A DIY Guide to Institutional Change for Racial Equity
Step 1 - Evaluate starting conditions
To change an institution, you must understand it. It's hard to plan for something different without knowing how the institution currently functions. Let's talk about the necessary information and how to get it.
1 - A. Decide whether the institution is worth saving.
It won't always be. Sometimes the only way for an institution to be truly anti-racist is for it to cease to exist.
As a corollary, is there critical mass? While a big part of the work of creating institutional change is convincing people of the necessity for change, protect yourself by honestly evaluating whether there are enough people to share responsibility.
2 - B. Understand the power structure.
This is more involved than finding the org chart or reading the official bylaws. Always be aware of the important difference between formal authority and actual authority. The person signing checks may not decide what amount goes on the line. Misunderstanding who holds power (and therefore who can enact change), risks misdirecting energy. The person who announces a policy change may not be the one who has control over it. Organizations tend to scapegoat its least powerful members. It is far easier for an institution to punish the person implementing policies than to restructure itself or for leadership to examine their own culpability. For instance, consider a case in which a group of workers bring attention to racially coded HR policies. Institutional leadership might respond by firing or otherwise sanctioning the HR department even though the policies originated higher in the organizational structure and reflect deeper structural issues. Some tips:
1- C. Develop a clear problem statement.
Having a clear problem statement is important for convincing others and for organizing advocacy. The solution becomes easier to imagine if the problem is stated clearly. Of course, the root cause of racial inequity is racism. But it is good to have a problem statement specific to the organization. This will help guide decision making on what changes to push for. Specificity can also help convince people to join the effort. Even if someone is not committed to the project of racial equity, a good problem statement should still ring true. The work you did to understand the power structure should be helpful. In almost all occasions, you'll find mal-distribution of power is part of the problem.
Take, as an example, an organization doing a poor job recruiting people of color. After examining how the organization recruits, the problem statement might be something like, "We fail to hire candidates of color because our informal recruitment procedures prioritize pre-existing networks that exclude underrepresented populations." This is a simplified example but notice how the problem statement suggests a solution. Though problem statements shouldn't necessarily be tailored to engage this population, note that even people who are not primarily interested in racial equity might agree that an informal recruitment process based on pre-existing networks is exclusionary. One note of caution is that multiple problem statements may be needed. In this case, though the recruitment process is the most direct cause, perhaps it has remained informal despite past opposition due to deeper flaws, such as a leadership team that ignores feedback, particularly from people of color.
1 - D. Strategies for understanding your institution: