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No time to lose: we must go slow

We are between two crashing waves: one is our nation’s crisis of connection, and the other is the urgent, continued onslaught of environmental and social problems. Their collision creates a formidable impasse. We can produce equitable, transformational progress and pass through the waves by going slow to go together.

The social sector is still predominantly white and Western. It champions the urgency of action more than building relationships, respect, and reciprocity. In our rushed attempt to address social and environmental issues, we may steamroll over transformative solutions with inauthentic quick fixes that do not address more deeply ingrained disproportionate power, separation, injustice, racism, and othering.

Our crisis of connection is seen most starkly in how decision-making processes continue to be inequitable towards Black, Indigenous, and Brown womxn, youth, and their communities. "Inclusion" in social sector decision-making usually manifests in a brief moment for public input at the end of a given process. Rarely does it mean creating time, space, and resources for communities to be actively included in decision-making. This tacit "inclusion" falls short with pre-defined limitations on what input is considered valid and too often perpetuates inequity.

Decision-making processes are inequitable when they strictly adhere to linear thinking, go too fast to invest in shared meaning-making, do not invest in adequate capacity building, and do not create formal mechanisms for ongoing accountability and evaluation with communities. They are inequitable when they undervalue lived expertise and place excessive faith in academic accolades.

It can be daunting to recognize the shortcomings of our work. All the more daunting is acting on this recognition and breaking the cycle of exclusionary decision-making.

From funders, consultants, and those charged with "engaging communities", I regularly hear ardent vocal support for equitable, community-based solutions. But too often this commitment is followed by uncertainty, silence, and limits about how to actually build these equitable solutions: It depends on whether our client prioritizes this... We only have so much money set aside for stakeholder engagement... We don't have time... And then they land on the status quo: holding a meeting for public input at the end of a process.

Inviting public input is one thing. Creating a seat at the table and making it accessible and useful is a completely different thing. It means talking about power dynamics and privileges at the table, compensating for lived expertise, providing ongoing capacity-building for current and emergent leaders, and sharing decision-making power throughout the process. It requires money, resources, and time.

To foster connections and make authentic decisions, we must go slow. “We must move at the speed of trust,” Dr. David Kirkland shared during an equity-in-design workshop I facilitated in 2020. Decision-making that centers on underinvested expertise and actively slows down can better break from patterns of systemic violence and create shared meaning. This leads to more authentic and sustainable solutions.

We can address our crisis connection and address urgent social and environmental issues at the same time. The bullets below offer a starting place for how we can reorient around relationships, respect, and reciprocity:

  1. Center, actively listen to, and fund underinvested experts, especially womxn and youth that are Black, Indigenous, and People of Color

  2. Critically interrogate the definitions held most dear, including who is considered an 'expert' or 'stakeholder' or 'community member,' what a 'decision' means and for whom, and what 'engagement' includes and excludes

  3. Name power and privilege dynamics in a room, such as whiteness, socioeconomic status, and institutional power -- and talk about the implications of this power for the decision-making process

  4. Co-develop relational equity norms to ensure the decision-making process is accessible, responsive, and just for all participants

To pass the two crashing waves of our crisis of connection and the urgent onslaught of challenges, decision-makers must learn to pause, be vigilant, and reflect on our commitment to equity.

Only then can we dream of reaching the shore.


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