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Just Ask: Going to the Source for Real Learning

Way-Ting Chen / July 2020

(This is part 3 in our racial justice essay series. Read more in our other posts: introduction, taking a systems view, defining goals, taking stock)

I have a postcard from 2008 that came with a book called Seeing Beyond Sight. It’s a book of photography taken by teenagers who are blind or nearly-blind. This postcard shares a simple, yet powerful, interchange:

Question to blind student photographer: How do you not cut people’s heads off in a photo?

Answer: Just ask the person where they are.

It’s as simple as that– you ask them. All the advanced technology and research analytics, the business theory and social work courses, the talk of growth mindset and emotional intelligence… It all comes down to this: You ask them.

Over the years, the power of this message remains strong, and is internalized in the way Blue Garnet pursues our work. We support our client and other community partners in asking questions to a full range of stakeholders– grantees, participants, beneficiaries, customers, staff, volunteers, etc. The purpose is always to learn, in a real and useful way.

So here we are. Society is at an inflection point, and I find this message even more resonant and relevant. Our sector is asking: What is the impact of systemic racism on those that we serve? On those with whom we partner? What biases do we hold and extend when recruiting staff and volunteers, including Board members? How do we ensure that our work goes beyond immediate service of our mission, and pivots toward antiracist, groundwater solutions? (see our last blog) Though our questions may have evolved, the way to find answers remains the same: You ask them. Or, as lawyer and social justice activist Bryan Stevenson puts it, you “get proximate.”

Effective learning requires being intentional about to whom and how we ask our questions, and also what we do with the things we hear. Getting proximate often means going beyond the first-level analysis (in the consulting world, sometimes called the “Survey Monkey summary”). To really learn and take action, it is critical to look deeper and disaggregate data. And be wary of stats that paint a broad picture for the whole population, like a country’s GDP, infant mortality, and unemployment, graduation, and literacy rates. When we dig deeper into the data, we often see different stories by segment—like how COVID disproportionally affects Black and Brown communities.

For various reasons, the social sector tends not to prioritize ongoing learning from primary sources. Or, perhaps more accurately, fails to allocate the resources needed to truly get proximate with critical issues and marginalized groups. In contrast, for-profit companies frequently and regularly invest significant dollars on “market research” and the “user experience” (UX)– to them, it’s a matter of keeping abreast of often-changing customer needs. Many in the social sector instead lean on ad hoc experiences and personal assumptions of community needs, or the ‘listening’ notes from a strategic planning process 5 years ago.

Of course, that is not true of the entire social sector. There are myriads of ways to get proximate. Below are just a few examples of how our partners have invested in engaging “the source,” and how their learnings helped them better their organizations and pursue their missions. (To prompt your thinking, I included a few pointed reflection questions.)

Here’s what getting proximate can look like:

  • A nonprofit serving people with disabilities, ensuring access was not a barrier to hearing participant voices. Their first client and patient survey in years was delivered in multiple languages (English, Spanish, Vietnamese, Tagalog, etc.) and modalities (electronic, paper, and person-assisted), accommodating various levels of ability.
    • How do you consider and combat ableism when developing surveys?
    • How far are you willing to go to ensure that marginalized voices are heard?
  • A funder supporting scholarships and career-development for first-generation college students, creating safe spaces for feedback on its program. Results from our focus groups with participating students directly clarified the theory of change, helped inform program ambition, and grounded funder and program partners’ expectations.
    • How do you ensure the voice of your beneficiaries are at the table, when evaluating program impact and refining its design?
    • How do you conduct stakeholder engagement in a way that is understandable and relevant to the audience, while yielding honest and informative feedback?
  • A regional funder under new leadership, establishing a baseline understanding of internal capabilities, culture, and challenges. By engaging a third party and offering creative incentives, their first staff survey secured 100% participation, allowing us to analyze the confidential results by departments, tenure, title, and other characteristics. Insights gathered helped focus and prioritize leadership’s internal work in the first year.
    • Where are potential pockets of both energy and dissatisfaction in your organization?
    • How do staff of varying perspectives experience your organization differently? To what extent do race, gender and other characteristics affect these experiences?
  • A local university, engaging formal partners and local neighbors to address a thorny town and gown issue. Gathering input from across the stakeholder spectrum, we conducted intercept surveys from surrounding neighborhoods. Disaggregating data geographically built a richer understanding of the impacts, challenges, and priorities of different areas.
    • What is the impact of your work on those around you?
    • Is it the same or different across stakeholders? How do you know?

Remember, going to the source is not a one-off thing. It takes genuine commitment, willingness to invest in the process, and discipline to follow through. It’s hard work, yet absolutely necessary to build buy-in and maximize your impact. So, let’s continue to invest in the process of learning. Let’s go to the source. Let’s make sure we are getting proximate. As the credo often used by disability advocates goes: “Nothing About Us without Us.” After all, democracy is a process, not an outcome.

Does this jog your thinking? Do you have more questions, or are you ready to get going? Please let us know at hello@bluegarnet.net! We’re just a (virtual) conversation away.

Groundwater problems, groundwater solutions

Sofia Van Cleve // July 2020

(This is part 2 in our racial justice essay series. Read more in our other posts: introduction, defining goals, getting proximate, taking stock)

 

Icons from The Noun Project

Imagine you are walking in the mountains (as I was, on a camping trip in the Eastern Sierras last week). You come across a lake. Sitting down on the banks of the lake to take in the view, you notice a dead fish. You think to yourself, “Odd. What happened to this fish? Did he not eat well? Did he not exercise enough? Was he a lazy fish, who didn’t work hard enough to provide for himself?”

Puzzled, you keep walking along the same lake and find hundreds more dead fish. This is eerie. Now you may consider, “Huh, could something be wrong with the whole lake? This many fish don’t just die by coincidence. Maybe this lake water is poisonous? Is there an algal bloom? Or toxic fertilizer runoff?” The problem appears bigger than one individual fish’s actions.

You keep hiking and encounter multiple lakes. You’re hoping for a different outcome so you can sit down and eat your packed lunch in peace. To your dismay and discomfort, you see that all the lakes have dead fish littering their banks! Now you’re angry. “Why are all these fish dying? What’s wrong with these lakes? How are they all getting poisoned?” The root of the problem is deeper than individual fish or individual lakes—it lies in the groundwater that seeps into all of the lakes.

The groundwater. So deep that you do not even see it. Hidden, but toxic. Below the surface, but extremely powerful. Poisoning all our lakes and killing many fish.

There is racism in the groundwater of our American society.

I first heard this allegory (and I’ll elaborate more below) at a Racial Equity Institute (REI) workshop in September 2019. Although I am White, since I am half-American and did not grow up in the US, I did not previously see myself as complicit in racism in America nor responsible for helping end it. At REI, I recognized that I am, and I’ve continued pursuing learning and action since. REI’s framework and teaching helped me see this. Its groundwater story communicates a complex reality in such a simple way, and we at Blue Garnet have incorporated it into how we talk about systems change. As we continue in our blog series on racial justice, we wanted to share it with you, too.

Racism affects every level and segment of American society. REI uses the above allegory to illustrate how underlying racism (the “groundwater”) feeds into all our systems and institutions (the “lakes”), harming individuals (the “fish”). Across “lakes,” we see disparate outcomes based on race. This is consistent and pervasive, but we have different language for this disparity in each sector (e.g., “health disparities” in healthcare, “racial disproportionality” in social services, “disproportionate minority contact” in juvenile justice, and “achievement gaps” in education). But the pattern of “fish” wellbeing is the same—Black Americans fare the worst, followed by Native American, Latinx, and Asian Americans varying in the middle, while White Americans experience the best outcomes. This same pattern is seen across the health, wealth, criminal justice, educational attainment, and other lakes.

Because we see this phenomenon across the board, the differences cannot be attributed to individuals’ behavior. It’s not about a “fish’s” nutrition, or exercise habits, or level of resilience, or if they attend financial coaching. Socioeconomic status does not explain these differences, either. For example, “White women with a high school diploma have lower infant mortality rates than Black women with MAs, JDs or PhD’s,” (CDC, see REI for more examples). Rather, these differences stem from “a history of structuring opportunity for certain groups while denying others,” according to REI’s Reiney Lin. REI’s whitepaper goes in depth on the history and current reality of racism in America.

So how do we do something about systemic racism? Start by considering and working toward groundwater solutions, even as we continue addressing injustices on every level. As a society, we still need to support individual “fish”– people are hungry today, so we do need food banks and meal servings. Many people don’t have a roof over their heads, so we need shelters for the unhoused. At the same time, the symptoms and suffering we see in individuals often stem from a deeper disease that is generational, societal, and institutional. To ensure a thriving, healthier population in the future, we also need groundwater solutions. We can’t treat only symptoms when the sickness goes unchecked. We need food banks and fair wages and hiring reform. Whatever level and area of social change you work in, you cannot avoid the root causes of your community’s pain.

To further immerse yourself in “groundwater” thinking:

  • Start by tuning into an REI’s virtual workshop on “The Groundwater Approach.” Their sessions this week filled up quickly, but sign up for their newsletter to hear about upcoming events. You can also read their whitepaper, full of data and research
  • Practice drilling down to an issue’s root cause with the “The 5 Why’s” approach. This management technique asks “why” of every layer of a problem until you reach its origin
  • Consider your own organization, and ask yourself:
    • What root causes contribute to the problems I see in my community, and how does this relate to my organization’s mission?
    • What power, knowledge, resources, and strengths do I, or my organization, have to help solve that root cause? Which can we grow in?
    • If we don’t possess these, who can we partner with, fund, or collaborate with that is tackling the systemic issues?
    • Where can I transition part of my organization’s efforts to tackle systems change? Where can I engage as an individual?
  • Shameless plug: keep reading the BG essay series on racial justice! We’ll dive deeper into some of the questions raised here

What resources and frameworks have guided your thinking on racial equity and systems change? Additionally, if you want to chat more with us about our racial justice journey, or how we can partner with you in yours, please contact us at hello@bluegarnet.net


Sources: Specific articles and Groundwater allegory drawn from:
Hayes-Greene, Deena, and Bayard P. Love. The Groundwater Approach: Building a Practical Understanding of Structural Racism. The Racial Equity Institute. 2018

“Phase 1 Workshop.” Hosted by Racial Equity Institute in Westwood, California. September 14-15, 2019.

What BG has to say about racial justice

Way-Ting Chen // July 2020

(This is part 1 in our racial justice essay series. Read more in our other posts: taking a systems view, defining goals, getting proximate, taking stock)

Welcome to the racial justice conversation.

Jenni and I launched Blue Garnet back in 2002, with a strong nod to our shared experience at a place steeped in the Quaker tradition of social justice and responsibility, and deep gratitude for the strong shoulders of brave mentors, who challenged the status quo to carve the path on which we now walk.

Over the years, we have been privileged to work with leaders and organizations that strive to achieve more just and equitable results for those they serve. For us, this has always meant supporting our client and ecosystem partners to take the long-view, while finding creative, data-informed solutions to a range of seemingly intractable challenges. We firmly believe that progress along the inevitable arc of justice requires a commitment to diversity in process and participation, equity in outcomes that matter, and clarity that these can only be achieved in an inclusive way.

We are proud to have spent nearly 20 years in the trenches of the movement toward lasting social change. We have integrated social determinants of health into the evaluation framework of a healthcare funder, helped a public agency understand how low-income housing residents value access to universal land lines, benchmarked outcomes for educational programs in a community with high-levels of poverty, defined the tipping point required to create a sustainable urban tree canopy, etc. (Can you tell we thrive on the variety of this work?)

Today, we as a society are witnessing flashpoints around underlying issues that have always been around. Of course, the pandemic has shown that our connectedness as humans makes us all vulnerable. However, while the virus is a great leveler, it has not been a great equalizer. We see the disproportionate impact on people of color and the financially poor. On top of this, the video of George Floyd’s murder forced us to confront and awaken our hearts to the systemic racism, and resulting injustice, that have always existed. We, as a society, are now primed to take the movement to another level – to make a lasting difference.

At Blue Garnet, we know the journey is paramount. As trusted advisors to our clients, and collaborative learners ourselves, we have been and are making space to process, learn, and engage on the topic of racial equity and justice. From my perspective, distilling all our reactions, thoughts, and ideas down to one simple statement risks “dumbing down” this deep topic. That’s why, instead of “issuing a statement,” I am excited to introduce a series of essays from members of the Blue Garnet team. We want to share in a way that honors the complexity and diversity of viewpoints on events in our current time, and set them in context of systemic challenges.

In the coming weeks, please look for these essays that reflect our team’s current thinking on racial justice. There’s a lot of ground to cover. We’ll:

  • Delineate terms that have entered the mainstream discourse, from our perspective
  • Highlight partners working in the cracks in our system long before the pandemic and protests
  • Share how we’re taking action as a team
  • Bring stories of hope, showing that real social change is possible in our time
  • And, through it all, keep our focus on solutions to root causes and how to make them real.

We hope you’ll find the time to sink into ideas and resources that we share, and hold them in your thoughts as you and your organization navigate through this multidimensional movement. And, this is more valuable as a dialogue, not a monologue. So, please reach out to me at way-ting@bluegarnet.net, and let us know how this series is landing with you, and how we can work together to advance the cause of racial justice.


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