A DIY Guide to Institutional Change for Racial Equity
Step 4 - Make a Plan and Stay Organized
Organizing is exhausting precisely because it requires planning long before you have sufficient information. It is impossible to be prepared for every eventuality and there will be moments you didn't prepare for, developments that sneak up on you. This can be emotionally devastating. While this section calls for you to make plans, try not to feel bad when and if they fall through.
4 - A. Make a timeline.
To keep yourself organized, sketch out a timeline with major decision points.
Do this as early as possible. Institutional change takes time. But justice delayed is justice denied. Institutions are experts at foot-dragging. You have to be able to tell the difference between delay designed to wear enthusiasm down and the time needed for ideas to percolate through the institution. It isn't always easy. The more you work on institutional change, the more you understand how an institution works, the more reasonable delay will seem. You'll start to become invested in the formalities and might even believe institutional leadership when they say a reasonable change is impossible because of a procedural rule, as if rules and procedures are not human made. For example, when confronted with evidence that their entrance assessment is disproportionately eliminating Black applicants, a fellowship program claimed that the proper procedures for modifying the assessment would take several years. This may appear reasonable but remember that procedure is supposed to protect people from arbitrary harm. Yet if harm is already occurring, mindlessly following procedure becomes a delay tactic.
Use dates or triggering events as points on the timeline. I use the term 'timeline' loosely. It might be on the scale of weeks and months. Or you might want to organize your timeline in terms of triggering events (i.e. If the demand letter is ignored, then we will issue a public statement. If there is no measurable progress on these three demands by the end of the year, then we will escalate up to the Board of Directors to ask for oversight.).
Each institution is different but here are some general guidelines for what to put on this timeline, keeping in mind not everyone will be comfortable with all of these steps or feel safe engaging in them:
4 - B. Define and clarify roles.
People will come to the project of institutional change with different comfort levels with conflict, from different positions within the institutional structure. As long as everyone is committed to the end goal of achieving racial equity, a range of views and preferences is beneficial. But keep tabs on who is filling what role. These don’t have to be written down, nor do they have to be static, but it is easier to strategize with some sense of what people are comfortable doing, what tactical role they're filling. To get you started, here are some possible roles, keeping in mind they need to be adapted to fit the institution:
4 - C. Set up structure but not hierarchy.
This is related to the point about defining roles but is a bit more involved. Structure allows clear division of responsibility and helps with strategic planning. But structure does not require hierarchy. For instance, someone needs to facilitate meetings, but the role can rotate. Structure actually offers flexibility and freedom because it helps to ensure everyone is clear on their responsibilities and makes efficient coordination possible. Note that being in a coalition without hierarchy doesn't mean that there are no leaders. Being part of a leaderless movement requires everyone to be a leader.
4 - D. Take advantage of galvanizing moments.
Structural change tends to happen all at once rather than incrementally, when the relevant population is galvanized into action. It is difficult to predict when these moments occur. But staying organized has two benefits. First, it creates conditions that are more conducive to these galvanizing moments. Second, staying organized helps lay the groundwork so that these moments can be harnessed to move structural changes ahead.
4 - E. Run effective meetings.
Meetings are often seen as the peak of bureaucratic torture but face to face interaction is also how we form the human connections that allow us to begin and sustain movements for change. When they go right, they can galvanize people into action, channel passion into concrete action, generate consensus and buy in. Meetings result in deadlines, which can lead to momentum. Running effective meetings does not mean there won’t be times when they go off the rails. Sometimes the nature of collective action is chaos. That being said, here are some basic principles to channel that chaos:
4 - F. Example of a meeting agenda.
I. Administrative matters (5 mins)
i. Goal: communicate form and function of the meeting, which is to outline a plan for pushing reform
iii. Explain how the meeting will run
a. Progressive stack might be implemented if necessary
b. This meeting is goal oriented so we will try to stick to estimated timing
II. Refine asks (10 mins)
i. Goal: Explore outer bonds of our demands and refine them into concrete proposals
ii. Use demand letter as a starting point
iii. Articulate the main demands
iv. Any additional demands?
v. Establish buy in on finalized list (to be shared with/ratified by other allies)
III. Strategy discussion (30 mins)
i. Goal: resolve strategy questions and settle on a rough schedule (again, to be ratified by those not at the meeting) for escalation if demands are ignored
ii. Discrete strategy questions
a. How to bring those not at this meeting into this discussion
b. Whether and how to use the management team as inside allies
c. Is a demand letter with sign ons our first step?
iii. What should the escalation ladder include and what order might they be in?
IV. Delegate out tasks and housekeeping (5 mins)
i. Goal: Arrive at concrete next steps/responsibilities with deadlines
A DIY Guide to Institutional Change for Racial Equity
Step 5 - Avoid Common Pitfalls
Part of recognizing that fights for racial equity have always been happening is understanding why they stalled in the past. The complete answer is too complex for a document like this. Instead, here are some common pitfalls, challenges to watch out for. Again, these may not come from people who are actively hostile to the project of racial equity. Sometimes, they come from people who want the same ends but don't realize they are playing into the hands of institutionalized racism.
5 - A. Beware of delay disguised as information gathering.
Look out for calls to "gather more information," often through the avenue of forming a committee. We don’t need any more information about why change is necessary. We probably don’t even need information on what needs to change. Committees are only useful if they have clear authority and the explicit goal of implementing reforms. Information gathering is a favorite of people who would like to avoid structural, institutional reform. Though it sounds responsible and proactive, it often turns into foot-dragging.
5 - B. Beware of outside consultants hired to make recommendations.
Often, consultants are brought on not to discover wholly new information but to provide cover for decision-makers. Even if institutional leadership is sincere, the process of hiring a consultant, briefing them, and waiting for their research is another way an institution's immune system creates delay. Institutional leadership will be tempted to hire a consultant because 1) it seems like a concrete step in the right direction 2) it absolves them of responsibility and 3) they're confused and would like someone to give them friendly, professionally packaged recommendations. If leadership says they need a consultant to make recommendations for changes, this is really another way of saying existing voices within the institution are not credible. At most institutions, if you gave the person with the least authority a pencil, a piece of paper, and five minutes, they could come up with a list of problems and recommendations. In a sense, the solutions are already known. The question is whether there is enough will to implement them. This brings us to a caveat to this warning. It might be in your interest to bring in an outside consultant for the same reason leadership would -- to provide cover, to diffuse conflict by introducing an external, theoretically neutral party. Be careful and try to get as many of the following as possible:
5 - C. Beware of backlash.
There's not much to do about this except keep an eye out for it. Sometimes, people become overwhelmed when confronted with how deep institutional problems run. Unable to cope with this reality, they instead deny it and lash out at those who tried to lift the veil as troublemakers.
5 - D. Beware of training your way out.
Diversity trainings can be part of the solution, but they cannot be the whole solution. Handled poorly, they can even be counterproductive. Even expressly anti-racism trainings tend to address personal biases, but the core problems are structural, cultural in nature.
5 - E. Beware of tone policing.
Anyone feeling uncomfortable with how someone else is expressing their anger or frustration, should pause and try to empathize rather than correct. Recognize you probably know far less than you think. Recognize there isn't some objective best way to create change. Recognize standards of civility and professionalism are gendered, racialized, and designed to exclude. If you find yourself trying to police someone's tone, think about what you are doing. You would be forcing those who are suffering to argue and debate with you about how change should take place. You would be forcing them to spend their time, energy, and emotion arguing with you. While you may not realize it, you would be acting out the institution's immune response. Instead, reflect on who is and is not allowed to be angry. Reflect on whose needs are anticipated and addressed before anger becomes necessary.
5 - F. Beware of bad faith.
Most strategies about coalition building and consensus decision making assume people are interested in changing the institution. There may be some who operate in bad faith. It can sometimes be difficult to tell if someone is still learning how collective decision-making works so try to give as much benefit of the doubt as possible.
5 - G. Beware of co-optation.
Narratives about increasing diversity to achieve racial equity can be co-opted into efforts to increase “intellectual diversity” instead. I’ve heard people use the language of “marginalized groups” to center the experiences of remote office workers in the middle of a discussion about racial equity. One way (by no means foolproof) to combat this is being especially precise in saying exactly what the changes the meant to achieve and who they assist.
5 - H. Beware of other forms of bias that can creep in such as classism or ableism.
Be intentional about being inclusive in building the coalition. For instance, if you are a lawyer at a legal advocacy organization, have you included the paralegals or the administrative assistants?
5 - I. Beware of certainty.
It's good practice to be slightly mistrustful of anyone who is absolutely certain something will or won't work. The world is complicated and certainty is usually a sign someone is overfitting data. Consider why they might believe this, whether their individual experiences might be shaping this certainty.
5 - J. Beware of cosmetic changes.
Especially if a coalition has force of numbers , institutional leadership may be eager to appease. They will offer to take some concrete steps and might even do this out of a genuine desire to address racial inequity. But just because formal policies changed does not mean the situation has necessarily improved. Brown v. Board of Education declared school segregation unconstitutional and yet our education system remains intensely segregated. Don't take your eye off what’s important. The question is whether the lived experience of marginalized folx improved, whether the culture of the institution changed.
5 - K. Beware of doing labor without commitment.
Members of marginalized groups are often asked to assist with implementing anti-racism measures. There is nothing inherently wrong wth this but be careful to do labor on an institution’s behalf only when there are concrete commitments to act. One reason for this is that if your coalition is strong enough for the institution to negotiate and ask for help, you are in a position of power because that means they need your labor and agreement more than you need them. Second, in certain cases, doing labor on behalf of an institution can even be counterproductive and be used as a defense mechanism against real, structural change. This is how it works. First, a coalition demands change. The institution signals their agreement that change is necessary and invites the coalition to work with them on finding a solution, perhaps through the formation of a joint committee. The members of the coalition on the committee end up doing a lot of emotional labor, assisting the institution to identify the problems. Recommendations are made and perhaps some superficial, small changes do occur but no structural, transformative change. When the institution is next questioned about their commitment to racial equity, they point to the work of the committee as evidence that they have been proactive and as a way to resist taking more transformative steps.
A DIY Guide to Institutional Change for Racial Equity
Step 6 - Maintain momentum
6 - A. Settle in for the long haul.
The arc of the moral universe only bends toward justice if there are people applying the force. The inequities that inhabit our institutions are a result of hundreds of years of history. They will not go away overnight. They will not fade as a result of one eloquent speech or a single anti-racism training. Maintaining momentum is important not just because the changes needed are difficult but because the work of creating better institutions is continuous. It will not actually ever end. Anti-racism is not a condition, not something static that an institution can reach. It is a verb, something to be continually practiced.
6 - B. Take breaks.
There is no shame in exhaustion. Take time to recharge but then get back in the fight.
6 - C. Don’t stop recruiting people.
New people bring energy but can also remind everyone else why they are doing this work.
6 - D. Celebrate small victories.
This isn't just to keep spirits up. All of this is a training process, a way of building community with each other and power to demand the large scale, substantive changes necessary. Small victories are proof change is possible and proof of the need to commit to continuing to push.
6 - E. Reaffirm solidarity.
People will tend to backslide into individual strategic considerations. Remind them that they are in community with each other and this unity is what gives them power. Having people verbally affirm solidarity with each other can strengthen group ties.
6 - F. Cherish your allies.
Tell them that you do. Enough said.
6 - G. When you leave, pass on what you know.
In our lives, we will enter and leave communities, walk into and away from institutions. The best we can do is try to leave those institutions better than when we encountered them. If you do all the right things, you may still fail. You will almost certainly not reach all your goals. Don't be discouraged or think your work was wasted. But when you leave, share what you have learned. Name names, pass on records, write your experience down.
A DIY Guide to Institutional Change for Racial Equity
A brief checklist for self-reflection:
A few last words
In the lead up to the Civil War, defenders of slavery called it the "Peculiar Institution." They called it "peculiar" to indicate that slavery in the American south was "special," different in kind from other, supposedly harsher systems. I have witnessed a disturbing temptation to think modern America is "peculiar" in the same way, that the oppression present in our nation is different than in other countries simply because our anthem says we live in the land of the free. But that is a lie, a dangerous one because it feels safe, because it soothes our souls in the same way that calling slavery "peculiar" may have quieted the consciences of those who did not fight for its abolition.
Institutions are made up of individuals. Like our society, they are what we make of them, the collective product of what we decide to accept, the choices we make. This means your choice matters. It always has. Free societies are not created and maintained by words on a page alone. We are only free if we all choose to make it true. The choice to confront reality requires moral courage. The truth is that there is much work to be done, that we are still far from grace, that the work of creating a more just society is endless. But that is precisely why we all need to take personal responsibility for it. If you benefit from privilege in any way, it is your dutyto redistribute it. None of us are free until all of us are free.
This guide is my attempt to pass on what I've learned. I write it in the hopes that it will help you avoid the mistakes I've made, so that you can do better. Most of all, I write in the hopes that our society can learn to better value and uplift Black folx and other people of color.
I struggled with whether to write it. First, because there is a danger that institutional reform can be a distraction from the ultimate task of building power to demand changes on a societal level. Second, because I wasn't sure I was qualified to comment.
As to the first, fighting for change at institutions is a means to an end, a way to further the goal of a just and anti-racist society. I'm still not sure as to the second so I'll let you be the judge. I have enough experience fighting institutional inertia to know some of the pitfalls but perhaps not enough to become too jaded or too invested in the systems that need to change. In any case, the question is whether the principles and guidelines I've outlined work. And that, you will only know when you try.
No one can be an expert in creating change. The very nature of pushing for structural shifts is that success makes you obsolete. The only real change is fundamental, is systemic. If you can easily imagine the changes you are fighting for, it is not change at all.
While doing research to write this, I stumbled upon an interview of Kathleen Cleaver, a member of the Black Panther Party. In answering a question of how to transform a system built on inequality and avarice, she said, "Well, you just have to get up and do it. And everybody has to agree that that's what they want to do and there's nothing more important. And it would take probably fifty-some years." When asked whether she could imagine this happening, she said yes but perhaps not in her lifetime. All I'm asking is for you to imagine this can happen during yours.
(Originally posted on 11/4/2020 on Medium)
In a digital and data-driven world, political polls have become a national obsession. For many, nervous pre-election rituals involve checking the updated poll numbers every day, even as other decry that the polls cannot be trusted.
While the results of the 2020 election are not yet certain, especially with the specter of litigation looming, we do know pre-election polling was off. By historic margins. Again.
In fact, in many states, preliminary numbers indicate that the polling errors may have been larger than in 2016.
Tweet from Derek Thompson
“Too early to be sure about the *exact* numbers here, but seems like state polls missed by 5 points, on avg, in 2016 by understating noncollege support for the GOP. Then a bunch of pollsters studied the issue and changed their methodologies for 2020 … and whiffed by 7 points.”
For example, in Wisconsin, the NYTimes reported a polling average of +10 for Biden but with pretty much 100% reporting, Biden is less than .5% ahead. According to NYTimes analysis, if polls were off by as much as they were in 2016, Biden should have been 4% up.
There will be plenty of think pieces about where the pollsters made their errors and whether these offenses were fireable or forgiveable. Some will argue that Trump is the source of the anomaly. Others will say that there are two basic problems when it comes to polling on politics. The first is a numbers problem. Survey response rates are extremely low in the modern era, in the single digits. Since those who are willing to respond to a survey may not be representative of the entire population, this alone can create enormous errors. The second problem is a human problem: namely, people lie. Or, really, they tell untruths. The reasons are manifold: embarrassment, haste, confusion, or they simply haven’t decided but want to appear decisive. Everything, from how you ask questions, to who you ask, when you ask, who does the asking, can all affect the outcome.
Whatever the reasons for the errors, progressives in particular should use this moment to think more deeply about our reliance on polls, their centrality within modern news media, and what that says about who has the right to decide what is valid and true. That is to say, this new failure in polling should cause us to consider how understanding politics through polls limits our epistemological imagination.
In an era of uncertainty and with the proliferation of data sources, perhaps it is no surprise that there is a tendency to think that only hard numbers are scientific and reliable. This is problematic both because science is not actually about establishing certainty and absolute truth but also because polling is not actually a science.
The scientific method requires a researcher to hypothesize first, to come up with a coherent and testable theory about the world. Only then do they set out to gather evidence capable of refuting that hypothesis. Political polls however, often work precisely the opposite way. Evidence is gathered from the field and then theories are grafted onto the results, to explain them. In the process, polling quirks that are the result of random chance can become the basis for narrative explanations that make it difficult to see the forest for the trees. Because polls reduce complex human preferences and psychologies into binary (or at any rate a limited set) of choices, a poll can lend itself to any number of explanatory theories. This, in turn, has led to an entire industry of political commentators and data scientists who crunch numbers and publish interpretations.
For the most part, political polling and particularily the analysis of political polls is done by highly educated people, professionals in professionalized settings. The answers they offered are clinical and (theoretically) objective. Compare this to the people who are left out of the conversation, namely activists, organizers, and the very people who policies fall most heavily upon. Sometimes, these people are left out because they are not given access to data and the resources to analyze it. Just as often however, the analysis that these folx have to offer do not lend themselves to graphs and charts because the truth of their realities cannot and should not need to be validated through polling.
Viewing politics through polls therefore limits the kinds of knowledge we can access and sets a privileged few and their mathematical models up as objective arbiters of truth. It also limits our understanding of how political change happens and how power is built. Just as commentators view a poll and attempt to graph a theory onto the numbers, politicians and policy makers often work backward from polls to build a platform. That means they are attempting to piece together incomplete snapshots of what people supposedly believe rather than building a coherent narrative about what ails our country and what can lift our communities up.
An obvious question is what we should do instead. The current election cycle offers a clue. First, if Biden wins the election, it will not be because of big data but small, not because of pollsters analyzing national figures but because of a ground game based on localized community knowledge in places like Detroit and Milwaukee, which are providing votes for the razor thin margins by which Biden is carrying Michigan and Wisconsin. Second, while polling averages were off in many key states, it seems that the final electoral count will be within the expected range based on modeling. These models incorporate polls but they combine them with fundamentals, more sociological understandings the population being modeled.
Tweet from @benjaminwittes Models. The big analytical winners here are the modelers. If you look at Nate Silver’s model, this result is at the edge of the fat part of his distribution.
For those hoping for a repudiation of Trump and Trumpism, this election is a disappointment. Preventing the next isn’t a matter of obsessive polling and then attempting to craft policies which fit those polls but something more basic: figuring out what you believe in, who you’re fighting for, and how those things can contribute to a systematic platform grounded in the real needs of those communities.