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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…







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No, I won’t shut up about privilege! …Will you?

Friday, November 15th, 2013

Disclaimer: As I write this, I am livid. I’m sick and tired of seeing my friends experience the costs of other friends’ inability to challenge our own privileged status in our organisations. And no, I won’t stop shouting about it!

White people: Available in positions of power everywhere!

White people: still pretty shit at recognising our own privilege. [CC Boston Public Library]

Before I begin, I’d like to suggest reading Sue’s ‘Open Letter to the Movement,’ Nishma’s ‘Inclusive movement: A call to action,’ Guppi’s ‘On Posh White Blokes in NGOs,’ and if you want to really delve deeper, Andrea Smith’s piece on ‘The Problem with Privilege.’

…Think of this as one angry person of traditional privilege’s open letter to all of the people who also hold traditional privilege in environmental and social justice organisations.

We all hold privilege in particular situations, but some of us experience it as the norm, rather than the exception in our lives. We are usually, but not exclusively, white, male, straight and at least semi-affluent. And whether we pay attention to it or not, traditional power structures have been built in our image.

I use the verb ‘hold’ quite deliberately in relation to privilege. I increasingly feel it is less passive an action than I used to think. Traditional privilege is held by those who’ve always had it, by continuing to pursue the status quo, as others are excluded and silenced by it. When we aren’t actively challenging privilege, we may well be perpetuating it, regardless of what other worthy work our organisations are doing.

Very few unions, NGOs, voluntary or non-profit organisations I work with have bucked this trend.

Discrimination: Still going strong

We’ve had information about racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. available to us for a long time now. We’ve seen lunch counter sit-ins and riots, and declared ourselves to be friends of those who have struggled – and often given their lives – to create a world that treats them as human beings.

Most of us will acknowledge many of the ways that discrimination still takes place in the world: police violence, pay gaps, media portrayals…

But there are plenty of ways we still don’t acknowledge discrimination.

  • Do we acknowledge the ways that only posting our new jobs on job websites frequented primarily by others with considerable privilege is likely to mean we continue to look like the same organisation we have since the 1950s?
  • Do we know how much more difficult it is for someone who has grown up in a home that speaks another language, or even dialect, to feel comfortable enough to claim ‘excellent written and spoken English’ when they see it as a constant requirement in all our job descriptions?
  • Do we look at the ways that the dismissal of visceral, spiritual, traditional forms of knowledge that are core to so many other cultures, can make it far harder for others to feel comfortable in meetings, or working relationships more widely?
  • Do we ask ourselves how it might feel to attend yet another panel filled with white men, given yet another space to tell a wider audience what various white men have to say about a topic?

While it’s not to say there aren’t specific – and at times valid – reasons for each of the above, continuing to assume that their occasional validity makes them universally ok, means we are constantly closing and dead-bolting our doors to others who should be free to help shape the organisations and movements we are a part of.

Maybe some people with less in the way of traditional privilege really won’t want to engage, preferring to create alternative spaces that work for their communities. But even if this is the case, there is a level of responsibility on those of us who hold traditional privileges to make sure that is not the only option on the table.

As a white male, I won’t pretend I understand all of the ways in which lots of people struggle with discrimination in work places. But I’m also doing my best to accept what I’m being told about so many other peoples’ experiences of organisational cultures, rather than trying to judge them through my own lenses. When one story after another corroborate very similar feelings of dismissal and exclusion in social change organisations, I have to assume that I’ve got it wrong, and that my lack of understanding is the result of a blind spot afforded by so many layers of privilege I bring into my work.

I know that several of my good friends have become deeply depressed, and even suicidal, in large part due to their inability to be heard or have their concerns addressed within the largely white, patriarchal structure of our organisations.

Too often, when they have reached this point, their issues have been dismissed as unrelated mental health issues, absolving the people and organisations’ of any culpability for what has happened, de-legitimising peoples’ own perspectives on their lived experiences.

This is why I’m so angry. These stories are avoidable, if we actually took on the realities of the harm we are causing our friends, and to the causes that are losing their efforts and perspectives, each day.

From intellectual to visceral change

My gradual process of accepting the judgements of others about their experiences of our organisations, comes from a visceral acknowledgement of the issues, not just an intellectual one.

One way that organisation’s perpetuate certain demographics and dynamics is through the notion of professionalism that tries to keep everything work-related within the realm of intellect. This is European Enlightenment thinking (which feels incredibly foreign in much of the world), dominating our organisations. Many other cultures see more visceral, emotional understandings, to be just as important as one’s intellectual, rational point of view.

The empathy we need to find is not going to be found via intellectual understanding of someone else’s struggles, but through a visceral sense of empathy and human connection, and a clear sense that what they are experiencing is fundamentally wrong. When we try to relegate these conversations to the intellectual, we can easily make the rational case for why we continue to do what we’ve always done. When we feel some sense of connection with what someone else is feeling though, it’s far harder to ‘mansplain’ (or ‘whitesplain’) it away.

Privilege as wallpaper

I’ve written before, as have others, about the invisible nature of privilege when you have it; that the same things that exclude some, make others feel at home (or at least not too far from it).

But when we feel at home, we often de-prioritise the need for change. Everything else comes to be more immediately important, even when we intellectually recognise that all is not right.

Every time we de-prioritise asking the questions about making our organisations truly welcoming places for people who haven’t had very similar life experiences to our own, we reinforce our power and privilege. Privilege is making the choice to continue to inflict hardship on others, because doing so is easier than digging into a realm of very difficult questions, about ourselves, about our organisations, about the ways we relate to one another and on whose terms. Privilege is also simply being ‘too busy’ to open this can of worms. Without much effort, I can choose to put privilege on the backburner again and again, but that doesn’t give someone experiencing its flipside the ability to stop experiencing it until ‘other things settle down a bit.’

Is privilege our priority? No.

Addressing this stuff is HARD. But not nearly as hard as it is to be on the receiving end of it, day after day. That’s why all of us, when we find ourselves in positions of privilege, need to push it to the forefront – shout about it wherever we can.

Maybe a starting point for those who haven’t begun to make an effort in this area, is to acknowledge – even to ourselves – that it is not as high a priority as we claim it is.

If we acknowledge that, how do we feel about that acknowledgement? Are we comfortable with knowing that when we choose not to prioritise looking at the individual and institutional forms of oppression we are a part of, we are assuming they are less-important than the wider social and environmental justice aims of our organisations? We are accepting the depression and the resentment of people we consider our friends as an acceptable cost of our work?

I’ll leave that with each of you to answer for yourselves. It’s not that any of us can change all the ways that privilege affects people’s lives, but we can be more conscious of it, along with the many ways we benefit in different situations. We can also change specific parts of our work or our behaviours to open up new spaces for others to be able to shape some of these critical conversations.

But here’s the simplest starting point, highlighted by Guppi in her ‘On Posh White Blokes in NGOs‘ post: listen to what others are telling us and don’t try to explain it away. If we can’t do that, we won’t be part of any solution.

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Chapter 4 of Anarchists in the Boardroom delves into the questions of power and privilege in social change organisations. Feel free to order a copy.

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Talking privilege amongst progressives

Thursday, July 4th, 2013

My good friend Sue posted this open letter today, challenging the progressive/ green/ social justice movement she has lived and breathed for years, to look at the ways it had made her life as a brown woman more difficult than it should have been. Progressive people still discriminate, despite our best intentions. Sue is on stress leave because of it. Those of us who’ve been privileged enough to be able to walk into groups and organisations that are built largely in our image have  a responsibility to understand how we may be inadvertently closing doors to many of the people who should be front-and-centre of the kinds of change we are promoting. Thank you to Sue for putting this out there for the rest of us. I hope it can help to open up some much needed dialogue.

_______________

Dearest Movement

Being a women of colour in the uk movement/non-profit sector is incredibly difficult. I am on day one of stress leave that I had to fight hard for – I worked hard to realise it was not my own failing as a professional and it was ok to admit that I needed time out and that my body, soul and spirit had reached it’s limit. I totally love the movement, but I was no longer sure if the movement loved me. My PTSD has partly been brought on by an insane amount of direct action over the past few years, but for me that was not the main cause – my working life has been to stand with community, I love nothing more than a beautiful, cheeky action. It was the invisible power dynamics and homogenity of personality types in the spaces we work that doesn’t always leave room for people who have different dispositions, mental health needs, who question campaigns and priorities, come from a different political analysis or for me as women of colour to have a real seat at the table, that did me in.

The homogeneity in our movement is systemic and and it’s shocking as it comes from groups that often consider themselves the most progressive and working from a social justice background. I have a lot of respect and love for a lot of the people, orgs and groups that make up the various segments of our movement but they have become toxic spaces for people of colour to operate. I know I am taking a risk writing this – some people will feel hurt, I might be risking professional relationships, but the reason why I work in a non-hierarchical anarchist setting is so that I can keep my truth fresh.

I am at my last stand and it is time for allies to stand up and to begin to seriously change these dynamics. I don’t just mean a few workshops or putting in a wheelchair ramp (those things are AWESOME but you don’t tack diversity on) this is deep deep work to really take a stand. I don’t know exactly what that work will look like – and I give props to everyone who has begun it – I can walk with you on the way, but you are going to have to do this work, and not just if everything else gets done…but front and centre…if we truly want to hold the values of anti-oppression, equality and justice in your groups.

Having just come back from Global Power Shift it was this lesson that hit me hardest – we have the data, we know how to lobby mp’s we can shut down power stations, but do we relate and support our movements and especially those that don’t look and think like us. If we do not build a strong, beautiful diverse movement all of our elaborate and clever campaigns are for nothing.

I had internalised all race, power and privilege dynamics around me I thought I just didn’t know how to play nice, maybe I didn’t know how to do my job I’ve spent years doing, thought maybe I was too angry and questioned my own mental wellness. But after a week with global organizers in our conversations between our meetings and sessions I heard my story over and over and over…the light bulb went on…

Our community who operates in these environmental and social justice spaces need to know that those people closest to you – who might not look like you are struggling – to do the jobs we love and to keep a livelihood, to have a voice, to stand in our power, you are pushing us out of the spaces where we most need to be, to make sure you are connected to the people you are supposed to be fighting for, so that you yourselves don’t keep replicating those same systems that we say we are trying to fight. I know that this is not reserved to just race or gender, it moves across class, gender identities and sexuality, and I stand with you.

I’m close to giving up everyday, but it’s my love for the communities who are fighting, the world’s diverse communities who hold the deep analysis, solutions and stories that will wake us up and need to be heard at this time of climate change that keep me from packing it all in. So, I’m taking a bit of risk with my truth for the young generation of activists and social justice workers that often keep quiet on this because they don’t want to lose their jobs or become unpopular in our organizing spaces. I say this with deepest love for all the work that everyone does and in hopes that this will bring us closer to the society and vision that you are all working tirelessly for.

In answer to your question Nishma, this is may be the norm, but it’s not right and I can’t wait for us to Shake It Up!

Love,

Sue
x

For an inspiring incredible read on Indigenous views of feminism, decolonization and extraction read here! http://thefeministwire.com/2013/06/indigenous-feminisms-walia/

This note is in response to a blog by Nishma Doshi
http://www.nishmadoshi.net/2013/i-was-fired-because-i-gave-off-negative-vibes/

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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.