more like people

helping organisations to be more like people

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: Human institutions and ‘the Cult of Professionalism’

Monday, August 16th, 2010

We assume the need to be ‘professional’ in the voluntary sector, but are our concepts of professionalism outdated, unfulfilling and ultimately unproductive in achieving the impacts we are here to achieve?  Instead of a ‘professionalism’ that wedges a gap between who we really are and the role we play at work, what would enable us to ‘take off our masks’ and build work places that are ‘More Like People’?

“You must learn to always be professional. Never lose your temper, never cry, never get impatient, never get upset, never show your weakness. If you are caving under pressure, run to the bathroom. …by being emotional, you are making yourself a liability. No one wants to keep people who are flakey or break under pressure. The corporate world wants people of steel.”
– How to be a Professional at Work | eHow.com
the cult of professionalism's quarterly meeting

the cult of professionalism’s quarterly meeting

This may be a somewhat extreme example, but the essence of this excerpt can be found in countless watered-down versions by Googling the phrase: “how to be professional at work”.  Even in the voluntary and community sectors, we are increasingly used to a singular definition of professionalism, one that may have felt initially alien to us, but which we‘ve become increasingly accustomed to during our working lives.  Unfortunately, the old rules of thumb around how one should behave in a working environment often have significant negative repercussions, fostering tension between colleagues and erecting barriers between the ‘professionals’ and those an organisation exists to support.

Tips on ‘professionalism’ from corporate consultants and bloggers often include:
    • How to dress (‘business casual’, ‘formal’)
    • How to speak (Queen’s English)
    • Dining and drinking etiquette (table manners, ‘who pays’)
    • Behavioural guidelines (non-emotional, minimally opinionated)

I recently heard Jon Rouse, Chief Executive of Croydon Council describe these kinds of ‘tips’ as the basis of ‘the Cult of Professionalism’.  This ‘cult’, he said, is guided by an incredibly narrow set of mostly unspoken norms, which strip away some of the core principles that make us human; traits like empathy, emotion, individualism and opinion.  While becoming ‘professional’, we separate ourselves from the vast majority of other people in the world, behaving – and often thinking (while at work, at least) – in ways that seem unimaginable and often highly suspect, to people who exist outside of this constructed reality.  But unlike the cults of Scientology or Freemasonry, membership in the Cult of Professionalism is often fluid – a membership which many of us will pass in-and-out of at different times in our working lives, rather than committing to permanently.

Essentially though, this model of ‘professionalism’ pushes those who accept it to compartmentalise their lives (to varying degrees), to fit its rigid criteria.  ‘From nine-to-five, Monday-to-Friday, I am a ‘professional’.  During evenings and weekends, I might be a new father, a scout leader, a revolutionary Marxist, an alcoholic, a BNP member, a choir leader, a beekeeper…’.

Some of these roles, we might say, are clearly best left outside of the workplace.  However, like a pressure cooker, if we try to create false partitions between parts of our lives for too long, they will eventually boil-over into one-another.  For example:
    • Closeted racism may slip into hiring practices;
    • Problems in a personal relationship may start to taint interactions with colleagues;
    • Nights spent awake with a crying baby may make it harder to focus on work.
Or more positively:
    • Previous experience in a gang may give new insights into staff motivation and management;
    • Being a parent of teenagers may provide an awareness of the attitudes of younger staff;
    • A mate might be able to help with a piece of work that the team has been stuck on for some time…

So I would argue that ‘siloing’ ourselves (‘the professional’ and ‘everything else in our lives’) is neither sustainable, nor desirable.  The loss of basic human characteristics that so often occurs when we allow only a limited piece of ourselves to show over a significant period of time can limit or damage the relationships we are able to build in our working lives.  And whether in the corporate world, or that of palliative care, good relationships are increasingly recognised as crucial to (relative) success in the workplace.

But such things only happen in the corporate world!

Though the Cult tends to be most associated with the civil service and the financial sector, one does not have to look far to see the growing prevalence of corporate influence in civil society organisations.  Whether as ‘value for money’ audits (as opposed to value for impact), public contract culture (‘we’ve got to compete with bids by private companies’), or Social Return on Investment (and its attempts to convert human stories into cash sums), there are many examples of the values which have traditionally underpinned our sector, being subtly undermined by more bottom-line-orientated approaches.

As may have been expected, the cultures associated with those practices in the private sector have gradually begun to foment themselves in the working cultures of various larger voluntary organisations.  This is clearly more immediately problematic when staff are engaging with victims of abuse or ex-offenders, than if they are simply trading stocks in the City.  Impersonal and sterile policies against ‘hugging’,  ‘personal relationships in the workplace’ and a range of other basically human activities, send a clear message that the ‘professionalism’ an employer desires, is one which checks many of your personal characteristics at the door; not all that far from the quotation I begun the blog with…

So what do we do about it?

This is not an easy one and I don’t pretend to have clear answers, as our entrenched attitudes are not easily re-shaped.  That said I have a couple of ideas that might be worth thinking about if you’ve experienced some of these issues in your organisation.

Push the professional comfort zone
Most of us would find it much harder to be ‘professional’ (in the narrowest sense) if our regular working environment was radically changed.  Jon Rouse at Croydon Council implemented such a change via direct interactions between senior council officers and local people who had felt hurt or oppressed by the council services they had received.  This was not to necessarily validate every negative experience as a fair indictment of the council, but to give people who rarely saw the frontline impacts of their decisions, a first-hand glimpse into what it would have felt like to have a child taken into care, or to be unable to visit a loved-one while they were in the hospital.  The officers were not there to defend the choices made by the council, only to better understand the feelings of those on the other end of those choices – encouraging a sense of empathy with their experiences.  Rouse described the process as intensely emotional for many, but one which shifted the perspectives of many of those from the council who were involved, helping them to better appreciate the difficulties social services could unwittingly create in people’s lives, and how these might be mitigated from the policy level.  It’s hard to maintain a narrowly professional persona, when confronted directly with firsthand human suffering, especially if there’s even a minute possibility that something you did or didn’t do, may have played some role in allowing that suffering to happen.

Trust staff’ judgment – don’t always try to regulate it
I just read an advice piece in Third Sector on dealing with staff who are in relationships together.  It was based on the premise that something bad would probably happen as a result of a romantic relationship and that a policy for such matters was needed… Wait!  A policy?  To prevent heartbreak?  To tell staff not to let their heartbreak show at work?  To tell them not to have personal feelings for colleagues at all?  There’s no question that there can sometimes be messy elements to workplace relationships, but nothing you can regulate will prevent these from occurring.  With that said, most of the time they don’t, but our responses often assume the worst before having reason to do so.  Why not congratulate them on their happiness and address any issues individually, if they do happen to become issues?

This ties into some fairly key ideas of human institutions, challenging the assumption of the worst (‘left unregulated, people will do wrong’) that often underpins organisational planning efforts and policies.  Regulation should be a last-resort, rather than a knee-jerk response to organisational dilemmas.  Humans are remarkable when it comes to addressing issues as they arise!

Make yourself a bit vulnerable
I have only gut-instinct and a limited mix of personal and professional experiences on which to base this, but feel strongly that ‘conscious vulnerability’ is an important step to breaking-through the ‘Cult of Professionalism’.

empathy in a carton by geofonesAs we’re rarely used to expressing anything resembling emotion in the workplace, this is a difficult challenge for most of us, especially as working relationships can be subtly competitive, or even adversarial.  In this context, becoming consciously vulnerable can feel like a death sentence, however, it may be the olive branch that begins to shift a working culture towards something more genuinely mutually beneficial.  There’s no guarantee of success, and a bad experience may not be an easy one, but without risk, we omit the possibility of change…

Conscious vulnerability breeds trust, through the implicit acknowledgment that you have given someone the opportunity to hurt you, on the assumption they won’t.  So if you ask for the help of someone of a lower rank, but with particularly relevant experience, or admit that a decision you made was a mistake, it may start to change the ways people relate to you and to each other.  By modelling little changes and demonstrating trust in those you work with, it may very well encourage others to follow suit.

When we cut-off our own emotions (conforming to the spoken-and-unspoken expectations of the Cult), we often simultaneously limit our ability to empathise with the emotions of others.  Empathy is another key idea in my human institutions work, and one that Jeremy Rifkin talks about in the context of “re-thinking our institutions in society to prepare the groundwork for an empathic civilisation”.  A bit abstract, I know, but an important bit of grounding for some of the bigger picture changes that our collective behaviours can gradually start to shape…

“Push the professional comfort zone,
Trust staff judgement,
Make yourself a bit vulnerable”

Have you broken free of the Cult?

As mentioned earlier, membership in the Cult of Professionalism is far from all-encompassing and elicits different commitment from each of us at different times.  Very few people bring the Cult into every aspect of their lives, as we would immediately find it limiting to our ability to form meaningful relationships and get any real sense of satisfaction from the world.  But many of us, understandably, take on bits of it, as it suits us, when we are in a working environment where it is the norm.  Sometimes it’s easier to refer a member or client to a policy, rather than unpick the details of their concern; sometimes admitting we don’t know something might seem to jeopardise our job or reputation; sometimes the issues we face in voluntary and community sector can feel too difficult to acknowledge our own feelings about…

So I’d really like to hear about when you have:

    • Been able to model an alternative
    • Bucked the office trend and acted in a way that truly expressed empathy with either your colleagues or those your organisation exists to serve
    • Openly admitted your weaknesses to those you work with
    • Refused to use a new bit of in-crowd jargon
    • Given honest (if unpopular) opinions to managers
    • Allowed yourself to ‘just be yourself’ at work
As this blog is very much ‘thinking-in-progress’, I’m keen to hear people’s views on this.  Collectively, we might be able to develop some alternatives to this debilitating notion of what it means to be a professional…

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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.

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