In 1841, one of the world’s most brilliant minds articulated institutionalized oppression in these words:
They assign us that place; they don’t let us do it for ourselves, nor will they allow us a voice in the decision. They will not allow that we have a head to think, and a heart to feel, and a soul to aspire.
Frederick Douglass (Three Speeches From The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, 2021)
Everything I do professionally and personally is an attempt to dismantle the idea that the collective “we” has any relevant answers for Communities of Color. I am with Frederick Douglass in that voices must be elevated at all costs. Almost every day, I hear a white person paternalize people of color. It happens to me regularly. I have literally been told, “we did not interview you for this position because we didn’t think you would be happy.” I cried that day because someone had taken away my self-determination and made life choices for me. It wasn’t a valuable job or that important. That wasn’t the point. It was a privilege that most White Americans have never had challenged.
We created this model as a practical tool to guide respectful engagement. The actions below are not in order as they are not really prioritized one over another. All the statements are of equal importance, and we integrate this model into all of our work.
REFLECT on the situation first. Before taking action, take adequate time to reflect on your role and responsibility first. This is critical. Often, we resort to rules, regulations, and “what we have always done” perspectives when often doing nothing or simply waiting is best. This is far different from avoiding. Sometimes waiting means an hour. Sometimes it means asking another to review something or speak to someone who can provide honest feedback and perspectives. In other words, do the work and learn how to participate in reflection.
ENGAGE with everyone. It is one of the most challenging changes to make in our conversation about navigating institutional change. It is simple in practice but difficult to grasp. Engagement is often reduced to surveys, feedback sessions, etc. In some instances, engagement includes participation, often within a controlled environment. A strategic planning process is often designed, implemented, and approved without any or very little input from frontline staff. When you are asking frontline staff to help develop the survey questions and analyze the data, you are participating in equity-based work.
STAND UP. The most difficult thing we have to do is be the voice of equity. How often have we watched oppression play out in front of us while we said nothing? How many times did you think that doing nothing allows you to stay out of the fray? It is an intentional decision to stand up. Therefore, it stands to reason that it is an intentional decision to stay sitting. Doing nothing is about protecting self. Standing up is about protecting humanity. Doing nothing is actually acting in support of White Supremacy ideology. If you don’t know how to stand up or are afraid to do it alone, then take the action needed to get yourself ready.
PARTICIPATE IN COMMUNITIES. Part of breaking down the barriers of difference is participating in our world. Actively participating is difficult to do when we sit behind our screens during lockdown. Yet approximately 23% of our country volunteers. The remaining 77% of us do not participate as well. In Denmark, a program designed to break down barriers has been a raging success. Meet the Danes is an excellent model of participation. One of my good friends launched this project many years ago. It has morphed into an extraordinary experiment in community participation. If you have not put yourself out there to engage with Communities of Colors, it is at your loss.
EXAMINE YOURSELF. This is similar to reflect, with added attention. This is for those of you in the middle. If you have played the race-neutral card or continue to behave as usual, assuming you are not responsible, this is for you. This is the space where most people latch on to the idea that “I am not racists.” According to Dr. Kendi (2019), there is no middle ground. “Being an antiracists requires persistent self-awareness, constant self-criticism, and regular self-examination” (Kendi, 2019).
CHALLENGE yourself to do things differently. If you are an action-focused person, then take self-reflection and self-awareness seriously and resist taking action. If you normally wait to take action, then your time is now. If you resist the notion that you are responsible (vastly different from fault), then take a few minutes to consider the possibility that we may be right. Now, what is your responsibility? We all have some. How will you challenge yourself today?
Take care of yourself. Self-care is critical. Most of you just roll your eyes and consider the “woo-woo” approach as frivolous. However, the research around self-care and mindfulness is astounding, and the results are consistent. The better you take care of yourself, the better you can take care of others. This means that when you are confused or angry, you find a way to express and explore. Giving ourselves permission to take care of ourselves is responsible and necessary.
Kendi, I. X. (2019). How to be an antiracist. One World Publishing.
Three Speeches From The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass. (2021). Retrieved 25 March 2021, from http://www.frederickdouglass.org/speeches/