No thank you, I don’t need your gifts

Late last Sunday before I headed to bed I checked Twitter and saw early reports of the violence and rampage in Las Vegas. It wasn’t until morning that I understood the carnage. The shooter, Stephen Paddock, armed with multiple assault rifles shot out of a 32-floor window into an open-air concert. He killed 59, and injured over 500. Puerto Rico is also trying to recover. Their disaster was a devastating hurricane. Please take a moment and remember the national and international context we exist in and how we are somehow all interconnected.

panda noWhite people, please stop giving. Every few weeks I’ll be in a meeting and someone will say “we want to give…” and I tune out. The act of giving can feel noble, but only if the gift is wanted and well received.

Communities of color often have what we need to solve our own problems. We don’t need programs from the outside, or outside experts to diagnose and tell us what is wrong and how to fix it without really understanding the community. We also don’t need access to programs that weren’t designed by our community.

I get it, people want to help. It is hard watching others suffer and people are compassionate. We see a problem and our instincts are to say “I’m smart I know how to solve this problem,” or “I know someone who knows how to fix this,” or “if they do this it will make things better.” Before you try to bring some program that will teach children how to meditate or some family engagement program that worked in some other community slow down and ask are you making the offer for you or for others.

This is the opposite of extraction, it is inserting yourself into a community and centering your solution. Like I just wrote, yes we want to solve problems. We can’t let things stay as they are. Problems like the achievement and opportunity gap need to end, economic instability, climate change impacting pocs, gun violence, infant mortality, and so on disproportionately impact people of color and we need to find solutions to the problems. What we don’t need though is for programs and projects to happen to us.

The problem with thinking we can import programs and projects and believing they will succeed is we need to really consider is it racial equity. Most likely it isn’t racial equity. Racial equity isn’t about giving a community access, or thinking we can give and gift our way to equity. True racial equity is about creating space for solutions to emerge from the community and resourcing people of color to test these solutions and allowing grace for people to learn from the successes and failures.

Turning Inward

One of the best lines I’ve heard recently about how to practice racial equity is “communities of color turning inward.” Often someone will want to come in and bring a project or program to a community and expect communities of color to want to embrace it. They may even be ready to face skepticism from communities of color and will be willing to tinker with the project design but overall the project or program is controlled and designed by others. If we are truly practicing racial equity communities of color embrace our own gifts and we create our own programs that center our needs first.

A few years ago, I heard professor john a. powell speak at a gathering of funders. I heard a line from him saying: “communities often have their own solutions, but they may not have the resources to solve the problem.” Interestingly the white people in the room heard the opposite, that communities don’t have the solutions or the resources. I operate under the basis that we have the solutions within our own communities and when we listen to each other solutions arise. Mainstream and dominant systems often want to import solutions and believe they will work. Bright and shiny objects and programs look appealing and easier than doing the harder work of listening to the community and working together to design from scratch a new solution to a problem.

We don’t need program plopped down on communities, we need to transform spaces that allow programs and projects to emerge – this is racial equity. Transformation doesn’t have to be some grandiose thing with fancy lighting and a soundtrack, it can be simply resourcing a community to have a conversation where they can share what is and isn’t working. Most likely at some point in the conversation the community will start to generate solutions. These solutions may look very differently than what others have in mind.

Turning inward also means decisionmakers must be ok with letting go of control. Our job is to hold the space, build trust within the community, and to offer the resources needed to make a community driven program happen. Sometimes this means suspending our desires and our predisposed solutions which can be really scary, especially if it means we’re staking our reputation on it as well.

How to create more racially equitable solutions

Center Communities of Color – Communities of color need to spend time talking and generating solutions. Help to make this happen by paying for the convening, donating space, offering to pickup refreshments, setting up and cleaning up the room, etc. When communities spend time talking and generating ideas solutions will emerge. Starting with conversation is an important way to make sure the solution is coming from the community that is most impacted.

Listen to what communities want – Often we know what we know and we want to share it. In Seattle Detective Cookie’s Chess Club is well known in S Seattle. Detective Cookie is a local police officer who provides a chess club to students. She said when she first started she asked the kids what sort of club they wanted she expected them to say basketball, hip hop, etc., nope they asked for a chess club. She helped the kids make it happen and today it is wildly popular. We need to do more of this where we suspend what we think a solution may be and be ok with pivoting to do what the community wants. It is hard to let go of our preconceived thoughts, but in the end the community generated solution will be right.

Gifts – I started this post by saying we don’t want your giving, that is only half true. We want your gifts and giving, but we want it without all of the strings and weird stuff that can come along with it. We don’t need cumbersome financial obligations, restrictions and requirements, etc. If you believe in the work then resource it and trust the community. If for some reason it doesn’t work out than consider it an investment in learning so we can make more informed decisions in the future.

Create conditions that build trust and allow the community to control the program and project – One of the ‘gifts’ you can give is starting with trust. Trust is necessary to building a good program and project. Trust is often earned through actions, so take some actions to check your power and use your privilege to center communities of color.


Posted by Erin Okuno

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