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  • Writer's pictureTamir Novotny

Spotting The Cracks: Learning To Notice Early Problems in Your Equity Work

Updated: Feb 17, 2021

Recently I was talking with someone whose organization shut down after its equity process failed. Listening to their story, I was struck by all the little moments that presaged their collapse. A policy decision here. A budget allocation there. Each small moment sapped a little energy, eroded a little trust.

I tend to think of meetings as huge moments in equity processes. In equity meetings, organizations and their leaders are confronted with difficult realities and have the option of pivoting or doubling down. I believe these meetings can play big roles in moving an equity process forward or undermining it. However, before and between these meetings, there are any number of little moments that can strengthen or weaken the container for the group's collective work.

Through painful experience, I've learned how easy it is to miss these signs until it's too late. Someone makes a comment and you think "huh, where did that come from?" and then file it away for later. You notice some people in the organization seem unhappy but you don't know why. You blame someone's discontent on another, unrelated issue. You seek to defend your position to yourself and others and call your detractors "unreasonable." Then, seemingly out of nowhere, that "little" issue flares up in a meeting and now you've got a full-blown conflict on your hands. And while this may feel like messy problem to you, it indicates real harm that your staff, particularly staff from marginalized communities, have experienced.

How can we get better at noticing these early moments and issues before they balloon and undermine our work? I hope Ahimsa Strategies' new research project, Surviving Equity Processes, will help shed new light on this question. In the meantime, he are the best thoughts I can offer at the moment.

* Don't assume it's nothing. If you sense dissatisfaction among your stakeholders that you can't place, don't leave it for later. Reach out proactively.

* Do some homework. What events within or outside the organization might put your stakeholders' behavior in context? What social justice analysis can you imagine that might make this seemingly random issue make sense? Starting with a hypothesis, even if it's wrong, can show your stakeholders that you're serious about doing your own work and take their concerns seriously.

* Let go of innocence. Equity processes challenge each of us to examine our own complicity in systems of oppression. You may be accused of things you think are wildly unfair. Listen anyway. Greet challenges with curiosity and openness to growth.

* Focus on repair. Good apologies go a long way. Ask your stakeholders what they might need to feel honored and respected. Don't make them try to make you feel better.

These thoughts won't guarantee the success of your organization's equity work, but they just might help you keep it going long enough to get to those big moments.

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