My great 2020 learnings can be summarized with one word: pricked. Along the way I did take some pictures, keep some friends, and shook loose some mental cobwebs that were hindering my personal growth. On the professional front, I’ll share three “pinpricks” from this wild year below.
In January and February I kicked off a year of travel and change! I began working full time for CREED- the Center for Racial Equity in Education as Director of Operations. As a part of my work plan I continued consulting through Facilitate Movement (my company)- especially with my multi-year clients, but reduced my overall workload and carefully weeded through requests, selecting only work that I was passionate about. As an independent consultant I have spent the last four years intentionally crafting a space for myself in leadership conversations, educational equity, equitable management practices, and cultural connections. I was so excited to be shaping my space in the world at the intersection of my interests, passions, and talents! Two jobs could be a bit much but 2020 was supposed to be my best year yet! I made a vision board, an eight month poster-size timeline, and strode confidently into the new year.
And then came March 2020 in the United States. I was facilitating a design session in Philadelphia while the state of California was calling for emergency lockdowns. I was seriously panicked about my lack of hand sanitizer, when we were all convinced that we could Purell our way through this crisis. We made plans, changed plans, adjusted dates, and then, resignedly declared our commitment to do just about EVERYTHING from home. Two out of state scheduled keynotes were cancelled. My dreams of travelling to the Redwoods after the annual museum conference in San Francisco- squashed. And, every single organizational contract for my company folded. I was devastated yet thankful to have a solid role and relatively positive outlook. The same could not be said for my colleagues. I watched as waves of workers from the cultural sector were furloughed, fired, and demoralized after years of dedication to the field. In most cases, the reductions happened to front desk workers and public-facing staff. Many were gifted educators, dedicated to radically inclusive practice. While trying to describe the festering anger about the injustice of it all to a friend, he responded that I was “pricked.” He was right. I was irked that the ‘solution’ to the massive crisis was going to compound the experiences of marginalization, displacement, and instability felt by the lowest wage earners in the field- many of whom were being led by people with obscene wealth. All of these roundtable discussions over the last decade about wealth, access, and privilege amounted to nothing when faced with actual risk. Equity was a baby that went out with the quarantine bathwater.
Equity was a baby that went out with the quarantine bathwater.
Lesson 1: Most organizations resist operationalizing equity when it is most needed. You have to start with intentional design and be willing to adjust plans in order to course correct. As the lead organizer of the Museums & Race Virtual Conference (originally planned as an in-person 3 day event): Imagining a Radical Future, I was delighted to see the innovation and connectivity from museum workers from across the country as they grappled with our most pressing field-wide issues including representation, empathy, community engagement, collaborative planning, and inclusive strategy. Our presenters came from a variety of backgrounds and a variety of ages with an affordable virtual conference fee structure originally adopted so we could cover the cost of the webinar platform and space to store the recordings. Notably, a mutual aid fund was created and sustained by the very workers who were experiencing the instability of the pandemic spring. I was delighted to donate to the Museum Workers Relief Fund on behalf of Museums & Race, but I wondered why we didn’t see an outpouring of institutional support? Was it truly radical to believe that we could support each other? That we could see each other in a time of need and respond accordingly?
And then May 2020 begins to shed additional light on a wholly different, but completely related set of issues: racial injustice and police-involved killing. Although sanctioned violence is not new to the Black American experience, the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd contributed to a tsunami of support during the tense months of the summer. Murals were made, statues came down, and many a self-proclaimed “ally” emerged from the woodwork. I was pricked, again! The rash of public statements were rightfully interrogated for any basis in truth based on institutional history, programming, or future plans. As a person committed to addressing racial inequity before it was trending, my eyebrow was raised as the inauthentic posturing- mostly on Instagram where the more superficial the post the more glory it gains- that many institutions thought was appropriate. It all fizzled when stakeholders asked for budgeted commitments as public as these statements.
Lesson 2: Performative ally-ship without a plan of action is complicity. If you or your institution was called out/in for making a public statement without any evidence of change, don’t worry. It’s not too late to commit to racial justice (forreal this time), audit your institutional history, and publicly commit to an action plan.
And lastly, as the weather grew crisp and the leaves changed colors, came November 2020. This election season brought forth a new wave of controversy, even as the number of confirmed cases spread and Covid-19 related deaths continued to climb. The vitriol of the race overflowed on social media, in school settings, and during interpersonal communications. The political, social, and economic unrest of 2020 catalyzed calls for empathy and demands for honest communication. Every school, museum, nonprofit, government agency, and coalition I am involved with struggled to adequately address the growing fissures in their staff and stakeholder perspectives. In early October I collaborated on a series to address “contemporary social issues” in school-based settings and noticed how deeply uncomfortable most adults are with addressing their own political and social biases. During one session, a young white man in a leadership position actively referred to his social location as the same as the Black women in his cohort since he did not classify himself as privileged or powerful in any way. A glimpse at the every board room, governing body, or top wage earners in America proves how disingenuous this posturing is, but it is telling.
Lesson 3: A repeated refutation of a truth does not make your perspective more valid without evidence. When facilitating and training on web-based platforms I saw many “childlike” behaviors from adults who are considered paid professionals in their field. Refusal to listen to others, loud, repetitive statements, cutting off the camera during discussions, and eating into the microphone during calls (which is admittedly the most aggravating to me). Most of these behaviors were exhibited by white men. I don’t know why other than the oft-repeated assertion that cisgender white men are ‘losing’ in 2020. I have seen it in memes, read about it on social media, and heard these assertions in sessions, without any evidence to substantiate this claim. Everything I have learned about facilitation has been tested in the virtual world, but the election season was unreasonably fraught with clumsy exchanges of people either lying or misrepresenting their experience and becoming angry that no one believed them (sound familiar). A new guideline was instituted during our dialogic sessions: No Soapboxing. This practical rule connected to the classic W.A.I.T. (Why Am I Talking) and the hit, Don’t Be Afraid to Change Your Mind helped counter the destabilization that this election year caused for many who are used to occupying seats of power unquestioned.
Ultimately, our years of talks about making sure that those who are racially marginalized have a seat at the proverbial table, our commitment to equity for women (especially transwomen), and our ability to share information and strategy go a long way towards addressing inequity if we understand that we are fundamentally sabotaging the existing white supremacist system. As author Resmaa Menakem noted, “Healing from white-body supremacy begins with the body — your body. But it does not end there. In order to heal the collective body that is America, we also need social activism that is body centered. We cannot individualize our way out of white-body supremacy. Nor can we merely strategize our way out. We need collective action — action that heals.” So while the events of 2020 prodded and pinched me, these were necessary, if painful reminders that sometimes relief comes after the needle pricks the surface skin. There will be friction, discomfort, conflict, and in some cases actual road rash as we collectively challenge the structural and institutional injustice. But I enter into the new year hopeful, that all the “pricks” of 2020 have taught us that the moral arc of the universe sometimes needs a few angry folks willing to jump up and down to keep the needle bending towards justice. Keep jumping, friends.