by Jessica Werner
While watching overt racism playing out all over the country, it’s easy—especially for white folks—to want to disassociate from even hearing the words “white supremacy.” However, the way our institutions have been built in this country, and maybe particularly in the non-profit sector, we often feel forced to play by these unwritten rules. But we don’t have to. This piece outlining White Supremacy Norms by Tema Okun has been shared in many spaces and is sometimes what folks are referring to when they say “white supremacy culture” in relation to things like perfectionism, a sense of urgency, quantity over quality, and other ways we reinforce norms that are not necessarily helpful to anyone.
At YDEKC, we have been on a journey, individually and collectively, to be more intentional, inquisitive and thoughtful about how we live out our Belief statement around Racial Equity: “We are committed to building a society where race is not a predictor of one’s success. We must address racism and racial inequities in our own organizations and institutions while also working for the policies, programs, and systems in other sectors that will lead to optimum outcomes for all.”
One of the practices we have incorporated into our staff meetings is to take a deeper dive into one of the White Supremacy Norms, and spend several weeks thinking about how it plays out in our own office and work, observing the environments around us to see where we see the norm being played out, and then committing to specific actions that could serve as an antidote in our work to challenge the harmfulness of the norm. One of the first norms we tackled was: “Worship of the written word.” Tema Okun described this norm as:
- If it’s not in a memo, it doesn’t exist;
- The organization does not value other ways in which information gets shared;
- Those with strong documentation and writing skills are more highly valued, even in organizations where ability to relate to others is key to the mission.
She then offers antidotes:
“Take the time to analyze how people inside and outside the organization get and share information; figure out which things need to be written down and come up with alternative ways to document what is happening; work to recognize the contributions and skills that every person brings to the organization (for example, the ability to build relationships with those who are important to the organization’s mission); make sure anything written can be clearly understood (avoid academic language, ‘buzz’ words, etc).”
In YDEKC’s first 8 years, we have developed a great deal of written content—just peruse our website—in service of our mission to build and unify the youth development field. However, in the process of exploring how we can challenge the “worship of the written word,” YDEKC staff have identified some actions we can take to rely less heavily on the written word, and to explore the antidotes. We are working to communicate beyond the written word by:
- Hosting live meetings and trainings;
- Providing content through live and/or recorded webinars;
- Providing clear and consistent written documentation that can anchor other communication pieces;
- Being thoughtful about what we ask our members or others to produce for us, and what information is necessary vs. nice to know. For instance, in our current mini-grant process, we are asking grantees to share information about their projects through video and photos, and answering a few simple questions, rather than requiring any long written report;
- Hosting informal coffee talks about policy and advocacy;
- Having sessions for our members on topics of racial equity that focus on peer to peer learning;
- and, as consumers of information, focusing less on perfection, and more on content.
At YDEKC, this is still a work in progress for us as an organization. We offer this blog post to bring you along on our journey, share some of our processes, and to be more accountable to our community by publicly stating our intentions.
In November 2019, I had the privilege of presenting a session with Jackie Jainga-Hyllseth at the Every Hour Counts national convening. The workshop, Shifting Norms to Unpack and Undo Institutional Racism, was an opportunity to engage with other leaders on the national level in the expanded learning and youth development sector to think about how we are perpetuating these norms as a field, and how we can begin to shift norms that are unintentionally having harmful impact on us all, and especially on our staff and communities of color. While not claiming to be experts on the matter, or to not have plenty of our own work to do, we believe we must get better at having conversations that challenge the norms we are operating by if we hope to shift the trajectory for the young people we seek to support.
We know that we still have much to learn, and we invite you to share your perspective on how we can continue to challenge white supremacy norms, and work to live out our Beliefs.