Living Cities has learned that to do racial equity work with authenticity, we have to embrace a new way of working. It has to start with us, at the level of individual staff and project teams. As we set about creating a new network to advance anti-racist practices in local government, we are seeking to intentionally defy the norms set by white supremacy culture through our process. The characteristics and antidotes to white supremacy culture are detailed in this resource from Tema Okun at Dismantling Racism, which readers are encouraged to review. Through this post and a series of resources that will follow, we will share the ways we are practicing Okun’s suggested antidotes to white supremacy culture so that we can continue to learn as we support our readers’ capacity to also design their work in defiance of white supremacy culture. The second piece can be found here: Ending White Supremacy Culture: A Resource for Reckoning with History. The third piece can be found here: Ending White Supremacy Culture: A Resource for Cultivating Abundance Mindset.
Image credit: @mosaiceye
Grounding our work with shared values and vision
When we kicked off our new team in Fall 2019, we took time to ground ourselves in shared values and a collective vision of what our work could look like. White supremacy culture values perfectionism, which then brings up a sense of urgency. To defy those norms, we took longer than usual to co-create our shared values and collective vision. This led to a feeling of commitment to our values across team members and helped us move away from this idea that there is only one one right way of getting to our collective vision.
Our team lead, Nadia Owusu, opened one of our first team meetings with space for each of us to write a haiku about what we thought our work could be. Team members’ haikus about the world we seek to create were combined to make our team’s vision statement:
“We acknowledge that, when it comes to racism and inequity, the past is present. We know that history is a story and that story needs to be retold and reinterpreted, not by a singular voice, but collectively. We need to see ourselves and each other more clearly. We need to repair harms. We need to heal. We need radical new ways of working together. We need to imagine, nurture, and grow an America in which all people and communities feel powerful, joyful, connected, and whole. We need a reckoning. Our team will support and learn from ten cities that are ready and willing to do this work. This, we will do in partnership with local governments, the communities they serve, and other visionary and committed institutions—public, private, and philanthropic.”
Creating a feedback culture and culture of accountability through norms and agreements
We know that defensiveness is a norm of white supremacy culture. To defy that, we want to make sure we create a culture of accountability in our team so that we don’t default to the fear of open conflict. Creating norms and agreements don’t automatically mean that we are now well equipped to deal with conflict, or that managing conflict gets easier. What it means is that we have an agreement that we can go back to when our team members’ behaviors are misaligned with our agreed-upon norms.
We started an early meeting by reading the poem “Aleph Pattern” by Joshua Sassoon Orol and reflected on what accountability in our team means for each of us. Then we asked the following questions: What are some agreements we want to make with each other? How can we practice our racial equity values in the way we work with each other? How do we increase our rigor in the face of pressure? What are some barriers to accountability and addressing conflict? How would you like to be called in?
Embracing a rigorous and emergent learning process where we make meaning on a regular basis
At Living Cities, we believe in emergent learning and we believe that we should make meaning on a regular basis. We shift our practices as we learn new things. To understand how these day-to-day shifts impact our work, we create time and space every month to reflect on them. The reflections and lessons learned from our “meaning making sessions” are used to inform changes and evolutions of our work. Before any decision making, we also use the racial equity impact assessment tool from Race Forward to ensure intentionality around the impact of our decisions.
Questions from Weaving a world without violence that we incorporate in our reflection processes include: In what ways do you do the work of oppression to yourself? How might you recognize and examine the habits that keep white supremacy in action? What internal shifts need to happen for those habits and the systems that perpetuate them to change?
Giving ourselves a full year to co-design the network with intention
For a long time, Living Cities was doing what many institutions like us do when partnering with other organizations. As we embark on this new network, we want to avoid power hoarding, individualism, paternalism while trying to also balance out a manufactured sense of urgency that tends to come up in white supremacy culture. We gave ourselves a full year to co-design the network with intention, and want to make sure that we start with building and deepening relationships across partners.
Because we want the network we’re building to be a shared effort with our partners, we have been hosting co-design sessions where three to four organizations come together to envision what the network should look like. Our first co-design session was hosted at a Black-owned community center where we could center our values and direct our resources to the organizers we seek to support. We also structured the agenda to create space for each individual to share their personal and organizational histories, helping us relate to each other as humans first and foremost. In our next piece, we will share a resource that can help our readers replicate this session.
Moving away from success/failure binary in thinking about our racial equity work by seeing racial equity as both a process and an outcome
We are reframing impact from quantitative results to qualitative, process-oriented outcomes, such as the depth of engagement of community organizers in the network co-design. This is helping us move away from either/or thinking that is normalized by white supremacy culture. As we move toward selection of cities to be part of our network, we are clear that no one city is “good” or “successful” at racial equity, but that impact will come from investing in the organizers both within and outside government who are pushing for greater accountability.
We have incorporated performance measures that force us to reflect back on ourselves, and whether we are building the competencies that we expect of our stakeholders. In our most recent “meaning making” session, it became clear to us that there is a cyclical process in our intention to learn from racial equity organizers within government, deepen our own anti-racist competencies, and model new behaviors for other public sector empoloyees who we are supporting to become racial equity organizers. Some of our new performance measures include:
- Success-failure binary is interrupted among our team
- Our team details and acknowledges our history with race
- Our team works with communities of color to strengthen or create accountability mechanisms
- Team members display increased capacity for imagination
- Team members’ capacity & willingness for risk-taking and challenging status quo grow
Being clear when we’re making decisions and when we’re not making decisions
In order to move away from white supremacy culture’s paternalistic norms around decision-making, we have started a practice of naming when a decision is being made in meetings, and outlining all decisions made in a follow-up email for each meeting. This also helps us see that there is not only one right way, as white supremacy culture often suggests. Instead we can see through the intentionality we apply in our notes that many options are discussed before decisions are made, and through convergence we either get to one decision, or we name that we are not making a decision yet.
During and in conclusion to each meeting, we name and outline the decisions that were made. This is as simple as sending a list to all meeting participants after the meeting concludes. Each team member then has the option to reply to the email noting if they had a different understanding of what was said in the meeting, or they no longer agree with the decision. This rarely happens, but when it does, the extra time that we invest to go back to the decision is worth it because it strengthens a culture of trust and collaboration.
While we have been reminding ourselves of the “transformative power of practice” as we make efforts to defy white supremacy culture daily, we continue to lapse. We each resort to cultural norms when we’re exhausted or impatient, which happens even more as we navigate grief and isolation during the Covid-19 pandemic. Yet, when we practice the antidotes to white supremacy culture, we get further. We feel more confident in our capacity to influence long-term systems transformation, knowing that it starts with our day-to-day behaviors as people and gatekeepers in our roles. We see glimmers of the world we’re trying to build.
We hope that the practices outlined here and the resources that will follow this post help you to build your practice of defying white supremacy culture. If they do, or if you want to learn more about anything we’re sharing, let us know by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.