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

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

Are We Stuck in the Past? Finding Joy in Letting Go, and Adding a Little Salt Along the Way

One of the benefits of sitting through high quality racial equity sessions/trainings is hearing new perspectives on race. At a training my colleague Melia shared this quote: “People are trapped in our history, and our history is trapped in us.” James Baldwin. This quote resonated with her and invited us to reflect on what it means to each of us. As we shared what the quote meant to us, it was interesting to hear different perspectives. I thought about a project Heidi and I collaborated on. We pulled historical documents around race and education in Seattle and used it to frame a conversation around race relations and educational equity today. We asked attendees to caucus by race and to analyze the past. The conversation showed we are having the same conversations around education and race, except with different language, no longer Orientals or Negros, now Asians and African Americans, University of Washington “Minority Students Feel Alienated from Campus,” and so on.

Our Histories Inform How we See the World427523
How we see the world is informed by our personal histories, our community’s history, and the historical narratives we listen to. This means our biases, our networks, our comforts and discomforts are shaped by our histories. As an example, I grew up in Hawaii and one of the reasons I am unable, or maybe I should fess up and say unwilling, to commit to vegetarianism is my love of “local-kine” food, especially SPAM. I grew up eating SPAM and to this day think of it as a treat. My history of SPAM eating, is already passed down to my kids who love a good SPAM musubi. For me expressing my culture and history are interlaced with food, and my taste buds seem to have a bias for SPAM triggering the reward center of my brain.

These histories and legacies inform how we see and think about our work. We all have biases and preferences, in many ways these biases and preferences keep us alive–they help us form communities, keep us away from danger, and keep our brains from becoming overwhelmed with data and inputs. But as we grow in our racial equity work we need to acknowledge our biases and consciously work to change. Biases don’t make us good or bad people, we all have biases. When we are aware of them we can work harder to see past our natural tendencies and be more open to receiving new information.

A Table of Leaders — Diverse but Not Diverse
Not too long ago Heidi and I went to a racial equity conference. Heidi noticed how many of the speakers, especially the ethnic commissioners are all men. I noticed how few times Pacific Islanders, Native Americans, and Asians were included in the panel and stage conversations. All of the speakers are leaders and deserved to be heard, but when we don’t unpack our biases we fail to challenge ourselves to think differently and purposefully reprogram ourselves and our work to be more inclusive. This is how history repeats itself and why we stay stuck.

Our work around racial equity is about shaking up the status quo and challenging ourselves to think differently, then working to change systems. We can’t just say “well, that sucks,” and leave it at that. We need to say “that really sucks for [fill in the blank – important to personalize the work], and this is what I’m going to do.” Before we do something or try to fix a problem we need to pause and acknowledge the histories and viewpoints contributing to the problems at hand. I know some are going to say “dude, we spend soooooo much time re-hashing histories, can we move on?” The answer is yes, but we still need to acknowledge how we got here and not let it paralyze us. We need to pay attention to the past so we can create new solutions and hopefully screw up less for the next generation of leaders.

How Do We Change?
Change is a conscious decision. We need to want to change. If you like where you are at and comfortable and don’t want to change, then don’t even attempt to do racial equity work. Seriously, do us all a favor and skip the ‘mandatory’ equity trainings hosted by your organization, stay in your bubble and be content. Change and moving away from what we know is hard and takes a lot of energy. The benefits of changing can be received if you want to, but it means moving past being content and comfortable.

Changing means letting go, like KonMaring your house (the en vogue Japanese way of cleaning and tidying). In the KonMari method you hold each object and ask yourself “does this bring me joy?” If yes you may keep it, if no then it is time to release it. In the KonMari method Marie Kondo (the creator and genesis behind this cult-like cleaning method) says we must honor the spirit of an item, in this case we should acknowledge how our histories and the past have anchored us, shaped our thinking, and now it is time to KonMari a thought/practice/or way of being to make room for new ways. In Japan and in the KonMari method she sprinkles salt on old socks as a way to release the spirit and essence. You may sprinkle salt to release the spirit of an old object or thought holding you back. Go ahead and find an old survey where you only got 2% return rate from people of color and say “thank you for trying survey, it wasn’t your fault for the crappy return rate we had some inequitable practices we are letting go of now,” sprinkle salt and delete. Don’t really sprinkle salt on your keyboard, maybe have a margarita on the side as you KonMari and put the salt there, or in my case a SPAM musubi full-sodium.

Bonus Reading and Viewing
TED Talk: How to overcome your biases, walk boldly toward them, by Vernā Myers
TED Talk: Why I love a country that once betrayed me, by George Takei
Kissing Your Socks Goodbye, Home Organization Advice from Marie Kondo, NY Times

Stop Competing for Who’s Worse Off

Recently I spent the afternoon at a community conversation hosted by high school students. The students who led it and spoke were fabulous. They were insightful, wise, and spoke their truths with conviction and kindness. It was a conversation centered around their agendas and their leadership. Most of the students there are people of color.

During the conversation the students talked about what they want for their education. Their requests were reasonable and what a community should be providing – a rigorous education, safety, a decent building, transportation access, leadership opportunities, opportunities to perform and enriched through arts, opportunities to pursue a higher education, and a brighter future. As one of the students said “our school and our community are one,” we as a community need to provide a quality education to students of color.

What happens when we get tired of fighting…
The students who spoke were hopeful, they were grateful to their teachers, poised, and so glowing with youthfulness and energy. They were also real, they understood students in other parts of the city have different opportunities. They understand their neighborhood is changing and as a student said “I don’t want to come back to Seattle after college and know my neighborhood changed. … I don’t want to see my friends in Kent or Renton…” She understood the effects of gentrification and was asking the adults to help.

These students are seasoned advocates. They know how to ask, how to push, and how to be seen. They spoke about their needs and why they believe passionately in wanting better services. At one point a student said “What happens when we have no fight left? What happens when we’re tired? It’s about equity we need different solutions.” The student who said this didn’t sound bitter, tired, or jaded – he sounded real. I want to believe he knew part of his fight had to be saved for academics and for the things that high school is about – getting into college, that cool date, what to eat for lunch – but I also read into his words he is afraid to stop advocating and speaking up because if he stops other voices step into the void and take over.

Stop Dismissing Our Problems
Too often community conversations like this take place and we have to fight to be heard to keep the conversation focused on our needs. The conversation sounds like this hypothetical conversaton:

Person of Color: We need two additional counselors in our schools. Ninety-percent of our students are first generation college scholars. Many of them also don’t have internet at home, and their families often don’t speak English as well so researching how to get into college at home is a struggle.

White ally/policymaker/anyone who does this: Thank you for sharing your concerns. I want you to know I hear you and understand the problem. You should come visit my neighborhood, we have poverty there too. The school near my office only has three counselors.

Stop pitting needs against each other. We need to ensure funding and resources are reaching the most critical needs and it needs to be done with community input. Dismissing communities of color needs, or worse believing community of color needs don’t deserve to be heard, is damaging and leads to the fatigue the student spoke about.

The last time I saw this done I shook my head and thought “stop, just stop talking.” I


picture by laserbacon @ deviantart

found it dismissive and patronizing to hear an outsider, and a supposed ally, come into a community of color space and say “oh, you should see our needs.” This is a classic instance of where the acronym of W.A.I.T. should be used – Why am I talking? Why am I dismissing another person’s need? Why am I trying to overshadow and over-talk a community of color request? Do I believe my needs are more important than the speakers?

Community of color conversations are not for outsiders, ‘allies,’ or nay-sayers to impose their values and tell others what to do or think. The role of an ally in these conversations is to check their privilege at the door, listen, and to practice empathy. They don’t have to agree with what is said, but it isn’t their space to question or be dismissive, there are other spaces for that to take place. There is a time and place for priorities to be set for data to elucidate the problem, but a community conversation centered in a community of color isn’t that place.

We’re Not Competing For Who’s Worse Off
Communities of color know what they need and don’t need. We don’t need allies and outsiders to come in and compete for who’s worst off. I remember a Buddhist story of a lady who complained to a monk everyday about how she was the worst off. For a while the monk listened and showed empathy and compassion, after a few days the monk said “You do have it bad, I want you to go out and find someone who is better off than you – then I will give you what you want to make your life easier.” So she went off and eventually came back. The monk asked what happened, she said “I realized I am actually fortunate, there are others who have harder lives.” Competing for who’s worst off is futile, we will get further by supporting each other.

Posted by Erin Okuno

Giving Thanks for Diverse Books

Happy Day After Thanksgiving! Hope you had a nice time with your family and friends or whomever or whatever you chose to celebrate with. We celebrated by renting a yurt at a state park. It was a great plan until the heat went out in the middle of the night and we froze in 30-degree weather. A two night stay turned into one, it was memorable and cold.


In the spirit of sharing something good and a project that brings me thanks, I will share what I’m reading. This past summer I took the Diverse Books Challenge, and pledged to read 15 books by authors of color. The We Need Diverse Books campaign started a few years ago to highlight the alfneed for more diversity in children’s literature. The campaign included a story in The New York Times showing how few authors of color and characters of color there are in children and young adult’s literature. One of my favorite pictures from the campaign said “We Need Diverse Books because there are more aliens/werewolves/vampires/yeti in books than People of Color.” If you are a yeti or a vampire you’ll feel good about seeing yourself reflected in American literature.

I took the diverse books challenge because I felt the need to diversify the media I hear from. I took it as a personal challenge and I control a lot of the books that come into our house, so it spilled over to my family. As the family library goer I control a lot of the books our children consume. As a result many of my 15 Diverse Book challenge books are children’s literature (plus children’s books are faster to read).

I want my funyuns (children) to see diverse characters, understand others, and to see themselves reflected in books. Seattle author Ken Mochizuki, author of several children’s and young adult books, writes “the value of fiction [is] it can sometimes prepare you for what happens in life.” My job as a parent is to prepare my children for life, and life beyond our home and family. Books are helping with this preparation.

The Diverse Books Challenge has exposed us to lots of new authors, and reread several favorites. Taking this challenge has forced me to be more mindful about my book choices, and open me to new authors. Instead of just picking books off of top-ten lists, or through recommendations, I spend time looking for authors of color.

What I’ve Learned

Authors of Color are in Every Genre—A few of my favorite books in this challenge have come in unexpected places, including a book about house cleaning by the Japanese cleaning phenom KonMari or the audio version of Oprah’s book What I know for Sure. Authors of Color aren’t relegated to only world literature or the entertainment or sports sections of the library, explore and wander the shelves.

Gatekeeping in Publishing—I think it was in a Star Trek episode I heard the line “History is written by the victor.” This means that many publishers cater to mainstream audiences because they have the power to publish. As a reader I have to push to have diverse stories featured in books and put on the shelves of bookstores and libraries. As People of Color we have the numbers, if we demand to see authors of color featured they will be. Be vocal and demand to see authors and authentic characters of color featured in books. Two publishers that currently standout are Blood Orange Press and Lee & Low. (I don’t work in the publishing world, I only keep track of this on a marginal level. Perhaps there are others I don’t know of.)

New Perspectives—Being exposed to books by authors of color has brought interesting viewpoints that I wouldn’t have thought of otherwise. For instance in the book Being Mortal by Atul Gawande made me think about aging across cultures. I also learned about the Freedom Rides from Senator John Lewis, I could have read about this period of history from a traditional history book, but reading Sen. Lewis’ version brought it to life in a real way.

Mindfulness—I just started Silence by Thich Nhat Hanh who writes about being mindful about the media we consume. This experience has shown me how mindful I have to be with exposing myself to different thoughts and perspectives. The We Need Diverse Books challenge has pushed me to dig deeper and to counter some of the noise. I still read the news and enjoy many mainstream media channels, but I try to ensure I keep different perspectives coming forward.

Requesting Books by Authors of Color—I’m fortunate to live in a city with a well-supplied library system. The Seattle Public Library provided me with almost all of the books I’ve read for the book challenge. Part of supporting authors of color and pushing publishers to publish more diverse authors is to get their books put into libraries and purchased overall. At the Seattle Public Library we can request books added to the collection through an easy online form. I’ve requested books for this challenge and the library has ordered them, a win-win-win. Win for the library that now has a more diverse collection, win for the author who has more readers, and win for the publisher with a higher book count.

Reading to Children—My children love being read to and I enjoy sharing books with them. About a month ago my kiddo said I could choose what we would read before his bedtime so I picked up a journal on racial equity. This is what he said “All I hear is word, word, word, word, word.” In other words he was tuning it out, he needs to see himself reflected in stories so he can understand the world around him. He recently brought home a book from his school library featuring a multiracial family. He chose the book because his teacher read it to him in class and he wanted to share it with me. He said he chose it because he wanted me to read it with him, he was in control and wanted to share it with me.

What this has to do with Equity— Diversifying what I read informs what I think. Equity work requires understanding others and realizing that our world view is only part of the picture.

Here is my list of 15 (and some bonus books) for the We Need Diverse Books that I’ve read over the past few months:

I hope you’ll join me in reading authors of color. Please share your favorite books either on Facebook, Twitter (@fakequity), or in the comments below.