In Canada, I have grown a disappointment from multiple occasions of being in design thinking and hackathon spaces and there being a complete lack of knowledge, sensitivity and care for social equity issues or environmental issues (the latter getting more attention at least than issues such as poverty & race). We have million dollar organizations who continuously get funded to do research and educational workshops/panels on social innovation and social entrepreneurship without really generating anything innovative or deep in impact at all. I will give the benefit of the doubt that perhaps there is some significant, deep analysis or research happening in the background and it just hasn't been released yet, or maybe they are working on improving this. But for the number of years of being "in the sector" I have yet to really see any indicators of it.
Coming from being an advocate for youth-led grassroots organizations who are dismantling social inequality in the city of Toronto, it simply makes me feel like it's a waste of money and other resources. It reminds me of a section in the "Reimagining Activism Guide" that the Smart CSO's Lab created, which writes;
"Suffering from the eleventh hour syndrome
Understandably, many activists feel a powerful sense of urgency around their work. Sensing the approaching apocalypse, we work more and faster to avoid disaster. After all, it is our responsibility to save the world before it is too late. This is the eleventh hour syndrome. We have to raise more funds, create more meetings, travel to more conferences, write more reports, send more emails. Activists often find themselves racing against the clock but the work is never done. As a result, activists suffer disproportionally from stress and burnout. With the justification of having to save the world, such activism can unknowingly reproduce the patterns of speed, efficiency and growth of the world we aim to change. Urgency is the reason given for not working at a root cause level – we often hear “there’s no time to transform values”. The eleventh hour syndrome also prevents activists from building reflection into their work. We are always racing to get things done instead of noticing patterns and adapting strategies our as we go. Moreover, in the long run, attempting to motivate our audiences with messages of urgency and scenarios of threat doesn’t work – it becomes normality and the effect vanishes. There are deeper psychological issues at play that we need to deal with. We need to become conscious about some of the personal motivations lying behind this syndrome. In chapter 6 we will dig into this …"
It reminds me of this because, unfortunately it's not only grassroots activists who are working to get incremental W's believing that all the small wins will actually make ripples in the larger systems that we are trying to dismantle; the ones that aren't working for most of us. It's actually also these larger institutions who are trying to get incremental W's or what seem like wins, who are trying to tackle 'innovation' or 'hacking' but really, it begs the question: do these million dollar institutions of 'social change' really have it in their best interest to dismantle the very same values, principles and practices that continuously feed money into them? Of course not. That would be biting the hand that feeds you; eating your own tail.
Then you have grassroots organizations, movements, groups of activists who are using such limited amount of resources to try and get these small wins. Neither are really making significant, profound impact. Our resources are being poured into the wrong things. We are getting swept up into the rat race, the urgency and distraction and non-deep-thinking of capitalism, certainly the 'modernized country's' religion.
I digress. My point is, these two types of stakeholders are sooo far removed from one another. There are hardly any conversations where they're talking about the same topics, or even found ever in the same buildings, let alone neighbourhoods. Social innovation itself is funded from the top, hoping to make change to the bottom. Grassroots activists are coming from the bottom going up. And so far, they haven't met.
Where exactly is the middle? Where is the meeting place?
My facilitation partner, Yumi and I recently facilitated a design thinking session for a civic engagement fellowship cohort. After we had completed the workshop, we were asked many questions about how to go about approaching a stakeholder you'd like to collaborate with, how do you handle facilitating as a neutral party if these 2 stakeholders have never even met before and may not be totally honest with each other when they meet?, how do you handle the power dynamics between stakeholders especially when they're significantly unbalanced?
These were questions about hosting rather than design thinking. Many of these fellows held quite prestigious titles and roles in their respective companies and it was made quite evident how much "collaboration and hosting were absent" in their work cultures, as mentioned by one of the fellows. Not totally surprising but still reaffirming what we had suspected. The diversity and varying levels of experience working in/with marginalized people was quite vast. The varying levels of understanding and sensitivities to inequity and oppression made it a moving learning experience for some and for others, an affirmation for how they were doing their work. I had one major bone to pick from this session and it was how I saw the same conversations about the challenges grassroots activists, artivists and non-profits have doing this work equitably in the charitable sector, at their own pace and aiming to achieve their own desired outcomes, not that of their funders. Really?? I had spent 3.5 years advocating for fundamental change (as my predecessors have been doing for 15+ years before that!) to foundations and literally every single person I came across, and it was absolutely painful to sit there listening to the same frustrations from newer activists in the field, with newer staff from foundations repeating the same strategies and solutions that the foundation has been doing for the last 15 years. What's effin new?!??!! ..NOTHING.
Well, I came across the closest thing to 'meeting in the middle' between the worlds of design thinking and activism that I've found. Quoting from a Co.Design article: "Want to Fight Inequality? Forget Design Thinking."
"In the days after a police officer shot Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, August 9, 2014, Antionette Carroll watched as her hometown erupted in protest. For weeks, hundreds of people showed up to the suburb of St. Louis to demonstrate opposite police in riot gear. Behind the scenes, community leaders and groups met to discuss the implications of recent events on a city deeply divided along racial lines, and to decide what to do next.
Yet Carroll, who was working as communications director at the St. Louis diversity training nonprofit Diversity Awareness Partnership, was skeptical that the disparate meetings and calls for dialogue would actually lead to action. “Everyone had a very top-down approach, and it brought the same individuals as always to the table,” she says. “Artists talked to artists, government was talking to government, and business to business.” In the wake of Ferguson, Carroll saw opportunity for change, but only if people could come together across those fractured lines.
In late August, Carroll went to work closing that divide, first by tapping into her own community: designers. With the support of the St. Louis chapter of the American Institute of Graphic Arts (Carroll is the chapter’s president), she lead a 24-hour workshop to develop creative responses to the killing of Michael Brown—the event that would lay the foundation for her social justice nonprofit Creative Reaction Lab.
Today, the Creative Reaction Lab holds workshops and pursues other projects that address several areas affecting marginalized communities, such as education, employment, and gun and domestic violence. And the workshops aren’t just for designers; they also bring together policy experts, speakers, community partners, and citizens working in different fields. Importantly, they look and sound nothing like a design event. You will not hear Carroll preaching about “design thinking” or solutionism. Rather, the Creative Reaction Lab starts from the premise that design’s greatest value is in exposing the invisible mechanisms of inequality, many of which were by design themselves."
To find out more about them please visit their website!!
It has been a dream of mine to host and facilitate conversations between disconnected, siloed stakeholders to address issues and/or co-design solutions together. Well something might come of us new inspiration!
Such a wonderful resource to apply to inclusion in your work. I appreciate her honesty in her progress towards getting to "All Means All", recognizing that we all have our own biases and inherent -isms by way of growing up in a society amongst other humans and also learning that we don't have to be best friends with people we want to be peaceful and work with and we can work through difference while working towards a common goal. Her list is particularly geared towards physical abilities but this could be applied to many other forms of inclusion.
I originally wrote this on my Tumblr blog in Feb 2015. I was on the streetcar, going back to my office, after having an absolutely enraging meeting with someone from an organization doing similar work with us that asked for advice on how to run their program that they recently got funded for. How did they get funding to do a program they didn't know how to do? How did this organization get invited to apply for this grant stream when we were much more well-experienced, knowledgeable and positioned to fulfill their new stupid funding priority that we had been doing for 10 years? How did we get rejected, turned away from even applying when I found out through the grape-vine that this funding was available? These are exactly the questions I am left with, dear reader.
In my outrage, I started ranting on my phone... typing rapidly and angrily, I felt my face was getting red, sweaty, swollen, I thought my whole head would explode and blow off my body. In that outrage, most of this was written, and the videos and conclusive parts came after I sat down in front of a desktop to complete the rant to give me some sense of release. I think I had been watching and soaking in a lot of examples and conversations around change work and in this piercing angry moment all these connections were formed in my head, the interconnectedness of healing, of humanity, or how we are approaching social change work.
There are some realizations I've had since writing this in 2015 and some things I would slightly alter in what I wrote but some major life lessons I've come to are largely from my own therapy healing process. I've come to understand that codependency runs so deep and so wide in our society. Martyrdom gets mixed up in our need for love, and our sense of duty. Toxically co-dependent folks get drawn into this kind of work. It's all a big fucked up grey, mucky, goopy area. As much as I held funders responsible in this blog post, I realize I as an individual and so many of my activist friends have put ourselves in these situations of hope, expectation and giving up of our powers, expecting them to do all the changing, expecting powerful institutions to change for us. A lot of revelations have arose for me and continue to. I'm not ashamed to share my evolution in my thinking on this topic however, I think it is an important journey that is seriously lacking in exposure - if this can help any up and coming newbie non-profit youth organizer, that would totally be worth it for me.
Here it is:
If you really cared about social change, you would show us how successful grantees faired up to your criteria publicly when you announce your recent grantees so we aren’t left wondering if it was favouritism that got them the grant. You would recommend various ways to get to “sustainability” not just continually asking us what our plan is for sustainability over and over and over again. If you’re really our partner amplifying and acting as a catalyst for us to make social change, you’d help us to understand what sustainability is so we can stop asking YOU for funding over the years.
If you really cared about social change, you would take more time to discover the challenges to us making the impact we want to make, and put more effort into discovering our assets and strengths that you don’t have at a large institutional level.
If you really cared about social change, you would show us off, promote and advocate for our work to gov’t, main stream media etc. To rally more people into our positive Movements and and to get others to support us to make even bigger social change!! If you think we’re hot enough to fund then wouldn’t you want others to too?
You would act as a connector to potential partners with people in other sectors that you are connected to.
Wake up call, Giving us some money here and there is not going to make any societal or cultural shifts. You are sustaining the systemic oppression that exists which means you are perpetuating the very same social issues you are trying to tackle. You are keeping the poor poor, they stay thinking that they can just rely on funding to make long term change. You do not clarify what you do, or correct our assumptions that I’m sure you’re well aware of because we keep coming to you to scale our impact and GET sustainable! Somehow you continue to lead us on. So either change your intended outcomes or don’t fund us at all. Your project funding isn’t producing long term impact in case you haven’t noticed.
If you really cared whether or not we make social impact or cultural shifts you wouldn’t hire your staff as contractors for decades because you should want dedicated program officers who are well taken care of so that they can take care of our portfolios and projects well.
I know the revolution will not be funded. But we aren't here to overthrow a government or the 1%. I refuse to stoop that low to believe you don't have the capacity for understanding or having empathy or vision for a better world. The us v.s. them game is over. That's old school and has never served us that well or efficiently. I believe in humanity, I believe that we all have the capacity to SEE and acknowledge each others souls. We are interested in working WITH you to help heal and awaken you to the realities of the sustainability of our world (socially and environmentally) not just of our projects. We are here to empower YOU to put to work your resources of money and influence to create a legacy that is far more transformative than to create the first locomotive or a robust organization. Organizations and project funding aren't going to solve the world's issues! We need greater movements to do that. We are talking about a spiritual awakening, a new sense of social responsibility and a new sense of love embodiment and joy that you could never imagine and you haven't experienced yet. Imagine a world where you feel safe, loved, appreciated, acknowledged and valued wherever you go, no matter what your job or title? You feel fulfilled by the fruits of the land, and the openness your heart feels in your interactions with people of all walks of life. Lord knows you do not feel that in your board rooms or your pinstripe suits. I want to combine our forces of our vision, passion, drive and tactfulness with your resources and influence to change the world. It's that simple.
I want this sent out to every Chairman, Board and CEO of every foundation. We believe in you just as we believe in ourselves for the know-how and passion and resources needed. I can't wait to wake up in a world where after some amazing work and breakthroughs we have come to a place of SEEING each other and working together. Sawubona.
We know we perpetuate this villain-izing of your character by continuously believing that you aren't out here to support us, and that you are perpetuating a system that is unfair on purpose to keep us down. No, I believe you are just protecting yourself, you're really the ones on defence and we are the offence. I know that if we forgive you for your ignorance and fear and you forgive us for ours, we can come into awareness that we are all one in the same. I am We.
I refuse to think social enterprise is the answer to the nonprofit industrial complex, that's a shift but isn't the evolution. The evolution must continue to a human level then to a spirit level for all living things. That's it. Point, blank, period. I am so bothered the strategies that I keep hearing from people in this sector. "Well, we've gotta be like them, think like them! Gain power by gaining our own revenue like for-profit businesses! Then we can support our own!" Fuck that. It isn't about "supporting our own!" It's about balancing shit out! Wealthy people need a whole lot that we have to offer. I feel a real stubbornness about adopting their strategies that are created and sustained out of selfishness, trying to maintain their power over us. I am too impatient for the infiltration we need to do to adopt their strategies. The change for the world I'm talking about is beyond capitalism. It's about the Spirit! We don't even realize we are organisms of nature yet! So many people still believe we are separate from the Earth and that is an object, it's a dead thing. How can we even address environmental issues if we see it as separate from us and already dead?! We can't protect life of Earth if we deem it dead already.
As Maya Angelou says about Tupac Shakur, "do you know how important you are"? We have to be saying this to each other, the 1% to us, us to the 1% - regardless of how much money and privilege you have you HAVE to know this. To my people, you cannot continue saying that those with privilege don't need to be reminded of the power and influence they have. The power and influence they have is futile, fragile and superficial. You cannot walk around saying they do not deserve your praise or your recognition of their spirit and fears. That's YOUR entitlement at play. Each and every single person that reads this and walks this Earth deserves to know how important they are. Except we reserve these words for very few people in our lives. How are we supposed to move forward collectively if we cannot even SEE each other's souls? Nor grant the very same love we want to others that we want ourselves?
Compassion won't come towards you until you show compassion to others.
If you don't know about Ubuntu or the phrase Sawubona, please look them up. These are philosophies by which I have chosen to strive to live by and ancient cultures have lived by for centuries.
I worked tirelessly for the last couple of years to build a network of youth leaders as well as an additional ring surrounding them of mentors supporting the core collaborative. I have worked to ensure the core collaborative sees each other, supports each other and has each other's backs and lifts each other up. Now it is a time where it seems that I have to ask those who traditionally do not mingle with our people, to ask for support and to communicate our impact and our work in a way that they will understand and be soulfully invested in. I am feeling tired and overwhelmed, like. But I know I must come back deeper into mySelf, to my spirit’s truth and use the powers that I find there to move forward.
Everyone warned me about getting jaded by the sector years ago. How many times do we have to repeat this cycle of burnt out changemakers?
But if you really cared about social change, you would do something about the after you've read this. As an insightful and experienced colleague of mine said, "The philanthropic sector isn't caught up to what's needed in the community and our society." And she's right. We know what's going down, what's needed, what's not happening that should be and what trends are happening. You have to be open to hearing our insight. We can be your advisors, again, if you really do care about social change.
You're playing with people's livelihoods, vital community relationships and mental health. People are feeding their children and housing themselves with your grant funding. People are helping to uplift, protect and save peoples lives with your money. You have to allow yourself to see the pain that sparks and lasts for yearrrsss because of the decision to pull funding from a project/program/organization. Do you know what it's like to tell your youth, clients, community that you serve that you can't help them anymore because next month you won't have funding and now you have to go protect yourself and find a different job to feed yourself? Do you know what happens to that young person or client that now has to find a different outlet, a different safe space, a different mentor, a different pass time to deal with pain, and anger and while figuring out how to live a whole new lifestyle?
I came into a community and collaborative that was arguably dying, dead or just in transition. It was on hiatus essentially. This community of youth organizers, activists and leaders were exhausted, bitter, jaded, overwhelmed, disassociated and talented, gifted, passionate and revolutionary all at the same time. I came into this community with the task to rebuild the collaborative. I had practically no previous experience with this particular type of work. But I didn't have nearly as much support as I wanted, I didn't have as much advisors as I wanted, I didn't have a community to ask questions to or act as my soundboard. They were too busy, overworked, overwhelmed, hurt, offended, or defensive. 3 Years later, I see why. This sector, and this work isn't feeding us at all. My bitterness and resentment to this entire community development scene in my city emerged and I had to get over it to move the collaborative forward. To rebuild from scratch, find new youth-led member organizations, find new advisors, find an entirely new generation of youth organizers to support each other in the collaborative and rewrite policies, strategies, grants and a credo to re-brand and re-birth this network. I am very proud of the work I've been able to do and what I've accomplished over the last 3 years, with little support from folks. I don't blame anyone here. Mostly, I blame the system for the bitterness and reluctancy to support anything new in this sector and I also blame myself for not reaching out for help as much as I could have. (That’s my own personal issue of difficulty reaching out for help). I also acknowledge the roses in the concrete who have been there for me and have helped me build this thing. I see you. You've wiped my tears when I thought I couldn't do this anymore and I wanted to give up. You told me I was making tremendous change in peoples' lives (whether it was true or not) and it made me feel valued. You told me I was changing YOUR life, and that always gave me more fuel to keep going. You helped me write grants, you tweeted about us, talked to people about us, connected us with people, organizations, etc., acted as my soundboard and just heard me out. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
I went through a spiritual evolution from martyrdom, particularly while volunteering fulltime for 8 months, to knowing that this work is empowering me and as I empower me, I empower the network. But I also knew that my drive was much more than martyrdom. I knew I had a duty, and I didn't want to abandon it. I also knew that if I kept at it, and the stars and the energies aligned at the right serendipitous moments because of the positive energy I invested in the collaborative, that the network could continue to grow bigger, deeper and wider. I have no idea what the future holds for this organization, for this city, for society, or the philanthropic sector. But I do ask this one thing:
Remember your humanity. Social change is about HUMANS after all. But it seems our entire society, and all sectors have forgotten that humans are part of nature and we've forgotten our nature.
The crazy part about this whole thing is that I'm one of hundreds of thousands of people that work in this sector and cry at their desk, have so much fury and anger at the red tape and oppression that prevents us from uplifting our communities. I'm not going to get into the nonprofit industrial complex deeply here but I want you to know how much pain is caused because of your funding systems. I don't believe oppression is consciously intentional to keep particular people down, I believe it's a protective act to keep yourselves afloat. To the wealthy, you're more important as a human being to this Earth than to be worried about how much money you made compared to your competitor last quarter, or how many homes you own around the world, or how many cars you have. You are not exercising the brilliant gifts you have to offer to transform our world.
I don't have much else to say, there's probably more but this would then become an entire book.
p.s.: and to the people in this sector who keep "winning" in the nonprofit game, and keep receiving grants cuz you have become buddy buddy with your funders, where's your voice in advocating for this stuff? do not succumb to the game of fighting for scraps. i know you are taking care of you and your own, but think further out, deeper, wider.
"The Revolution Will Not Be Funded"
One of my favourite poems, it's about compassion:
-Call Me by My True Names-
Do not say that I'll depart tomorrow because even today I still arrive.
Look deeply: I arrive in every second to be a bud on a spring branch,
to be a tiny bird, with wings still fragile, learning to sing in my new nest,
to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower, to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.
I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry, in order to fear and to hope.
The rhythm of my heart is the birth and death of all that are alive.
I am the mayfly metamorphosing on the surface of the river,
and I am the bird which, when spring comes, arrives in time to eat the mayfly.
I am the frog swimming happily in the clear pond,
and I am also the grass-snake who, approaching in silence,
feeds itself on the frog.
I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones,
my legs as thin as bamboo sticks,
and I am the arms merchant, selling deadly weapons to Uganda.
I am the twelve-year-old girl, refugee on a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean after being raped by a sea pirate,
and I am the pirate, my heart not yet capable of seeing and loving.
I am a member of the politburo, with plenty of power in my hands,
and I am the man who has to pay his "debt of blood" to, my people,
dying slowly in a forced labor camp.
My joy is like spring, so warm it makes flowers bloom in all walks of life.
My pain is like a river of tears, so full it fills the four oceans.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and laughs at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up,
and so the door of my heart can be left open,
the door of compassion.
- by Thich Nhat Hanh
Welcome to my Library / Blog! I intend to post resources that may help you, opinion pieces I write, and wonderful things I come across that I want to share!