It’s been a while since I have written for the blog, but after a week of seeing how institutions tell me every day to sit down, I need to get my thoughts on paper. Thank you Erin for almost never picking up the phone when I call at my scheduled time in the afternoon. I am finding my rants on your voicemail to be quite therapeutic.
I want to be clear, I am offering no solutions in this post. If it was that simple, the problems we face around community engagement would be fixed. Besides I have offered plenty of suggestions in the past, there are tons of tools and tips for your reference. The time is now to ask “do my values match my practices?” If you are doing your work to unpack privilege, notice how systemic racial bias shows up and leading for equity then perhaps my reflections on my experiences will compel you to work harder. I am also hopeful it will encourage others to call out other white folks when you see systemic and institutional racism being maintained in the workplace.
What set me off this week
I never realized before what I considered best practices when working with community was a special skill. To me this ‘skill’ isn’t a skill, it is part of who I am and how I get my work done. Yet this skill has allowed me the privilege of sitting at a variety of tables, both in the community and sitting at political tables where resources are allocated or decisions are made. I am praised for my ideas and knowledge of community. The truth is as many times as I have been included in the discussion I am being tokenized. I am set up to represent and be the spokesperson for every POC community. In case you were unaware POC communities are made up of a dynamic collective of peoples with distinct and unique experiences. When you put me at the table you think it counts for true and authentic engagement.
Your participation in my exploitation ends today. I am no longer interested in being your thought partner. If you want to lead for equity and change then it is time to stop relying
on POC colleagues to do the heavy lifting for you. My brain is no longer available for picking. My time and knowledge are my most valuable and precious resources. As of today, I am saying goodbye to the following:
- Never being acknowledged for all the times I’ve sat at the table and reviewed your proposals and made recommendations. I’ve put in so much effort that it might as well be my project.
- Dropping a ton of knowledge and damn near telling you how to do it and you still do it your way in the end anyway. What’s the point of asking me, so you can check the box and say you ‘engaged’ pocs?
- Internal stakeholder engagement which is basically code for the “illusion of inclusion.” I get it you really do not want me there, but it is part of the deal. You need to show proof that you talked to some people of color. Gotta get the buy in right?
- Reading your final report and watching the institution praise you for your leadership. I read the report and marvel at all the fancy appendices. I look for my name and don’t see it. I read the report again just to make sure I didn’t miss it. Nope it is not there. Why do you only include ‘leadership’ or who paid for the report? Was my knowledge not as valuable? This isn’t about ego, it is about respect. If I left you off a list, oh trust me I would hear about how I overlooked an important detail and it is now a strike against me.
“We really do want to know what you’re thinking”
If you’re thinking “I really want to know what you’re thinking,” that is great, so show me you value what I know. Show me you value the years of relationship building I’ve done. I’ve invested many hours building relationships and trust with people in the community, when you ask me to give you shortcuts by telling you what I think, you should recognize you’re getting my biased version. If you value what I think then show me and the communities I work with respect by listening to what we say, by stop talking to me all the time and building new relationships, and finally act on what we tell you.
Just as you worked hard learning technical skills like building a database, putting together a pretty Excel budget, or a smart-sounding piece of legislation, I’ve been busy learning how to navigate different communities. I’ve been busy learning cultural norms and customs, such as elders eat first, how to bow my head respectfully while someone blesses the food, how to introduce myself in Spanish. I’ve also learned how to order lunch for a mixed group of people – it’s harder than you may think—is it Ramadan (no food or drink), no pepperoni pizza (is that pork in the pepperoni, is it halal, pepperoni pizza isn’t kosher), no dairy– can’t do regular pizza, how to order from POC owned businesses, how to order food and stay within a small budget, tip or no-tip, these are just as important skills as those technical ones you write on your resume.
Don’t dis what I know just because it sounds easy, it isn’t.