Scene I: A progressive but historically white-dominated nonprofit hires a BIPOC Executive Director as an attempt to address racial equity concerns and “diversify.” The new ED is not supported to make the broad shifts required to support lasting racial equity in the organization. The organization flounders, not having allocated enough resources to continue programming while restructuring for equity. The new ED is blamed for the “failure” and is fired. The Board hires a DEI (Diversity Equity & Inclusion) consultant to do a listening process, and the Board considers the issue resolved.
Scene 2: Younger and senior staff at an organization are entrenched in tension and conflict. Younger staff want to take on a more radical stance in the organization’s values and strategy, and senior staff brush this off as inexperience, panic when tension arises, and clamp down on their positional power. It gets personal, relationships erode, a few staff resign, and some are passive aggressively terminated. The organization never really recovers.
Scene 3: An organization’s leader is called out on social media for causing harm in how they hold power. No process has occurred internally to provide direct feedback and shift power dynamics. The leader is shamed out of the organization without the underlying power dynamics being directly addressed. The organization does not actually shift its culture.
If you work in the world of nonprofits working for social transformation, you’ve most likely experienced at least one of these scenarios. Why do these patterns keep recurring?
Dominant Culture Rules Everything Around Us.
There is no question that we live in a world shaped by legacies of brutal colonization, enslavement, and heteropatriarchy. We are collectively experiencing and witnessing the harm of this toxic culture in real time—inadequate support for public health during a pandemic; the violence of racist policing and criminalization; grossly insufficient responses to escalating climate chaos that most directly impacts historically excluded and exploited communities. These toxic dominant culture systems (that prioritize white people, men, middle-aged able-bodied cisgendered adults, and so on) are impacting our health, the health of our families and neighbors, organizations, and communities at large.
These dominant power structures also insidiously creep their way into our personal relationships and our own sense of who we are. In spite of our best efforts, we enact subtle and gross forms of anti-Blackness, white supremacy, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, classism, and other structural oppression. This overlays with our unprocessed trauma and habitual coping strategies, and they ricochet off of each other to create interpersonal tangles that can blow up organizing teams and organizations.
We Sync to Toxic Systems
In healing there’s a concept called entrainment, which is when one body falls into step with the rhythms and patterns of another body. It can be positive, like when a dysregulated body entrains to a settled nervous system and finds ease. Or, if entrainment orients towards a disharmonious system, it can decrease coherence and increase dissonance.
Our social transformation organizations entrain to the toxic dominant culture in which we swim, just like we do as individuals. Nonprofits sync to institutions such as private capital, legislative bodies, and mainstream media, along with their status-quo cultures—even while trying to leverage these institutions for social transformation. Many small community organizations have experienced the demands funders make in exchange for small pots of money, because foundations have accepted the norms and practices of private capital. Several groups we’ve worked with have also expressed that when they’re in campaign mode or legislative seasons, all group agreements go out the window and they fall into the white supremacy characteristics they swore to disinherit.
“The Devil We Know”; or, Oppression is Oppressive
Another reason we get stuck in toxic dominant culture patterns is that we begin to believe that we should just accept things as they are because they could be much worse. This is an understandable reaction to the power and force of the status quo. Under stress, we default to what we know, and what we’ve done in the past. Dominant power expressions are what we know, like a familiar sweater that we won’t throw away even when it has giant holes in it and isn’t keeping us warm anymore. Or like a rushing, toxic river of sludge that has swept us in its current.
For example, I (Ingrid), as a Black woman have watched and experienced colleagues, mentors and friends labeled “divas” or “problematic” for bringing up legitimate equity questions and concerns. As Black leaders and leaders of color we often have to consider the weight of stereotypes, how questions and concerns are received and be prepared for the potential pushback when we may ask questions like “Why is XYZ organization with predominantly white leadership or staff receiving preferential treatment regarding funding?” Each of us has a version of this, depending on the intersection of identities we inhabit. This is just one example of what we risk when we stand against the current of dominant culture patterns in our organizations. Others include being edged out of decision-making processes, not being seen as a “team player,” losing funding, and even losing our jobs.
Another World is Possible
Social transformation organizations can create life-affirming cultures, based in mutual care, that emanate to the broader culture, which then syncs to our life-affirming flow. We’ve done this before; social transformation organizations have historically been places for developing new ideas, policies and practices before we amplify and share them on a large scale. Our organizations can work to inspire, catalyze, build, dream, imagine, and practice a better present, growing towards a future of mutual flourishing instead of escalating crises.
So, what can help us actually take off this toxic, nonfunctional, ill-fitting, and suffocating dominant culture sweater?
- Embrace Imagination
“Once the imagination is unshackled, liberation is limitless.”
~ adrienne maree brown, Octavia’s Brood
The first step to getting out of the toxic, rushing river of dominant culture is to imagine a possibility beyond it. Eurocentric hegemony has dominated our ways of knowledge production for 500 years, but even so, each of us have inherent ways of knowing that cannot be destroyed. You don’t have to be an artist to access your imagination; we each hold a glimmer of the future we seek. Our imagination is the pathway to a vision for a future rooted in our values. Once we access it, we can allow it to permeate into our lives, allowing it to shift personal and organizational purposes, and motivate our day-to-day practices.
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- Reconnect to our peoples’ indigenous ways of knowing & being
- Practice creative expression in community
- Create a culture of play and experimentation that allows all the safety to take risks
- Create space for fallow; open and flexible time, and rest
- 100 Year Visioning, a practice introduced to us by political strategist and Zen priest, Norma Wong, in which you imagine what the world feels like, looks like, and how life is structured in 100 years, then sense into what would need to happen for that vision to unfold and map it out at the 50, 25, 12, five, and 2.5 year marks.
Tools and Resources
- A Guide on How to Unleash Black Imagination to Shape the Future by Aisha Shillingford and the work of Intelligent Mischief
- Visioning practice guide developed by Jovida & Weyam with Julie Quiroz and other collaborators at Movement Strategy Center, for Move to End Violence
- Create Adaptable Forms that Follow Vision and Values
The nonprofit sector has often replicated structures and organizational models from the systems we actually seek to change, including corporations, plantations, and factory floors. On the flip side, we can get stuck in designing perfectly egalitarian structures for how we’ll work together (whether at the organizational, collaborative, or alliance levels) as a way to control conflict. It’s like we think that structure can neutralize power differentials, and that having just the right communication protocols in place will prevent misunderstandings.
In the last few years, we’ve each been experimenting with designing adaptive structures around purpose and accountabilities. We start by understanding the bigger impact a group wants to work toward, together, and considering: what are the roles necessary? Then, how can we distribute those roles based on strengths? These might be skills-based strengths, or a certain perspective, like being close to the problem that we want to tackle. If we have clarity together around the bigger impact we want to make together, and what we value, then we can give ourselves and each other permission to make moves that are accountable to that shared purpose and values. It creates a nimbler structure, that isn’t so process heavy.
- Practice transparency around decision-making. For each role, it’s helpful to define where that person or team will need room to move freely and make autonomous decisions, and what support or information they need in order to do that well, in a way that is accountable to shared purpose and values.
- At the same time, each role may also steward decisions that others need to weigh in on, or make together through consensus. Make sure those expectations are clearly identified.
- Create agreements about how someone in the group can initiate a change in how the group operates. For example, have a mechanism for making and agreeing on proposals, with trial periods and evaluation methods.
- Establish practices to regularly check in on how the group is working together, where people experience tensions, and what adaptations might be needed. Seasonally (once a quarter) is a nice rhythm for this.
Tools and Resources:
- Brave New Work by Aaron Dignan is not written for a nonprofit-specific context, but many of the materials can be easily adapted for our organizations. Some tools we like are “Even Overs” and “Integrative Decision Making Processes/Defining the Waterline” which help clarify what is most important and who can make decisions about what.
- Consent Based Governance allows for participatory governance without the lag time that often comes with full consensus. Here’s an example of a consent-based decision making process.
- The Highest Common Denominator by Miki Kashtan offers a model of“convergent facilitation” that engages and includes the wisdom of dissenting voices in consent-based processes.
- Jovida has compiled a range of related tools for groups to use in their work together. You’re welcome to view it and make a copy for yourself.
- Conscious Engagement with Conflict
Tensions in relationships are part of being human. For one thing, different people have different needs at different times. These differences are not something to hide from or suppress; they can actually be worth lifting up and learning from! Plus, we are inevitably going to mess up. It’s part of the package of living in this dominant culture and being creatures with histories of personal and collective trauma. What we can do is commit to cleaning up harm we cause or inherit.
- Invest into and pay attention to relationship, as Rockwood Leadership Institute shares “relationship before task”
- Self awareness: recognize your own response to tension or conflict and your own patterns; hold curiosity and not judgment about the sources or reasons of tension or conflict as they may reveal an opportunity for culture and structure change.
- Communicate Courageously! Create mechanisms to give and receive proactive feedback in your groups, and let people know as soon as possible when pain points arise.
- Enlist trainers, coaches and facilitators to support a well thought out and intentional repair process.
Tools and Resources
- Turning Towards Each Other, In It Together, and Ready to Choose Love help us address the everyday tensions that are a healthy part of any relationship.
- Mariame Kaba’s Transform Harm & Project Nia’s the Abolitionist Toolbox have a wealth of resources on a range of topics from conflict to transformative justice.
- We Will Not Cancel Us by adrienne maree brown – a love letter to movement builders and healers to inspire us to work through conflict.
- Courageous Conversation toolkit by Social Transformation Project for preparing to communicate.
- For more intensive community accountability processes and transformative justice see: the Creative Interventions toolkit; Beyond SurvivalEjeris Dixon & Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha; and Fumbling Towards Repair by Mariame Kaba & Shira Hassan.
“Practice may be the simplest and hardest part of creating the future.” – Julie Quiroz, Love with Power (2016).
To build the world we want takes practice. Our everyday actions shape and grow culture, which ultimately shapes systems. By allowing ourselves to imagine what we really want, creating structures that serve that vision, and doing our best to repair the harm we inevitably cause along the way—we grapple, feel, stumble, fall, and get up and try again, transitioning our world into the one we want.
To learn more about enacting these practices in the world of social transformation, check out this video clip from the webinar “Into the Fire: Transformation Through Conflict” and explore how to practice into the world we want!