards problems solving and resource sharing. Data use needs to build trust, not used against people of color.
  • Allow communities of color ownership of their own data — only collect data in partnership with communities of color, honor how the communities want to have their data used, check with multiple people from communities on how they are experiencing their data.
  • Continuously review data practices using a racial equity lens.

Many of these practices will benefit communities of color overall. We need to stop making communities of color invisible. We need to make visible Asian and people of color experiences and truths, to counter the narratives that play into myths and stereotypes around race. We need to work proactively with communities of color to identify what is working and where policy and community work is needed.

Posted by Erin Okuno, special thanks to Jondou Chen, PhD, James Hong, MEd, and Heidi Schillinger, MSW for background material and thought partnership.

The Week a Bad Thing Happened, and the Good that Came After, and the Challenge for the Week that Follows

Earlier this week I was mugged; I’m fine – a little buss’ up, but fine. I won’t go into the details since they don’t really matter. What matters is the ‘equity story’ that comes out of it. Heidi (of the fakequity team) suggested sharing the story because it happened and the story didn’t end with “I was mugged.”

One Incident in One Place
I was mugged on a gorgeous sunny March afternoon on a route I travel often. My neighborhood is great, we have our good and we have our challenges. I love being able to walk to the park, the library, grab a bite to eat at the local Mexican, Vietnamese, or 9198231Chinese restaurants or a sweet from the Japanese, or Filipino bakeries. I love seeing the new affordable housing going up a half-mile from my house. I loved hearing from a colleague how a neighboring community is embracing a tent city that is moving in. At their community meeting instead of “we don’t want homeless here,” or “we’re worried about crime, trash, intoxication and drugs” as happened in other neighborhoods, the community’s biggest concern was “How do we get the [tent city] residents hot water? They need hot water!” Taken all together these are the things that define the character of my community. While it is true my neighborhood probably has a higher crime rate, higher poverty, and lower  education and health outcomes, do they define us – no. We don’t excuse the crime and we work hard to build stronger communities rooted and glued by culture, diversity, and relationships.

In racial equity work we have to remember one incident or one story doesn’t define a community. It is easy to think what we hear and see on Facebook, in the news, in rap songs, or hear from friends of friends is true. If I believed what I read on Facebook from our neighborhood group I would think my neighborhood is overrun by crime, off-leash dogs, and new houses (code for gentrification). I’d also believe everyone in my neighborhood was English literate, since US social media is predominately English based – I know this isn’t true and it is evident whenever I’m out grocery shopping, at the library, or in a school.

Writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie wrote: “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” I’m not sharing details of the robbery because I don’t want to perpetuate stereotypes of my neighborhood, Asian victims (for the record I don’t think I’m a ‘victim’), or the person who robbed me. These details are for me to know and for me to process my own biases against and challenge myself to redefine. Stereotypes, biases, and incomplete stories are antithetical to racial equity work, they allow racism and injustice to continue. Instead we need to do the harder work of digging in and spending time building strong relationships that can question stereotypes and push us to evaluate the stories we tell ourselves.

Relationships First
I’ve been fairly open about being mugged. It happened, it sucked, and I needed a few things from my community such as – if you saw my purse dumped please let me know, if you needed to reach me use email since I didn’t have a phone, and I lost my wallet so lunch was on you. The response I got back was amazing. Friends, neighbors, and colleagues have been great. They sent messages checking in, a friend made me laugh when she correctly noted the robbers were probably disappointed to find random gummy bears in my former purse, and offers to help replace lost items. At some point I will return these favors, because I want to and because this is how we do things– we take care of each other, not because of a quid pro quo formula. Community building and racial equity work happens quickest and best when we spend the upfront time building personal relationships.

My Challenge and Your Challenge
My scrapes and bruises are still there, but will eventually go away. I can thank my friends for ensuring my headspace is fine. I’m fine because I had a strong community around me who made sure I was taken care of. Now they can worry about others.

Who I am worried about are the kids, overwhelmingly kids of color, in our community that slip through systems. I’m worried about the immigrants who may be a victim of a crime but may not report it because of a language barrier or they don’t feel they can trust government. I worry about families who are stressed about housing, food, and medical cost and as a result their children feel the stress. I worry about the little and big things that allow racism to continue. These are the stressors that also define our community.

My challenge and your challenge is to get our racial equity work right. We have to take care of each other AND we need to extend ourselves to take care of someone else we may not know or easily see. Challenge yourself to call out racism. Challenge yourself to analyze a piece of data and figure out who’s story and what story is it telling. Make a new relationship or invest in a community different than your own. Maybe these steps will help a kid, especially a child of color, feel connected, stay in school, and be more securely rooted—for me this is what equity work is about. Be safe and thanks for all you do.

Posted by Erin Okuno

Leading with Race: Are we Talking Racial Equity or Equity?

Every few weeks I have the conversation around why we need to focus on race. Someone will say “what about [fill in the blank foster youth, special needs, LGQBT, people who live in a particular neighborhood, vegans, lactose intolerant, people who hate spiders, etc.]? They are often left behind and have a lot of needs.” I understand why they are naming specific populations; they are being inclusive and thoughtful and doing their job as an advocate. When this happens I pause the conversation and say “yes focusing on [fill in the blank population] is important but we lead with race because if we don’t we may still miss people of color.” It is at this point I get confused looks.
We lead and focus on race first because if we don’t we may miss people and communities of color all together. We have to design our work to have a focus on race because when we lead with race we ensure we are capturing people of color, and inevitably white people will come along. Defaulting to regular practices leaves communities of color behind.

Here is an example:
My organization just wrapped up a big survey project. We received 639 survey results, majority from people of color and very representative of the demographics of our community (e.g. high rates of eligible for free and reduced lunch, many immigrants and refugees, etc.). We had the survey translated into ten languages and used interpreters to help lead focus groups and trusted partners to reach out into the community. Our design team was all people of color. We designed the project with a racial equity focus – everything from whom we recruited for the survey design team, what questions included in the survey and how they were worded, translating the lengthy surveys into multiple languages, having both an online and paper copies available and using focus groups, who collected the surveys, and our community feedback Summit were all designed to cater to experiences of people of color. All of these efforts helped to ensure we were reaching people of color. We didn’t leave it to chance, we led with race and as a result we got what we wanted, an over representation of diverse families included in our data set. Along the way we worked with many white people and they were included. In a later blog post we’ll share more details about the survey project.

Had we said “we believe in equity” and not led with race our whole process would have looked different and maybe we would have found people of color to complete the survey but probably not in the high numbers that completed it.

Here is another example in reverse:
A library just got a big grant to do outreach to foster youth. Educational outcomes for foster youth are lower than non-foster youth and the library has a lot of great services which can help. The library system uses their traditional models of outreach – fliers in English, talking to library branch staff about whom they should send emails and information to, and scan their collection of books on foster youth experience. After a few months of work they review their work and see they are making a difference, however a staff person grimaced and says “I think we’ve missed our mark, we’re reaching mostly white foster youth. Foster youth of color and immigrant and refugee youth aren’t included in our numbers.” Everyone around the tables said “ohhhh…”

Focusing on a high needs population, such as foster children, is important but it isn’t


photo by Erin Okuno

enough. We need to use a racial equity priority or lens and focus deeper and ensure we are capturing foster youth of color. As you can see from the example above leading with a general purpose of ‘equity’ allows people of color to be forgotten.

We need to lead with race in order to make sure people of color don’t get lost or left behind. When we focus on racial equity we ensure people of color are talked about and focused on. It also means we are doing the harder work of capturing people of color who have more disparities and are further behind. By leading with race it also gives the project a better chance of having the work led by communities of color, versus having it happen to a community of color. If we only focus on broad strokes efforts or special populations we may default to practices which have historically left people of color behind. We need to lead with race, talk about race, and work with communities of color to ensure people of color are being served.

How to lead with a racial equity focus:

  1. Be clear with your team you are talking about racial equity. And be clear about how you think about racial equity.
  2. Recognize when your project defaults back to standard practices (i.e. email communication which works for those with internet access, English only, meeting times that are inaccessible to whom you’re trying to reach, serving food only some can eat such as pork, etc.).
  3. Look at your data and see if there are racial disparity gaps, do you need to further target your efforts to respond to the data, such as do you need to focus on Asians or Latinos.
  4. Design your project around your racial equity goals – location, food served, who to recruit, etc. should all be influenced by your racial equity lens.

When we lead with racial equity we see the results and we leave less to chance. Be bold and brave and do your part to lead with race.