Finding our Way Towards Equity in Organizations, Together.
“If you have come here to help me then you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” Lilla Watson, member of the Gangulu people, Kanolo (Queensland, Australia).
I want to talk about our approach to equity-centered change in organizations, and how we, at Bloom, think about change. It feels important to add our perspective to the many ways of looking at organizational and social transformation, because our approach itself embodies the change we are seeking and supporting organizations in. Our approach questions our conditioned patterns of urgency, perfectionism, binary thinking and harsh judgments that occupy organizational culture and also, tend, as a result, to accompany equity work. We hear the hunger from organizations for pathways and frameworks to do this work, and so I’m excited to share some of our thoughts here, from a place of learning, humility, lots of questions and continual evolution of our ideas, always.
Yes, change is needed
I want to acknowledge a couple of things before diving in. This global capitalist system has left us in quite the mess. It’s built upon commodification and exploitation of humans and the earth and has storied the myth of race into its fabric, building hierarchies based on human phenotype that we now buy as normal. We’ve also been sold the illusion of separation: mind from body, humans from nature, us and them. The salve for the wound of separation is reconnection, belonging and love. Remembering and restoring our interconnectedness with ourselves, each other and the planet is at the root of the change needed. Our liberation is wound up with one another, we need to work together to survive and thrive. And it’s our birthright to be free, to thrive and belong. All of us. I’m curious how we can re-imagine our organizations and systems from this place?
I have been conditioned with so much perfectionism, it’s exhausting. I have an evaluative mind that is ready to judge myself and others on the ready. And each time it happens, I can feel separation between myself and others as judgement eclipses compassion and the deeper truth of our learning journey together.
And, I totally understand how our desire to ‘get it right’ comes from a place of genuinely wanting to do our best, to have more social justice and have a positive impact. We are wired to feel shame when we have done something we consider wrong or that causes hurt or harm. While shame is normal, it also makes us feel small, not enough, and powerless. Lingering in shame doesn’t help us learn or move forward, in fact it can hold us back from picking ourselves up and trying again. When shame is met with compassion and empathy, however, it can move.
Years of inner work and self love has landed me in a softer place of celebration of missteps and it’s still ongoing work for me. If we are to move towards equity and transformation in our organizations, we need to be able to try things out and learn from our missteps. We need to cultivate compassionate learning cultures that invite us to experiment, think outside the box, wonder ‘what if?’ without failure being so bad.
When we are hurt or observe harmful behaviour, I recognize the urgent desire for justice, for calling out/calling in, for acknowledgement and repair. In these moments, could we prefigure something different than the models that might mimic oppressive systems? Could we lean on our compassion to invite restorative healing? Responding from compassion for self and others when missteps happen is an act of transformation away from systems of shame/blame/punishment/domination and towards re-humanization, learning care and respect.
This is hard hard work. And requires immense strength, resilience, and support. As we work towards this, we encourage organizations to think about what those structures for support look like and what we can do to create the conditions that allow for new ways of meeting each other in these moments.
Ciao ciao binary thinking (can we please?)
Binary thinking is killing me right now. Mostly in the way it shows up in me. I am SO DONE thinking ‘this is the right way, and that is the wrong way.’ It limits so much possibility, creativity and connection. And yet, it’s so deeply ingrained in us to ascribe a value to everything, to compare, to see things in deeply limited good-bad/us-them dualisms. I think if we are to move towards a society that welcomes all of us to meaningfully participate and thrive, we are inherently demanding the deconstruction of binary thinking. We are required to embrace a multitude of perspectives, the many versions of reality, the co-existence of multiple truths. We know within our own depths that the binary is a mischaracterization — nothing is actually split on a binary, we’ve just inherited this default way of organizing the world. We don’t just have day and night, we have a gradual progression from night to day and from day to night. It’s a spectrum! We are enriched by the multiplicity of perspectives — in our teams, and our communities — in ourselves! And when we can embrace the multiplicity of perspectives within ourselves and our teams, and work in a way that creates space for them, builds upon them, we are wiser, more creative, inclusive and resilient.
Every year, members of Bloom (with an amazing team and YES!) co-host a Jam, a gathering of 30 change-makers across the Greater Toronto Area for a week of reflection on the inner and outer aspects of their change work. In this space, people are welcomed to take off a mask (or two, or three) and be witnessed in collective as they engage in the personal, interpersonal and systemic levels of their transformation. The power of being seen in all fullness is profound. I have witnessed the transformation in myself and others as we experience the power of being seen and heard with compassion and loved just as we are. Being reminded that we are enough as we are, no matter what we do or don’t do. We are all enough. It fuels us with courage and capacity to stretch into transformation, to take risks and be vulnerable. It quiets the shame. Being loved in community is medicine for our wounds of disconnection, trauma and lack of belonging. Being in a beloved community is possible, I believe, even in the spaces we work in.
How does this connect to equity-centered change? If colonialism, capitalism, white supremacy and patriarchy has separated us from ourselves, each other and the earth along value hierarchies of good/bad, then the work of liberation is about reconnection and love. It’s about restoring ourselves as interconnected, whole and enough. It’s stepping into the fullness of our humanity — all of it — and loving who we are — even the parts that have been designated as unworthy or shameful — embracing the wholeness of ourselves, even if they may seem in conflict. It’s about extending this love for others too. Even the parts of our human family that we’ve designated as not enough, problematic, or wrong. It’s about recognizing that we’re in this mess together. Liberation isn’t something that affects just some of us, it affects all of us because we are interconnected within these systems of oppression/privilege and whether we like it or not, benefit from the oppression of humans and other sentient beings. We need to move towards co-liberation, thinking strategically and re-imagining how we build organizations that embody equity towards liberation at the heart.
Looking at organizational culture at all the levels: personal, interpersonal, systemic
Remembering that equity is a step towards liberation — with each one of us being able to thrive and feel a sense of belonging in the human family (which is our birthright) — means that transforming our organizations in this direction is a massive endeavour, and it requires that we work at all levels: the personal, interpersonal and systemic. At a personal level, I can’t walk with you and your organization towards equitable systemic change if I myself have not looked at the ways I judge myself against perfectionism and use binary thinking and judgement as a way to understand reality. Each of us needs to show up to the inner work that the outer work requires. We can’t point to the system as though it’s some completely disembodied ‘thing’ out there without looking at how we participate, perpetuate and benefit from that system.
Similarly, we change organizational culture by looking at how we show up in relationship with one another within that culture. Behaviours and structures point to our relationships. It’s important to observe and notice as much as you can about your organizational culture from a multiplicity of stakeholders in order to understand what changes really need to be made. Get curious, get introspective, as an organization, ask questions and listen to learn. There are countless questions to engage in this work, but here are a few that I like:
- How do different people in the organization experience the culture? How does it feel to work there?
- How do you treat one another?
- How are meetings held? Is there space for a multiplicity of perspectives & collaboration?
- How do people listen to each other? Speak to one another?
- How are new ideas taken? Is there room for experimentation? For missteps?
- What do relationships with stakeholders look like? Are they mutually beneficial?
- How do you hire? Might there be barriers to participation in your organization?
- How can you remove those barriers?
This data will serve you to know what’s working well and what needs changing. Don’t guess, ask questions and listen to what gets shared.
5Rs of Equitable Organizational Change
At Bloom, we developed these touch points as one map to support our clients in finding their way through equity-centered organizational change.
Reveal historical oppressions, the myths of: race, natural hierarchies, perfectionism, binary thinking, separation of humans from themselves, each other and the earth
Recognize the global capitalism system as designed to commodify and exploit human labour and nature, removing humanity and the rights of dignity of certain humans and species for the benefit of the dominant groups. Recognize barriers to participation in our organization.
Remove barriers to access opportunities, employment, decision-making, resources, belonging, thriving, etc.
Redistribute access to opportunities, employment, decision-making, resources, etc.
Re-imagine — Re-create systems of reciprocal abundance, communal prosperity, liberation, belonging and thriving for all.
We find this map useful to walk with on this journey of transformation, realizing that this is long-term, generational work and that once we arrive at re-imagine, we spiral back in to reveal another layer of truth. And so the cycle of reflection and action continues and begins again. We invite you to adapt what needs revealing, recognizing, removing, re-distributing and re-imagining and re-creating to suit your organizational context and realities.
Being in the unknown, together: organizations as living systems
What’s the EDI plan? What are we supposed to do? And how do we do it fast?
Our first response to this is actually just the opposite: let’s slow right down for a minute. This is complex stuff. There isn’t a single solution, plan, strategy for equity that offers a simple “fix”. The work of transformation is also not a linear journey from point A to point B. There are many twists and turns, pivots and adaptations required. We as consultants offer maps, processes and questions to navigate the complexity of your organizational environment and together, we learn as we go.
A systems-change lens is helpful in navigating organizational change, because it helps us to make sense of a complex world. A system is made up of “interdependent parts that are connected through a web of relationships, configurations of interactions, forming a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.”
What I love about systems thinking is that it provides a way of looking at organizations as living systems which are adaptive and self-organizing. Different from the Newtonian view of organizations as machines we think we can control, a living-systems view of organizations understands an organization as an ecosystem that works together, like the many species co-habitating in reciprocity in a forest.
A living-systems view of organizations affirms that:
- Ideas that emerge from within the system are most suited to that system — trust yourselves and each other.
- We are capable of self-organizing to come up with workable ideas, we can attune to our environment and co-sense what is needed. This leads to emergence.
- Paying attention to the here and now, being present to what is, allows us to co-sense what is needed.
- We are in relationship to other systems and relationships of reciprocal abundance allow us to thrive.
- A living system cannot be steered or controlled — it can only be teased, nudged, titillated to see things differently.
- Who we are together is always different and more than who we are alone. Our range of creative expression increases as we join with others. New relationships create new capacities.
Each of us have a part to play in collectively transforming ourselves and our systems, initiating ourselves into another way of living and working together. One that allows us all to show up in our power, to be seen and heard, celebrated in our multiplicity, while seeking mutuality, communal prosperity and regenerative ways of living and working together. We are capable of doing this, and our survival depends on doing it together. Start big. Start small. Start now. Every single effort counts.