Invest in Coalitions, They Work

Before we start I want to honor the passing of Bob Santos. Uncle Bob was one of the Four Amigos or Gang of Four (Asian, Native American, African American, and Hispanic/Latino), who modeled how to work cross racially and cross culturally. The Four Amigos united communities of color and shaped Seattle into the city it is today – a place many of people of color call home and feel connected to because our cultural bonds are intact and we’ve held on a sense of place. While I didn’t know Bob, I know I wouldn’t be where I am without his work. I will do my part to honor his legacy, although I will have to leave the karaoke singing for which he was known to others. Rest in peace and power.


Original Thinking
I recently took a trip to my home state. While packing I grabbed the book Original by Adam Grant and threw it into my carry on – beach reading right? Nah, I finally cracked it open on the flight back when the kid hogged the tablet with all of the downloaded shows. In reading the book, which wasn’t about race or equity, I started thinking about how to apply the ideas to racial equity work. Several chapters in I had the thought “we need original thinking around race in order to change” (albeit this wasn’t a wholly original thought, many others have thought it before). The old and current systems aren’t working for communities of color. We need to nurture and undo traditional power structures that stifle ‘new’ thinking and doing.

In the book the author talks about groupthink and how it kills original/new ideas. I agree, I see it all of the time when working with government agencies and larger organizations. Where I don’t see groupthink happening as much is within coalitions centered in communities of color (it does happen but I see it less). I might be biased here since I work for a coalition centered in communities of color, but I can say with certainty the conversations that take place in our coalition meetings happen because we center our work in communities of color and we talk about race.

Well attuned coalitions bring diverse people together, building towards a common purpose and goal. Divergent thoughts are allowed and explored so we can emerge with better results and a more united front. In other words, the policy work or end product has more equity built into it because more people of color have a chance to weigh in, play with the idea, and the outcome is a more original idea, not a boilerplate product coming out of a monolithic group. While it sounds easy, in reality it is harder to do. It takes a lot of time and energy. Timelines are blown, we have to slow down and redo work to get it more right, coalition work gets messy, people’s feelings sometimes get hurt, we have to report to superiors that work is delayed, but in the end the work is right.

How to Get a Coalition Right – Stopping the Echo Chamber
Coalitions centered in communities of color serve as places where communities of color can emphasize our collective values over the procedural rules that continue to hold us in boxes and uphold institutional racism. As the author of Original (the book) shares, “Rules [procedures] set limits that teach children [and adults] to adopt fixed views of the world. Values encourage children [and adults] to internalize principles for themselves.” When we talk about our values around community, culture, and race we’re getting to the heart of who we are and the type of community we want to create for ourselves. This is so much more interesting than talking about the things talked about at so many mainstream task force meetings.

Focusing on values versus procedures is hard for people who are used to movement and action. Constantly doing versus asking why we are doing something different or trying something new is a way we uphold institutional and systemic racism – the doing without attributing it to values keeps the same broken actions from repeating itself. As an example, why do we constantly send out online surveys to ask for opinions? We can say the value is to hear back from the community, but is this how the community wants to be heard – on paper asking pre-scripted questions, probably not. This type of opposition may be more keenly heard within a coalition than in an insular meeting.

Investing in Coalitions
Investing in coalitions can happen in so many different ways. One of the best ways is to join a coalition – invest time. If you have to give something up to make time for coalition work, look at your calendar and decide which meetings are white/mainstream echo chamber meetings – in other words which ones are a chorus of the like-minded and you’re not hearing anything new. The people at the ‘echo meetings’ may be great but you can still see them at lunch or at happy hour. Instead invest in coalitions that are making a difference for communities of color — open doors to a great supporter, bring new people into the coalition,  for our white partners and allies attend to your white coalition partners so their needs are met (outside of the coalition meeting) and they don’t overshadow the coalitions values and focus. Coalitions take work to sustain and thrive. The end result will be better returns on your investment of time and energy than going the old easy route.

Posted by Erin Okuno

Allies: Where were you Last Week? Where will you be Next Week?

Where Were You Last Week?

Last week I saw a lot of social media messages of sadness, anger, and heartbreak in response to the latest deaths of African Americans by white police officers. I felt it too, and I asked myself what am I doing around racial equity in my community. I spend a lot of time thinking about race, closing achievement gaps, community, compassion and empathy, and my privileges. Even with all of my thinking and processing about empathy and community, I was annoyed. I was annoyed with the sudden chorus of people posting to social media about how upset they were. I know I shouldn’t be annoyed, but I was because racial equity work is something we need to work on every day not just when there is a tragedy or when everyone else is talking about it. I wanted to ask people who posted “Where were you last week? Where were you last week when the little things were building up to tragedies we see in the news today? It didn’t just happen, we needed you before the tragedy and we’ll need you tomorrow too.”

The problem with only posting or talking about race during a crisis or when everyone else is talking about it is we fail to remember the real work happens in everyday conversations between friends and colleagues and daily choices. I hope allies will continue to use their voices and move to action. Recently I was at a dinner called Unity in Community, it was designed to open up a conversation about race. A white colleague talked about how he had been in a heated discussion on race with colleagues who ‘didn’t get it.’ He said he engaged in the conversation as a white ally. He also said “it was exhausting and I recognize I can step out of the conversation as a white person. People of color can’t always step out.”

We need allies in the conversations, not just when there is a chorus and not just to do the easy actions of posting to social media, donating to the same slate of nonprofits who claim to work with communities of color, and hangout in ways that are ‘safe’ and comfortable. We need to do the harder work, the everyday work, of learning about how race impacts people, forming new relationships with people who are different than us, and de-centering practices that benefit communities who are already thriving.

What Are You Doing Next Week? We Need Actions and Relationships.

Our actions speak volumes about what we believe and value. I’m hoping people will engage in dialogue and push for change. Racial equity wins are made between news cycles, change happens in boardrooms and classrooms, the wins come in conversations and when we change practices to benefit communities and people of color.

Earlier this week on a local parenting Facebook group I started a thread inviting people to DSCN2966introduce themselves. The online group has been together for a while, but often times posts are transactional or asking for advice on parenting situations. I wanted to pause and find out who is in the group, relationships can’t form if we don’t know who is there. Allies become allies when we know who is around us and we understand each others backgrounds.

The thread is great, people discovered commonalities and it is neat to read who is in the online community. The roll call of members also highlighted blind spots for the group, such as who is underrepresented and how easy we default to dominant ways which become a club of the like-minded. I was heartened to read people’s posts, including where group members engaged in conversation around race, sexual identity, and privilege. These online conversations were more productive because people were willing to share and dialogue. Now the question is how do we continue to use the space to push for equitable changes in our broader community; I know it will be easier because we have a better idea of who is in our community, both people of color and allies.

I hope everyone, especially white allies, who were outraged, sad, angry, or confused during the turmoil of the last week choose to use some of that energy to do something differently. To get to racial equity we must change and evolve. Perhaps as a first step is to pause and get to know the people in your community, especially people who are often outside of our daily encounters. The new relationship may help to bring about new thinking that helps to alleviate some of the anxiety and sadness, and propel us to action.

Posted by Erin Okuno

Why we Need to Stop Using the Word Minority


Pride Asia Event in Seattle, photo by Erin O.

Before we share this week’s post, I want to say Happy Pride Week in Seattle. This year’s theme is The Future of Pride, a fitting theme.

I’m writing on a plane heading home from a week in Boston. It was a great week, even with the East Coast dress code (no slippas and Aloha shirts) and bias against West Coast time difference (7.00 a.m. start times– brutal). I spent the week with about a hundred talented and brilliant people from various sectors, working to make their cities great. One of the most interesting parts of the trip was hearing how people talked about their communities and the different problems different communities face. There is a whole blog post about how our problems are all the same and different, but that one will come at a later time. Being in Boston with peers from across the nation highlighted the differences in language we use and subtleties of perspectives.

In my writing and speaking I use the term ‘people of color,’ or abbreviated to PoC or if I’m lazy poc. Language changes and evolves over time. Just a few years ago we used the term minority to refer to what are now known as people of color, or one or two generations before my grandparents were called Jap as a commonly accepted to reference to Japanese, now it is a derogatory term. We need to pay attention to language and how it is used and preferred by communities of color.

To read about the history of the term people of color, here is Wikipedia’s page. No term is perfect and the term people of color has a history some may agree with and others will disagree with. That said it is still time to stop using the term minority and currently the popular term of choice is people of color. Until our language evolves again I want to see us phase out minority in favor of a people centered approach.

Stop Saying Minority
Throughout the week I heard people use the word minority to refer to people of color. I also saw people give me puzzled looks or a raised eyebrow when I said people of color versus minority. Language changes across regions and sectors, and we need to stop using the term minority no matter where we live, work, or play.

The word minority is problematic. At one time there might have been a minority group, as in fewer people of color, but those trends are rapidly changing. Across the nation few communities are untouched by demographic shifts – let’s face it our cities and communities are becoming more diverse and our language has to shift as well.

Quickly people of color are becoming the majority, hence the term minority no longer fits. Some call it a Majority Minority, which is ironic like the former Starbucks campaign #RaceTogether (get it, if we’re racing we’re not together). In the 2014-15 school year Seattle Public Schools students of color made up fifty-four percent of the student count. Schools are often a harbinger of change in our cities. The term minority does not adequately capture the changing student count, nor the collective need to shift educational experiences for children of color. It also doesn’t acknowledge the growing family base and collective base we have in communities.

The word minority denotes a minority or smaller status. As a person of color I’m not smaller nor  lesser than another; I may be shorter but my voice has equal status. I have the same rights as others in my community, not more or less but equal. The term minority is pejorative; we do not need to justify our status or make ourselves smaller to fill a label.

People of color are the majority or will quickly become the majority locally and nationally. As such we need to recognize the collective power and diversity in our joined experiences. The term people of color or communities of colors puts the emphasis back on people and communities. The term minority allows us to fall into an amorphous blob of otherness; we cease to be people and communities. In many ways we fall into the background.

We are In this Together – We need to Be a Majority
Changing language from minority to people of color also needs to include the notion of we are in this together. As people of color we are the majority and we need to support each other. We need to work together and build coalitions that push for change as coordinated ‘people.’ We need to do the cross-cultural and cross-sector and cross-cause work to be united.

Moving from a minority status into a majority count gives us a greater presence and a greater need to be seen as a unified voice and support for each other. As an example Heidi shared the words of Sonja Basha, a speaker at the Seattle Orlando Shooting Vigil: “The Muslim community and the LGBTQ community are not separate; we mourn together. I am Muslim, I am queer and I exist. The fact that I exist does not erase the fact that you exist.” Our existence together will bring greater prosperity to all, it also slows down or stops divide and conquer strategies to separate us by racial and ethnic groups, sexual identity status, or to be ‘othered’ in other labels.

Heidi also points out “Even in ‘majority minority’ school districts or cities, people of color may be the numeric ‘majority’ in the community, student and family population, but it is highly unlikely that they are the ‘majority’ of the power holders; teachers, administrators, school board members, funders, etc. This plays into the false dominant society narrative that we are all ‘equal’ in power, or will have the exact same experience if people of color held majority of leadership positions on a board or in an organization.”

Language Makes a Difference
Language makes a difference in how we see ourselves and how we see each other. One of the lessons I re-learned this week is how language helps to frame problems and helps us understand problems and see solutions. How we identify and frame a problem the labels we attach to it can positively or negatively frame a problem.

The collective term people of color doesn’t take away from our individual races and ethnicities. In my interpretation it doesn’t dismiss our histories or individual cultures as African American or Black or Latinx or Asian Pacific Islander or Native American or Mixed Race or however you choose to identify. It is a way to say collectively we matter and we collectively want to see an end to institutional and systemic racism. The term people of color is meant to say as poc we have shared experiences not common to whites, which sometimes involves racism, power grabs, or the reverse beautiful and joyful experiences because of our cultures and communities. Put another way, my experiences as a Asian-Japanese American adds to the collective experiences of being seen as a Person of Color, there are many times when I want to be part of the collective and to share in the joys and the heartaches.

When we speak with honor and acknowledgment for people of color and use language that sees us as people we are seen and heard. As Heidi wrote about last week in talking about love and emotions in our work, language can either evoke love or be used to tear us apart. Let’s choose to use language that sees us as people, communities, and in positive ways.

For some interesting videos on race and what people are saying check out these videos by The Seattle Times: Under Our Skin.

Posted by Erin Okuno, with liberal quoting from Heidi Schillinger

We Don’t Work Together (yet), We Don’t Write a Grant Together

2704913_origSeveral months ago we wrote about the importance of trust in partnerships. We need to revisit the topic, especially as it relates to grants and grant application processes. Grant making and grant seeking are like dating, most people don’t marry someone after one date or after just seeing their Tinder profile. Grant making is very relationship driven, who you know and how you work with each other are telling, especially as it relates to race and equity. Relationships allow good organizational partnerships to develop.

Do Your Really know who you’re partnering with?
Fakequity shows up in the grant application process from the moment you ask a POC led or centered organization you haven’t worked with to partner with you on an application. We’re going to assume your intentions are in the right place, but it is completely the wrong approach. We think of it as being the same as the good old friend request on Facebook. You know the person you have to search to even see who you know in common? We may have met once or twice, but are we really friends? For the formal business people, like LinkedIn when you get an invitation to link to someone, but you have no idea who the person is, do you accept the invite to connect or hit delete? (For the record we only link to people we actually know. Very awkward getting a text from a colleague asking for a reference for someone we are connected to on LinkedIn and having to text back saying you have no idea who they are talking about — that um, never happened.)

Reaching out to an organization to partner in a grant without a meaningful connection is fakequity. If your organization is seeking to partner on a grant, stop and ask yourself if you’ve really done your own work to build a relationship with the organization. If you haven’t stop typing an email to [fill in the blank PoC centered organization], your organization has some work to do before asking if they will partner on a grant.

A grant cycle or a grant application shouldn’t drive how you form a partnership. The collaboration should begin long before an application is on the horizon. As an example, a few months ago a colleague met a professor at an event and exchanged business cards. Professor X invited us to his center to learn more about our organization and to share what he’s working on. Throughout the meeting we verbally danced, saying nice things and asking questions, finally at the end of meeting we asked “What are you hoping to gain?” Professor X answered truthfully: “access.” He wanted access to our networks since he wants to focus his research more on closing achievement gaps.

We don’t want to be seen as gatekeepers to communities of color, but in reality we sometimes have to. Our reputations are on the line, we don’t want to be seen as “the person who brings in bad partners.” We went back to Professor X and said we would like to get to know him and his work better and encouraged him and his team to attend our meetings and get to know us. Professor X said he would attend our meetings and he has. As a result, we’ve gotten to know each other and build relationships. Professor X has met with others in our network so they now know him as well. All of this led to us joining in on a grant proposal. We’re looking forward to connecting and working together.

The Approach – Like the First Date
If you are looking to collaborate with an organization centered in a community of color please be aware of how you are approaching a people of color based organization. Skip the ‘savior’ mentality of thinking you’re doing someone a favor, or the “you owe us, because we serve kids of color” entitlement and privilege lines. Be polite and say nice things.

Recently an organization called seeking to partner and gave us the worst first grant date pickup line ever, layer in a tone of judgment, annoyance, and privilege: “You never pay attention to us. You only pay attention to those kids over there. … We want you to be the lead partner on a grant that is due in three weeks.” Erin almost hung up on them, well it was only because she was trying to take them off of speaker phone. Not a great way to build a partnership. Starting with “Hi, we really appreciate the good work you’ve done with XXX, can we explore expanding?” is a nicer way to start.

Here are some examples of how to shift your thinking as well as your approach and some examples that highlight what this work looks like when done the right way.

1. Understanding everyone’s mission. Is the mission of each organization aligned? If it’s not, then stop here. You should not even be considering applying for a grant together. Collaboration implies we share similar goals for our work.

2. Do we have a history of collaborating in the past? What was the outcome of the project? What did you learn that could help inform future work together?

3. If you have no history of working together, what have you done to intentionally learn more about their work and more importantly the communities they serve that make it all possible?

4. What are the responsibilities of each agency? Is the project mutually beneficial?

Sealing the Deal – Marriage via a Grant
Equitable grant relationships are like panda bears – all shriveled with squinty eyes and tiny bits of fuzz, but when nurtured and fed a rich diet of bamboo and trust, they grow into cute and strong equity minded pandas. Part of growing a baby panda into a bear is knowing who is in charge of the feeding versus the licking the bear clean (or whatever you have to do to keep a panda alive). We’ve partnered together on several projects and a few grant funded projects. What made the grants work well was having a great working relationship to start with, we’ve also developed several short hand codes: “Hey can you do the outreach to your folks, and I’ll work with the coalition.” We also talk openly about race and push each other to do better. Since our early grant marriage has led to a genuine like of each other we can now partner on other things – like this blog and fighting fakequity.

Posted by CiKeithia Pugh and Erin Okuno