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Silence Isn’t Always Golden, written by Dr. Yasi Safinya-Davies
Blog Series: Confronting Inequities in Our Field - July 30, 2020

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There have been a few pivotal moments in my life when leaving was me taking back my power. The first time, I was 21 and finally left a violent relationship that started the summer before my junior year in high school. Most recently, I quietly departed from the DV movement. I hadn’t reflected on the significance of my soundless exit until May 26th when I read a CNN article about Amy Cooper, who exercised her white privilege to call the police with a fabricated story of being attacked by a Black man because he had the audacity to ask that she adhere to the Central Park rules and place her dog on a leash.

Memories of my time in the domestic violence movement began to spiral as I recalled countless disempowering episodes fueled by White Supremacy. As a person raised by an Iranian mother and Black dad, I felt nothing short of rage, and this rage compelled me to act. So, I decided to break my silence and tell just one of the stories, and that telling led to a loving request from the California Partnership to End Domestic Violence to share more.

In 2010, I met with the Executive Director and Program Manager of a domestic violence agency to negotiate a contract to provide mental health consultation services for staff working directly with survivors. After four years, I was hired on as the Director for the Clinical and Prevention programs and a year later was offered the position of Executive Director. I loved my work! Never before had I felt such belonging with my peers, and I was so honored to be in service to survivors. As I began to enter movement gatherings, words like “equity,” “trauma-informed,” and “intersectionality” were becoming en vogue. Discussions on how to advance the movement were grounded in radical Black Feminism like bell hooks’ work From Margin to Center (2nd ed. 2000). The surreptitious frustrations along with the expositional assertions of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color advocates were being voiced—the movement was a White space. And all of this energy informed and propelled the work within my organization. Of course anti-oppression needed to be at the core of the movement. It’s fundamental to our values. Right?    

During our 40-hour DV Counselor Certification training, we invited outside facilitators to lead future advocates in discussions on the intersectionality of Interpersonal Violence with other forms of oppression: race, gender, sexuality, age, ability. We launched a multi-year program in collaboration with other providers serving specific cultural communities to offer culturally responsive services which led to membership within a state-wide collaboration with other culturally-based organizations. After the 2016 presidential election, we started an internal committee open to any staff with a yearning to actively advance anti-oppression framing within the organization’s culture and practices. Collectively, we defined organizational values, among them social justice, boldness, and anti-oppression. And on and on.

But anti-racism (or any anti-oppression work) is only transformative when descendants of White colonizers gifted with power and privilege are brave enough to examine how they benefit from the system and acknowledge when they have acted as the oppressor. Simultaneously, the people who repeatedly experience interpersonal and systemic domination and oppression must not only be believed but must also do their own examination of how they have internalized their oppression. In other words, the work of ending domestic violence can only be achieved if the movement simultaneously strives to end ALL forms of oppression.   

Despite our best efforts, our organization was never going to fully live its values because there existed an immovable force, the Board of Directors. The Board was majority White, and among those who were White, most were (or had been) part of the “justice” system. From the first time I sat at the Board table, I witnessed and experienced the silent codes of white supremacy and patriarchy.  As the years passed, I began to dread the Board room. I knew that the oppressive culture of the Board meant the values of the organization, indeed the values of the movement, would never be fully actualized and this began to eat away at me. Yet, I questioned if I was actually experiencing any harm. “Is it really that bad?” I would ask myself. Did they really have that much power over me? How much evidence, how many examples, did I need to trust that harm was occurring and that systemic racism was alive and well on the Board?

Example 1: In 2016 as I was closing a Board meeting, I was caught off guard when a White, male Board Member stated that they would adjourn into an unplanned closed session (a confidential meeting for Board members only) where the “offensiveness” of my Black Lives Matter tee-shirt was the topic of discussion.

Example 2: While discussing the need for Board members to engage in outreach and fundraising within the Asian community (the racial/ethnic majority in the area), a White Board member said, “Well, Asians are really tight with their money.” (Did I mention that there were Asian Board members present?  And that I am Asian?)

Example 3: After I spoke in a Board meeting about needing to diversify recruitment to be more reflective of the communities served by the organization, a White Board member asked, “So you’re saying that I can’t bring on a qualified White man to join the Board?”

Example 4: Habitually, I forwarded informational emails to Board members about presentations specifically on engaging in racial equity within nonprofits and among Boards. No Board member ever attended one of these learning spaces. The most any Board member ever engaged me in the topic was after I sent one of many emails in this vein to ask if I felt the topic was “relevant.”

Example 5: I asked a White Board member about her experience of a recent Board retreat that had been facilitated by a Latinx man. She replied that if she had wanted to “learn about gang violence, then I might have listened to a word he had to say.”

Events like these took place ad nauseam. These repetitive acts of power-over were suffocating and demeaning, and were further reinforced by several other acts of domination. When I was made to feel too young by being greeted regularly with “Hey Kiddo!” Or when a Board member shared a work history story then asked me, “Were you even born yet?” Or when entry-level staff benefits were used as a benchmark of comparison as I advocated for executive-level PTO. When I was made to believe that my body had been problematic with repeated reminders that, when placed on medical restrictions to work from home due to my health and/or autoimmune condition, or while on maternity leave, it was a “burden” and “others had to step up for you.” But perhaps most disturbingly, was when I was made to realize that, even in a domestic violence agency, I was not free from the harm of patriarchy. The first infraction occurred within four months of my promotion to the ED role, when a male Board member started an intimate relationship with a staff person and was neither asked by the Board to resign nor given guidelines to mitigate any potential conflict of interest—and there were undeniably conflicts. What this offense taught me was that there existed institutional sexism within the Board, this system with power over me, leaving me convinced that I needed half a year of executive coaching before I dared ever to use the “F” word, FEMINISM, in the Boardroom. 

With each incident, I felt more certain that were I to speak truth to power, were I to call it sexism, ageism, ableism, racism, I would be putting my career at risk which meant putting my family’s welfare at risk. And what would it mean for the future of my daughters if I had been forced to leave a movement directly tied to their identities as girls because I was fighting for the abolition of oppression? Consequently, I spent years acting as a buffer between the staff and the Board by speaking in generalities or speaking vaguely about shifts in our internal systems and programmatic work but always with the fright that, one day, our commitment toward anti-oppression would be labeled as “going too far.” 

What was more, I dreaded that I would lose my job on the pretense that I was creating a hostile work environment for White staff. This was particularly true when White fragility reared its head.  There was the instance of a White staff person who cried after her South Asian peer shared that her behavior was experienced by two Latinx community members as domineering. Then cried again when, months later, she received the same feedback about engaging “aggressively” while presenting in a space with Black male youth. (White women’s tears shift the attention away from critical issues of race and racism to caring for them. D.W. Sue in “Race Talk & The Conspiracy of Silence,” 2016) In another scenario, a White person who had been hired into a leadership role professed that it had been an “unfair” practice to have prioritized and desired hiring a person of color for the position. (Did I mention she got the job?)  Then there was the time when a White manager received feedback about being experienced as “aggressive” during an exchange with a POC staff person and was urged to recognize the positional and racial power she held within the exchange. Her reply?  “I can’t change the color of my skin.” She then stated that she needed to leave the meeting because she felt uncomfortable. (The right to comfort is identified as one of 13 characteristics of White Supremacy in “Dismantling Racism: A Workbook for Social Change Groups,” by Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun, 2001.) Or the periodic, “Not all White people are bad” testimony made by White and BIPOC staff who had not begun the work of understanding the distinction between interpersonal racism and White supremacy. While we strived internally to center anti-oppression as a core value and knew there was still so much more work to be done, I was certain we would only ever get as far as the Board was willing to go, and they already believed, as one White Board member defined their collective, that they were “progressive.” 

* * *

Not long before I tendered my resignation, a Board member reached out to me due to concern that I might be feeling “frustrated.” Despite not having full trust in her intentions, I reservedly shared some of my feelings and experiences. She asked me what I really wanted and I replied that I wanted a Board that was aligned with the organization’s values and recognized for its excellence. She asked that I draft up a list of what was needed to bring this vision to fruition, and I obliged. Number one on the list of 10 actionable steps, “a thorough recruitment process that holds racial equity, underrepresented and underserved communities, survivors, and critical industries/services as central within the process.” I received a response more than one month later and the day after informing the Board president that I was expecting to receive a job offer with another organization.  And what I received was a redrafted job description with legalese woefully misaligned with the organizational language and filled with lots of snazzy benefits. Not a single mention of the steps I recommended to engage in the Board’s transformation. I was done.

For me, powerlessness feels as though hands are steadily tightening around my neck. My skin feels aflame, and my heart pounds so hard that I can hear it in my ears. When I was in an abusive relationship, I felt this way every day, for years. Once I recognized a frighteningly similar feeling every day at work, I knew, despite all of the losses that would come with my decision, I had to leave. Was this organization unique? Decidedly, no. Were there positives? Absolutely. Had there not been, I would not have stayed. I would not have tried to make it work. And just like my experience of dating harm, I often questioned if I was exaggerating or distorting the harm from the Board. Once I had my exit route, I believed that leaving noiselessly was me acting out of integrity. But, just as it took years to uncover that shame was what kept me from openly sharing that I experienced dating violence, it was shame that had me leave the movement…quiet as a mouse.

In their book, Immunity to Change Harvard psychologists Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey observe that despite people’s stated commitment to individual and organizational change, they are frequently and unconsciously applying energy toward what they call “hidden commitments” that prevent change.  These commitments, like implicit bias, are outside of conscious awareness and are based on unexamined mental models that produce an “immunity to change.”  In their 2001 Harvard Business Review article, Kegan and Lahey highlight the example of a person who “won’t collaborate despite a passionate and sincere commitment to teamwork [but] who is equally dedicated to avoiding the conflict [and discomfort] that naturally attends to any ambitious team activity.”  

Within organizations and boards, hidden commitments may include: apprehension and unwillingness to power share; unconscious biases and implicit assumptions about what women, BIPOC, or people of “a certain age” are capable or not capable of accomplishing; fear of being marginalized with and having to advocate for the very people they are committed to serve; apprehension that they will become obsolete as progressive values continue to evolve beyond their willingness to be fully engaged in the struggle…especially one that is becoming increasingly politicised. These hidden commitments and assumptions are part and parcel of White and patriarchal models of supremacy and domination that must be undone.

When institutions are created to treat a societal symptom, like domestic violence, what is frequently lost is the need to dismantle the systems that cause and exacerbate the symptom, patriarchy, racism, wealth inequality–oppression. In the for-profit corporations, performative advertisements with the bold letters BLACK LIVES MATTER are just plain ol’ good business. But for social justice organizations to change our social structures, they must have the courage and the stamina to examine how they are standing in the way of doing precisely that. 

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