I’ve reflected on the extractive behavior I experience in my work and activist circles as well as ways that all of us, especially my White colleagues, can counteract this behavior.
I am writing this piece as a Black woman leader who is immersed in work with White allies and colleagues and who has also built a community of people of color, including equity and inclusion change agents. I am intentionally sharing my thoughts on extractive behavior with this entire continuum of people. I am writing to privileged and historically oppressed that may have their own “internalized oppression” to contend with.
Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. implored us to make decisions about a person based on their character, not their skin color. His invitation was to judge them on what you see that person do—their integrity, energy, and passion rather than their birth circumstance that gave them a social identity and role they did not ask for. This is true. But what he did not do is ask us to do is turn a blind eye on the privileges or barriers that social identities afford us.
Thank you all for being here and for traveling far and near! For me, authentically being honored here tonight means so many things.
Most importantly, being the first African American woman honored by Berkshire Business and Professional Women, I see this as an opening of the gates. So thank you to BBPW for honoring me and being flexible as I’ve thought about how I want to intentionally celebrate tonight. Thank you for amplifying me and my work. I know I am being honored at this time because at this juncture in our political and cultural history BBPW is endorsing the need for a mission that promotes equitable representation and reflection as well as mutual respect for our Berkshire community of professional women while championing everyone’s humanity.
As many of you know, I am being honored as this year’s Woman of Achievement by Berkshire Business and Professional Women. On the 54th year of this award, I am the first African American woman and I am moved to take a moment to reflect, acknowledge, and share just some of the names of the generation of African American women who came just before me who are all Berkshire women of great achievement. Without them and without so many personal connections with these leaders, I would have not been able to see what might be.
How are you accountable to yourself and your community? How are you accountable to underserved and underrepresented communities who make up the world we live in and communities you occupy? to your commitments and work results? to mistakes and harm? to teamwork, unity, and progress? How do we all embody accountability in our everyday encounters and relationships towards our collective humanity?
Since the midterm elections, I have seen the political scene be challenged by the fact that money is not and has never been the only resource, especially for women and specifically, women of color. When you have an abundance of courage, knowledge, and community and you have resilience at your core, you are incredibly resourced in the face of the most ominous hurdles, for example, getting to Capitol Hill.
This weekend we uplift Du Bois and recognize him for his courage and brilliance. I personally want to celebrate his spirit of inquiry. As an activist, this is something Du Bois modeled for future generations to come. Du Bois was a discerning thinker who asked such important questions in his lifetime.
Du Bois is important to me for so many reasons, but I especially love how he was not afraid of complexity, the nuances of identity, or contradictory ideas as the world and his relationship with several nations of the globe evolved. He held many perspectives and truths, and he shared them readily.
You must know the “why” at the core of your work. Then it’s a matter of nurturing your “flock” of fellow leaders… Surround yourself with folks who are further along in the work, but who share a similar vision. Engage them as mentors. Connect with folks who are different from you in terms of socioeconomic, ethnic, and racial background, skill set, and capacities. This makes you stronger, which makes your organization stronger. Your flock may shift over the years and letting this be ok is part of the process. Shared values and diversity are essential.
Here's an exercise best done between the eve of Solstice and New Years Day! To get started, create some personal retreat time, a quiet afternoon or evening in the next couple of weeks. Think of this time and process as a way of gaining creative power in your life. I suggest three total sessions. Allow yourself to embody this personal inventory.
Leah and her colleagues are at the lead of a national Black Community Land Trust conversation and a re-emerging movement that is gaining even more traction and momentum in 2018. You can read more about Leah’s incredible accomplishments in the program, and I invite you to follow her work as author and activist when we leave here this evening. At Soul Fire Farm, which she co-founded in 2011, new Black, Latinx, Native American, and Asian growers participate in agricultural training workshops that focus on healing people as well as the land. Soul Fire Farm is also responsible for the Black-Indigenous Farmers Reparations Map, a project to promote “people-to-people” reparations.
Our approach to health equity, like anything else, works because we start at home and only then focus on integrating the other. Our highly trained and experienced staff support the development of organizational capacity to respond and be accountable to areas of cultural deficiency in order to address those areas. We are not trying to change political views or simplify human interaction and identity development but rather value each individual on a professional (and oftentimes personal journey) to improve cross-cultural interactions, priorities, and approaches. This is why we have been successful working with medical professionals, law enforcement, public safety, and municipal leaders to provide better individual and/or public health outcomes.
An integrationist approach to equity and justice work is ideal, yet almost every organization I encounter starts with an attempt at inclusion and inviting in with insufficient regard to the power differential embedded within that very invitation. With inclusion, teams run the risk of tokenism if they aren’t also doing the intentional work on how to identify, listen to, and integrate differences. In short, an organization that truly aims to better “include” members of marginalized communities within its ranks and leadership, decision-making, and operational processes will develop a culture of authentic, emergent leadership with a commitment to safety.
I was recently invited to speak at the Western Mass Health Equity Summit closing plenary session to share the public health work of Multicultural BRIDGE, its strategies and recent successes. Along with my fellow panelists Danielle Winters of Arise for Social Justice, an organizer for environmental justice, and Pablo Ruiz of Raise Up Massachusetts, an organizer of millions of members of unions to raise our minimum wage, I was asked to speak on new ideas implemented to move health equity forward. Here are my remarks.
I was invited to the inaugural cohort of LIPPI in 2011 as a brand new founder who had an idea of how to help community members and organizations move towards integration and mutual respect. Within two years I was tackling systemic barriers of race while working with public safety officials and community leaders. I needed affirmation, information, and support. And WFWM was offering this new leadership program fashioned after the White House Project… LIPPI is needed today more than ever.
The simplest step toward real equity in teams and organizations is the most important one and is often completely missed: establish and frame mutuality. Cultural competence is the framework of mutual respect. I tell leaders, you have to prepare yourself and your team to truly integrate an “other” by embracing the needs, values, and value of the person and their perspectives being invited in. This takes cultural humility.
Some "best practices" for organizing in rural communities work almost everywhere; others appear like they may apply, but actually require specific attention to place and context. This is important because if relational organizing work is done with proper care and resources, policy work often becomes much more facile. Activists and communities are able to draw a much simpler, cleaner straight line to implementing policy changes.
The issues that individual rural communities face are unique, but there are also similarities across all communities. After the Equity Summit focused on practice and policy, politics, and power—the ingredients needed for transformative change—I am so clear that we must keep learning from each other, creating unlikely but necessary partnerships and speaking truth to power. It is critical that we continue to build power across our regions and learn from each other and show up for each other.
For the most part among feminist thinkers, equity and justice resonates. We want systems that uphold these values. To work toward equity and justice, we have to be in relationship with ourselves first (knowing our personal values, goals, and aspirations) and pursue knowledge from those communities we see ourselves advocating for or call ourselves a member. Interpersonally, we have to work first and foremost on relationship: communication, working with, and sharing space of all kinds (labor, emotional, psychological, mental, and vision/aspiration). And at the institutional level, we must find our points of intersection, learn how to be in better relationship at those intersections, and learn to follow when it is time to fall back.
One of my favorite conceptual frameworks of tolerance explains tolerance as a necessary practice of assessing how an individual or an organization demonstrates its valuing of diversity. It’s a measurement practice that can be employed at certification and evaluation times and in assessment processes for individuals, supervisors, departments, and workplaces across all sectors. When a team of people at an organization practice tolerance, this reflects their ability to make space for individuals and communities with their cultural context of attitudes, beliefs, experiences, and practices.