Monthly archive: May 2011

by Jacob Corvidae

This article, titled “White Privilege Diary Series #1, White Feminist Privilege in Organizations, about the failure of many organizations to tackle the real work of anti-racism raises a lot of questions. The author, Kali Tal, does an excellent job at defining a well thought out process and general facilitation method for moving groups through the work needed when a group professes to want to become more diverse.

Yet, as the author notes, it usually fails.

And she basically leaves it at that in frustation and anger at the people in power who don’t want to change their organizations.

The phenomenon Tal describes makes a lot of sense and she brings a clear sense of history and understanding of a lot of the nuances that can plague these attempts at diversification. I appreciate that she isn’t willing to hold any punches about how racism manifests, and the article does a great job of honing in on the key space where this manifests. I had a question or two about the way those dynamics were described, but this mostly struck me as likely pretty accurate.

Nonetheless, it also struck me as too quick to succumb to pessimism and a good vs. evil paradigm which is limiting for everyone. I’m not laying blame on Tal as the facilitator for not overcoming these issues. But lacking culpability doesn’t mean that an opportunity isn’t being missed.

If this pattern becomes so sure and replicable, and the author is one of the only one’s with the experience to see it, then why doesn’t she change her approach? It seems that there are ways to approach this situation, knowing the likely pitfalls, that might make it easier to avoid those pitfalls.

For example, what if the facilitators forewarned the participants about the likely need for deeper structural change before the long engagement with the board and members? What if they asked for specific commitments, perhaps related to cost, percentage of programming efforts, or some other measure to prepare for the needed changes ahead? This would serve a number of purposes:

  1. to test the seriousness of the interest in addressing the issue before walking the path;
  2. to create clear parameters and commitments ahead of time which should make it much easier to hold the white women in power to those commitments later (and not just “hold them” coercively but pre-set their own commitment so that confirmation bias and people’s innate desire to create a consistent self-image, a well documented motivator, kicks in to help the later parts of the meetings run smoother); and
  3. to create a clear playing field for the suggestions that come back from the people of color, so that the facilitators aren’t setting them
    up for failure from the beginning.

To carry people through a process with the expectation that the process is likely to fail not only undermines the process, but also sets up the entire group to be further discouraged and frustrated with the idea of positive change.

Again, I do not claim that the author is to blame for these circumstances. Nor that the institutions or people that she describes aren’t racist.  Certainly, many people will claim they want change until their power is actually threatened. And a power analysis is crucial to changing the dynamics that the author was brought in to help change. I do not lay sole responsibility on the author for changing this. But the author is the only window we have into this dynamic, and I would urge any party that I was talking to in this whole mess to look at what measures were in their sphere of control and influence and work from there, and I would urge each party to try to access their highest selves to determine their best course of action. As Tal is the only one we, the readers, are in dialogue with here, then I feel we must ask these thing questions of her. Not in condemnation, but in hope of finding solutions that help us all become unstuck.


by Jacob Corvidae

The importance of community engagement and participation in planning major initiatives is getting more common, but going through a basic process isn’t enough to keep things from falling apart. This is the story of a recent experience I had watching such a process fall apart, and how we may have salvaged it.

This was the 6th meeting in a long community engagement process that had been going on for over a year to plan a community center and recreation space in a Detroit neighborhood. Things were really starting to move ahead, and the primary organizer, Susan, started things off with an overview of the exciting progress being made.  Susan is in her late 30s or early 40s, white, and a resident of Detroit, although not this neighborhood. She works for a nonprofit that is based in the neighborhood, which is helping to drive the development behind the community center. The community center is seen as the starting point in a longer term revitalization effort that will next focus on developing a deteriorated commercial strip.

She announced some new funding for the community center, and a meeting with the new governor to secure support as part of his urban revitalization effort. Then, meeting participants were to break out into 3 sections to work on furthering plans for two aspects of the community center and some starting ideas for the commercial strip.
The vast majority of the 40 or so people present at the meeting were from other nonprofits, local colleges, city and county government or activist organizations. Only a handful were actual residents of the community, which is a mostly impoverished neighorhood whose residents are people of color.

One of those residents, Mack, spoke up actively to ask several questions about the plan (who was invited to the meeting with the governor, what businesses were being planned for the commercial strip, and why the plans for the community center included the details that it did) with the overarching question of  “Why isn’t the community deciding what’s happening here?”.

Susan was a bit dismayed: “Mack, you’ve been at most of the meetings. We’ve been gathering your input and creating the plans from that.”

Mack: “But this isn’t what I want, or what we want. And how come the community isn’t leading this effort?”

The room was decidedly tense. The two talked a bit more, and then Susan said she’d be happy to talk with him more later, and moved the meeting on to the break-out sessions. Mack was pissed and vocal. “This is bullshit!” was his starting point and he just started going from there, in an agitated and loud voice.

Mack started talking to the folks sitting next to him (most of the other community residents) about “Well, this is how it always goes, and it’s all over now. This was a done deal before we ever got here, and now they’re just using us.” Increasingly the residents around him either joined in the frustrated discussion or left the entire meeting. One of the other meeting organizers from Susan’s nonprofit, George,  came over to talk to Mack, and two other interested parties, myself and Juanita, came over and joined the conversation. Juanita asked some open ended questions to hear about Mack’s concerns, which he began pouring out in rapid fire, condemning bursts. George kept countering what he was saying: “No man, that’s not what we’re about. We’re trying to get your input, and we’ve done all this work to hear from you.”

Mack was greatly concerned about the lack of community participation in the meeting, and gestured to me several times as an example of people attending the meeting who obviously aren’t from the community.  Juanita eventually moved on, but George and Mack kept going at it and were running in circles, with both of them tossing up their hands in frustration several times, with George exclaiming “But we’ve been asking for your input all along!” Finally, I jumped in and said to George, “Right, but you’re missing his point that input is not the same as agreement or endorsement.”  Mack spun around, looked straight me and cried, “Thank you! That’s what I’ve been saying!”

The conversation mostly turned back to George and Mack arguing about what was happening, and it spun around for another 20 minutes. Increasingly, I entered the conversation and I asked Mack more clarifying questions and then summarized back what I was hearing.  He focused his conversation more on me and calmed down a lot. Eventually, over the next 30 minutes, we got down to a basic outline of Mack’s concerns about the process, the need for more residents to be involved in the discussions, the decision making process and a clear commitment that the revilazation wasn’t just the beginning of gentrifying the neighborhood and driving the current residents out.

Now that I had much more of Mack’s trust, I was able to point out that Susan had expressed great interest in hearing about any concerns and suggestions that the community had. He didn’t totally trust this because he didn’t want to just provide input, he wanted to make sure that the residents were helping to lead the process. I asked if he’d like Susan or the nonprofit to provide some draft plans to ensure that and address his issues, and he said no, he felt that a draft plan should come from the residents. Sometimes George would interject his opinion or his view of what had happened and Mack would start arguing with him again. Every time this happened, Mack would quickly lose the calm he’d been building and started talking more drastically about a plan to go door to door stirring up his neighbors to shut this entire process down.

We eventually came up with a tentative plan where he could use his connections in the community to create a draft of what the wanted in terms of assurances and participation in the leadership team. He expressed great interest in this.  When Susan came over after the meeting, she said “Mack, you’ve been at all the meetings, we’ve had these meetings, asked for community input, done canvassing and phone calls to conduct surveys on community interests — I don’t know what else we could do. And if we don’t do something, this neighborhood’s going to deteriorate more and more.”  Mack continued to talk about the need for the community to be organized around deciding its own fate, and said that he’d pull residents together to shut this down if Susan went ahead thinking that this nonrepresentative input gave her the right to make deals with the governor based on the false premise that she had the community’s buy-in.

I reminded Mack that while it was true that Susan clearly had some power to work with, in terms of funding and political connections, and that he wanted to lift up the power of the residents to determine their community’s fate, that a marriage and melding of those powers had the greatest potential for creating the community that he had said he’d wanted. He was interested in that idea, but not very trusting of Susan. This baffled and annoyed Susan, since Mack had participated in most of their meetings and been supportive until now. Still, Mack agreed with my reflection about the core interests he’d expressed and that he felt it best if he organized residents to draft proposals on those topics. And Susan expressed clear openness to receive those proposals and work to incorporate any of them that were in her power to do so.

So What Happened?

Several people at the meeting treated this as though Mack was just a loud, belligerent individual who was best handled by giving as little attention to him as possible — the common parenting technique of  “don’t award bad behavior with attention.” And while it seemed clear that Mack was a bit hotheaded and a confrontational person who might not have nearly the organizing capacity that he claimed, it was also quite possible that he could have organized the community around an us vs. them vision of the residents vs. the nonprofit developers that could sewn years of distrust and difficult conversations.  By clarifying the major concerns and a concrete action plan that was in Mack’s court to follow through with, I believe the poison rift that seemed very likely at the beginning of the meeting was averted.

But why did it happen?

I drew three major insights from this experience:

  1. Community input does not equal endorsement — This was one of Mack’s early points. That he and others had been participating in the process all along because they were interested in their neighborhood and it seemed like the polite thing to do – to follow the lead of the meeting organizers. But when things started happening, he quickly became cynical of the process and felt that having the community write down its ideas on big maps or pieces of paper, was really just an excuse for the nonprofit to do whatever it planned and claim that it had community support. In this case, the nonprofits process were actually much better than that, and they clearly moved forward with an interest and intention to present their evolving plans at each stage and get feedback from the residents on whether this was the right direction. Still, the input vs. endorsement distinction is a useful one to keep in mind for any community engagement process.
  2. The need for basic listening, repeating and summarizing skills — while I often take these skills for granted as part of emotionally intelligent communicating 101, it’s amazing how rarely I see them used in business or community meetings. In the long argument between George and Mack, George was trying to respond to Mack’s concerns, but he kept doing it by asserting his own view of what was going on. Mack became more entrenched, agitated and distrustful with every assertion George made. The simple act of repeating back Mack’s point to him, instantly turned me from “example of outsider” to a prime and eventually trusted participant in the conversation.
  3. Power changes the equation  — Susan was particularly confused about why Mack’s relationship to the problem had changed so much – and just from the last community meeting.  It felt clear to me that the key thing that had changed, was that this meeting was the first time that Susan’s plans had started becoming real. She’d started showing that she had power. The new achievements and progress that she was proud of and felt was a victory for the community was exactly the thing that made Mack highly distrustful and suspicious of the process.  As a person with a long cultural history of being powerless against the forces that shaped his world, Mack felt his powerlessness acutely as soon as Susan began showing the monetary and political power she was beginning to harvest. Even if Susan’s intentions are golden, it makes sense that people who’ve long been powerless in the face of big shifts and changes in their own community would distrust those intentions. The idea that they would feel powerless, even when being invited to participate in the guidance of the power being harnessed, is often hard for people without that history of powerlessness to readily see, much less understand. And in fact, Mack’s own assumption of powerlessness, could have caused him to dramatically harness his own powers of community networking and adamant persuasion to shut down the whole project — even though it might be the most promising vehicle for achieving some of his own stated goals for the community.

I was fascinated by this entire event (and have actually spared you all the retelling of many details) and what it represented about community engagement processes. It may be a pathetic sign of my conflict resolution geekery that I *enjoyed* this conversation. Still, I’ve seen these processes limp along or outright fail in other settings, and the dynamics of that evening are not unique. Understanding them could keep future processes from falling apart. With any luck, it might even open the door for a stronger engagement with the community. It yet remains to see if that greater potential will bear out in this case, but at least by the end of the conversation no one was talking about shutting the whole project down.



Note: some details of the story have been altered to protect anonymity.