Resist, Reimagine, Reform: Designing for Equity
For part one of this two-part series, click here: Design Choices: Inherited Does Not Mean Inevitable.
When social movements gain momentum, swift actions follow — some meaningful like policy changes and others performative like plastering pavements with a message of solidarity. As the Movement for Black Lives continues to demand justice and place bodies on the line in pursuit of America’s ideals of life, liberty, and so-called justice, many organizations are experiencing their own movements to evolve beyond the status quo.
The uprisings of recent months are burning flames that usher in the opportunity to begin again from scorched earth. Nonprofit organizations are in a liminal space with a mandate to consider different design choices. Existing structures are inherently racist, classist and patriarchal given the original design choices made to benefit land-owning white men. In How to Be an Antiracist, Dr. Ibram X. Kendi describes capitalism and racism as “conjoined twins” and that “…the origins of racism cannot be separated from the origins of capitalism…the life of capitalism cannot be separated from the life of racism.” As 2020 draws to a close, it serves us well to disentangle this double helix of oppression and begin again.
Against a backdrop of state-sanctioned police brutality and pandemic-ravaged economic and social systems, nonprofit leaders must deploy a bolder script that elevates racial equity and unleashes the benefits derived from diverse voices, inclusion of marginalized experiences, and equity in power sharing and self-determination. As Ramesh A. Nagarajah says, “It’s time to pop the bubble…the celebration of [B]lack lives is evident through a choice to inquire about them, to educate yourselves, and to question many of the norms around us. The excuse of not being aware of your level of ignorance is now out the window.”
In culture-shifting moments such as this one, individuals’ decision-making power is enormous. While the adage “culture eats strategy for breakfast,” holds, the more relevant unit of analysis is at the national level, rather than an institutional one. Now is the time for individuals to search their values to determine the truest course of action first for themselves understanding that it may not align with their institutional context.
The beauty is that anyone, regardless of their power, place, or position, has the agency to resist right now, wherever and whomever they are. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Everybody can be great. Because anybody can serve.” In a similar fashion, resisting inequitable design choices is an action that is available to anybody.
Resistance creates room for questions and the pathway for reimagining something brand-new. A More Beautiful Question notes that one of the “…appealing things about questioning is that it often has an inverse relationship to expertise — such that, within their own subject areas, experts are apt to be poor questioners…[and] that Why and What If inquiries [aren’t] particularly welcome in the realm of What Is.” And yet, it is precisely this kind of questioning that is the birthplace of innovation, evolution and relevance.
The Museum of Us has reimagined its work resulting from a journey of decolonization that produced several well-documented practice shifts. As CEO Micah Parzen shares, they ask “Does this particular practice contribute…to the colonial enterprise and systematic oppression, and if so, how can we best collaboratively change that?” When museum professional peers ask him, “How did you get your board of trustees to let you do all that?,” his answer is always the same: “You cannot join our board if you are the smartest person in the room.” It was this board, with this design choice in common, that, “… asked the difficult questions, processed deeply ingrained emotions and unconscious colonial biases, and ultimately found a path,” toward the museum’s decolonization changes to date.
When individuals collectively resist “what has been” and reimagine “what could be” with antiracist values at the center, real change is possible.
“We looked at being both more responsive and more strategic and we talked about an equitable approach where you focus more on dismantling power dynamics within philanthropy and try to move the needle on questions like, “’Who gets to establish theories of change? And who gets to decide what success looks like?’”
Board and staff members at the Field Foundation participated in racial justice training to expand their thinking about the fundamental assumptions inherent in the philanthropic model. It was a design choice for the foundation to reorient its functioning to the “civic architecture business” versus charity. “Yes, we award grants, and that makes us a conduit to cash, which we try to provide responsibly and respectfully. But like any foundation, we also have a power and privilege that grants us access to many tables, in many different rooms…We see our job as changing the architecture of those rooms, so all voices are deciding together.”
Unlike many organizations that tinker around the edges, The Field Foundation made fundamental shifts by interrogating who gets to determine success and who gets to create theories of change. In doing so, the Foundation disrupted the board’s positioning as a dominant coalition vis a vis community stakeholders and opened the door to increased transparency, creativity, and multiple ways of knowing.
Beginning again provides a blank canvas with multiple entry points to imagine. In 2019, Dr. Carmen Rojas, president and CEO of Marguerite Casey Foundation wrote, “The Problems with Philanthropy, and What We Can Do to Fix Them,” offering: “I dream more about ending racial capitalism than I do about diversity, equity, and inclusion. I dream a lot about us and the greatness that we can achieve when giving to and of each other is incentive enough.” Giving to and of each other is reciprocity — a principle which fundamentally transforms how we show up in the world.
Beginning from scorched earth, asking a more beautiful question, entering new dreams on a blank canvas — whatever you call it, now is the time to resist, reimagine and reform. What design choices will you make?
● How are you prepared to resist perfectionism, defensiveness, either/or thinking and other harmful cultural dynamics in your workplace, house of worship, or community?
● What fundamental assumptions inform the ways of working in your field? How might you reimagine them? What are your biggest dreams about what might be possible?
● What would meaningful reform look like in your spheres of influence? How might a reimagined future fuel transformative — rather than ornamental — change?
A travel aficionado, Makiyah Moody would rather live in Wakanda and is committed to a world where Black lives matter. She co-creates solutions with nonprofits and foundations in her current role at La Piana Consulting and curates Black & Bold: Perspectives on Leadership.
Jenifer Gager Holland believes that each person’s unique traits are their superpowers and she daily aspires to eat as much spicy food as possible, take anti-racist action, and pass the mic. Most recently with BoardSource, Jenifer is currently principal at JG Consulting.