Fall in Love with the Problem, Not the Solutions

Photo of a mural of two Black sisters left girl’s hands making a heart shape, both smiling. Source: Flickr / lunapark

Eid Mubarak to our Muslim relations. Happiness and joy during this special season.

22 April is Earth Day. Environmental disasters and climate change impact people of color differently and often more severely than many white people or people with privileges. It often isn’t people of color who are the ones making the detrimental environmental conditions. I hope you’ll take some time to learn about the environmental justice movement. If you’re looking for a great book to get started Braiding Sweetgrass is a gorgeous book that is finally getting the attention it deserves. A young adult version was recently released too.

A few weeks ago, I went to the Pacific Science Center’s fundraising luncheon. Sandwiched between the warm and soothing butterfly house and an IMAX theatre (which is one of the best theatres in the area) we heard fabulous speakers talk about their passions for learning and inspiring curiosity. The keynote speaker Matt Oppenheimer, founder of Remitly (an international money transfer company) said something that stuck with me. He said, “Fall in love with the problem, not the solution.” He talked about this principle of how he built Remitly – the problem was people needed to move money quicker and cheaper. Oppenheimer talked about how he had to be careful not to become wedded to one idea or solution in trying to solve that problem, especially as he built his company and had invested a lot of time and effort into solutions to the problem.

When I heard that phrase, my first reaction was “How do we fall in love with racism? Racism is bad – very bad, not lovable bad.” But there is something there. We have to figure out how to love the problem so we stick with it and not abandon solving racism.

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ quote from Between the World and Me: “But race is the child of racism, not the father,” lays out the problem to love nicely. Race and racism are social constructs. Race has become a way to make the world more understandable for our modern lives – there is no other need for race other than what we make it. Yet we need to pay attention to race because race and its consequences have permeated every aspect of our lives and we need to figure out how to love the problem so we fix the problem of racism.

I see white people often fall in love with their solutions. It looks like creating programs for people of color, savior-ism tactics around giving something, missionary work, and so on. People fall in love with their solutions and not the problem of race. The solutions they dream up and carry out give white people and the systems that perpetuate them meaning, value, jobs, and proximity to power. Even when the solutions are band-aids or are flat-out not working for people of color, white people and their systems, which many pocs work in and are part of (myself included), continue to perpetuate them because we love the wrong things, or it is easier to continue then to break apart a legacy of bad love.

We need to fail faster

If we fall in love with the problem and the people at the heart of the problem, we can identify what isn’t working faster. One of my genius colleagues, a Black disabled woman, will often ask “How will you know when you failed?” She also has a genius way of asking this right in the middle of big presentations where people are proudly showing off their new shiny programs. It brings the conversation back down to earth and jabs right at the heart of the problem. Her point is, we often have an idea of what success will look like, but rarely define what failure looks like. Project and program logic models, grant documents, and so often have us define what success will look like. What is the aspirational goal or the north star we’re marching towards. Rarely are we asked to articulate what failure will look like, what are the warning signs, the symptoms, the lack of traction that we need to look for so we can stop what isn’t working quicker. Too often systems want to see success on their terms without recognizing the signs of failure. Oppenheimer talked about failing faster so he could get back to loving the problem and not a solution that wasn’t working.

How to fall in love with a problem

I’m still figuring out how to fall in love with a problem I don’t want to love. In order to love something we have to know it, understand all of its greatness and nuances, and listen to it with all of our attention-not half-heartedly while we scroll on our phones. I am working on figuring out how to love racism and give it the attention it needs so I can solve it. In the meantime, I have a love for my Black and Brown friends, neighbors, and relations – they have the knowledge, resiliency, humor, indigeneity, and fortitude to see problems and solutions, to build and sometimes repair, and love another for justice’s sake.

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I am writing from the lands of the 29 federally recognized and non-federally recognized tribes in now Washington State, including the Coast Salish people — Duwamish, Muckleshoot, Suquamish, Snoqualmie, Snohomish, and Native American organizations that have treaty rights and have been here since time immemorial. I give my thanks to the elders, Native and Indigenous colleagues and relations, and the land itself. Fakequity pays “rent” to Native organizations in Washington and Hawai’i; a small act to repair and work to be in more justice-based relations.