I hate task forces. Not all task forces, but enough of them that whenever I hear people mention a task force I make ‘the face.’ Friends and colleagues know my ‘face’ look and the word task force brings out that reaction.
Task forces are used by many governments, organizations, and departments to do the following:
- Say they have community input
- Punt the research and recommendation making to another group who may have more subject matter expertise
- Not make decisions and hold off on decision making, a.k.a. stalling
After serving on several task forces I’ve decided in their current model they are poorly designed and rarely get us towards more equitable results. Most task forces look and sound like this:
Step 1: Some big group (i.e. government, universities, school districts, etc.) identifies a problem and says “Oh no, there is no simple solution that won’t piss off someone. We can’t make everyone happy, therefore we can’t make a rash decision, we need community buy-in too.”
Step 2: Brilliant idea emerges, let’s convene a task force to help us find a solution!
Step 3: Who should be on this task force? People who identified the problem, people who argued for and against the problem. “Wait, we need to make sure we have diversity! We need to reach out to leaders of color and other marginalized groups.” Oh, and it needs to be transparent about it so we should probably make them ‘apply’ to be on the task force, more paperwork for overburdened pocs, but if they don’t ‘pay (with paperwork) we don’t get to play.
Step 4: Task force appointees gather in a conference room for the first meeting. They awkwardly eye each other and fiddle with their phones while they wait to get started. The pocs do a silent count of how many other pocs are in the room, do we have critical mass (of pocs) to get anything done? A facilitator welcomes people and everyone in the room introduces themselves and their affiliations. It becomes apparent the room is filled with special interest groups, coalitions of already established partners, and so much unintentional power that will go unchecked along the way.
Step 5: Group norms are put together or shared out. Most of the norms are race-neutral and never recognize the need to push the boundaries of conversations for white people. The norms center whiteness and making white people comfortable.
Step 6: The work starts and all of the special interest group representatives start taking over. Pocs in the room speak up but it takes a lot of effort and ongoing persistence to call out racism, inequities, and other annoying behaviors. Sometimes the white people get it, but most of the time it goes unnoticed.
Step 7: The poc representatives stop attending. They feel there isn’t a point to having a seat on the task force. If they do show up they are ready for ‘battle.’
Step 8: Negotiations for the final recommendation package are made and someone says “We don’t have time” to a reasonable request (i.e. translate docs, outreach to pocs, loopback, etc.) made by poc members. On the side, pocs snark and grumble about the artificial deadlines and how communities of color are left behind again.
Step 9: Recommendations are made, and votes are cast if a consensus isn’t reached. It becomes clear to the pocs that the special interest members will dominate and their needs or desires are going to be centered and the poc recommendations may be in there but sometimes at a cost – watered down, secondary, concessions made for mitigations.
Someone authors a final document. The power of the writer shapes the final narrative and it probably tries to incorporate some poc points but overall it isn’t centered on the voices of people of color.
Step 10: Final recommendations are made, maybe to great fanfare. Self-congratulatory pats on the backs. And we all go back to business as usual.
This is why I dislike task forces. I’ve seen this formula play out over many different task forces which tells me the overall structure is bad. It doesn’t matter the topic, the convener, or other variables the results are the same because the structure is set up to fail communities of color. When I talk to people who are recruited to serve on a task force I congratulate them and say “take all of your expectations and hopes and lower them by 3/4 or 7/8, that is realistically how far you can push and how much work you can get done.”
Better Task Forces
The overall idea of task forces isn’t wholly bad. Sometimes I think we jump to wanting to do a task force because we think we should. We don’t slow down to really ask what the intentions are of the task force. Getting to the true intention of the task force. We often jump to explanations of a City Council/school board/someone authorized the task force so now we need to do it. Instead, we should ask what is the real reason for doing a task force:
- Is it to interrogate a process that isn’t working? Whom isn’t it working for (i.e. people of color, disabled people, orcas—a big topic in WA state right now)?
- Zoom out to ask yourself the larger values questions – what are the values that are leading to the desire to have a task force. Is it values of inclusion, truth, trust, social justice, etc.? This zoom out and values will help to shape the feel of the task force.
- Be specific about the purpose of the task force. Priya Parker’s book The Art of Gathering spends a lot of time covering how people often gather without really being specific about why we gather. She argues we have better gatherings if we are specific and have “specific, unique, and disputable” purposes for gathering.
If you can answer these questions well and purposefully you can begin to redesign task forces to meet more equitable goals. As a quick example, I recently put together a quick task force to help me plan an event. I tried to really think through the purpose of putting together this task force. When I stopped to ask myself why was I doing it I landed on the values of inclusion and building a network to support the event and bring together partners who normally wouldn’t work together but have a lot in common, we also wanted the event to feel different than other events that were pursuing a similar goal.
When we met our first few hours weren’t spent on logistics of the event, we instead talked about what are the new values we wanted to harness. We shared stories about what worked well for our community and for people of color at other similar events and we figured out what we wanted to avoid (e.g. grandstanding, white-people centered, etc.). This conversation was important because it led us to come up with unique values we wanted to highlight in the event. We landed on the values of centering pocs, inclusion and access of pocs, community building, and poc storytelling. These four values shaped the rest of our task force gathering and our end-product was much more centered on pocs. We also had a better defense to the naysayers who questioned why we didn’t follow the predictable event format, my colleagues and I were able to say “Our task force thought through the values we wanted to perpetuate and we landed on these four. That is why we don’t have public testimony.”
When we reshape the system, we can re-envision the way we do our work and sketch a new way of working together that avoids the predictable pitfalls of task forces.
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