Highs, Lows, Lessons Learned – An open conversation about racial equity
Over the past few years, Miriam’s Kitchen has shifted our internal operations, programming, and culture to better reflect how racial equity is integral to our mission of ending chronic and veteran homelessness in DC.
This shift has required all staff throughout the organization to engage valuable time, mental space, and resources toward this ambitious but necessary effort.
A couple of highlights from this month:
- Brittney Washington, Racial Equity and Inclusion Manager at Miriam’s Kitchen, was recently profiled in the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness “Leaders Working to Achieve Racial Equity in Housing and Homelessness”
- Scott Schenkelberg, President & CEO, recently presented at the National Alliance to End Homelessness (NAEH) 2020 Solutions for Individual Homelessness Adults Conference on a panel entitled “Bridging the Gap: Approaching White Leadership about Racial Equity and Inclusion.”
In the spirit of honesty and transparency, as well as to encourage others to learn from our journey, we wanted to share some of highs, lows, and lessons learned in the last 2 years that Scott (CEO of Miriam’s Kitchen) and Brittney (Racial Equality Manager) recently shared.
BRITTNEY: We have been socialized by media images to think a particular way about groups of people, and so a thrust of our work is to counter stereotypical imagery. An example was when we organized a trip for staff and guests to see Black Panther. Afterwards, we had a conversation with our guests around some of the themes of the movie like redemption and forgiveness. The conversation got deep, and we talked about things like criminal justice and what it means to be living within these systems.
SCOTT: We went through a formal series of work around racial biasing, and I just appreciated the care and honesty that people expressed to each other in those moments because it is a really hard topic. I mean it’s hard no matter where you are, but it’s particularly hard if you are person of color. I could well imagine a huge chip on my shoulder for the rest of my life if I were feeling as if I had been constantly the victim of bias across time; and just that sense of openness around it, wanting to have conversations, and all those things. I was struck by the emotional intelligence and capacity of people to have those conversations that are really hard.
LOWS: What are the challenges?
BRITTNEY: I have a mentor, Dushaw Hockett with SPACES, who says what’s missing in operationalizing racial equity is not a knowledge gap—it’s a practice gap. We struggle with finding resources around money, time, and human capital to continue to evolve into a truly equitable organization. Without those, I would add that there is a gap around imagination to think about “What exists beyond racism?” and “What exists beyond poverty?” It’s hard to get where you are going, when you don’t have a clear vision of what the end looks like.
SCOTT: On a personal level, I had to get over myself and my sense of defensiveness around [racial equity]. I am a white, straight male and I had the sense that part of the conversation around racial equity was that I’m not a legitimate leader. I credit Brittney with helping me feel confident in my leadership, but also being open to and challenging me on a lot of issues related to racial equity as it presents itself within the staff at Miriam’s and in a broader context. I wish I could have come to that earlier, but I didn’t. It’s a process. I appreciate the great care, Brittney and others have shown around that.
Thank you for supporting us on our journey. To learn more, check out this presentation explaining the key buckets of our work around racial equity. Click Here
Transcript of audio below.
Q: What do you think is the difference between now and 2 years ago in terms of racial equity
I mean the biggest difference is we have Brittney in this role as the Racial Equity Inclusion Manager. That certainly didn’t exist a couple of years ago and out of that has come a lot of creative thinking and kind of standardization of “What does it look like to progress?” What are the areas that we need to really focus on in alignment with our strategic plan and kind of our overall work on racial equity.
Also, it really sums up strongly, in a way that it didn’t in our current strategic plan versus our previous strategic plan. You kind of have this affirmation of the relationship between chronic homelessness and homeless in general and racial inequality.
I would add that culturally as an organization racial equity is something that we talk about a lot… that it is on people’s minds in a way that is wasn’t before. Two years ago, [in] 2018 a lot of the work was concentrated in [a] racial equity working group and now I consult with directors, employees across departments in organizations to think through:
- How and what does it mean to integrate racial equity into our work?
- What sort of considerations do we need to make related to power and privilege in our relationships?
- How are we speaking publicly about racial equity?
- How are we setting examples in the sector for how to do the work as best we can [and] as best we know-how, right now?
We have presented at conferences and talked about it. Scott is invited to present at a conference in a few weeks on how to engage white leadership in racial equity. Yeah!!! I would just say that racial equity is present in our culture in a way that it was not before.
Q: What do you think of some of the challenges are in your work around racial equity?
I’m happy that as a sector, meaning a nonprofit sector, the relationship between racism and the root cause of many social problems is being recognized and really addressed. I think that conversation over the last couple of years has come more normalized in terms of daily conversation, but what I have not yet seen is robust funding from institutional funders around it.
Okay, we now know this is a problem, how do we help organizations evolve in new ways to deal with this?
So, I’m frustrated that as of yet there hasn’t been a lot of direct funding associated with this. It has been very much on the level of technical assistance, write another report, have another conference but in terms of funding or having a position like Brittney‘s, or doing things in our work plan, we don’t really see funding for that.
I think in recent years we seen an uptick in research and I mean people have been studying this for years but it’s more mainstream, I guess, now [in] particular in our sector around racial equity and diversity inclusion.
I agree with Scott.
I have a mentor, Dushaw Hockett with SPACES [insert link: https://www.tides.org/project/social-venture/spaces/ ], who says that sort of what’s missing in operationalizing racial equity is not a knowledge gap, it’s plenty of knowledge out there–it’s a practice gap. We struggle with finding resources around money but also, [struggle with] human capital, investing in what it means to continue to evolve into a truly equitable organization, truly equitable as sector. And without the money, without the time, I would add that there is a gap around imagination and an access to that knowledge. We have tons of reports, we have tons of data that links racism as root cause of homelessness, that links racial and equity to a plethora of social ills. But without the resources to truly dedicate our creative energies to think about what exists beyond racism and what exists beyond poverty, then can we see what’s on the horizon, so we can paint a path to get there. I think it’s hard to get where you are going when you can’t see it.
Q: What have you guys learned in these last 2 years or it could be this past year?
On a personal level, and Brittney and I have talked about this a lot, I am presenting this at the conference next week.
I had to kind of get over myself and my sense of defensiveness around this. I am a white, straight male and I had the sense, that part of the conversation around racial equity was [that] I’m not a legitimate leader.
My job is on the line, my career is on the line, all these things are hard things for me to deal with.
People just want equity.
It isn’t about Scott, we don’t want you to have your job, it’s more about how do we create a more equitable organization, one that addresses external problems that creates a more equitable society.
So getting over this sense of defensiveness, it’s been really hard for me, I credit Brittney, particularly, and others as well, in helping me feel confident in my leadership but also being open to and challenging me on a lot of issues related to racial equity as it presents itself within the staff at Miriam’s and in a broader context.
I wish I could come to that earlier, but I didn’t.
It’s a process.
I appreciate the great care, Brittney and others have shown around that.
It has been a continual learning process and one of the things related to what Scott was just talking about, is that we all have our entry points. It’s a process, it is a journey, it is not a competition to see who can get the furthest…the fastest. It’s really about revolutionizing the way that we think about the way that we conceive of social problems and the way that we think about our role in ending it.
We all have different entry points. I think that to do racial equity work well in a specific context for instance in the context of working here and ending chronic homelessness, it’s important to take that into account what are different ways that people learn? What are the different types of information out there?
How [do] you know [how] we’ve done over the years? We’ve done reading groups, trainings, all staff [meetings] and have done 101 relationship building and brought in consultants and we need to have time to be creative.
I really think the next step for racial equity is to invest in play and imagination. How are we understanding that we’ve been socialized to learn, think, and behave in this particular way. In order to revolutionize our work and to do it the best we can… through the…I’m moving away from seeing through the lens of racial equity….but removing the veil of cultural blindness of the systems of oppression blindness. We have to commit ourselves to seeking and understanding information in different ways that we had before.
Across these 2 years it’s been for me and thinking about Miriam’s, what aren’t we seeing? What do we need to learn? How can we push ourselves to think creatively?
I really feel blessed to have been in this organization. In particular, we talked about this maybe [my] last week or something where leadership and folks are open to the expertise of others who might not have a title or leadership title, might not be in the leadership board or whatever.
I think through that willingness to be open and to learn across the organization, like up and down the hierarchy of positions is where true learning, true relationship building, true investment in what it means to be human is…is what we lost touch with….is what we will need to achieve liberation, to achieve ending chronic homelessness, to achieve an equitable society.
Q: What is a proud moment for you guys in the mission and in the journey?
So a year ago or so we went through a formal series of work with Dushaw around racial biasing and you know, I just appreciated the care and honesty that people expressed to each other in those moments because it is a really hard topic.
I mean it’s hard no matter where you are but it’s particularly hard if you are person of color.
I imagine, I was just struck by the compassion people had for each other, I could well imagine huge chip on my shoulder for the rest of my life if I were feeling as if I had been constantly the victim of bias across time; that sense of like openness around it and wanting to have conversations. Struck by the emotional intelligence incapacity of people to have those conversations which are really hard.
For me, one that comes to mind related to the anti-biasing: one of the thrust of our work is counter stereotypical imagery, this idea that across that we been socialized by media images to think a particular way about groups of people.
February 2018, we organized a trip to go and see Black Panther with the guest and staff and it was so fun it was so cool to be able to offer tickets. Whoever want to come to see black folks represented in a different way, not to say it’s never been black superheroes but to have a movie dedicated to black culture, black imagery, dark skin people and stuff was really cool and then after having a conversation with our guest we facilitated a conversation around some of the themes of the movie like redemption and forgiveness.
The conversation got deep and we talked about things like criminal justice and what does it mean to be living within these systems? What does it mean to be embracing our humanity when there is dark and their light? When it’s good and when it’s bad? In all of us and I thought that was an exceptional moment that we don’t to get have often.
I think other moments have been like when we had outreach staff a few years go to the Built for Zero conference. We had folks representing the racial equity work at Miriam’s Kitchen there and being asked by different outreach teams about what do you do when considering your racial equity at work.
We recently had an all staff meeting when folks were able to engage like where does white supremacy culture show up internally in our organization? What are some of the antidotes and what might we do about it? Folks were able to engage.
I hear you, Scott, sit and be vulnerable be opened and talk about your personal journey around like I had overcome these things to get to where we are now is a super proud for me and it makes sink my heels deeper into the idea that the real work will be done through transformative relationships and without those, it won’t be done in a sustainable way.
Q: What’s next?
Well we have a work plan! [link this to the document that Brittney and Scott shared!!!]
We do have a work plan that I need to share with people that’s filled with stuff like how do we continue to move racial equity forward.
What does it mean to make material changes for the people of color and organization? How do we help? How we examine things like again power privilege in the way it shows up and hiring in our attention our promotion? How are we integrating our internal change efforts with our external instead of doing a parallel play that happens sometimes?
We are taking a deep look at our culture.
We’re a 35 year old organization that has a really strong culture and we’re thinking about what does it mean when our staff has changed drastically over the last five years? What does it mean to have a culture this reflected when people could feel a sense of belonging here? How are we inviting folks into a creative space? How we are continuing to contribute to and learn from best practices around operationalizing racial equity in our efforts to end chronic homelessness?
What are the upstream roadblocks that need to be dismantled what are the systems that will still –work to funnel people into homelessness without direct confrontation? What does it mean to be about this life?
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READ MORE ABOUT OUR WORK ON RACIAL EQUITY:
– Reflecting on the Link Between Racism and Homelessness https://miriamskitchen.org/2018/02/08/reflecting-on-the-link-between-racism-and-homelessness/
– Racial Equity: 2018 Year in Review https://miriamskitchen.org/2019/02/07/mk-racial-equity-write-up-pt-1-2018-a-year-in-review/)
– Racial Equity: What’s Next https://miriamskitchen.org/2019/03/03/racial-equity-whats-next/