Letter from Ain
Racial Equity work is so full of opportunity. It is the opportunity to shift our cultures, practices and policies to reflect the fact that we live in an innately diverse world. It is the opportunity to reduce life-impacting disparities and inequities for Black, indigenous and other communities of color. It is the opportunity to step away from business as usual and actively incorporate awareness and reflection into our work. Racial equity work is the ever-present opportunity of choice.
As the call for racial equity work within organizations and institutions increases, continuing to define racial equity separate from Diversity, Equity and Inclusion work remains crucial to meeting the leading edge of the need. Our September StoryLetter is the opportunity to pause and refresh our thinking about how we define and understand racial equity and race, in all their inherent complexities.
A note: In this month’s StoryLetter interview, Change Elemental, along with other racial equity practitioners – some of whom are REACH grantees – are offering a framework for understanding organizational development work. This emergent work should not be considered a diagnostic tool, but an invitation to consider the nuance within racial equity work. Understanding the nuance does not replace the critical role that practitioners play to diagnose where organizations are and what they need, and then support organizations to operationalize racial equity principles.
For this month’s StoryLetter, we welcome Elissa Sloan Perry (CoDirector) and Sheryl Petty (Senior Consultant) of Change Elemental, formerly known as Management Assistance Group. Change Elemental aims to disrupt and transform systems of inequity and co-create powerful vehicles for justice.
“I do this work because human development is actually about remembering. Remembering what it is to be human and remembering what it is to be humane. It’s in connection with my individual purpose, which is to be a call to the sacred in everyone, the best self in everyone, and a support to return to it.” – Elissa
[image description: Picture of Elissa smiling with a light grey sweater, multi-colored red,purple, and brown scarf, and black glasses.]
“I help folks un-numb. To feel enough of ourselves and our collective, shared humanity, so that we actually stop causing harm to ourselves and to each other, because we can actually feel. Then we can stay present to the implications of that for processes, systems, and structures in organizations.”– Sheryl
[image description: Picture of Sheryl’s smiling and looking away to the right, wearing a black shirt and glasses.]
We invited Elissa and Sheryl to discuss a framework that Change Elemental developed to describe its approach to equity capacity building: “Framing the ‘What’: Components of Deep Equity Capacity Building.”
What is the framework, and how did it emerge?
Sheryl: After the current president was elected, demand for equity capacity building work skyrocketed. At Change Elemental, we couldn’t meet the demand for work, and the same was true for our partners in the field. In fall of 2019, Change Elemental decided to build on the work of previous equity capacity building convenings held by entities such as Race Forward, Co-Lab, and Equity in the Center, and host a two-day convening to try to promote greater cohesion and synchronization among the field of some seasoned equity capacity builders in our networks. We gathered a select group of deep equity capacity building providers and started talking about how our work relates to each other and how we can grow and collaborate and riff off of one another in really healthy ways. In preparation for that convening, we had to figure out how to talk about how we approach our work with equity clients in an external way, when we had been in deep internal conversations for several years about our approaches.
That’s how the “Components of Deep Equity Capacity Building” framework was born. The framework allowed us to codify what we had been talking about for the last five years and share it outside of ourselves so that others could engage with it.
In our work, we focus on six components of Deep Equity capacity building:
- Depth & Intensity
Can you walk us through some of the components of the framework to get a glimpse of how it works?
Elissa: We start with Type, which refers to where a client or partner falls along the white-dominant-to-social-justice spectrum, or “101-303” for short. The work looks very different according to Type. The aim at the 101 end of the spectrum is to wake people up and un-numb folks so that they can stop causing harm and looking at all the different levels of change in a system in order to do that. At the 303 level, a lot of the organizations are all Black and Indigenous people of color (BIPOC), or they’re a Black organization or native organization or what have you. The 303 work is more about healing and coming back to wholeness in order to imagine and build new systems. These two ends are connected; they are part of the same spectrum.
Sheryl: At the 101 level, there is also a big focus on raising white awareness, addressing white fragility, and (for those who have deeply assimilated, consciously or unconsciously) waking up to that and its toll on us – and building the stamina to be on as deep an equity journey as possible, especially for organizations who are highly influential and have a big footprint in the world; so if they change, their impact (and hence, lessened harm) is magnified.
Sheryl: 202 is kind of a hybrid. These types of organizations, systems, or people have white dominant tendencies. They may be multi-identitifed and may have aspects of a deep equity analytic, but may not have awareness of where white-dominant culture and habits are playing out in their own actions, or this awareness is not consistent. So, the task is to become more aware of that, in order to make more skillful choices.
Sheryl: Another component we look at is Readiness or Difficulty. At the 101 end, “high readiness” for us looks like there’s been some training, there’s enough awareness, and there’s a “learner stance” at both ends of the spectrum. “Low readiness” or “heavier lift” looks like high defensiveness, lip-service pursuit of equity (at the 101 end), or lack of receptivity to learning and growth at both ends of the spectrum. So, 303 does not necessarily mean “more ready”; nor does 101 necessarily mean “less ready.” Readiness is about receptivity, humility, and readiness for change or growth, deep collaboration, learning, etc.
Elissa: One of the ways NOT ready-ness shows up frequently is when people are unable to see beyond or extend compassion beyond their own trauma or their own story. They have trouble with simultaneity. That happens to all of us, but having some awareness around that and ability to work with that and still be in relationship with others is part of that healing process.
Sheryl: We use Depth & Intensity of Intervention to make sure the engagement matches the current need or capacity. The first level of intensity is usually a one-off training we call a “Toe-dip.” Toe-dip interventions can also be coaching, because they are focused on specific parts of a system. Sometimes a training, workshop, or coaching can be really catalytic for an organization. It can propel them somewhere else. It can till the soil and get them ready for a deeper or broader level of work. Other times, a training or workshop just ends up “checking the box.” It didn’t go anywhere, and nothing really happened as a result. So, a “light touch” or Toe-dip intervention could be catalytic or shallow.
The next level is the “Olympic Diving Pool” where you focus on one specific “vertical” of the system—you could go deep into leadership, the board, HR, or a program, for example. You’re not looking at the whole system, but you’re going deep into a strand of the system. People will review the policy manual, or do a series on board development.
The third level is “Ocean work,” which is engaging all the levels of the system: individual, interpersonal, organizational, field and partnership presence, organizational culture, relationships, etc., plus all the deep verticals. There’s also training and coaching involved, and it’s usually a multi-year engagement.
How does this framework relate to the larger racial equity field?
Sheryl: The impetus of why this framework was built was to understand how we—as an equity capacity building field—can better equip ourselves and strengthen our collective capacity to handle the avalanche of demand for deep, meaningful equity transformative work. We wanted to jointly support air traffic control (or greater, shared awareness) over how we can more effectively partner with each other, as a field, because the need for deep equity work is greater than ever, and the field is overwhelmed by demand.
The framework helps us understand more clearly the different roles that we can all play. Who are the deep trainers? Who works at the field-building level? Who are the artists, the organizers, the funders? How does this field of practitioners and experts get built, supported, and deepened?
Elissa: And what is it that we are all working toward as a network of racial equity capacity builders? What’s the whole that we’re trying to make up? Where are there gaps or chasms that we want to close or tend to, and how does that happen?
Sheryl: The other question is how do we adjudicate depth? Folks are using the word “equity” like we all mean the same thing—and we don’t. Let’s get clear on that, because there are so many resources flowing to equity work right now. Some folks are doing “diversity and inclusion” work and calling it “equity.” Many who’ve been collaborating together are in a deep process now to help support greater, joint clarity in the field about what we mean by “equity” or “deep equity” as an offering and as an act of love – because it’s important that we as a human race and as a planet heal together.
What have you and others learned from this framework? Any learnings or challenges you are currently facing?
Elissa: One of our biggest hesitations about sharing the framework is folks have a tendency to use it as a diagnostic, and that’s not its purpose. People go in and diagnose a system based on what they see and they use it as a judgment. Like when you get to the 303 end of the spectrum, you’re a gold star. And that’s not how it’s meant. Using the framework without knowledge and depth of equity transformation understanding is problematic.
Sheryl: This matters on the healing piece, because just because we’re brown or we have other non-dominant identities like queer, etc. and we have deep equity sensibilities, deep lived experience, and a deep equity analytic, doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re healed and won’t cause harm. We all know this, but we have to say it, and support ourselves and each other in loving accountability. This notion of healing and the degree to which our own internal woundedness is playing out in how we’re showing up and maneuvering in our organizations, is deeply salient to what we do and how we do it in this framework. It comes out when we start talking about “readiness” and “difficulty” and what is “easy” or a “heavier lift” and why. The difference between “easy” and “difficult” at each of those ends of the spectrum informs what kind of work we do, how we do that work, and where the roadblocks or pitfalls are. You have to plan for and anticipate those things. So, for us one end of the 101-to-303 spectrum is not better than the other end. It’s really recognizing that different players and actors, organizations, and networks have different starting places. As practitioners, we need to recognize that and be skillful in meeting people and systems where we/they are.
Any other learnings to add?
Sheryl: We haven’t talked much about “Inner Work,” but this is critically important for how we approach equity transformation processes. It makes it so that we can attend to “wellness” in the midst of supporting others on their own growth journeys. It’s not that we have to be “perfect”; but we do have to attend to our wellness and healing, replenishing/refueling, noticing when we’re triggered, learning to be more skillful, and dealing with intensity and intense emotions and situations, at individual and group/collective levels – including the legacy and weight of generational oppression and daily assault. For those at the 101 end of the spectrum, this is where the un-numbing comes in. We can all get overwhelmed, check out, and numb out to our bodies and hearts – but for dominant and non-dominant people, this looks different. Hence, our healing, and liberation strategies often need to be different. It also looks different depending on how awake and present we are to our own and others’ pain and joy… This is all essential to build significant capacity in, if we’re going to be effective, transformative agents of equity-based change. (See our NPQ article for more on this.)
Elissa: Yes absolutely! Inner Work and building the practices for both individual and systemic attention to it as well as culture change are the work of healers, artists, culture workers, and the like is vital in Deep Equity. We can build systems grounded in equitable policies, but until culture shifts and people are whole enough to enact them in equitable ways, transformation has not occurred and will not occur. For more on the interplay of these elements of transformation toward love, dignity, and justice see here.