Please introduce yourself and briefly why you do racial equity and justice work.

Zhaleh smiling into the camera wearing glasses and a pink shirt

“One of the big reasons why I do racial justice, liberation work and racial equity work is because it’s something that growing up, I was actively encouraged to think about as a mixed-race person, coming from a background where I did have economic access growing up, and I grew up with a strong sense of if there’s something that’s wrong or there are people who are not getting access to things that they need, that we need to support and fight those fights. That’s something that I came to really early in life, something that my parents instilled in me.”
– Zhaleh

Anisha smiling into the camera wearing long, dangly earrings and a dark and light brown shirt.

“I would echo that it is also personal for me. I think it feels like a part of a conversation that I was dropped into. I grew up in Florida with two immigrant parents who were psychiatrists, and just all the many things that I observed in the world, and in my tiny town and, in all the ways that I could make meaning, I wanted to make meaning.”
– Anisha

AORTA was founded as a worker-owned cooperative. Can you please explain what that means?

Anisha Desai: You’re talking to two people who spent a lot of time inside of nonprofit organizations, so when I think about what a worker-owned cooperative is, it is a space for radical possibility action practice. And as our colleague Autumn Brown said today, it is like an incubator for how we are with each other. Technically, a worker-owned cooperative is a business in which we all each own a stake, and it is both a business formation and it is also a political formation in which we do the work. 

Zhaleh Afshar: AORTA started off as a collective, so before it even became a thing that people had as a primary job, the founders worked on projects together. Then AORTA grew into the cooperative structure that we have now, and that also means that in very material ways we’re able to create and build equity—material equity—with one another. There’s a lot that we’re learning as we go along. And it means that we are also able to experiment and learn and have challenges and victories in terms of what it means to be truly cooperating with one another, thinking through how to share leadership with each other, and what are the ways that we can really co-create and infuse the values that we want to see, just as a Anisha was saying. We’re determining that together, as we also have this very concrete material connection to each other, because we co-own a business.

In your work with organizations this past year and a half, what are 1-2 key questions or lessons that have emerged for you? 

Anisha Desai: One thing is that our patience has run out. My patience has run out. So I am less likely to go on a meandering journey with an organization that really is dancing around something rather than going to the heart of the thing. It makes my work more interesting because I’m able to ask more direct questions, find out earlier on in the process where the fires are and who really wants to tend to those fires, and I think it has allowed for a braveness, at least in my own way of speaking to folks, about the time is long up. And what are we actually doing in these places that we have agreed to do the vast majority of our social change work inside of? If the vast majority of the work that we call social change or social justice work is happening inside of these institutions and spaces, then what are we really doing here? This is not about, you need to diversify the board, or you need to do this; that’s not even a question. And it feels so boring—that question feels really boring—and I know that’s not even a nice way to say it. But it feels like I’m more excited about how we see these patterns and how we already know these patterns, let’s deploy our expertise in useful and collaborative ways to help folks recognize things and get to the truth faster. That is what I feel I’m most excited by.

Zhaleh Afshar: In the last year and a half there’s been a whole bunch of questions raised by so much being brought into focus in terms of the different kinds of inequities or the different kinds of injustices. Whether it’s racial inequity and Black liberation —how can we support Black leaders, how can we support Black organizing? There are questions around, how do we work in better relationship with advocates or organizers in the abolition space, whether it’s against immigration detention or whether it’s against mass incarceration and detention on state and local levels? There’s so much that has been brought into focus because of the pandemic and because of the political situation that we have both domestically and internationally, that it becomes even more important for us to start to tend to, how we can support folks on a human level so that they are both celebrating their strengths and also not burning out. I think we are really butting up against the limits of capitalism and the lack of a global public health infrastructure. Those are some of the things that we, from our vantage point in terms of our work life as consultants, are seeing the limits of in some of the groups that we’re working with. And those limitations have also created, for better or worse, the conditions where some concerns can be raised more forcefully and explicitly than before. 

What does supporting movement-building organizations look like for you this year and what lessons can philanthropy learn from your/their experiences?

Anisha Desai: I think one of the places that we can be called in—which is not necessarily heightened in this past period of time, but probably feels that way because we’ve been entirely on Zoom—is a lot of conflict and relationship-related work. In terms of supporting people to move through difficult past transitions, supporting folks to tend to conversations that were not tended to, a relationship-building that needs to be essentially happening inside of the workplace for work to be produced. I think there’s a way in which we kind of get called into supporting some of that internal-related things, and then there’s kind of a fatigue point where people are like, ‘oh we’ve just done too much of this internal stuff, we just need to go do some real work.’ I think the balance is in helping folks to zoom out far enough that they can see what the ripple impacts are in tending to the internal stuff in a thoughtful way, in a way that holds boundaries and recognizes that we’re in workplaces, that they are not these all-consuming spaces that have to take up every ounce of our life and well being, but that they are a place that we spend much of our time and that it behooves us to look at the things that we have allowed to fall through. 

Zhaleh Afshar:  In order for us as practitioners to be able to truly advance different kinds of equity in an intersectional way, there’s just a lot of reexamining that we need to do: what are the ways that the resources are not accessible because of the way that our systems still are deeply exclusionary, deeply racist? If we’re thinking about how can we more tangibly connect our trans siblings to different kinds of equity work, well if there’s the constant threat in some urban settings or rural settings of police criminalizing or people facing violence from walking down the street,  if we can’t deal with those overarching forms of state violence or interpersonal violence that different people are facing, then it’s really hard to expect that any given program is going to solve all the problems for one specific group, or we’re going to be able to magically create a certain type of inclusion or equity for a group. And the same goes when we think about how can we truly support Black liberation and multiracial solidarity: how can we do coalition-building when in the pandemic we don’t even know if everyone has access to broadband, or we don’t know if someone’s going to face police violence? So much is in stark relief there for philanthropy to really think about, what are some of the immediate needs, and what does the establishment need to shift creatively in order to meet them? This is why we need to go beyond a “diversity, equity, inclusion” or “DEI” frame and really work toward an anti-oppressive and intersectional way of doing things that acknowledges and seeks to transform systems. 

Where are the learning edges for the field from your vantage point?

Zhaleh Afshar: I think an ongoing learning edge is how to approach the practice in adaptive and deeply intersectional ways.  A challenge that I observe is that we’re working to be visionary, and we’re also working within systems, especially in the last decade, I would say, and particularly in the last four years, that have not wanted us to succeed. Systems that have really amplified “divide and conquer” and opposition to a lot of the kind of liberation work that people have been doing for a long time. 

So, a learning edge is how do we expand the timeframe so that we’re not placing unrealistic expectations on ourselves or on organizers and communities? How can we re-calibrate our expectations also around what success looks like? How do we build on the existing strengths that we have? Or how do we build on the strengths of others that maybe we haven’t invited into a conversation or invited into the work? I think that’s a learning edge for us. I think it’s a learning edge for practitioners doing racial justice and racial equity work in general.

Anisha Desai: I’d say another learning edge, as we explored this year, is thinking about or reevaluating what Black leadership looks like inside of our co-op, which has then led to a conversation about kind of revising our theory of change and centering Black feminist practice as part of that work and thinking about what that means for us. What does that actually look like for us? What does that mean about how we work, about who we work with, about how we treat our workers, and the kinds of ways in which people labor has been unrecognized? Those kinds of things are not new for us. I mean certainly the folks who have been impacted have been dealing with it for quite some time, and I think now we are doing this work in the world, we need to do this work for ourselves. 

Anything else you want to share? 

Anisha Desai: I did mean to add and I know that others have probably mentioned this. I think the disability justice framework has come sharply into everyone’s focus. And similarly to acknowledging Black leadership in the movement [which is] long time overdue, similarly disability justice has risen to the fore. Grateful for it and very much hoping that we will keep growing and learning in this space even as we move out of virtual space and really tune into the things that folks have been asking for for a long time. And also opening space for us to ask what we [facilitators] need for [access] in a learning space. Both the agency of facilitator, as well as agency of participant, client or folks who are being served to name [things like] this isn’t actually working for me, [or] my body can’t take this, [or] my mind can’t take this. And I also think about all the other requests that folks have made over time for their bodies and minds.

Zhaleh Afshar: And connected as well, a language justice and how we can create more opportunities. Virtual work has, in some ways, expanded accessibility. We can reach certain people more quickly without having to travel to them or without having to find a date and time to meet. We can work with more interpreters (Spanish-language and ASL for example) using Zoom and other tech tools. There is more flexibility and yet also within this medium [we are] learning what the limitations are. We have the opportunity to connect and learn from people who have different experiences and different needs. Similar to what Anisha was saying, I don’t want that moment to pass in two years. I hope that we’re still doing that deep work and reflecting because it’s constant. We constantly have to be re-evaluating and how we bring forward information and invite people in. 

What We Read, Listen to, and Watched This Month

Investing in Infrastructure. The National Council of Nonprofits shares links to articles stressing the importance of funding infrastructure within nonprofits. Included is a 2016 letter from 22 infrastructure organizations emphasizing the importance and the value of nonprofit infrastructure in helping foundations and nonprofits operate as efficiently and effectively as possible to best serve the needs of their communities.