Image Credit: Michael Coghlan / Rethink

Over the last two years, I’ve received many calls from racial justice consultants and practitioners. The two main requests have been for new models and to be convened as a community of practitioners. So, in January of this year, Edge Leadership, an R+D platform for social change hosted by NPQ, hosted a roundtable series on the state of race and power in the field.

 

The Context

The first roundtable was held a few days after the assault on the Capitol, and the event was fresh in participants’ minds. Kelly Bates, president of Interaction Institute for Social Change, puts it plainly: “We’re in a battle for power.” The way she sees it, many white people in the US feel they are losing their power to dominate, and they are willing to try to take it back by force.

Angela N. Romans, interim executive director at Achieve Mission, adds that much of the conflict around race right now is not physical and, importantly, is the result of “wins on our side,” the result of “a shift of power that’s happening slowly.” She points to the Democrats’ wins in Georgia that were led by black women organizing, as an example.

Kad Smith, an independent consultant, sees it as a global issue: “The global majority has successfully started to articulate the impact of race as a construct in ways that we’ve never seen before. Technology and access to information have allowed for that kind of permeation of a colorblind society to not be able to continue…. And the global majority has been very successful. People of color across the world are saying, no, the impact is still very much felt, and I can point you to a thousand ways where I see it every day, and you no longer have the privilege of not listening.”

Anastasia Tomkin, writer and direct support professional at Common Justice, agrees. “These conversations are being had, they’re bubbling up, almost reaching a crescendo.” But, as someone working in the justice system, Tomkin points out that the outcomes have not been so great, and the alternatives coming forward are not viable.

Manisha Patel, who just left the National Health Service (NHS) to launch a consulting practice focused on coaching leaders of color, shared that it is not very different in the United Kingdom with Brexit—a white majority seeing itself as beleaguered. She explains, “I live in Britain, where racism started. Their systems are deeply, deeply historically embedded in how power is created, who has the power, who doesn’t have the power. And there’s also the scarcity model…. ‘If I give up my power, then my children won’t have these privileges that I’ve had, the people like me won’t have it. I’ll have to give it to somebody else who’s not like me, who I’m afraid of, because they’re different, because I don’t have any relationship with these people.’ And that fear is very deep. So the systems here are designed very, very well. They serve white people really well.”

Nevertheless, Patel is noticing a real generational difference. She explains, “For the middle-aged to older generations, they are so suppressed, they’re used to putting up and shutting up, where the younger generations have driven that voice, which has helped other people to come in to talk about what they’ve been suffering for so many years in terms of the oppression.”

The Field

Increased Requests for Antiracism Consulting

Not surprisingly, participants report an increase in RFPs, RFQs, and LOIs requesting antiracism consulting services. These are also asking for consultancies led by people of color. Unfortunately, as one participant, Aisha Rios, founder and learning & change strategist at Coactive Change, said, “A lot of those calls ask for the moon and stars for $5,000 or $8,000 in three months.” She adds, “One thing that we’ve been doing is adding a one-page addendum or note to say why it’s problematic to call on Black and Brown indigenous bodies to put in this labor, in this really short timeline, with a really small budget. We’ve received really positive responses so far. There are ways in which those calls are perpetuating the harms and violence that they are trying to address.”

Monisha Kapila, founder and co-CEO of ProInspire, says that though much of this work started before 2020, it has accelerated over the last year. She’s focusing on supporting leaders of color in predominantly white organizations. She says, “They are feeling that this is a moment for them to own their power and push. But that is putting a lot of labor on them. And I think for the capacity builders who partner with them, we have to be really intentional about understanding the support that they need. Because it isn’t necessarily safe for them to push this change, but they know that this change is needed. Even though there’s support, oftentimes if you have, for example, white CEOs or mostly white boards, I think there’s this acknowledgment, we have to do this work, but there’s still subtle resistance to it.”

 

People of Color Focusing on Ourselves

As we narrow in from the wider contextual frame to our work in the field, Manisha Patel notes that Black and Brown workers, who’ve been at the forefront of fighting COVID, are beginning to put themselves first, to speak out about their need for safety, and that’s changing power dynamics. “But,” she says, “the people who run the systems are not using anything that’s different or innovative or radical. They want toolkits, policies—big organizational tools that don’t make change in terms of culture and power.”

Aja Couchois Duncan, senior consultant at Change Elemental, says that what’s most alive for her is the ways in which anti-Blackness shows up in communities of color. “Particularly,” she says, “the tensions between Black and Indigenous people because of our histories and the ways in which genocide and racism have been used.” She is part of a community of practice grappling with this, and she says, “I don’t want to talk about it with everybody.” She wonders how she can say to white people, “Skilled white facilitators are going to take care of you all because we have really important work to do to decolonize ourselves. That’s where my heart is right now.”

 

Challenging the Monopolization of Power

Kad Smith finds that “the state of power in our work is really starting to identify where power is being monopolized, where power is being hoarded. And to speak plainly about why that has to change, specifically when we say we want to be collaborative, specifically when we say we want to be equitable.”

We are at a choice point, much like in the civil rights movement, when people are challenging core supremacist beliefs and practices. Anastasia Tomkin reflects on what it took our forebears to challenge the oppressive beliefs and practices of their time, particularly how they bridged the gap of impossibility and fear: “Sometimes I put myself in the shoes of people back in the days of slavery, and how brave they had to be to organize and push people to actually fight back. Then even closer, in the days of segregation, masses of people followed ‘Whites Only,’ ‘Colored Only’ signs for years. And it makes me wonder, is it really just the one-off random people who actually—like Rosa Parks who sat on the bus, and the woman who did it before her—were like, ‘Hey, we should actually do this.’ And then some kind of fear held them back. Some idea that, ‘No, this is the power. This is how it is. We can’t do that. We can’t bridge this gap. It’s impossible. It’s dangerous.’ But then, eventually it did happen, and there were the sit-ins. And, I think, once again, we