Accommodations versus Doing What is Right — Fix the System


photo by Erin Okuno

One of the drawbacks of pre-writing blog post (which almost never happens) is racial equity work is always evolving and changing. I am thinking about Philando Castile, the 123 black person was killed by a police officer this year and Alton Sterling. We remember the shooting in Orlando killing of LGQBTIA Latinx community members and the need for people of color to call for gun control. Tonight police officers were killed in Dallas – I have friends and colleagues of color and white who work in emergency services and law enforcement, I am thinking of you. This week many celebrated the end of Ramadan, a time for community. CiKeithia said it best: “We need to know each other more than ever,” that is at the heart of equity work – knowing each other and building the relationships needed to see equitable changes. I’m asking myself what is my role, what actions do I need to take to prevent another death. A few weeks ago Heidi wrote about how we must show our love for our communities and move to action. I hope you will join me in changing one thing today that will drive towards more racial equity, take a real action not just a social media post — get to know someone new, challenge a policy you believe upholds racism, do something. 

Over the Fourth of July weekend I was flattened with a cold. Between shivering with the chills and napping I laid around and watched Netflix. Since it was the Fourth of July I watched the second most patriotic show after the West Wing, season two of Madame Secretary; a show devoid of Asians, Native Americans, Latinx, and Muslims except in bit parts, I’ll save that rant for another day. During a scene where the Secretary of State is arguing to keep America out of war (basically every other episode) I started thinking about how we work to ensure we bring out the best in each other versus react.

At one point, Secretary McCord breaks down and says “I’m good at responding to crisis situations, I suck at the other stuff.” For good and bad systems, policies, and laws are good at reacting in crisis situations (i.e. nuclear attacks, financial meltdowns, hurricanes, etc.), but overall slow to change. The good is our systems preserves and keeps organizations, government, and society stable; we aren’t subject to the whims of a wacky leader or dealing with constant mayhem. The bad means we are slow to make changes and to make corrections or to understand the needs of our changing communities.

We need to recognize that what may look like a common everyday situation to some is actually a crisis situation for communities of color. Such as how is it not a crisis to have children of color not in school, it is a crisis we can’t get clean water to communities of color, and it is a crisis over ninety percent of teachers in Washington state are white but fifty-four percent of students in Seattle Public Schools are students of color. At the same time, we also need to stop responding to crisis situations with band-aid fixes/accommodations and start fixing systems that hold people of color back. Responding to a crisis or an urgent situation we create an accommodation, a one-off or a special circumstance. We need to move beyond these special circumstances and begin to shift practices to benefit people of color and embed it into our systems.

As an example I’ve participated in a philanthropic group, Social Venture Partners (SVP) Seattle, as a Brainerd Fellow. The Fellowship was created as a way to diversify their membership and to allow nonprofit professionals who can’t afford the participation fee of $3,000 into their organization. Without the accommodation, a fee waiver, I wouldn’t have participated which would have been unfortunate since I got a lot out of it. I know I brought equal value to SVP by sharing what I know about nonprofits, community engagement, and racial equity to SVP. Many have talked about how important it is for the field of philanthropy to diversify — philanthropy controls discretionary giving to nonprofits and having people of color involved changes the conversation and hopefully creates pathways for money to end up closer to communities of color.

We often provide accommodations in bits and pieces, such as when we offer interpreters and translated materials, child care, transportation stipends, and other services that help people participate. We need to move beyond accommodating and move to fix the practices that continue to  keep people of color from participating as our best selves.

Accommodations aren’t Enough – Systems Define the Results
Accommodations are great, but they aren’t enough. We need to stop accommodating people of color (poc) and start centering our work around poc needs. Centering our work around people of color will highlight the barriers needing to be removed in order for poc to participate. When we think about what people of color need to be ‘whole’ and to participate the conversation changes and our systems, practices, and beliefs will change as well.

Leaving things at accommodations ‘others’ those receiving accommodations. While I value my participation with SVP Seattle’s fellowship it took a while to feel like I was a part of the partnership and not a token participant. The financial accommodation was important, but it was just that an accommodation not an integrated part of the organization. We need to move beyond accommodating people of color and asking what are we doing to build inclusion and re-centering our work around poc needs and strengths.

Imagine what our public participation processes could look like if we stopped accommodating and started integrating smarter community processes into our work. Such as every time I go to a school board meeting and see parents trying to entertain their children’s needs I think “Wouldn’t it be great if we say because this is a school board meeting and we value children, why isn’t there onsite child care during the meeting so parents/caregivers can participate?” Centering the meeting on the needs of children, especially children of color, would lead us to ask different questions and ensure better participation of families of color.

Some things to think about:
What are the barriers to people participating — Are there cost barriers, if so how can we eliminate those barriers? Are there time or technology barriers? Can we go to people and get to know them so we can encourage their participation?

What are you doing for one person to allow them to participate– Chances are you might be providing a special accommodation for someone in your program to participate. Can you take what you’re doing for that one person and take it to scale?

Who are you listening to– We often are willing to create accommodations for people we hear from, we need to make sure we are hearing from many people of color in order to make sure we are creating change with pocs in the center.

Let’s stop responding to crisis and start intentionally asking smarter questions about how we can infuse more equity into our systems.

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