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Creating an organizational culture that highlights collaboration over competition, written by Alan*
Blog Series: Confronting Inequities in Our Field - July 10, 2020

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*The author of this piece chose the pseudonym Alan to protect against retaliation.

I remember standing in an auditorium in Dallas, Texas a few years ago with over 1,000 attendees at an international conference on intimate partner violence. I remember looking around at the predominantly white men and women in suits who proudly placed their hands upon their hearts as they recited the Pledge of Allegiance. “I’m not in California anymore!” I joked to myself as I suppressed every urge I had to run past the walls of suits, the badges, and the elaborate displays of morning pastries and coffee stations – all while an American Idol contestant sang the “Star Spangled Banner” on stage.

How much money did this conference cost and why do we think so highly of ourselves? Was I the only person of color in the room? That is impossible – this conference is international. Why do I feel alone in a room full of “anti-violence” advocates?

These were the thoughts flooding my head during a conference dedicated to the eradication of domestic violence. In reality, of course I knew I was not the only person of the color in the room, but the feeling of isolation was certainly tangible. In each seminar I attended, a tinge of white supremacy lingered in the room as prosecutors and law enforcement professionals advocated for greater reliance and partnership with the criminal justice system in order to incarcerate “perpetrators” of violence. In one forum on prosecuting cases involving the use of strangulation, I distinctly remember a prominent presenter in the movement stating Californians are attempting to eliminate cash bail and they must be stopped because it is putting women in danger.

Their statements felt like a strike across the face. I thought about having an honest conversation with them. I thought about attempting to explain that I was a professional social worker of color who advocated for the elimination of cash bail at California’s State Capitol because of its ability to reinforce inequity in communities of color who are policed at higher rates than white folks. I briefly imagined how the conversation would go – then, I became instantly exhausted. Because in order for me to have this conversation, I would need for this person to have the same presuppositions I did: that Black families face higher rates of police violence; that Black, Indigenous, and other people of color are often subjected to yet another system of oppression when engaging with the criminal justice system; and, that the Black person’s experience in America is markedly different than the presenter’s experience as a white person in America.

I started looking inwardly and attempting to reconcile my personal experiences working with survivors and their families with the topics at this conference I attended, and I failed to do so because the topics did not reflect my community. I remembered my conversations with survivors who called for police to help them during a violent incident and they themselves were arrested because their partner was able to manipulate the situation. I remembered my conversations with survivors who said the police blamed them for their own abuse. I remembered how many of these stories meshed together and ultimately exhibited a glaring problem: “criminal justice” is not “justice for all.”

As an anti-violence advocate working for a community-based organization, I have seen moments when the criminal justice system has brought about a form of justice for a survivor and their family, but to say that this model fits all is an overstatement, to say the least. The story I have shared about feeling isolated in a room full of anti-violence advocates has been experienced by many of my Black colleagues and colleagues of color who navigate white spaces every day across the movement. In my role as manager, I seek to cultivate equity by making myself available to employees who are grappling with their roles as advocates and healers in the context of both the public health crisis of COVID-19 and the ongoing crisis of state violence in the killing of Black Americans in this country.

In a conversation with one staff member, I mentioned “liberation is always the goal, and we must first liberate ourselves so we can liberate our communities.” My understandings of leadership and equity are constantly under review because I am actively deconstructing the paradigm of white supremacy in my leadership style. This might seem like a bold statement to make. It is formulated out of a place of understanding that the implicit, daily organizational practices we as people of color have inherited from our predominantly White predecessors in the workforce propel this paradigm. For many workers, competition is “natural” as we all compete for limited resources; in response I ask myself, how can I create an organizational culture that highlights collaboration over competition? Often, when in a management role, I may be faced with decisions that affect the organization as a whole; in response I ask myself, how can I transform a transactional relationship with employees into a relationship that is based upon shared power and equitable access to policies and decision-making?

Power sharing paves the way for the empowerment of our communities because it is the remedy to oppression. When I emphasize collaboration, I state implicitly that I value the opinions of the employees doing “on the ground work” because anti-violence work is anti-oppression work. When I make decisions to make space for employees to provide feedback on organizational practices, I cultivate a healthy relationship that allows insight and transformation. Conversely, an oppressive administrator may limit opportunities for these conversations because they might follow a framework that borrows from white supremacist thought: “pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” “work hard so you can make the decisions,” and “you can have opinions, and it does not mean they are important to me because you have no power.”

One way I strive to cultivate transformation across my agency and others alike is to acknowledge racial inequity and violence and call it what it is: injustice. When your employees are predominantly people of color, it is highly probable that the events happening in the country are affecting them personally and professionally. These events do not only exist on a television for people living with the reality of systemic oppression every day. Secondly, if your employees do not feel they are empowered and liberated, how do you expect them to commit to anti-violence work in this marathon? Often, people of color are facing more than just compassion fatigue; they are facing fatigue from oppression on multiple fronts. I ask myself: what can I do to deconstruct systems of oppression and liberate those around me?

I am not perfect. I am simply a professional social worker and advocate identifying what many people of color have been speaking about for years. It is time for our feminism to become intersectional and informed of the violence perpetuated by white supremacy culture. I hope I can be a catalyst for leadership equity and racial justice by making space for historically marginalized voices and sharing the power given to me.  

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