Beyond Books, Blog Posts, and Bleacher Seating: Relationships Matter and I have the Whale Pictures to Prove it

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Mural of three different types of whales/dolphins swimming. Photo by Heidi Schillinger

Editor’s Note: We’re taking next week off to celebrate the holidays. Look for us back in 2018. Also, this is a long blog post, but stick with it to the end.


There are probably three readers that have clicked on this link wondering how I am tying whales to racial equity. You’ll have read until the end to find the connection (don’t cheat and scroll to the bottom), but I am glad the whale click bait worked.

One of the most common responses I hear to how people are building their racial equity awareness and knowledge is by reading books, subscribing to blog posts, watching movies and attending lectures. Don’t get me wrong, I am a fan of books, blog posts, videos and lectures. I have stacks on books on my desk. If you are wondering, I am currently reading Ibram X. Kendi’s “Stamped from the Beginning: and Sherman Alexie’s “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me.” Clearly, I am a fan of blog posts –, Fakequity, Nonprofit AF, Black Girl Dangerous, and so many more. I have also recently been captivated by the Think Indigenous podcast, featuring Indigenous perspectives on education. And, I am a proud Viki Pass Plus subscriber, so I can watch all the Korean dramas I want.

Reading and listening are not substitutes for relationships

One of the dangers of solely or mostly relying on reading and listening to build our understanding of different cultural and racialized (among other) experiences is that we still filter our learning through our own experiences. I have seen this lead to a distorted sense of understanding and knowledge. Where people speak with a false sense of authority about something they have read, but never experienced or never had anyone close to them experience.

Or reading and listening in isolation leads to people immediately and easily dismissing ideas that challenge a current way of thinking. A minimum “practice” (otherwise known as homework) suggestion I give workshop participants is a read a few articles, all written by people of color, from a list I provide. The list includes articles such as, Accomplices Not Allies: Abolishing The Ally Industrial Complex and How to Uphold White Supremacy by Focusing on Diversity and Inclusion. When I ask for reflections on the readings, I often hear comments like “I was really put off by the tone of the author. I couldn’t even finish the article because I felt like the author only complained and didn’t offer solutions. I feel like all these articles just make me feel bad about being white, and that isn’t helpful.” This is how racialized power shows up even when we read. Consider how these same patterns play out in our work. White systems won’t listen to people of color if they are too emotional—news flash racism is emotional. White systems won’t listen to people of color if they don’t present ideas in formats deemed “professional” according to the standard set by whiteness. White systems won’t listen to people of color unless white people feel included, affirmed, and comfortable. To ignore these patterns of racialized power, even when we read, watch and listen, is to uphold systemic racism.

At this point, you might be thinking –

  1. Whew, Heidi is not talking about me. I don’t do or say any of the things she just mentioned.
  2. Okay, Heidi, but I talk with other people about the books, blog posts, movies, and lectures.
  3. Heidi, when are you getting to the whales?

For the people who chose 1, we all engage in these patterns of racialized power. Yes, even people of color. Yes, even me. To say you haven’t been impacted by racism is equivalent to saying, “I believe in institutional racism, it’s just not in my work.” This is the #alllivesmatter of liberal racism.

A quicker note to the three people who chose 3, I promise I’ll get to the whales. But please keep your expectation realistic.

Answer 2: Designed for segregation and dehumanization

A longer note to the people who choose B, my loving critique is really aimed here. This is where book clubs and lecture discussions are happening but in mostly racially segregated spaces. At the very roots of systemic racism are policies and practices that were intended to segregate and dehumanize; colonization, slavery, Jim Crow laws, internment. In plainer language, policies kept white people separate and in power in order to dehumanize people of color and justify economic exploitation. The legacy of that explicit segregation and dehumanization lingers with us today, even in the way we learn.

Ask yourself, is your book club or discussion group an echo chamber? This is an especially important question for white folks. Discussing Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow” or the most recent Ta Nehisi Coates’ Lecture in a group of mostly white people (and a few Asians) is upholding segregation. Having brown bag lunch and learns at work with mostly white people is upholding segregation. Holding a racial equity training with a group of mostly white participants is upholding segregation.

For people of color having spaces with just Asians, just African-Americans, etc. serves a different and important purpose, but we also need to be aware of how our echo chambers can uphold the dehumanization of different communities of color. As an Asian American, how does segregation uphold my participation in anti-blackness? If we aren’t paying conscious attention, our personal and professional lives will default to racial segregation. Remember it was designed that way to continue to uphold systemic racism and white supremacy.

Another article I often ask workshop participants to read is Men Just Don’t Trust Women — And It’s A Huge Problem. Too many times, men read this article and then tell me they talked with other men about the article and have decided it is false. This is the echo chamber problem. Or men will tell me that they talked with one woman and she agreed that the article is false. This is the tokenization problem. We can do better.

Design for relationships, design for humanization

If our default patterns are designed for segregation and dehumanization, we need to design our lives to foster true cross-racial relationships. As we think about redesigning our lives and work, remember equal is not racially equitable even in relationship building.

About four years ago, I took a hard look at who I had built relationships with and currently trusted to give me work advice. One glaring omission from my inner circle at that time was youth, and in particular youth of color. Yet, I spent a lot of time talking with educators about how to make schools more racially equitable for youth of color. I spoke from research, books, videos, and anecdotal stories. But my work wasn’t being influenced by students of color.

I realized I shouldn’t go around telling others to build relationships with the people most impacted by racism and not do this myself. I decided to redesign my week so I could regularly volunteer with youth. I chose the Major Taylor Project hosted at the YES Foundation of White Center. I hung out and rode bikes with high school students once a week. It was awkward at first. I am an introvert and hadn’t been around high school students for a long time. None of the students really talked with me, and I had to work hard to build connections. A few years later, one of the students told me they purposely didn’t talk to me for the first six months because they didn’t know if I was going to stick around. They were right, many volunteers didn’t stick around for more than a few months. I am glad I stuck around, and I am glad the students started to share things with me. My life and work have been richer, more meaningful and filled with more urgency for racial justice because of my relationships with Ricardo, Juan, Tom, Huang, Diana, Phuc, Thai, Michael and many more.

A few things I learned in my own relationship redesign process:

  • It requires effort and planning. I needed to have something regularly scheduled on my calendar. I had to prioritize these efforts to ensure they happened.
  • I had no agenda, other than relationship building. It wasn’t connected to my work. I wasn’t the leader. I was only there to connect with kids and ride bikes.
  • Building trust took time. It took six months (or more) for the students to trust me and begin to open up. But once trust had been built they shared openly.
  • Relationships are reciprocal. I had to be willing to share things, invest time, and learn from the youth as well.
  • Relationships are humanizing. Issues are more personal and urgent when I care and am connected to people directly impacted. I am less tolerant of excuses, justified or not, about why we can’t make radical changes in our education system. I know the lives of students I care deeply about are being impacted right now and they can’t wait. They shouldn’t have to wait for racial justice.

These are ideas that can be applied to our personal relationship building and also things to consider as we design for better relationships and connections with communities of color in our work. A few words of caution that deserve their own blog post in the future: please don’t tokenize, be a creeper, or displace/gentrify.

“Save the whales”

You made it. We’re going to talk about whales now. As a nearly lifelong Washingtonian, I have grown up with whales in my backyard. Not literally in my backyard, but metaphorically in my backyard. I have also done a lot of work in the environmental space and have a racial justice knee jerk reaction to the save the whales crowd. Perhaps both as a product of taking for granted things in my backyard and an explicit bias towards the save the whales crowd, I have never been that interested in whales. A year ago, I would have left a conversation about whales as quickly as I could think of a good excuse to go back to the snack table. In all fairness, it wasn’t that I didn’t like whales, I just wasn’t interested in them. But people and relationships can do unpredictable things to us. Someone I care about really likes whales and convinced me they are important to the ecosystem and just darn great animals. I even watched Free Willy.

A year later, I am struck by the fact that I have had conversations about what whales co-exist or don’t co-exist together, why a certain type of whale has a tusk (a narwhal if you’re curious), and why orca whales in captivity have collapsed dorsal fins (scientists don’t really know, but it is a sign of an unhealthy whale). I have found myself at windy and cold Beluga Point looking for whales during a recent trip to Anchorage. And, my phone camera roll includes more than a dozen pictures of pictures of whales. I even have a new outlook on the save the whales crowd. In fact, I might be in the save the whales crowd now, as I just told someone today to stop using Styrofoam and to think about saving the whales. Like working towards racial equity, we need to connect the head to the heart, relationships help us do this.

Relationships matter. Save the whales.

By Heidi Schillinger

Fakequity Fridays: If you subscribe to the blog, thank you. Please check fakequity.com for the most up to date version of the post. We often make grammatical and stylistic corrections after the first publishing which shows up in your inbox. If you would like to subscribe there is a sign-up box on the right sidebar – start your Friday with a little fakequity.

Reverse Stacking and Better Facilitation to reach Equitable Results

A note before we start: Today the Federal Communication Commission (FCC), ruled to disband Obama-era protections on equal access to the internet, better known as net neutrality. I’ve been following this debate and the ruling isn’t a surprise. I’m using this blog’s platform to say the undoing of these regulations will not favor people of color. If we explore it more deeply we will find threads of systemic and institutional racism. The fight isn’t over yet. Washington’s Attorney General and Governor have both taken steps to limit the reach of corporate internet providers in undoing net neutrality. Others across the country are stepping up as well. We need to keep the pressure on government officials to restore these protections and keep a more level playing field for access to information.


panda meeting 2

I’m guessing if you are reading this blog you’ve attended a few meetings in the past week. It could have been a small meeting of two people or a larger meeting with a few dozen to maybe larger. Someone was probably facilitating the meeting or gathering in some form. I do a lot of facilitation for work and in other places. Facilitation is a skillset that needs to be developed and practiced, especially as it relates to how can we use facilitation to reach more equitable results. If you don’t want to read much else here are the three main points on facilitation skills, we’ll unpack today:

  1. People Want to Be Seen
  2. Relationships – Even brief relationships are important
  3. Leveling power

If you know me well, you should be saying “Erin, those are race neutral – I expect better from you.” Here is where race comes into the three topics.

Everyone Wants to be Seen and Reverse Stacking

sad pandaYes, everyone wants to be seen – white people are seen a lot. White people are in almost every meeting I attend, even in spaces that are centered on communities of color, there is often at least a few white allies. People of color want to be seen and need to be understood just as much as white people. Yet the way current systems are designed and the way we are acculturated to dominant society people of color aren’t always seen and at the least they aren’t equals.

I learned a new term today – reverse stacking. Colleagues from Na’ah Illahee Fund presented on being allies with Indigenous communities. One of the practices they use when asking for feedback is to recognize and center Indigenous voices first, followed by other marginalized communities further from power. They invite Indigenous/Native American women to speak first, then Indigenous/Native American men, African American/Black and Latinx women, African American/Black and Latinx men, other poc women, other poc men, and finally white women, and white men. Please don’t get caught up in the race terminology or exact order within the order; the idea is what is important here. By changing the order of who is heard we are changing the power dynamics of the meeting.

Often time who speaks first sets the direction of a conversation, by being conscious of who is seen and whose voices are heard we alter the direction of a conversation. Using facilitation methods such as reverse stacking is important to allowing voices of people who are often not heard, heard first. When I facilitate I often call on pocs in the room or will invite them to speak first, much like the principle of reverse stacking but without the stacking. These practices are important for leveling power in the room too. Without realizing it, traditional power dynamics bleed into spaces – such as white men are seen as having power by just being born as white men, but facilitating in ways that invite others to speak up first allows us to change habits and power dynamics.

As a caveat, when I wrote everyone wants to be seen I believe that is true, but not everyone will want to publicly comment all of the time. Sometimes introverts, quieter people, or those where English (or whatever the dominant language of the meeting is) may not feel comfortable speaking in larger groups so use different modes of meeting facilitation to reach people, such as smaller table conversations or writing before speaking to elicit people’s responses.

Facilitating to Build Relationships

Relationships are very important; the facilitation of a meeting should work to create, foster, and deepen relationships between people – preferably cross-racially. Meetings should always be thought of as just one piece of the overall and longer-term work. Most of the real work happens outside of the meeting room, such as in the networking after the meeting in the parking lot or in my case at lunch or happy hour.

As much as we should allow relationship building to happen organically, we can also give it a nudge by socially engineer some of the relationship building. Everything from where people sit to the questions asked can help to build relationships. I recently facilitated a meeting where several white people sat together. Most of them were new to the meeting and they congregated together as they came in. As more people filtered into the room I steered several poc colleagues to that table to intentionally diversify the table conversations. I made sure to not isolate any of my poc colleagues at that table by sending several pocs to that table. At some meetings my team and I do table assignments as people walk in to purposefully break up cliques, mix people, and promote cross-racial conversations. Don’t be afraid to do these things, they make a difference and help to build new relationships in forming.

Leveling Power

We touched upon power earlier in the blog post. Power dynamics are always present, we can’t create spaces devoid or immune to power. What we can do is to facilitate meetings that level and redistribute power to people of color.

When I facilitate I try to pay attention to power dynamics. Some of it is easy to spot such as who is speaking and who isn’t. Or where people sit is another easy way to level power, breaking up cliques and more specifically white people cliques is an important way to redistribute power.

Even before a meeting starts you can level power dynamics through intentionally thinking about the attendee list and making sure it is diverse and centering communities of color and other groups such as immigrants/refugees, disabled people of color, elders and youth of color, by sectors that may not traditionally show up in your space (e.g. in education are you hearing from faith-based communities of color, health, or legal), are invited.

These are a few steps that may help to change conversations and push them towards more equitable results. Like all skills the more you practice them the better and easier they get. My final tip is to watch how other people you enjoy facilitate and take mental notes of the facilitation moves they make. We all need to push and develop some new edges around our skills.

Posted by Erin Okuno

Fakequity Fridays: If you subscribe to the blog, thank you. Please check fakequity.com for the most up to date version of the post. We often make grammatical and stylistic corrections after the first publishing which shows up in your inbox. If you would like to subscribe there is a sign-up box on the right sidebar – start your Friday with a little fakequity.

Community Engagement Phrases That are Funny in Other Languages

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A picture of a pink jacket with English text translated from Chinese. Picture taken in Taiwan by Erin Okuno

A friend said we needed a funny blog post. This week we’ll poke fun at the English language and the privileged space English has in our lives. One of my resolutions for 2017 was to spend less time in English only spaces. I still spend about 98-percent of my life in English speaking spaces, but that other 2-percent is memorable.

This blog post is making fun of English phrases you may hear or read while doing community engagement. Many of these phrases or words are really hard to explain or translate to a non- or limited-English speaking/literate people. As an example a few weeks ago I was waiting for my kid’s soccer practice to end, imagine October on a cold night watching little kids running in a scrum and keep missing the ball. Another parent who I know a little is Chinese speaking and she stopped me to ask what does light dinner mean. She was translating an English flier into Chinese but didn’t know what light dinner meant. I tried to explain it meant appetizers, but she didn’t know the word appetizer and Google translate wasn’t helping. I tried saying dim sum like food, thinking that the Chinese reference might help, but that confused her more. Pupus was out of the question. I think in the end we settled on just the word dinner.

Here are a list of phrases and words, crowdsourced from my Facebook friends, that don’t translate well from English into most languages. Some would argue they hardly make sense in English, so why would they make sense in any other language.

Community Engagement – You want to marry the community?

Light Dinner – You want me to eat a light bulb?

Heavy appetizer – I can’t even begin to fathom how to describe this to a non-English speaker. Appetizers are tiny pieces of food, but it must be heavy too?

Task force – Using brunt force to complete our tasks is acceptable. People talking at a nonprofit meeting can get violent at times.

Executive Director – My colleague said she couldn’t explain my position title to her Chinese speaking mother. I was translated into President.

Intersectionality – Like a traffic intersection you drive through? And it isn’t to talk about your intersections of identities, watch the video in the link if you’re confused.

Lunch and learn – I’m expected to learn about your lunch? Wait, I have to bring a paper brown bag to this lunch too?

That’s a Very Good Point (when pointing out the obvious that the room is filled with all white people) – Explaining this nuance through an interpreter sounds like this “All of the people who are nodding are white people. They now understand they are white and need more ideas from people of color.”

Committee – I think the translation of a committee into any is “where good ideas go to die.” My friend Bao shared the Vietnamese word for committee which is “ủy ban.” She also said the cultural nuance is important because ủy ban is a communist-invented word and many Vietnamese immigrants do not like the word.

Authentic engagement – We want real engagement, not fake engagement? Engagement as in you want to marry me? Well, at least this is authentic engagement and not community engagement where you wanted to marry everyone.

Bring your whole self to the conversation. — Sooo, not just my side eye?  (h/t Kristin W.)

Lean in – I should put my head in the middle of the meeting? I need to assume a pose like a skier? Wait, I’m from a warm climate and barely know what skiing is like. Can I just sit down or stand up?

Be present. – I should bring a present, like a gift?

Listening tour – You’re going around listening to people, like people who are band groupies listening to music?

Potluck – My cooking pot will bring you luck? Smoking pot might bring you more luck, but that isn’t legal in every state so it definitely won’t bring you luck if you land in jail.

I want to raise up your voice – You want me to speak in a higher octave?

Let’s put that in the parking lot – We should walk outside and put this into a parking lot and then drive away?

Limited childcare available – So I should limit how many children I bring? Just some childcare is available, so I have to pick them up early?

Skin in the game – You want me to cut myself and leave my skin on a game board? Barbaric!

Finally, let’s try to interpret the phrase Racial Equity – Race, not a running race, but people race. Race as in where people are from. But not really because some people are born in America but still considered a certain race (don’t confuse nationality with race). Equity – not financial equity, but how much people need to be complete? People aren’t complete? This is sounding a lot like when you tried to explain limited childcare to me. I think I’ll just stay home and take a nap.

When working with non- or limited-English speaking communities it is best to say what you mean. Skip the code switching, the talking in circles, and break down your concept into terms into words that make sense. Such as instead of saying “lean in,” say “I want you to pay attention even if the other person pisses you off. Don’t leave or stop listening.”

Some other tips for working with interpreters:

  • Interpretation vs. Translation – quick definition is interpretation is verbal, translation is written.
  • Interpretation requires quick thinking and processing. The interpreter often has to listen, process, and translate simultaneously. They often must also have to communicate in two languages and both directions, e.g. English to ASL and ASL to English, Spanish to Chinese and Chinese to Spanish, etc.
  • Translation is written and requires sophisticated grasp of written language and cultural written nuances.
  • If an interpreter is being used it is helpful for them if you can do the following:
    • Pay them for their professional skills
    • Speak at a normal or slower pace
    • Pause to allow them to think, process, and speak – even when using simultaneous translation (i.e. translations where people are listening in on headsets, or the interpreter is speaking at the same time as the speaker)
    • Be aware of background noise and work to limit it
    • One speaker at a time, don’t speak over other people too
    • If using simultaneous interpretation test your equipment ahead of time and bring extra headsets and extra batteries
    • If the meeting is long, hire more than one interpreter so they can trade off. ASL interpreters often work in pairs, we should work to do this for other languages as well.

Posted by Erin Okuno. Thank you to friends who contributed to this blog post.

Fakequity Fridays: If you subscribe to the blog, thank you. Please check fakequity.com for the most up to date version of the post. We often make grammatical and stylistic corrections after the first publishing which shows up in your inbox. If you would like to subscribe there is a sign-up box on the right sidebar – start your Friday with a little fakequity.

What it means to be Asian American, on the mainland

I’m out of topics to blog about this week and I’m too lazy to think hard about race, equity, and policy stuff. Instead, I’ll write about what I know well, what it means to be Asian American. This is a privilege of the blog, controlling the content and unfairly using the pulpit to focus and aggrandize me, I promise not to make this a regular thing.

Asian first or Japanese first?

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My kid wearing my kimono looking at ikebana.

I’m Asian but haven’t always thought of myself as Asian. I was raised in Hawaii where Asians are everywhere. Hawaii’s Governor George Ariyoshi was a Japanese American governor during my keiki time (Hawaiian word for child). He was the first Governor of Asian ancestry to ascend to governorship in the county, he broke the bamboo ceiling. More recently Hawaii Governor David Ige is the first Okinawan American governor in the nation. This is what I grew up with – seeing Japanese and Asian Americans and Asian immigrants around me.

Growing up in Hawaii I didn’t see myself as Asian, I was seen by my familial ethnicity of Japanese first, and a bit of Okinawan. It was great, I was secure in my ethnic identity. Teachers looked like me, my neighbors and friends were diverse, going to the store we didn’t need to shop at the Asian food store or aisles to find nori, Okinawan sweet/purple potatoes, or mochiko. Visiting my grandparents, we got our doses of Japanese and Okinawan culture and sprinklings of language. One grandma played old school tinny Japanese records and I think my first kid size kimono was a gift from her. My other grandma taught me how to be Japanese and Okinawan through feeding people. Food was her love language, “You hungry? Eat more.” Through her I saw what it meant to be in a Japanese community – you feed each other, literally and figuratively, the aunties and cousins would be over, and the food would spill out of the kitchen and be present whenever people were around.

Ohhh, now I’m Asian

I moved to Seattle for college and it was in college I figured out “Ohhhhhh, I’m now Asian – not Japanese – Asian.” On the mainland, what Hawaii people call the continental United States, label me first as an Asian, and maybe get around to understanding my ethnicity and culture. Being on the mainland I learned as Asian and Pacific Islanders (API) we have to fight to be seen in a way I didn’t feel like I had to Hawaii. Hawaii’s demographics and culture are more centered towards the API experience and the population density allowed us to be seen differently than in the continental US.

Growing up in a state that was “majority-minority,” a term that is now outdated and pejorative but is descriptive of the time, gave me a grounding as an Asian American. I didn’t walk into a room and scan the room to see if there were other Asians because there almost always were other Asians. This is a habit I learned when I started working on the mainland, I scan the room and count to see if there are other people of color. Being part of the majority meant I had safety in numbers, my identity wasn’t unusual in a space like it is now, being somewhere I wasn’t the exception to the rule, and it also meant I was accountable to others who knew how to hold me accountable in cultural ways, not just traditional accountability.

As an Asian American in Seattle, I can see how growing up in Hawaii gave me a different lens to the API and poc experience. In some ways growing up in the majority means I expect things that others may not feel I have the right to expect. Such as I expect APIs and POCs in leadership roles. I expect the Asian experience to be understood as nuanced not as a monolithic group. I expect our identity as APIs and pocs to matter and to be seen as both, not forced to choose whether I am Asian, Japanese, or poc. When I walk into a meeting I expect to be taken seriously and be given the benefit of the doubt because of who I am, not have to prove I belong there. Some people read this as arrogance at worst and self-assuredness at its best, I think it is somewhere between both, and apologetically I don’t know how to think otherwise.

At times systems and institutions don’t know what to do with Asians. I know I have access and privileges because I’m a poc that can code-switch. Growing up in the majority taught me how to navigate in dominant culture – I can speak up, I can bridge communities and institutions, and I work to understand poc cultures. That said at times systems and institutions don’t know what to do with Asians (broadly speaking, not just me), they want to consider us white believing we’ve transcended racism, but if you talk to many Asians we tell a different story. I do my best to own the privileges Asianess has afforded me and my family, but being an Asian with many privileges doesn’t mean I’m white. I can’t walk into a room and trust I will be in the majority, I can’t trust systems to recognize the migration stories, languages and cultures embedded into the API experience, and I know if I step out of the bubble that I created for myself surrounded by strong poc leaders, I am more of the exception than the norm.

API stories and leadership matters. APIs are a rich race group with over 40 unique ethnic groups. Our languages, histories, cultures, and migration stories are different. My API experience is different than others in my extended family and friend network. Heidi and Jondou, two close colleagues who contribute to this blog, are both Asians and their stories are different than mine, yet many look at us as Asians first and assume we are the same.

Some readings to learn more:

Posted by Erin Okuno

Fakequity Fridays: If you subscribe to the blog, thank you. Please check fakequity.com for the most up to date version of the post. We often make grammatical and stylistic corrections after the first publishing which shows up in your inbox. If you would like to subscribe there is a sign-up box on the right sidebar – start your Friday with a little fakequity.