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. Only by going slow to go together can we produce equitable, transformational progress.
Social sector and environmental practitioners like myself have stepped into a predominantly white, monoculture field that champions the urgency of action more than building relationships, respect, and reciprocity. In our rushed attempt to address 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 environmental and public policy decision-making — just offering a seat at the table — rarely means actual inclusion. This tacit "inclusion" will not work if there are pre-defined limitations on what input is considered valid. It will not work if it means "inclusion" in processes that are inherently violent.
Decision-making processes are violent 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 violent when they undervalue lived expertise and place excessive faith in academic accolades. These shortfalls are too often reproduced in well-intentioned "stakeholder engagement" after "stakeholder engagement."
It can be daunting to recognize this as violence. All the more daunting for a social sector organization is atoning for this kind of violence. But it must be done if we are to break the cycle of bad decision-making.
From funders, consultants, and those charged with "engaging the community", I've too often heard ardent vocal support for equitable solutions followed by uncertainty when pressed about what is done beyond offering community members 'a seat at the table.' It depends on whether the client prioritizes this. We only have so much money set aside for stakeholder engagement. We don't have time.
Ensuring representation in the decision-making room is one thing. Talking about power dynamics and privilege in the room, compensating for lived expertise, providing ongoing capacity-building for current and emergent leadership, and handing decision-making power over is a completely different thing. It requires money, resources, and — the central focus of this piece — time.
To foster connection and make good decisions, we must go slow. Connection looks like challenging our sense of urgency and reinvesting in Black, Indigenous, and Brown experts through the entire decision-making process — from process design and implementation to evaluation and monitoring.
“We must move at the speed of trust,” Dr. David Kirkland reminded us during an equity-in-design workshop I facilitated last summer. 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 nation's crisis of connection. The bullets below offer a starting place for the environmental and social sector to reflect on violence and reorient around relationships, respect, and reciprocity:
Center, actively listen to, and fund underinvested experts, especially womxn and youth that are Black, Indigenous, and People of Color
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
Name power and privilege dynamics in a room, such as whiteness, socioeconomic status, institutional backing, and talk about the implications of this power for the decision-making process
Co-develop relational equity norms to ensure the decision-making process is accessible, responsive, and just for all participants
This is the briefest of nods to what can be done to improve environmental and social sector decision-making. For additional resources that provide fantastic guidance, please see the appendix below.
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.
The following resources help shape my thinking and shaped this article:
Emergent Strategy - adrienne maree brown
Liberatory Design - The National Equity Project
Redesigners in Action Webinar Series - Creative Reaction Lab
Unapologetic: A Black, Queer, and Feminist Mandate for Radical Movements - Charlene A. Carruthers
Equitable Evaluation Framing Paper - The Equitable Evaluation Initiative
Black emancipatory action research - Antwi Akom
BlackSpace Manifesto - BlackSpace Urbanist Collective
More Like Jazz Than Classical: Reciprocal Interactions - L. Janelle Dance, Rochelle Gutiérrez, Mary Hermes
Six Circle Model and the added Seventh Circle on Systemic Oppression - Margaret Wheatley and others
The Service Innovation Handbook - Lucy Kimbell