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Earlier this week I complained on Twitter one of the reasons I dislike breakout rooms in Zoom and other virtual meeting rooms is I don’t want to process with other people. Unlike in an in-person situation oftentimes with Zoom breakout rooms you don’t know who you’ll end up with. At least in person you can scan the room before choosing your seat. I know why we use breakout room conversations– they allow for more intimate conversations and keep people engaged in conversations. As a facilitator I often use them as a tool as well and hopefully with decent results. While all of this is true I still dislike participating in them.
During COVID work at home time, I’ve signed up for virtual events or conversations because I want to hear from the speaker, learn about a topic, or some other reason. What I am not signing up for is to help white people or others who are learning about race process their feelings or to be asked questions about how they can learn more. I had this experience earlier this week when a white person in our four person breakout group asked an innocent question about who is doing deep racial equity work. I hope my camera wasn’t on so she didn’t see me roll my eyes. While she was well intentioned, I found the question annoying since we had just spent the presentation part of the call listening to a conversation how the host organization built a strong racial equity organization. At the end of the call I was annoyed with having been put into that situation – I went into the call excited to learn and to hear from others who are doing great work around racial equity and instead I had to spend time processing with a white person who is learning about her own racial equity journey. I applaud her for learning, I unfortunately wasn’t practicing graciousness that day.
Technical Assistance That Can Help
My buddy Vu who blogs at Nonprofit AF often writes about capacity building for nonprofits. He successfully built an organization that is dedicated toward capacity building for Seattle based nonprofits, RVC (Rainier Valley Corps). He also writes that we need technical assistance that matters, not wasting time on task that won’t advance our field or organizations.
I agree with him on this. For me technical assistance that would make a difference is being given time and space to deeply explore race, identity, community building, and advocacy. Too often the opportunities presented are either short seminars at conferences where the audience is coming from a wide range of backgrounds so the presentation is tailored towards newbies, or fellowships that are competitive to get into and often (during non-COVID19 times) require travel and time away which is hard for parents with school-age children, people with disabilities, or small organizations with limited staffing. If we are meant to advance the field we need to create a third pathway that is more intensive then a conference, but not so regimented as a fellowship that requires a lot of time and travel.
Earlier today I was listening to a colleague who shared her experience building a program from the ground up – idea to conception. She lamented that she had been under resourced for most of her time, but because of her experience as a POC she kept plodding ahead because she felt she had to, and as too often happens with pocs we don’t realize we should ask for more and few white people stop to check in, or because we’re in survival mode we can’t stop to figure out how to meaningfully use other people’s help without feeling like we’ll slide further back from stopping to triage and accept help.
Deep(er) Learning – Third Pathway
In order for our nonprofit field to advance and achieve our missions of acting in more anti-racist ways and pushing for racial justice we need to invest in ourselves in learning about this. We also need funders to fund it in ways that make sense for nonprofits.
Part of what is needed is cohorts where people are coming in together at similar stages of learning and investing in high quality facilitation and training. A few years ago, I was part of a professional learning circle that was funded by a grant. The idea was sound and I met some amazing colleagues who I still keep in touch with today, but the facilitation of the group wasn’t great. Many of us who were in the cohort had deeper racial equity knowledge than the facilitator and thus the cohort fell apart over time. Finding and selecting the right people is half of the work. The people selected for the cohort need to be at a similar place in their understanding of race and desire to learn.
We can create deeper opportunities that don’t require yearlong commitments or involve intensive travel. There are trade-offs, such as often times being in a longer term cohort allows for relationships to be built and maintained, more opportunities for learning, and when travel involved it also allows for people to bond during the “down time.” Some of my fondest professional memories involve the afterhours conversations during work travel.
What we can build are opportunities such as 5-10 week cohorts that meet just a few hours a week, in-person when we are back to meeting in person, or now remotely due to COVID19. The cohorts need to be well staffed, participants carefully selected for diversity, experience, etc., facilitators and trainers should be the highest quality so participants can learn and not have to do the teaching. We need to invest in racial equity skill building as much as we insist on teaching other technical skills such as grantwriting, legal basics, accounting, etc. We also need to value these racial equity skills as much as technical operational skills and expect our nonprofits to advance them in order to thrive, meet changing needs, and to serve communities of color well.
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