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Suggestions for Beginning Difficult Internal Conversations

June 23, 2020 - By Donita Volkwijn

Organizations are struggling right now. The shocking events of the last weeks, highlighting the deep and systemic racism on which the United States is built, coupled with the devastating effects of COVID-19, have acted as a match, igniting rage and hurt that have festered for centuries. This moment, however, has also revealed the potential for a monumental shift in how we speak and listen to each other.  We stand at an inflection point that could herald a new era, and yet, has many of us grappling with how to open conversations without further adding fuel to the fire.  How do we bring something as personal as race explicitly into our organizations?

Well, there’s good news: race is already there. It might be hidden under the carpet, kicked there by white supremacy, it might be lurking in the shadows, hidden behind lack of understanding or empathy, or for some organizations it is now being talked about openly. What is certain is that in this country, it is impossible to be part of any system without also being a part of the conversation about race.

We’ve had similar moments in the past, but what’s different about this moment is that formal and informal leaders in the movement toward racial justice and equity are tired. Those who are used to guiding themselves and others through adversity and negotiating conversations and tricky situations centered in race are in many cases depleted, enraged, hurt, broken, and barely holding on. This exhaustion is not limited to people of color; allies are adrift as well.

If we do not find ways to support and create safe spaces for each other, this moment of inflection could very well precipitate a collapse, setting us all back. For organizations that have had to cut back already, taking action now may feel daunting or impossible. But investing in the creation of safe and brave spaces in your organization will reap many rewards. Whether you have started down the path or are just beginning, the below guidance may help you on your journey.

Overarching Considerations

  • Consider bringing in outside help. Unless you have staff dedicated to issues of race and equity, your best intentions may backfire spectacularly. There are a number of organizations equipped to handle these matters, but understand that they, too, are overwhelmed right now. Be kind in your requests.
  • Conduct an internal check on your privilege. If we’re truly going to have transformative conversations, it may mean coming to grips with some hurtful truths. Be open, be graceful, be human.

Steps to Take Now

  • Set context.  Some of your staff might already know the history of race in this country and how it’s fed into the events of the past few weeks, but many others may not, or may be too embarrassed to admit ignorance. This article is a quick guide to the events that led to this latest moment in history (note: there is strong language in this article).
    • There are many lists dedicated to further, in-depth reading.  Do some homework and seek them out. To get started, conduct an online search for “resources for understanding racism in the US” or “books about race.”
    • Make it clear to staff that if they need help to put events into context or if they need help to understand why it matters, it’s okay to ask.
  • Open spaces for reflection.
    • As mentioned above, many people are tired. If you have Black employees, however, chances are they’re close to breaking. You can gain a deeper understanding of their perspective from this article or this one. Find ways to offer space for them to catch their breath, to protest, to write, or to create. Give space for others to read up on the history of racism in this country.
    • If it’s in the budget, offer mental health services to employees.
    • Explore the use of affinity groups. Some conversations are easier to have when you can let your guard down (outside help can be particularly useful here). Make sure to let employees self-select their affinity group!
    • Leverage your internal resources. You hired your employees for a reason. Ask how they would like to proceed and create feedback opportunities.

Creating Transformation

  • This crisis is not something that can be addressed in a day. Or a lifetime. If you’re serious about change, you must be in it for the long haul.
  • Engage your networks to understand how they’re moving forward and find ways to partner. You are not the only organization struggling right now.  There is power in community.
  • Consider using Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors’ Philanthropy Framework to engage your board and staff in conversations about where these strategies will live in your strategic plan.

Donita Volkvijn is the Manager of Knowledge Management for Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors. This post is an edited version of this article.

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