Structural Racism and Speaking Truth to Power
Season 2: Episode 13 of the Rethinking Development Podcast
Angela Bruce-Raeburn is currently the Regional Advocacy Director at the Global Health Advocacy Incubator, which supports advocates that work for the prevention of non communicable diseases that impact low and middle income countries. Previously she worked as the Senior Policy Advisor for the humanitarian response of Oxfam in Haiti from 2010 to 2013 in the aftermath of the earthquake. Born in Trinidad and Tobago, Angela grew up in Brooklyn, New York. The immigrant experience drove her interest and commitment to choosing a career where she would be able to impact and improve the lives of others. She has written many op-eds on development and race including “But wait until they see your black face” and “International development has a race problem”. Angela speaks to us about her immigrant experience, structural racism, Caribbean regional integration, the non linear career paths of BIPOC, the financial constraints of community organizations, white supremacy and the myth of the model minority, her experience working in Haiti, development as a white man’s game, woke washing and the co-opting of anti racism messages by organizations, hashtag activism, white privilege and the Women Deliver example, speaking truth to power, structural change and much more. She joins us from Washington D.C, USA.
Editors note: This transcript has been slightly edited for clarity and coherence.
Intro: I got the job and it put me in a place where I was now the voice of Oxfam in Haiti. But I went to Haiti with a different mindset. I went to Haiti as yes, I am the voice of Oxfam, but I’m also black woman Angela from Trinidad and Tobago. So first and foremost, I’m from the Caribbean, I understand you. So my connection in Haiti was made on that basis. And then I brought my lived experience as the liaison between the people in DC and the people in Haiti and I was that voice. And I realized how being inside is important, because it allows you to let your voice be heard and to be able to represent other people whose voices cannot be heard and who are not in the room.
Safa: Welcome back to the Rethinking Development Podcast. My name is Safa and I will be your host as we speak with and learn from practitioners of all backgrounds and affiliations around the world. In our conversations, we aim to rethink ethical behavior and best practices through the lived experiences and personal reflections of different practitioners. Our guest today is Angela Bruce-Raeburn. Angela is currently the Regional Advocacy Director at the Global Health Advocacy Incubator, which supports advocates that work for the prevention of non communicable diseases that impact low and middle income countries. Previously, Angela worked as the Senior Policy Advisor for the humanitarian response of Oxfam in Haiti from 2010 to 2013 in the aftermath of the earthquake. Born in Trinidad and Tobago, Angela grew up in Brooklyn, New York. The immigrant experience drove her interest and commitment to choosing a career where she would be able to impact and improve the lives of others. Angela has written many op-eds on development and race including “But wait until they see your black face” and “International development has a race problem”. A fluent french speaker, Angela holds three master’s degrees in public administration, peace studies and conflict resolution and a BA in political science from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. Angela, thank you so much for speaking with us today.
Angela: Thank you so much for having me.
Safa: It’s our pleasure. In the introduction, it mentioned how the immigrant experience really impacted your worldview. And I was wondering to begin with, could speak to us a bit about what were some of the defining experiences in your earlier years that made you want to work in the development sector? What were you hoping to achieve and contribute to through that type of work?
Angela: Thank you for that question. Because I think it’s the best place to start probably. Growing up in Brooklyn, coming from Trinidad at a different time — not in the time of cell phones and easy communication and the world that we have today. It was the late 70s, early 80s. And being the immigrant at that time, you were really far away from home. It wasn’t like you could get online and look up the newspaper and see what’s going on in your country and be connected. You were really far away from home. And I think that sort of loneliness about leaving your country as a child and not understanding the ramifications and the implications of what being an immigrant really is, because you have to follow your parents, and you come here and you realize this place is very different to your place, you know. You’re this black girl, 12 years old, with the accent, and everyone thinks you’re from Jamaica, because at the time, of course, the whole Caribbean was one place, Jamaica, and we were all somehow related to Bob Marley, because people just didn’t know anything about the Caribbean. And so, that experience was so, I want to say traumatic because it was traumatic on one hand, but on the other hand, it was really what made me realize that I had to find work in a place, in a career that would support people like that. People like who I was when I was 12 years old, meaning people who suffer from the immigrant experiences that are quite painful and devastating. My experience in Brooklyn was just fraught with racism, for example, not even understanding why people thought it was odd that I was a black girl, and I was really good in school. You know, why was that a surprise, you know? And so I wanted a career where I could have something to say about how people like me showed up in the world. How people like me got a chance to go to school and get great education and be able to go back to where we come from and say, here’s how we can do things better. And for those of us who didn’t go back, here’s how we can work in organizations that can support people back home. And that’s where it came from for me, so I was very clear from a young age, you know, maybe 15, 16, that I would work in some kind of international field where I could support people like me.
Safa: And one of your first professional experiences was working at the Caribbean Community Secretariat, where you did some research that supported your thesis on the topic of regional integration and development amongst Caribbean states. What were some of your experiences there? And when would you say was the first time where you began to notice that there are some really problematic issues or ethical issues in terms of the way that the sector operates?
Angela: Well, you know, being at the CARICOM was really singularly the most — in terms of internships, if you are going to have an experience like that, and to explain why I even got this internship, I was a Rotary Peace Fellow, and part of the peace fellowship requires you to do something called an AFP, applied field experience. And so while I was writing my dissertation, I had to apply to where I could go and get some real experience about my work. I chose the CARICOM of course because I wanted to go home, first of all. And when I say home, I mean the Caribbean and Guyana in particular, because my father is a Guyanese and I grew up in Guyana as well, so between Trinidad and Guyana for the first 12 years of my life, and then coming to the US when I was 13. So I go to Guyana, and I’m working in the CARICOM and just being able to be in the library at the CARICOM and read and touch the pages of the original papers that were talking about the beginning of the CARICOM and why the CARICOM felt the need to come together was pretty cool. I mean, how many times do you have an experience like that where you can really be in the place where it all began for the Caribbean, right? So I was fascinated by that. I wanted to write about integration in small states because in graduate school in the UK, we talked a lot about globalization. We talked a lot about how the EU operated. Of course, that was at a time when Britain was still in the EU. We talked about how big countries manage trade and how they’re able to drive the terms of trade, and I was wondering at the time, so what happens when you’re a little country? When you are a little island in the Caribbean, you know, vulnerable, in the backyard of the US, where if the US sneezes you literally catch pneumonia in the Caribbean? Right? I was like, what happens to people like us in this part of the world? What happens when the US drives the trade agenda? How do we maneuver? And I wanted to understand it. So my dissertation was to get a real understanding of what happens when we have to face globalization, when you are a country, you are a island subject to climate change, subject to natural disasters, hurricanes, when you’re a little island with 1.2 million people, when you are food insecure, just all of that. And that’s really what drove my interest in writing and talking with people in the CARICOM about how do we, in the Caribbean, as small states, survive this big new world of multilateral institutions, of big trading economic blocks, like the EU, and saying well obviously we need to integrate as Caribbean islands and even how that was also fraught with its own issues, as Caribbean people, in many ways, are divided. Trinidadians are not Jamaicans, and Jamaicans are not Barbadians, and Barbadians are not Antiguans, and Antiguans are not Guyanese. But how do we come together to be a block that can help to drive the trade agenda in the world for our benefit? And that was a real sobering experience because it just really drove home how vulnerable we are in the Caribbean. My dissertation was really for me to try to understand that and try to kind of look at what the solutions would look like for how do we survive in this new world order that we’re currently facing.
Safa: Later you moved back to the US and you had an experience working as a CEO for a literacy and education program in California. In that role of CEO, where you had responsibilities in terms of the budget and dealing with financial constraints and having to structure programs as determined by financial resources, what were some of your experiences around that issue? And how has that experience kind of influenced how you view the work that you’ve continued to do over the years?
Angela: The funniest thing about that was that I was not really even looking for that position, to be frank. I came home from graduate school, I went to the Congressional Black Caucus, and I had a decision to make at the time. I want to talk about that because a lot of women listening to this podcast, especially a lot of black women and women of color, know that oftentimes we don’t have a straight line to the career. It’s not linear for many of us. For us, a lot of it is mitigated by some of the real life circumstances that we have to face. We have to take care of children, maybe we have to follow our husband’s career, maybe we have an elderly parent, maybe we need to do other things. For many of us, it’s not just getting out of grad school and you know, moving to the city and finding that job, and that job leads to next job and the next job — you know, for many of us, that’s not the reality, and it was certainly not the reality for me. So I want to give some voice to that, because I think women listening to this can relate, especially if they’re women, black women and other women of color, I think they would understand this particular moment for them. And so for me, it was being at the Congressional Black Caucus in D.C as a fellow and knowing that the trajectory was when you finished a Congressional Black Caucus fellowship, you would now look for a job on Capitol Hill. But I didn’t love Capitol Hill. I don’t even know if I liked Capitol Hill. I found it to be a weird place to work. I just think government in that way is just strange. And I think people say, well, you need to be in the room to have a voice, I found the room itself to not be conducive to the changes that I thought we needed to be making, especially in black communities and other communities of color in the US. So I had to make a decision. Stay on Capitol Hill and try to find a job in some congressional office, which was not super appealing to me. Or go back to California to my family. Mind you, I had left my family to come to D.C to work, my husband and my three sons who were at the time 6 and one was 8, and one was maybe 12. So they were young. And so my husband was basically mother and father, but you know, sometimes that’s how it has to happen, right? So I decided that at the time, I’m going back to California. But I was also going back to a part of California where finding an international job was out of the question, because international jobs don’t exist in that part of California at all. So I wasn’t going to find a job that would be the next natural, progressive sort of trajectory for my background. Like if you met me at that point in 2007, and you looked at all my education, my background, my foreign language, you’d say, oh, she needs to be working in D.C at some NGO or on Capitol Hill. But I wasn’t there because I didn’t find any opportunity in D.C that I really wanted. And I was not convinced that Capitol Hill was the best place for me. So I went home to California, and went back to my children and my family and my husband, and so I had to find a job. So here I was now, this black woman, three master’s degrees, fluent french speaker, and I’m looking for a job in Northern California. And everyone looks at my resume and says, oh, why aren’t you in D.C? Why aren’t you in New York working for the UN? People love to say those kinds of things when they look at your resume, why aren’t you at the UN? As though you can just walk up to the door of the UN and say, let me in, I have three master’s degrees. And so Junior Achievement recruited me. It was 2007. The financial and economic meltdown that we were about to face in the US and around the world was coming and they hired me as the CEO, president of the Northern California Sacramento chapter. So I had responsibility of half a million dollar budget, about five staff people, and we brought financial literacy services to low income schools and programs. So that was different. It was not a job that you would have seen on my trajectory, right? But what it did for me was, it made me realize how precarious community organizations can be when financial stresses come to them. It was 2007 going into 2008. We were about to have the global meltdown. The mortgage crisis hit. Many of the people on the board of directors were these big mortgage companies. So, after the mortgage crisis hit, a lot of these organizations had to leave the board. So I was now a new CEO with constraints, a lot of constraints, having to make real big financial decisions. How to keep the doors open? And I learned a lot from that job because of that. I went and negotiated with the landlord to break our lease so we could move to cheaper offices. We had to make decisions about cutting programs. We had to make decisions about staff, about salaries. It was really difficult and it was also difficult to raise money at this time when, you know, the global collapse was happening. So 2007, 2008, 2009 were very tough economic times everywhere in the world, and certainly for nonprofits like this one. And then, what suffers in economic crises? It’s often, quote unquote, charity. People are donating to this and donating to that, but when their businesses go into trouble, that’s the first place that they cut. So we had a lot of people that were not able to give the same kinds of donations. So we had to really have a fundamental rethink about what were the services that we could do? When we had to cut schools, what would be the priority of cutting schools? The programs that we cut were in the higher income communities. My rationale for that was that the lower income communities were more in need. I learned a lot from that job. It was very stressful. And when you have purview over the livelihoods of other people, you have a tendency to be more sober about it, in that you know that you need to make payroll. And if you don’t or can’t, you have people whose lives are impacted by that. And that was a sobering reality for me. And it really gave me an appreciation for leadership at that level, and how some people do it very well, and other people just don’t. And that’s where I got that experience.
Safa: There’s so many important points you brought up. In terms of the experience of maybe having to be overachieving in order to be taken seriously or having to excel in order to be given a position, as related to the experience of being a model minority. How have you experienced that as many colleagues of color, staff members who are racialized, they have to navigate that expectation a lot in their careers. What have been your experiences with that?
Angela: Yeah, well, I have three master’s degrees. That should tell you, I am that person. That is one thing that I have really struggled with over the years. You know, when you’re the black woman, you come from the Caribbean, you leave home, you come here to the US or you come to Canada or you go to England. And you know what that means.You have given up things to come here. And you know that you gotta be good. You got to study. You know, we Caribbean parents, you know, doctor, lawyer, engineer, right. As far as profession is concerned. You know, my sister’s a lawyer, my father, he was that guy who left the Caribbean and came to the US and had five jobs. Worked morning, came home in the afternoon, took a nap, went to work again in the in the evening, came home, went to work at night, that guy. All to give his daughters what he thought was a better life than what he left in the Caribbean. So here we are, Caribbean people, we got to achieve, you know, we got to achieve. So I’m that person. Let me tell you, when I was 12 years old, right before I left Trinidad, I started studying french at my very elite high school. And when I got the bug, I was like, I’m going to be fluent. And by golly, let me tell you right here right now, not only did I get to be fluent, but I’m good. I prided myself on my french being good, I prided myself on studying and learning the correct pronunciation and going to school in France and going to school in Belgium and just being good because I knew that I couldn’t just be okay, I had to be really good. And then I got a degree in Political Science and then I was like, Okay, I gotta get another degree because of course, you’re not going to be taken seriously without that master’s degree. So I got one and then I went to UWE in Trinidad and I got a postgraduate diploma in international relations. And then I said, to really round off all of this, I’m gonna get a international master’s degree and then I go to Belgium and I get this international master’s degree. And then I had an opportunity to get this other master’s degree, and it just never stops. Because we feel, and I know I speak for a lot of other black women and other women of color in this, we feel that, to get to that job, to that position of leadership, we must bring everything to the table. And I am the embodiment of that. But I would caution anyone listening to this, to know that I think that it did not help me in the way that I wanted it to help me. It did not advance me in the way that I thought it would. Because despite all this education, I still went to job interviews where my credentials were challenged and scrutinized in the way that if I were a white woman, it would not be the case. So that’s really the part of all of this where now, I’m less inclined to advance this notion of like, oh, yes, be this super educated woman. In fact, this question is so important, I think, because about eight months ago, maybe nine months ago, I was talking to another African American friend of mine of Nigerian descent, and her and I were just talking about work stuff. And I said to her, hey, you know, I’m thinking of applying to Harvard and getting a public leadership credential. And she looked at me and she said, Why? And I said, Well, you know, I’m thinking that it will really help — and she was like, are you completely insane? Like, what is wrong with you? You have three master’s degrees, you do not need another credential. She goes stop buying into this white led notion that we always need to be the model minority with the perfect educational background, with three degrees and this and that and all that. And she just looked at me and she just went off on me. And I was like, wait, your right, what am I saying again? Here I was planning to go study again, more debt, more debt, right? To get a $10,000 credential from Harvard, because that is going to be the thing that’s going to get me to the CEO job, that’s going to get me to the C suite. It won’t, okay, because here’s the thing. Women like me, black women, we not only have to navigate the academic structure to get the credentials to do the thing, that’s on one side. But we also have to navigate structural racism in the work that we’re trying to get into, whether that be a law firm, whether that be a international development organization, whether that be journalism, it doesn’t matter. We have structural racism in all of these sectors. So not only are people like me, and people like you as well, navigating getting all the right degrees, but once we’re done with that part of it, we now have to navigate the structural racism in the sectors. And that’s a whole different game. And there is no education for that, there is no credential that you can take. Now you’re coming in with your lived experience, your understanding of the world, and that’s where you can fail, despite whatever education that you have. Navigating toxic, white women culture, for example. I’m sorry, there’s no credential for that. You don’t know how that’s going to manifest itself when you get into that workplace. You don’t know how it’s going to manifest itself when you come in and you may have more academic background than your boss. You don’t know how that is going to be for you and how you navigate that minefield is going to determine how you get along the trajectory of your career. I can unequivocally say, and when I’m asked by other women, I get asked this question all the time. How did having all that academic preparation prepare you for the work world? I say, not a lot. Yeah, I could apply to jobs, because it says, masters required. And I could literally say, great, I got three, right. But once in that moment of going through these interviews, you realize that all of what you have done is not enough. And that I can tell you can really hurt you, traumatize you. Because I was older, I was already 40 when this conversation was happening, I was able to survive and navigate it better than most. I was already married, I had a very supportive structure in my life. So I was in a better situation than a lot of say young women, black women, women of color who come out and who have to take that job, whatever that job might be. I struggled with this for a long time, being the model minority, expected to always be on top of the game, on point. But I put that pressure on me too, because I feel like I had to be all those things as well. And then recognizing and coming to the reality of what it took to get into international development, and realizing that everything that I did to get into international development as a black woman, I had more to do. I had a lot more to do. And I haven’t gotten to the C suite. And I don’t know that that’s necessarily my objective, but getting to the C suite would mean for me, an opportunity to look behind me and to look in the back of me at other women coming behind me and ensuring that if I ever got to the C suite, that bringing them along would be part of what I need to do.
Safa: Absolutely. There’s so many layers to everything you just said, you know, on one hand, as you say, there’s kind of this myth or this tyranny of meritocracy that if you achieve more you will be able to overcome racism, for example, and we internalize that as people of color working in the industry, that’s also internalized to a great extent. But the other layer is that no matter how many degrees you have, in this industry, and generally in the societies we live in, lived experience, unfortunately, is not valued as much as a piece of paper. So one of the qualifications or criteria that goes into selecting who is hired is more so looking at their academic achievements rather than their lived experience, the knowledge they have because of their experiences and as you say, it’s impossible to escape the minefield of structural racism within all of that. But after that experience, you later had an opportunity to work with Oxfam in Haiti. And you had said earlier that that was a really profound and pivotal experience for you. So in that experience, working in that kind of humanitarian emergency setting, what were some of the observations you had or the experience you had that stood out to you as problematic, as systemically unjust or opened your eyes more to all the problems that exists within the sector?
Angela: So, Haiti is an important place in Caribbean history, certainly in black people’s history. And it’s a country that I always wanted to understand. So when I was in grad school in Belgium, I fought my professors to write about Haiti for my dissertation. Because, of course you picture I’m in Belgium, there’s three black people in the class, two Africans and me. In our master’s degree course, again, I got this master’s degree from Rotary International. I was an ambassadorial scholar in Belgium. So the class was about 18, 20 students, really great students, really nice people from all over the world. But I was the only black woman from, quote unquote, the US. But I always said to them, yes, I grew up in the US, but I’m from Trinidad. And there were two gentlemen, both Africans, one from the Congo DRC, and one from Nigeria. So while I was in Belgium, every teacher wanted you to write about the Rwandan genocide. And I think it’s because the teachers figured, the professors, they’re like, Oh, we know all about this, we don’t need to learn anything new. So they want you to write about Rwanda and I did not want to write about Rwanda. I was fighting them because I’m like, first of all, I feel that Rwanda is better written by people, Africans, this is their part of the world, this is their lived experience, they want to write about Rwanda, I see why they want to write about Rwanda. I do not. I want to write about the Caribbean. And I want to write about Haiti. And I fought them. But I won because they couldn’t force me to do what I didn’t want to do, right. My dissertation was about colorism and how how democracy has not been a tool for conflict resolution in Haiti and to talk about Haiti’s racial politics. And of course, they were not happy because what that really meant was that they had to learn about Haiti to be able to hear me defend my dissertation. They were like, Oh, my gosh, who wants to read about this in 2007 when Haiti was not on anyone’s agenda. So I did it and I defended it and I passed and I got my degree, and I went on to whatever. The earthquake comes in 2010. I sat in front of my television for days at a time watching all the coverage about Haiti and the earthquake. And it was because I felt, again, it’s the Caribbean. We’re small, we’re vulnerable. We just never catch a break. It’s the hurricanes. It’s this, it’s that. I just watched these stories of survival and stories of bravery and courage and watching these people. And I said to my husband, I want to go, I want to volunteer. So I ended up going to Haiti as a volunteer, I ended up getting this opportunity because my french was pretty fluent and I got an email from an organization, this very small, faith based group of people in Portland, Oregon, and they said, as long as you can pay your way you can come with us, and I could pay my way, so I went. And so because my french was fluent, and I had an American passport, they assigned me the task of going to the UN compound, and talking to the UN people and talking about how to get food from one place to the next, how to help communities that were in the rural parts of the country outside of Port au Prince, how to connect them to services after the earthquake, because you can imagine the chaos in that country after the earthquake. And in those three weeks, I learned that international development is a massive joke. That’s what I walked away with. International development is all about big organizations going into poor countries telling poor people what to do, not understanding the context. I was literally like, blown away, blown away. But what that experience did for me, was give me experience, experience that I did not have. When I came back from Haiti, I did what the white girls do, I took my three week experience and I put it on my resume in a way that says I got experience. Because I’ve learned that that’s how — I met, you know, young white girls in Haiti for one week, putting on their resumes I got experience in Haiti, coming back to the US and getting jobs. And I thought, me with my three master’s degrees, I can’t even get a job doing this work. So you know what? I’m going to take a page out of their book. So I put on my resume, yes, experience in Haiti after the earthquake, doing this, doing that. Three weeks, okay? And you know what happened after that? I started sending out my resume. And I started getting interviews. I got an interview with Oxfam. But that interview with Oxfam, I wrote about it, in a piece, an op-ed, “But wait until they see your black face”. If anyone ever googled that op-ed, it is the story of this moment that I’m talking about right now. Going to Oxfam, looking at my three degrees CV, my fluent french, my experience in Haiti, my lived experience, I’m from Caribbean, I have a vested interest in Haiti, I care. This is my part of the world. It matters to me what happens in Haiti. Why? It will have an effect on what happens in Trinidad and other parts of the Caribbean. And I go into this interview and I am going through the mental contortions. The am I good enough? Imagine that. Here I am, 40 years old, and I’m having a conversation in my head about am I good enough, you know? That is where the structural racism, that’s where it’s the most clear, where you know what is happening to you, when you understand that the structures of all these sectors and how someone like me, sitting there in an interview and in my head thinking, as I said in the piece, but wait until they see your black face. Because when I’ve sent out the resumes, you can’t discern from my name that I’m a black woman from the Caribbean. And I get the call and people are like, super excited to meet me until I walk in the door. So am going through all of this as I’m about to walk into this interview, and I’m saying, I wonder what the panel is going to be like? Is it going to be a panel of 30 year old white women who have been in Haiti for one week? Who know nothing about the Caribbean? Who know nothing about the context of Haiti? Who don’t understand the Haitians’ struggle for liberation in 1804? Who don’t understand what Haiti means to the Caribbean? Those people, are they going to be interviewing me? Are they going to be judging me? Are they going to be the ones determining if I fit their idea of what a person in this particular job is supposed to be like? Yeah, so this was my experience. But I made it through the interview. There was a black woman in the interview, and I have to tell you this, and I wrote about it in the piece, I walked into that interview and I saw that black woman and I said, Okay, I’m about to be awesome in this interview. Yeah, I’m about to be all that, I’m about to be Angela bringing all the bits of my experience, my education, my dissertation, my Caribbean life experiences. I’m about to bring that to this interview. I’m about to get that job. Yeah. And the reason that was happening was because that black woman in the interview, she looked me right in my eye, and I feel like — I mean, me and this woman are friends to this day — but her presence levelled the playing field for me. Her presence levelled the playing field. Her presence allowed me to not focus on the fact that I always felt judged in these interviews by people who I did not think had enough qualifications to judge me. But nevertheless, they were in the position to judge me. And so I got the job. And it put me in a place where I was now the voice of Oxfam in Haiti. But I went to Haiti with a different mindset. I went to Haiti as yes, I am the voice of Oxfam. But I’m also black woman Angela from Trinidad and Tobago. So first and foremost, I’m from the Caribbean, I understand you. So my connection in Haiti was made on that basis. And then I brought my lived experience as the liaison between the people in D.C and the people in Haiti and I was that voice. And I realized how being inside is important because it allows you to let your voice be heard, and to be able to represent other people whose voices cannot be heard and who are not in the room. And that’s what being at Oxfam allowed me to do. And it allowed me to push back on development speak. I call it development speak, when you have a bunch of people who don’t know nothing about these countries and who want to tell you what they think. I was there to be that person to say, yeah, I know that’s what you think, but that’s not what’s going to happen. I’m not accepting this as being the way we’re going to proceed in Haiti. No, we’re going to do it the way people in Haiti want it to be done. And I maintained that from my first year at Oxfam to my last day at Oxfam. I had a reputation for being singularly focused on ensuring that what I said came from people on the ground, people in Haiti, from the staff in Haiti, the NGOs that we worked with in Haiti. That was for me, uncompromising. But what I walked away with after I left was I recognized that developed is complete BS. What we go around the world telling people everyday about how to do things in their own country, we don’t have a clue. We don’t have a clue. These huge organizations, they sit in D.C , in New York, in London, and they’re talking about the lives of people so far away. Developing safeguarding structures without talking to people in country. Developing analysis, log frames and monitoring and evaluation tools and strategic plans and blah, blah, blah. And the people who are most impacted, the people whose lives will turn on whether or not these plans are implemented, they’re not at the discussion table. So development was also a disappointment for me. You know, just like I was telling you, you know, when I was on Capitol Hill, I didn’t love Capitol Hill for that reason, because I just thought the only way I could love Capitol Hill is if I were a member of Congress, if I was a senator, if I had decision making power. But to be a staff person? Not a chance. And I feel the same way about development. I feel that development is a white man’s game. This notion of us giving money, and the way we do it, the way we analyze people, the way we create these programs for them, the way we do this program project based development, we go into countries for two years or three years, and we say, oh, we’re going to do this thing. And then the money runs out, and then we leave and we leave people in some cases more vulnerable than we found them. Oh my gosh, I could not breathe in Haiti. So many fights I had with people about how things were being done. And then I recognized I had no power to change this stuff. Right. So development has to be reimagined in a fundamental way. But the only way development gets reimagined is with people like Degan Ali, the woman in Kenya, that’s the only way it gets changed because people like her have voices that are in stark contrast to the UN voices, talking about how much they have changed, how much they’ve helped. If we don’t change that narrative, we don’t make a dent at all. I liked the work. I liked being in Haiti. I liked being able to be a person who could bring the voices of Haitian people to D.C. I understood that that was my role, and that’s what I did and I understood why it was necessary. But did I effectuate change? No. No, I don’t think that the interventions in Haiti, done by many big organizations, brought changes to Haiti, systemic changes to Haiti that needed to happen. Many things that happened in Haiti were a failure. And I think the international community failed, failed, epic, epic, epic in Haiti, and many people would not want to hear that. But I unequivocally believe that to be true.
Safa: Everything you say really resonates with me. And I think that process of questioning yourself, questioning your work, that step of really being honest and thinking, did this really have an impact? Is it really structural change or not? That process, that step is often missing at the level of not just individuals, but also organizations and the sector at large. But you know, now we are in this time where conversations around white supremacy and racism, not only in the development sector, but worldwide and in other sectors, it’s a time where these conversations are kind of being highlighted and had more frequently, but these are issues that people have been speaking about for decades. For years. You have been writing about it for a long time, we’ve been speaking about it on the podcast for a while. These are issues that have been pervasive forever, since Bretton Woods institutions were established. But now that we’re in this time where the conversations are becoming more mainstream or more popular, you’ve written a lot about steps that organizations can take or steps that individuals can take in the sector to be more anti racist, to do the work of decolonizing the tools and the activities and the organizations that are part of the sector. But when it comes to making sure that this goes beyond dialogue, that it’s not just a passing moment, but that it’s a movement that really brings people together to do the work of redesigning, are there organizations you feel are a good example of having really taken on this task sincerely? Because of course, you know, with other issues Like LGBTQ rights or environmentalism, there are often many brands or organizations who kind of greenwash or pinkwash or co-op the messages of a movement, for example, anti racism, and they co-opt it for their PR, or it’s just kind of an external thing that they say, but internally, nothing happens. So in the last weeks, have you felt that progress is being made? Or do you still worry that it’s really at the level of just dialogue and talk and co-opting the messages but not really changing anything?
Angela: People have been asking me if I think it’s a watershed moment. I don’t know. I just don’t know. I am already a woman over 50 years old. So I’ve lived my entire life as a black person with everything that that comes with, which is black people have been consistently under siege my entire life. I don’t know a time when that was not the case. So, right now, the energy around racism and around anti racism, around Black Lives Matter and all these things, amazing to watch. But I was also someone who was in Los Angeles when Rodney King was beaten by the police. And everybody thought at the time, oh my gosh, this video of this police beating this man is going to be enough. And we’re going to make a big change. And we didn’t. And we moved from the video of the police beating a man to the recording of the police choking a man to death on the streets. In terms of messaging of these big organizations, I’m not impressed with any of them to be fair. Because, you know, there’s a journalist in the US, a black woman named Tiffany Cross — I wrote this article on Devex that you were referring to just recently about white saviours and hashtag activism, I was just making comments about what organizations can do. And then I saw this woman Tiffany Cross on the news talking. And she said, I don’t want to be asking white people to let me in. She said, I feel like if we’re asking them to let us in, please let us educated black people in so we could help — Oh, my gosh, I’m exhausted with that conversation as well, you know? And she said that and I thought, yeah, here I am, Angela, all my education, all my everything, and I’m going to a job interview, and I’m asking them to let me in. Why am I asking you to let me in? You know, what is that? What is it about this structure that makes it so I have to ask you to let me in. And so right now I see all these hashtag things, I’m thinking, we’re talking about making board of directors of these big organizations more diverse in 2020? I mean, does that not make people think why in 2020 are we asking for that to be something normal? The board of directors of big organizations, you look at all of them, Facebook, LinkedIn, Google, Microsoft, there are no black people in almost none of these organizations.I mean, oh my gosh. So I love that they care about black people today. Black Lives Matter has really demonstrated what community based activism can really do. Am I happy that this is the conversation today? Yes, I am. But I can say to you that this conversation is still to me at the surface. And I’m gonna give an example. Right now there’s a organization called Woman Deliver. A couple of days ago, some black staff decided that they would go public with what they are saying are allegations of misconduct by the CEO, who happens to be a white Danish woman. So I have been tweeting about it because an organization says we are about women’s rights. And we’re going to be advocating for women’s rights and we’re going to be putting it out there. The same organization, within the ranks, has a culture where people feel under siege. People feel it’s a toxic work environment, people feel they’re victims of racism, not being able to be promoted. They’re the victims of toxic culture, all this kind of thing. And this is young black women. So they basically decided that they’re going to out this woman and put out all this information about her. And this woman steps aside temporarily as the CEO, so she was not asked to resign by the board. She basically put a statement out and said the board has hired a third party to investigate and I’m going to step aside while this investigation happens. And I look at that right there as something that says this is not a watershed moment for us, because I see that her stepping aside until the results of the investigation is saying to me, again, that black women have to always be more. Our pain, our suffering has to always be investigated, we have to get the results, we have to show that this is indeed real, but yet #metoo and #aidtoo, we have men who have lost jobs because of the fact that they have allegations against them by women who said that they did this or they did that to them, right. And these men are gone from public life, like vanished, banished from public life. So yet I see this woman having the benefit of the doubt, the benefit of the doubt. Which Black women never get. In fact, when I tweeted about it, I just wanted to say, what organization, where some black woman could be accused of something that she did wrong, and there’s allegations and there’s a revolt in staff, and she will have the benefit of the board saying, Okay, take a break, stay home while we investigate. And this ties us all the way back to the question that you asked about structural racism, right? This is to me about structural racism, that this white woman will have the benefit of the doubt that black women know they will not have, know we cannot have. Because even in this instance, the same Women Deliver organization puts out a statement that they stand in solidarity with everybody, but even in the organization, being accused of these kinds of things, and she still has her job now. In fact, the COO took over the position (while the CEO was on temporary leave). And I say, why? The COO, was she not present when the CEO was involved in all these things that were going on in the organization? Why does the COO get to take over? Was she deaf when all this was going on? Was she blind when all these things were going on? So it just reeks of this privilege that we continue to talk about. But when we see it directly focused on us, we don’t say, ah, that’s what we’re talking about, that right there. So to answer your question, and I know I took a long way, but it’s really important for me to kind of vocalize what I feel about this moment. And what I feel about this moment is directly embedded in this example of Women Deliver, right? So yes, great hashtags, BLM all the way. But when I pull back the layer from what your statements are, what is your organization doing? What does your board of directors look like? What does your leadership team look like? You and me could right now do a Google search of all these organizations talking about how much they love black people, how much they’re anti racist. And let’s look at their organizations. Where do you find the black people? You find the black people in IT, you find them in HR. Where do you find the other brown people? You find some of them in programmatic work, and they are the ones who work in country. But when you get to the top, top top, the President, the CEO, the CEO, the CFO, those people — you and me could do a Google search right now, in development, the answer is unequivocally, don’t even waste your time in development. And look at the big law firms. Just look at the big tech firms. There’s almost no black people in these big organizations in tech, maybe one or two and who are they? Chief Equity and Diversity Officer or Chief Information Technology Officer. But the decision makers, those roles where there’s a lot of power and a lot of ability to bring the voice of the rank and file to leadership, who are in those jobs? Right? And if you look, it’s not people that look like me. So yeah, I’m loving all the BLM. I’m loving all the talk. I’m loving it, I am. But when this moment ends, when the next news cycle comes, where will this conversation be? And that’s where I have the most fear. Because as I said, I was in LA when the Rodney King video surfaced, and we watched him get beaten, and he did not die. And today in 2020, we have now cell phone recording of the police putting the knee on the neck of a man, eight minutes and 46 seconds, and then he dies. So I wonder to myself, if there we were in 91 and 92 with Rodney King, and here we are today with George Floyd, I ask you, where are we going to be in 2025 with this conversation? And I don’t have that kind of confidence in that systemic racism, structural racism is a reality that I don’t think that we understand the depths of it, and how much of it is entrenched and ingrained and socialized into who we are. And I don’t know where we go from here.
Safa: After your experience with Oxfam in Haiti, you also had an experience working with the Stanley foundation where your role involved creating partnerships with UN agencies and creating policies to prevent genocide and other crimes against humanity. When it comes to partnerships with governments and also other development partners, especially on an issue like state sponsored violence, what were your experiences? Or what challenges did you have? Or what do you think in terms of the better role that governments need to play on such issues?
Angela: I think that these conversations cannot happen without governments. And I think that part of the problem with a lot of civil society in many countries, they have a negative relationship with the government. But I think that government has a role to play. State sponsored violence is complex. Again, I didn’t love that role either, for a lot of reasons. One of the things I realized was that again, whenever we were talking about people, they weren’t at the table. And one of the goals I had in that role was to really bring the people that we were talking about to the table. And there was a peace conference that this organization pushes that I needed to lead and I really focused on bringing a diverse group of people to the table. And I really spent the time trying to cultivate relationships with people in some of these countries. You know, we’re talking about victims of state sponsored violence. We have the people who write about the victims, but we don’t have the people themselves. And I really wanted to bring that voice to the table, which I was able to do in some parts of that job. I didn’t stay long, for a variety of reasons. But that’s one of the places where I also learned how when you don’t fit the narrative of these organizations, and when you feel like there’s another narrative to be told, but you know, you don’t have the voice to do it. And so for me, that was one of the places where I worked, but I don’t think that was my best self either. And part of it, I think, was part of the, you know, again, an all white organization. I was the only black person, I didn’t like it at all, actually.
Safa: I see, yeah. And now it’s kind of a two in one question. Sometimes when I invite people to speak with me, they are hesitant, or they have a fear that if they speak honestly about their experiences, they might experience backlash from their organization or that it might impact their career negatively, which I understand. So I was wondering, in your experience, have you ever had that fear of speaking truth to power, so to speak, and how you’ve navigated that in your own work? And also, on the other hand, you know, despite all the challenges and the injustices that you’ve seen, and that you’re vocal about in terms of the structural issues in the sector, have you ever felt that you’ve lost your motivation to continue to work on these issues or have you ever thought of walking away or doing something else?
Angela: All the time. I think about it all the time because if you are a black person, a person of color in this kind of world of development, you must think about walking away all the time. If you don’t, you’re missing something, I think. Because you’re in service of, in my case, I feel that I’m in service of black people. Yeah. I’m in service of brown people in my work. And so if I want to be honest about sometimes some of the challenges of the work, I often think maybe I should do something else. And then I go to some kind of event and I meet a young black woman or I meet a young woman like you, and I go, huh, that’s okay. You know, that’s not so bad. And then I am motivated again to continue, right. So I get motivation all the time from people way younger than me, young women who write to me, but as a field, as a sector, international development is fraught with every kind of anxiety that you can imagine. So I think about it all the time. My dad says I should have been a writer. I don’t think that he’s right about that either. I can write, but I don’t love it. And I think I agonize, so I don’t want to have a career where every single day is a piece of agony. I’m good, I mean, I already got that in development (laughs). I don’t need to make it more. About retaliation, that is a really interesting question. Because again, I was on Twitter, talking to some of the young women who have come out against Women Deliver. And they talked about being worried and they fear you know what this could mean for their careers. So that’s a real thing. Their fears are quite grounded in reality. I don’t feel that way in my current job because in my work now I get to do interesting things. And I’ve been able to publish things and I don’t have a feeling that saying what I need to say is going to bring me retaliation. But in the past, I know that if I were quieter, if I were more able to fall in line, that I may have advanced more, faster. I have been in jobs where if I had stayed, I probably would have advanced faster, but I just needed to always be true to myself. At the end of the day, that’s what’s gonna be okay for me. And so yes, I didn’t go to the C suite. But, I mentor a lot of people, a lot of black women write to me all the time. So if I don’t get to the C suite, I’ve done my part. And my part may have been to write these things, to get people to think about some things, to give my ideas and maybe the change will come with some other women, someone as young as you, after me. And so maybe that’s okay, too. And all of us don’t get to be at the C suite. And that’s okay too. So I don’t want to have regrets about these kinds of things. If I had been quieter, if I had been less vocal, if I had been willing to be a little bit more charitable, play the game a little bit, you know, I might have been able to do a lot more. I just was unwilling. And I’m still unwilling. And being over 50, I guess, I get to be unwilling, and I get to say, I don’t care if that is offensive to other people, and that hurts other people. I think that if you get to 50, you might be able to have a little bit of credibility to say what you really think about things. And I think in the next 10 years, if I’m alive and healthy, I’m going to do what I think I should be doing. Which is putting out my voice, hearing back from young people like you and saying, hmm, how can I help you? And if I can do those things, and I can help other young women to come behind me, black women certainly, and other women of color, I am good. I would say I’ve been pretty successful. And if I get to the C suite, then I want to be sure to institutionalize that thing that I’m doing now, outside of an institution. Does that make sense? Like right now, I’m thinking, if I get to the C suite, I want to still be able to say, how do I have an internship or internships that bring black women into this organization and other women of color into it? How do I do that? In my institution as CEO, how do I make sure that that’s something that’s institutionalized? How do I institutionalize people being able to say what needs to be said? How do I get people to look at bias and so how do I get to institutionalize the things that I think are important? That I’m able to do outside of an institution right now. Right? If that’s how my career ends and the next 10 years of my life, I would say I did Okay.
Safa: Absolutely. I mean, I really think that you being true to yourself has been very inspiring for so many other people and has made them feel more safe to speak out as well. And we really celebrate all that you do and all that you share and give to the sector and to the world. So thank you so much. And of course, thank you for speaking with us. It’s been really powerful and just such a important talk to share with you and there’s a lot to reflect on and to think back on.
Angela: Sure. So nice to meet you. It was so nice to talk.
Safa: Thank you so much. It’s been absolutely a great pleasure and I really appreciate your time. As always, I really want to thank our listeners, thank you for tuning in. I really appreciate your attention and value being able to facilitate these important conversations for all of us. As we are in nearing the end of our second season, I’d love to hear from you. I’ve created a short survey for you to fill out to share your feedback.
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