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5 Lessons Learned from YDEKC’s Racial Equity Community of Practice

POSTED ON February 7, 2019

YDEKC launched our Racial Equity Community of Practice—a group of youth-serving non-profit professionals committing to coming together monthly for a year to discuss the ongoing racial equity work in our organizations—in Spring 2017. Fifteen individuals from nine organizations applied and were selected to participate.

The experience was eye-opening, challenging, and an important step in our ongoing goal of making systems more equitable for young people of color – starting with our own organizations. Go under the cut to learn about five of our most important lessons learned.

  1. This will take longer than you think.

We entered this experiencing knowing that it was the next  of many steps in a long process. What we didn’t realize was how slow this work can—and should—be. Racism affects everything in our lives, including how we perceive time. Unspoken norms of white supremacy create a sense of urgency, the feeling that decisions have to be made and action has to be taken now. This sense of urgency is often the root of being less inclusive: we didn’t have time to meet with the community authentically, we didn’t have time to find an accessible venue, and so on.

Through the community of practice, we learned to take more time to connect with, listen to, argue with, and get to know one another. Our meetings often made participants feel uneasy, an internal sense of urgency bubbling up and asking, “Is all of this really necessary?” The process often had long silences. Eventually, through integrating separate People of Color and white caucuses, the community of practice found a rhythm, one that included taking the time to be people with one another.

That doesn’t even touch upon the work in our organizations. In trying to be as fast and efficient as possible, most participants wanted to get as many resources, tool, and tactics as possible. This uneven focus on tools led to the understanding that…

  1. A tool is just a tool.

One of the major goals of the project was to surface resources, tools, and tactics that our peers knew of or were actively using to help all of us improve our own practice. It’s a great goal, but it ignores what so often gets ignored because of racism: context.

Tools—assessments, activities, policies, etc.—must be used and modified to be most useful for the people who are using them. A well designed tool, such as a workshop on talking about race at work, can cause more harm than good if not facilitated well and/or not designed with the audience’s wants and needs factored in.

In the end, we did amass many tools which can be found here. However, the shift from “I want to use this tool with my organization,” to, “How can I best use this tool for my organization?” reminded us that…

  1. Goals are a moving target.

At launch, our goals were:

  • To strengthen the organizational capacity of each participating organization to deepen their racial equity practice, policies and internal structures that embed racial equity in their work;
  • To create a multicultural professional learning community of YDEKC member organizations deeply engaged in racial equity work, with at least 50% of those organizations represented by a person of color in a leadership role to learn from one another, share successes, and troubleshoot challenges.
  • To surface resources, tools or tactics that may be shared with other cohort members or the broader youth serving field.
  • Collaborate toward strategies of how to resolve conflict and value all voices in a multicultural setting.

By the end of the community of practice, very few of us could remember those goals. When looking at the qualitative data (mainly participant feedback), we did hit most of our stated goals. More importantly, however, our goals shifted to be more responsive to the wants and needs of participants.

For example, our facilitators introduced caucusing to provide People of Color and white people an opportunity to explore the complexities and interactions of their identities, experiences, and professional work in a safer environment. By responding to emergent issues, our facilitators refocused our goals from ones based solely in ‘the work’ to ones based in understanding ourselves both personally and professionally. With that in mind, the Community of Practice centered that…

  1. Relationships come first.

No racial equity work can be done if the people doing it aren’t in authentic relationship with one another. One of racism’s functions is to dehumanize all of us; only by working to understand, learn from, and take action with each other can we make headway into a more just world.

Often, we found ourselves trying to rush the process and ‘cut to the chase,’ forgetting that the chase is recognizing the humanity in ourselves and one another. As above, relationships take time, effort, and conflict.

Our relative positions within broader organizations and systems often muddied the waters of seeing each other as people, a reminder that…

  1. Wearing many hats can cause lots of headaches.

YDEKC had the tricky position of being both a participant and the convener of the community of practice. We hired the Non-profit Assistance Center and Fostering Real Opportunities to facilitate the CoP, to honor our goal of supporting POC led organizations that have been doing this work for a long time. Many times, it was unclear how much say we should have had in designing the CoP, as two of us, myself and our Executive Director, were also participating. This relationship then meant that not only were racial power dynamics at play, but power dynamics too. With time, and getting past norming to storming, we allowed the silences to be longer, the conflicts more spoken, and the relationships to become deeper.