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From Ally to Accomplice: Leading for Equity in Complex Systems

From Ally to Accomplice: Leading for Equity in Complex Systems

December 1, 2015

Ted Lord, Senior Partner, The Giving Practice

After spending two days in November with 80 other local philanthropic, nonprofit, education and government colleagues at the National Equity Project’s (NEP) Leading for Equity in Complex Systems Institute, we were invited to take home one of the many quote posters that decorated the walls. I chose this one from Meg Wheatley:

"When we begin listening to each other, and when we talk about things that matter to us, the world begins to change… Listening and talking to one another heals our divisions and makes us brave again."

As a white ally, I often feel frustrated by my inability to take clear and quick action in the face of persistent disparities based on skin color. This quote captures how listening is essential in continually learning about issues and dynamics that are beyond my lived experience. One of the listening frames introduced at the Institute that was especially useful was “Constructivist Listening.”

Underlying Assumptions:

  • Constructivist Listening is for the benefit of the talker.
  • Cognitive + affective processing = increased understanding.
  • People are capable of solving their own problems given the right conditions.

Each Person:

  • Has equal time to talk.
  • Listens without interrupting, giving advice or breaking in with a personal story.
  • Maintains confidentiality.
  • Does not criticize or complain about others during their time to talk.
  • Gives undivided attention: no food/cell phones.

Whether it was in one-on-one pair shares, processing observations in a trio or listening to a panel speak to a time they stood up for racial equity and the consequences that ensued, this container of constructivist listening helped let story wash over me, particularly useful in my receiving the feeling(s) present even when the particulars of a narrative were unfamiliar. Being among the white minority in this gathering was also an invitation for me to do something not always in my nature: listen more than talk. And I found that doing less talking also increased my openness to shifting based on what I was hearing, as opposed to my usual practice of trying to say something impressive and pithy which forces me into a declarative frame and closes down my ability to be fully present to what others are saying.

NEP's four community agreements supported building movement through trusting relationships, encouraging participation by all:

  1. Notice moments of discomfort and stay curious.
  2. Listen fully – with your ears, eyes and heart.
  3. Speak your truth without blame or judgment.
  4. Be open to the experience of the institute and each other.

A final learning about listening was the idea of distinguishing between discourse that maintains the status quo and that which can offer new ways of seeing via inquiry.

Discourse 1: Dominant ways of seeing and engaging the work of education that maintain existing practices and serve to reproduce social inequality.
Discourse 2: Ways of seeing and engaging the work of education that challenge the status quo by naming uncomfortable and unequal conditions and dynamics while pushing for deeper inquiry.

One example that elicited much knowing laughter in the room:

Discourse 1: “We don’t have any people of color on staff because they never apply for positions.”
Discourse 2: “Why are we not receiving applications from people of color for our open positions?”

A final important takeaway for me was to give myself a break on having to address the nuances of racial inequity perfectly at all times. Over the past year I have helped host several discussions on community representation and engagement and why it might improve a foundation’s performance. I realize now how there is progress and contribution in creating a learning space around systemic inequities where we can show up as pieces of a mosaic that will never come together coherently without all of us participating.

And I got a great new phrase for my role in leading for equity — I am now declaring myself a “white accomplice” a further step into action from my previous status as “white ally.”

Leading for Equity in Complex Systems Institute took place November 16-17 at the Technology Access Fund’s Bethaday Community Learning Space in White Center and was sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Visit NEP’s website for more information.