Color Brave Space — How to run a better equity focused meeting

Today is the start of Ramadan . Ramadan Mubarak to many of our partners.

This blog post has been a long time coming. We’ve punted this one back and forth for months. Someone will approach Heidi and say: “I really like your Color Brave Space. Can I get a copy and use it?” She’ll say: “Go ask Erin to blog about it.” Or someone will come to the Southeast Seattle Education Coalition meeting and say: “I really like the Color Brave Space table tents, can I take it?” and Erin says “No, no taking the table tents. Tell Heidi to blog about it since she’s the creator of Color Brave Space. And stop stealing my table tents — bad karma will come your way!” We’ll quit cross-referring and write the blog post.

Heidi has been conducting racial equity trainings for over a decade. In that time, she’s had groups come up with their own group norms, used ‘safe space’ agreements, and lots of other standard meeting practices. What she found was those types of meeting norms cater to whiteness. They allow the status quo to continue and don’t push people, both white people and people of color, to understand their roles in undoing racism and challenging long held beliefs. Erin attends a lot of meetings with standard group norms and often sighs and wishes she could refocus the group with the Color Brave Space.

There are elements of ‘safe space’ agreements that we agree with such as ‘respect’ and ‘confidentiality.’ However, too often safe space translates into too comfortable for white people and they take safe to mean, ‘don’t threaten my ways of thinking’ or don’t make me feel uncomfortable. Safety and comfort are the norm for white people, but you can’t be safe and comfortable to learn and grow.

Racial equity work should make us all think and challenge us to think and accept new information. Racial equity work is also about changing systems and centering the experiences and voices of people and communities of color. The Color Brave Space format when used correctly creates a different norms which allows this to happen more easily and readily.

Color Brave Space image

To help you understand the elements/principles we will go a little more in-depth into a few of them.

Put Relationships First – Work to build community and trust with an awareness of power dynamics.

This is about trust building, connecting on a personal level, and helping us humanize each other, especially during conversations that are deeply personal, uncomfortable, and fraught with racialized mistrust. We also remind people trust is built over time so the meeting or training you are in is only the start and people should do the harder work of connecting outside of the meeting as well.

Keep Focused on Our Common Goal – We care deeply about [insert your mission], especially those who are directly impacted by racism. [This line can be your mission instead of filling in the blank.]

Heidi almost always emphasizes this principle, because this is why we are all here. You can personalize it to your organization’s mission or goal. It is important for everyone, even the facilitator to know that you are all there in pursuit of a common goal. When sharing it remind people we are all on the same team. Racial equity work is about reaching the common goal, not a ‘gotcha’ or ‘you’re a bad person’ sort of thing, it is about the work and getting to a common equitable outcomes.

Notice Power Dynamics in the Room – Be aware of how you use your privilege: From taking up too much emotional and airtime space, or disengaging.

We emphasize this one because power shows up in many different ways that people may not be conscious of. There are the obvious forms of power, who talks a lot, who uses their title, or when Erin facilitates she say “I am standing in the front of the room and speaking, I have a lot of power in this moment.” Power isn’t always bad, but it needs to be acknowledged and kept in check.

Some of the ways power shows up that are less obvious are things like who disengages or focuses all of the attention on them when things get uncomfortable. This person is the one who maybe keeps leaving the room to take a call, or picks up their phone and plays with it during the middle of the meeting, or argues or tells long personal stories to defend their ways of thinking. These are forms of using power which doesn’t advance the group agenda.

The best example of an unrecognized power is most of the time in dominant society (white) spaces, we are literally using ‘academic English’ as the tool or language of power. So if English is your first and primary language you will be able to participate quicker, more comfortably, and with deeper nuance. As an example, we have the Color Brave Space translated into Spanish. Erin once had a native Spanish speaker in an otherwise all English speaking room, read the Color Brave Space in Spanish. English only speakers looked uncomfortable because all of a sudden couldn’t understand what was happening though the written English translation was provided. It was a great reminder about the power of language.

Create Spaces for Multiple Truths and Norms – Speak your truth, and seek understanding of truths that differ from yours, with awareness of power dynamics.

A couple weeks ago, Erin signed me (Heidi) up for a meditation class. I’m not sure what she was trying to tell me, but I went despite knowing that I had a preconceived opinion that I don’t really like to meditate. But since Erin signed me up, I tried to stay open. Honestly, it was a struggle. But I am glad I went. I appreciated the instructor shared a Buddhist perspective about working hard to be in a “middle place.” Our brains are wired to be constantly judging (you’ve probably already decided if you like this blog piece or not, I guess if you’re still reading, you must like it), but the key is to use our conscious mind to not just fall directly into your immediate judgement and stay open to the ‘middle place.’ As a side note, I am still not sold on meditating, but willing to stay open to working on the practice. Erin’s note to Heidi: meditation like racial equity work takes practice, if you try meditation again you might resist it less, or we can try to meditate during happy hour.

When Erin facilitates she often reminds people that this shows up when people want to pit policies against people’s lived experiences. Sometimes when things get heated a person with formal power/authority may dismiss another person’s story by saying “Well, the policy says this so that couldn’t have happened,” or “I need evidence…” We need to consciously create space to allow people to share different perspectives and work to figure out the systems creating the discrepancies.

Be Kind and Brave – Remember relationships first, and work to be explicit with your language about race, class, gender, immigration, etc.

One of the greatest disservices we have done to conversations about systemic racism is use coded and ambiguous language like ‘diversity, culture, inclusion, or equity.’

Be clear in your language — when you say equity are you talking about racial equity or gender equity? This vague language actually prevents us from having an effective conversation. So let’s work to be specific with our language, and ask for clarification from others when we hear them use terms like diversity, culture, or equity. Along with being kind and brave, remember we need to build relationships for the long haul so use your language in ways that builds bridges.

Practice Examining Racially Biased Systems and Processes – Individual actions are important, and systems are what are left after all the people in this room leave.

Most of these processes and systems in place are ones we’ve inherited. They existed before us, and will continue to exist after we are all gone if we don’t examine and redesign them. It is important to remember we need to work at a systems level, so while the work may feel personal it isn’t about you it is about undoing institutional and systemic racism.

Look for Learning – Show what you’re learning, not what you already know. Avoid playing devil’s advocate, the devil has enough advocates.

Educators call this having a growth mindset. We all continue to have to continue to learn about dismantling racist systems. The best way to create a learning community is to show what we are learning, not what we already know. Heidi asks people explicitly not to play devil’s advocate; this is a use of power to control the conversation. If you really are thinking of an unpopular idea that you should be able to say what is on your mind, while also being open to others sharing counter narratives. If you want to play devil’s advocate or argue, the meeting/training isn’t the place to do it, doing so is hoarding power. Instead take Heidi out for a beer, but no PBR, just the good stuff. Erin will warn you though if you try to play devil’s advocate with Heidi you are likely to lose, she’s good I have yet to win an argument, unless it is about something like food.

Here are suggestions for using the Color Brave Space Principles (Elements) –

  1. Post them, share them, and take the time to actually read through them (slow down to hear them)- They are meant to help us visualize the type of space we want to create together, so they aren’t helpful if you don’t actually take the time to acknowledge and emphasize them. We often ask the group to popcorn style read them (one bold statement with the italic sentence below) until we hear them all. This way folks are actually paying attention and hearing different people’s voices. 
  2. Pick a few to dig into and give some specific examples of what you want participants to be aware of. See deeper explanations above. I encourage you to add your own personalization and stories.
  3. Highlight certain ones throughout the workshop that you want to emphasize for a specific exercise or conversation.
  4. Hold your group accountable to the principles/elements. This means sometimes stopping a conversation and explaining why, see some of the examples above.
  5. One final ask is credit Equity Matters when you use them.

Let us know how you’ve used them. Share how they impacted your meetings. Offer additions or adaptations.

Finally, we must acknowledge and thank Mellody Hobson who introduced the concept of being color brave in her TED Talk. Give the TED talk a watch, then listen to it again for deeper meaning.

We are sharing the Color Brave Space format for personal use only. It shouldn’t be used for institutional or corporate use. If you want to license it to use at your organization please contact fakequity@gmail.com to buy a license to use it. Personal use means you are using it for a meeting you are facilitating, no additional copies are made. Institutional use is to share with more than one copy. Please respect these guidelines, we are sharing it in good faith and don’t want to have to pull this post because people are inapprpriately using Color Brave Space. 

We have Color Brave Space table tents available in PDF format in English and Spanish, other translations may come in the future. The PDF is available for a small donation of $11 generic version as it is in the image or $25 custom (your mission inserted) to Southeast Seattle Education Coalition or a gift (no tax deduction) to fakequity, please email fakequity@gmail.com for details and the PDFs. 

By Heidi Schillinger and Erin Okuno

Asian American Solidarity — Part II

Editor’s Note: Last week we published Part I of this anonymous blog post. This is the second part. A special thanks to our colleague for this series. 

As a side note, for those of you who subscribe to the blog, thank you. I suggest checking the blog for the latest version of the post. The online version is more up to date and often times with minor grammatical corrections and edits to make it a more pleasant reader experience. The subscription button is on the right sidebar.

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Solidarity fist with words. Art work from Amplifer Foundation

Dr. David Dao refused to give up his seat so that he could return home to his family and his patients. His strength and the violent response to it set off a chain reaction of news events and associated emotions within me. I’ve been Dr.Dao. I’ve been asked to give up what I believe is mine. To work extra hours. To accept less or nothing. I’ve looked around to see who else. Who else received this treatment? Who else is getting exploited? Who else can play the sucker? And does anyone else even notice? Does anyone else even care? For me this is part of what it means to be a Person of Color in the US and especially an Asian in America.

Reactions were quick and varied. As the videos began to spread, first came the non-apology. Then the woke jokes started calling out United Airlines and the Chicago Police Department. Then the “international,” “Chinese,” or “some minorities” responses swelled to the point that stock prices broke, more apologies were issued, and amends were self-interestedly made. Was this justice? Sort of. Did we get attention? Briefly, but it was better than nothing. Did we see Asians and allies mobilize into activism? YES. I am thankful for this. And I was surprised. And if I’m really honest, I even felt a bit guilty. Why?

Because even before Dr. Dao I lived with the tensions that 18% of our Asians still voted for 45 [Trump], and more of us need to be at the next #BLM [Black Lives Matter], #NoBanNoWall, and #WaterIsLife meetings. Because solidarity, right? And this is real. And this is our work. And this is White Supremacy. And thus this hurts. And then there’s this …

In several different spaces – on social media, in PoC gatherings, and in one-on-one conversations – non-Asian PoC have said something to the effect of “What happened to Dao was racist, BUT if he wasn’t Asian but another PoC he’d be dead.” Or “It’s good that Dao’s getting paid, BUT if he wasn’t Asian but another PoC he’d be getting less if anything at all.” And. I. Flipped. Out.

I could take you through the blow-by-blow here, but PoC – you know how this went down, and white people, I’m not going to put any more of our internal business out there. In fact, I know some PoC are going to push me about why I’m even putting this out there. Here’s why.

This isn’t the first time this has happened. This won’t be the last time this happened. This is how white supremacy is upheld in 2017.

Racism is real. Settler-colonialism is real. Anti-blackness and colorism are real. Islamophobia and White-Judeo-Christian dominance are real. Xenophobia and nativism are real. Orientalism and its grandchildren the model minority and perpetual foreigner myths are real. Many of us, Dr. Dao and myself, wouldn’t even be here if it weren’t for trillions of US dollars spent on decades of war and dictatorship on the Asian continent. And for us this is where the lateral violence began, when the faces and fingers behind those triggers were disproportionately other folks of color.

This is how we’ve been set up against one another. None of our issues get enough attention. We all want to be heard and even more, we all need and deserve justice. With the weight of the pain and oppression we are holding, when our people, our struggles, and our work aren’t recognized, we get triggered. And when it’s other folks of color who get the attention, who rise up with power, and who get a glimmer of justice, we get triggered. And when the oppression of my group triggers someone because of the oppression of their group, I get triggered. Right back at them.

Over the last month of living this dynamic, I’ve stayed up way too late, eaten way too many fries, and written and deleted too many emails, text messages, and social media posts to be healthy, my whole self, and in just relationship with others because of this cycle of triggering. It’s part Oppression Olympics and part Woke Off. I’ve tried to squeeze the entirety of anti-Asian oppression into 140 characters even though I know that you can’t even start the conversation without reading all 368 pages of Edward Said. And I’ve had it all come back at me from other voices and other experiences. It’s just not possible.

And this is why it can feel like we can’t have real solidarity.

And I have had to repeatedly remind and recenter myself – that this is all because of white supremacy. White supremacy started the Crusades and dropped the bombs and funded the dictators and modeled all of us as minorities. White supremacy planted the flags, sailed the slave ships, wrote the Constitution, and constructed the sweatshops, ghettos, reservations, and “third world.” White supremacy built all this and then remodels itself when we go after each other in trying to compare our oppression. We take turns fighting for the spotlight by claiming the ways and moments when our oppression is the worst of all time. We get incensed when our oppression isn’t named but other people’s are. And even when we are able to call for an end to the Oppression Olympics, white supremacy then cashes in by saying All Lives Matter and that all of us suffer in one way or another, so let’s just be equal. That’s what white supremacy does. That’s why white supremacy is white supremacy. We do the work. White supremacy reaps the rewards.

To the white folks reading this – I need your leadership within your communities to address the ways in which you have pitted peoples of color against one another. This is more than diversifying your musical tastes or even showing up at a protest and posting continuously on social media. This is about acknowledging that one reason white supremacy still reigns is because of the way it has categorized and contained folks of color into such different cages that not only can we not come together in solidarity but we actually go at each other. And we’re still going. And you can just step back and watch us and pretend like it’s not because of you. What we need instead is for you to recognize how deep this oppression goes, how what you started is now beyond you. We need you to use this to further motivate you to address each and all the mechanisms of white supremacy. This is your work. Do it.

As folks of color, we are so much more than white supremacy created and needs us to be. We need to know our own stories. We need to hear one another. We survived and thrived as a thousand unique and yet interconnected communities before white supremacy ever existed. We each have developed our own methods of resistance and resilience that have not always been perfect, and yet we are still here. We need to appreciate what each of us specifically needs, and commit to supporting the fulfillment of all of these needs. We need to acknowledge those moments where we’ve been complicit and where we’ve been complacent as others have been oppressed. There are times where I’ve wondered if this is too ambitious or unreasonable. And then moments like this happen, and I remember, inaction is a form in action. If we don’t take the time to tend to and repair our relationships, we will only continue to trigger one another continuously. We’re better than that. We deserve more. Let’s do this.

And so we need solidarity.

Asian American Reflections on Solidarity — Part I

Editor’s Note: When we started the Fakequity blog we reserved the right to publish anonymous pieces. This week we are publishing the first in a two part series written by a colleague who wishes to remain anonymous. We strive to have the majority of our blog posts as authored pieces, however the author has decided adding a name would not be prudent. We believe the views and voice in this piece are valuable and should be shared.

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[Mother holding young child connected by vein from heart to heart, near ocean with birds flying] Artwork by Jess X Snow, Amplifier Foundation, amplifier.org

As an Asian American in social justice spaces, I spend a lot of time thinking about solidarity.

I grew up with a strong sense of my Taiwanese ethnic identity in my family and religious communities. As a child, I didn’t see this as being political or racial. It was just us being us. It was cultural. It was relational. Now, twenty years after my childhood, I find myself replaying my memories in my mind and constantly finding new edges to those experiences. I’ve come to realize because we were being Taiwanese in America, everything we were and did was racialized and thus political.

It was in school I learned how to see, experience, and name my place in systemic racism. Specifically it was four Black educators who taught me during elementary school, middle school, and college, and who called me in as a fellow person of color. Each of them shared not only about the oppression they faced but how they survived, resisted against, and thrived in spite of it. Some of my experiences were similar to theirs – e.g. working twice as hard to get half as far. Many were not – e.g. when and how our peoples arrived here. Still, I see my rise in social justice agency starting here, and so l begin this piece by appreciating my ethnic communities for being my first home base and these Black educators for catalyzing my growth as a person of color.

Strange as it might sound, I didn’t see myself as an Asian American until I became an educator. I checked the Asian box on paperwork and I recognized the people I looked most like. Growing up, though, I believed checking that box would put me at a disadvantage to all the other boxes, and I avoided other Asian Americans because I wanted to be seen as just me (years later I would learn to call this “internalized oppression”). As a teacher, I ran out of places to run when word spread that I was the young Asian history teacher, and Asian students would start passing my classroom to see if it was true. They started to share stories of being racialized, about the jokes they heard, the physical bullying they received, and the assumptions their teachers made about their lives and learning while ignoring the harm being done to them. Many of these stories were familiar to me, and I was surprised when I acknowledged this, healing began to take place both for my students and myself.

At first I thought that this was all that I could do – share my stories and let them know I survived and so could they. The more I saw, though, the more I understood our experiences weren’t just painful, they were also unjust. And to be our whole selves, survival was not enough. We needed to resist. Thankfully, I knew about resistance from my more established identity as a person of color and work in social justice. I knew how to see systemic oppression at work, how to bring people together, and how to build coalitions. I also need to say here, the older I’ve gotten, the more I recognize this training also came from my family and ethnic community – how to move through the world with multiple frameworks, how to be a good host, and how to present a united front. Not everything clicked perfectly. The structural and policy changes I had worked for – homes for all, living wages, and restorative classroom justice – weren’t as obvious priorities to me at the time for my Asian students.

My students were split between seeing themselves as people of color, wanting to be white, and actively working to be neither. Some literally wanted to be ghosts – there but unseen. And most wanted so badly not to be American – which most were – but to be seen and treated as Americans. We fight for recognition here, bringing spring rolls, bubble tea, yoga and singing bowls to share – feeding notions that we are but perpetual foreigners trading goods. Let us in, and we’ll give these up to be appropriated and commodified away. We’ll give up critical claim to our Asian homelands where our peoples have experienced and continue to experience the bulk of the racialized violence against us. We give too generously to show that we will do no harm, and we are overly grateful to gain acceptance for being allowed here. In doing this, we forget that what we should be grateful for is survival. We’ve survived, and we’ve buried the bodies, but hopefully not the memories of those killed and tortured by radiation and napalm and drones and dictators. And still – to humbly borrow from Maya Angelou – still we rise.

And so this is about solidarity.

Othering and Belonging

Happy Japanese Kodomo no Hi day, 5 May (5/5). Japanese Children’s or Boys Day. Growing up we fly Koinobori, carp flags. Japanese Girls Day was 3 March (3/3) in case you are wondering. If you want to read more and share a book with a kid about these holidays pick up this one.

candlelightHeidi and I are back from the Haas Institute’s Othering and Belonging Conference. The conversations from the conference flowed through breaks, over meals, and through what Heidi calls sam-cha. Sam-cha in Korean means round-three. Third-round of drinks and conversation, sure why not. Through these conversations with our friends and colleagues, we talked about how to push ourselves to create more belonging and force systems to create equitable change.

This week I’m not going to write an analysis of the conference or talk about the technical lessons learned. Maybe in a few weeks Heidi or I will get to the analysis piece. I try to balance this blog with technical pieces as well as narratives and stories because they both matter in equity work.

Returning to Seattle has popped the conference bubble. Nothing busted that bubble more quickly than hearing sirens and helicopters flying close to my house on Wednesday evening. A shooting left one women dead, and another shot. Less than an hour later there were reports of another shooting five minutes away, and overnight another shooting took place near the University of Washington.  Today brought a stabbing again near where I work and live. It isn’t even summer yet when the heat brings out crimes such as these.

While watching the 11.00 p.m. news the reporter said the detectives were using battery operated candles to mark where the bullet casings fell. The irony of using candles to mark bullets, when candles are often used to mark life through birthdays and remembrance, wasn’t lost on me. It brought home much of what I had learned at the conference and why belonging means so much and why we need to respect and create space for others.

Dollar-Bills and a Hug

Professor john a. powell (he doesn’t capitalize his name), the conference host, made closing remarks in the form of stories. One of his stories was about how he invited homeless people to live on his property when they were evicted and moved around by the city. Over time he got to know them and would help them out by giving them money or other goods. His help wasn’t fixing systems or public policies around homelessness, but it created a sense of community and humanized his neighbors.

In his story, he talked about how one day one of the homeless residents greeted him and said “whatcha got today,” Professor powell reached out to give her some money, it was part of their way of being together. Instead of just accepting the money she said “Can I have something else from you? May I have a hug?” Professor powell paused and asked himself if he wanted to give her, a homeless person, a hug. In that moment, he saw her as an ‘other,’ the overall belonging they co-created was being tested. The belonging had limits and was on Prof. powell’s terms, the bond was being tested. After a moment, he gave her the hug. More than money she wanted to be seen and wanted physical human contact.

When I heard this story, I thought about The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World, by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama. Throughout the book the narrator talks about how these two holy-men continually held hands or embraced. Physical contact and connection isn’t something we do a lot of in racial equity work, we play it safe with talking, rule-making, and in some cases like this blog writing. What I took away from this was we need to challenge ourselves to do what several speakers spoke to “We can see people for more than just one thing at a time” or as Alicia Garza said “We can walk and chew gum at the same time… We can see people as they are and how they want to be seen.”

This story stuck with many of us. Right after the conference we gathered our bags and decided to grab an early dinner before heading to the airport. We walked a block and Heidi pulled out her phone to look at Yelp to find a place to eat. As she was consulting the app, a person of color with limited English walked up to us and said “My Asian sisters can you help me out? I’m looking for a job and I just had an interview. I need $3 to take a bus so I can make it to the shelter for the night.” While we stood there listening to the man we all started mentally asking ourselves “do we give him money?” Many of us have been conditioned to say, “I’m sorry” and ignore the person until they move on. Even at the conference we heard repeatedly we need to work on systems level changes, personal and interpersonal actions are important but we need to get to systems changes if we want to see progress. Helping one person won’t fix homelessness. Yet in that moment the story about humanizing and contact was fresh in our minds and we had a choice to make.

We all gave him a dollar or a few coins, enough for him to have money for the bus. We didn’t give him a hug but we got closer to him than we would have a day before. I know I saw him as more of a person because I allowed myself to do so, I also knew I had my team around me to create safety and comfort for me. I was ready to give but mostly because I was safe and it didn’t cause me too much discomfort; I know I don’t want to bring physical or mental harm to myself (been there done that, I was mugged last year) but I think there is a way to create belonging less on my terms and more in recognition of how others want to be seen which may require less safety and comfort on my part.

Back in Seattle

Now that I’m back in Seattle and my city had a 24-hour spate of violence I think of those damn battery operated candles. The police used those candles to mark where violence took place, where a life was violently taken.

Instead of using candles to mark death can we hold up a candle to ourselves and ask what belonging are we creating, what othering are we forcing, or inversely what othering are we not respecting (i.e. arts, LGQBT, etc.)? What sense of negative space are we holding and what narratives are being written in these spaces?

If we think about candles again instead of using them to mark violence, please hold a candle to someone else and say I see you. In the South African Zulu word ubuntu – humanity, I am because we are, you seeing someone will not diminish you or your place in the world it will make us all stronger.

Posted by Erin Okuno