more like people

helping organisations to be more like people

To speak or not to speak?: Challenging white male panels

Thursday, May 1st, 2014

So a while back I was invited to speak at a CharityComms ‘brand management’ event called ‘Keeping your reputation spotless.’ I agreed to speak if they were ok with me debunking the entire notion of ‘brand management’ in a digital era, and the ethical implications of it more generally. Then, yesterday, I discovered that I was slotted to speak on a panel of four white men. What do I do, as a white man who doesn’t want to contribute to racism and sexism, and the unspoken implication that expertise has a race/gender? After much consulting of friends on the interwebs, I wrote this letter.

We can do better than this.

We can do better than this.

Dear CharityComms –

When I was first invited to speak on your brand management panel, I thought it could be fun; rarely do I have the chance to speak to an audience so invested in the status quo of organisational communications and public affairs, so thought it could be a good chance to constructively ruffle some feathers. I’ve been genuinely looking forward to it. As I said when I initially accepted, I think brand management works against its own stated aims, focusing on image and reputation, rather than integrity. It is a plaster to avoid dealing with deeper organisational problems, which is ethically messed up, but is also a losing game in an era of increasing transparency, when Trafigura, Ryan Giggs, and of course the dreaded Streisand Effect are part of the new reality.

But that’s not why I’m writing this letter. I’m writing it because I realised yesterday that I was lined-up to be one of four white men at the event’s opening panel. Admittedly, I didn’t raise this as a possible concern when I first accepted; it’s something I’m working on getting better at raising, and have included on my generic talks/workshops CV, but don’t always remember to do each time I’m approached to do a specific event. So I’m sorry for not raising it as a concern earlier.

But as I did raise in emails since, I feel the implications of an all white male panel (even if the chair is a white woman) are not good. The subtext becomes: ‘expertise in this field is directly associated with race, gender, etc…’ And I don’t feel comfortable – even if I feel I would be adding a useful criticism of the other panelists’ perspectives – being a part of that unspoken subtext. While I am glad there are women speaking throughout the rest of the event, an opening panel sets the tone, and is often the source of the photos that outlive the event, so is particularly important to have thought about these issues.

When I was told in reply that there was no space for another speaker, and that you were really keen to have me on the main panel (after I suggested doing a smaller workshop in the afternoon, instead), I decided – in consultation with many others – that I had to take a different route. While hearing from you that this balance would be taken more seriously at a future event is good, I have too often seen this kind of future promise of action on inequality not translate into real action, once the heat of the current situation is taken off. Old habits die hard. I also consulted Twitter and Facebook, garnering dozens of responses, the vast majority of which encouraged me to step back and make conscious space for other voices to be heard.

So I am politely withdrawing myself from the ‘Keeping your reputation spotless’ panel, with the hope that:

1) whoever you find to replace me on the panel can break through the current homogeneity, and

2) that this will become a real deep thinking point for future events held by CharityComms, even if it means a lot of initial work to forge more connections into communities who are not currently part of your existing speaker pools, and a deeper analysis of how current organising practices may be inadvertently closing doors to others.

I realise that addressing this stuff is always a work in progress, and that one female/person of colour speaker will not properly address the ways so many organisations end up at the point of creating all white/male panels, but by making this issue public, I hope it will keep it from becoming the back-burner concern I’ve too often see equalities issues relegated to. I hope that it leads to a deeper organisational soul searching as to the ways privilege and traditional power structures might be shaping your work, as it does all of ours, if we are not explicitly conscious of it.

So I apologise for the inconvenience and challenge this may cause, but hope that just as choosing not to be involved is part of my own process of addressing my own privilege, it can also be a part of CharityComms process of addressing the privileges that might be subconsciously shaping aspects of its wider work. I am keen to see what response this garners, in practice.

With Love, solidarity and respect,

Liam

PS – Here are two places to potentially start conversations about gender (The Womens’ Room) and race (Writers of Colour), specifically. Happy to discuss further…

2 comments

The Law of Organisational Affluence or ‘Why hotels are more than a waste of money’

Sunday, December 30th, 2012

‘The more social change organisations decide they need to pay for things, the less good work they do.’

Once, a local dog jumped into one of the tents we stayed in...

Once, a local dog jumped into one of the tents we stayed in…

Let’s call this ‘The Law of Organisational Affluence,’ and before you write this blanket statement off, let me add the disclaimer that, like all ‘laws,’ it will probably have almost as many exceptions as it does validations.

But indulge me…

Necessity breeds reciprocity

In countless community groups, artist networks and activist collectives, there is so little money going around, that people must find other ways of getting things done, often with the help of others.

Travelling to an event? Can you get a ride with someone?

Staying overnight? Can you crash on someone’s couch?

Need to promote something? Can you see who will add it to their newsletter, website, or put your flyers in their lobby?

Comparatively, in most wealthier organisations, the ease, convenience and predictability of a cash transaction comes to change the nature of these kinds of questions quite a lot.

Travelling to an event? Get a taxi.

Staying overnight? Book a hotel room.

Need to promote something? Pay for ad space.

In each of these later scenarios, the trade-off for ease, convenience, and predictability, is not just a question of the additional money spent – something more is lost when we start to assume that such expenses are a) ‘needed’ and b) the best way to address these needs.

Cash transactions close the door to a more reciprocal kind of give-and-take, and this reciprocity has long been one of the underpinning tenets of the kind of work our organisations do. Without a community and a culture of this kind of reciprocity, it is far easier to lose track of the bigger picture that our work is a part of.

Of course there will be times when any organisation will really need these things, but there is a significant difference between organisational cultures when such expenses are the exception, and when they are the rule.

Slummin’ with students

Working with a small student organisation last year, I travelled a fair bit. This usually meant staying on couches of those hosting me. I also slept on gym floors, in tents, at a couple of youth hostels and multiple scout camp dormitories with this particular organisation. Whatever the students got, that’s what those of us who were paid to be there got as well.

It was basic. Not a luxurious way to work, but hotels were one of many things that were simply not in the budget.

And while this was largely a question of necessity, it had some very positive side-effects. The lines between staff and students in the network were far blurrier than the paid/unpaid divide in most organisations. This made for immeasurably stronger relationships than most of those I’ve experienced in institutions where such delineations are more clearly defined. And stronger relationships usually meant a much higher standard of work getting done (relative to my experiences with wealthier organisations), because people really felt a shared sense of commitment to each other and the actions they were involved in. They also just felt more comfortable together, having had considerably more ‘in-between time’ to get to know each other. And the lack-of-hotels was definitely a part of this.

If I had retreated to lonely hotel rooms after each workshop (as I have with other organisations), it would have been more than just my bed (or sleeping bag) that changed. I would have missed countless hours of important conversations with students – whether about the campaign they were spearheading on campus, or something entirely unrelated going on in their lives. Both helped us work better together, though would have been unlikely to fit into the formally scheduled activities. Avoiding hotels opened the possibilities of the kinds of relationships that rarely emerge when shared time is entirely pre-determined by scheduled activities.

Even if there had been a budget to pay for hotels, doing so would have undermined the work. I don’t think it’s entirely coincidental that this particular organisation didn’t write these kinds of costs into most of their funding bids.

In times of scarcity, these kinds of interactions are made plentiful by necessity, but when there is more money in the picture, such experiences are often lost.

Necessity breeds reciprocity; reciprocity nurtures stronger relationships; stronger relationships build community; community improves the odds of better work getting done.

‘But!… But!… But!…’

I can hear the arguments – ‘I shouldn’t have to sleep on someone’s couch/ troll through my networks to find a ride/ beg and borrow for the things I need to do my work!’

To which I say, ‘why not?’ Are these really such major sacrifices to make for an important cause? And are they in fact sacrifices, or simply trade-offs? A minimal loss of privacy, for a greater sense of connection with the people who are a part of your work and your cause?

The sense of entitlement that can often sneak into organisational cultures does not just cost money – it costs relationships, and may well affect the quality of work that is or isn’t being done.

But we’ll never know about the potential we are missing if we don’t give it a try.

What can you avoid paying for, next time the choice arises?

What can you stop budgeting for, the next time you’re writing a proposal?

What might you do instead?

4 comments

More Like People is an association of freelance consultants, facilitators and trainers, working primarily in the voluntary, community and campaigning sectors in the the UK and elsewhere.

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