A DIY Guide to Institutional Change for Racial Equity
Step 3 - Build a Coalition and Get Buy in on Goals
The work of institutional change requires a team. No one can do it alone. Find others who share a commitment to racial equity and are willing to share the burden. A team is necessary to brainstorm ideas, but it is also necessary because this work is tiring. People will need to tap in and out as their motivation ebbs and flows. Respect and account for that in planning. Normalize letting people voice their exhaustion and take a step back. That will result in less burnout in the long run.
3 - A. Build a coalition.
If institutions are made up of the people within them, there is no real substitute for having a wide coalition of people demanding change together. How to gather this coalition depends on the size of an organization, and your place within it. Sometimes, it will mean sending an email to the organization wide listserv to spur a conversation about race and inequality, then following up with those who respond positively. Sometimes, it will mean having a dozen one on one conversations. Sometimes, it will mean tapping into existing organizational structures such as unions or affinity groups. A preliminary goal can start a broad conversation about how the institution should pursue racial equity. At this initial stage, it isn't necessary for everyone to agree on the same solutions or even for everyone to be committed to structural change to the same degree. However, you do want to look for openness to engaging in conversation and the recognition that racism is . . . bad. Now let's talk about some concrete ways to collect a coalition.
3 - B. Find a core team or a personal council.
Try to pull together a handful of people to speak honestly and openly with, to bounce ideas off of and to vent to. Creating institutional change is first an exercise in creating a community of people who care enough to demand it. Help build spaces where people feel safe to generate ideas and think critically about the ways the institution does and does not support equity and inclusion. This might be the same group as the coalition, but a smaller caucus or caucuses may be useful for in depth discussions.
3 - C. Decide if you need a "champion" and find one.
Sometimes, it can be helpful to have the support of someone from institutional leadership. They can bring talking points up to others in positions of authority in a way that won’t trigger defensiveness. They can bring back information about how the leadership team is responding. They can help strategize how to bring proposals forward. They can help normalize asking questions about racial equity or raising issues of bias and institutional change. Some things to consider in choosing this person:
3 - D. Define goals through consensus decision making.
Arguably, everything until this point is prep work. Goal set early because it provides a guide for making strategic decisions and provides a vision. Try to use consensus decision making to encourage buy in and build a community of people committed to the project of changing the institution for the better. Creating common understandings of the problem and common goals are good steps toward creating that community.
Refer back to the problem statement to help define a goal. Sometimes, as when the power to make decisions is too concentrated and unaccountable, the goal may be clear. Sometimes, as when there is an especially hostile workplace culture reinforced by external forces, the goal won't be so clear. For those not part of those communities, take your cues from marginalized folx. Don’t expect them to take on all the work of defining the goals but also don’t presume to know what they want. This is a VERY hard line to walk and coalitions are made or broken at this step. Again, there are no shortcuts. I can only advise defaulting to compassion and empathy. Even if you don’t belong to a marginalized group, this is your fight too. When in doubt, make sure to do some thinking before bringing anything to partners. But be ready and willing to be told to go back to the drawing board.
Consensus decision making requires openness and trust. When first beginning a push for institutional change, you may not have either, but consensus decision making might help to build both. There are whole guides to making decisions by consensus, more than can be outlined here. The key is people should go into the process with a commitment to working towards a solution that is beneficial to everyone. Usually, decision making occurs through debate or by fiat. Usually, people advocate for a position and they ‘win’ or ‘lose’ depending on whether the final decision reflects their preferences. Consensus decision making is different. While people may have preferred outcomes, all parties should listen actively and work to create a solution everyone has a stake in. Instead of being for or against a position, everyone is invested in supporting each other. Consensus does not mean either unanimity or compromise. Requiring unanimity often means choosing the smallest change everyone can agree on. Compromise seeks to cobble together what are often incompatible extremes. Consensus decision making goes further by trying to combine everyone's most important concerns and best ideas into a coherent whole.
3 - E. If necessary, start small to teach people collective action and consensus is possible.
Often, the biggest barrier to collective action and consensus decision making is the belief that it is impossible. For people who are taught decisions must be made from a position of authority and in a political system whose founders were afraid of the "masses," it is difficult to imagine a large group with different personalities and interests coming together to reach consensus. In truth, consensus work will always be frustrating, but it becomes easier upon understanding it is possible. If the coalition is accustomed to hierarchical decision making and is not confident in its ability to make concrete change, start small. Experience is the best teacher in this regard. For instance, work on a demand letter together or push for a small, concrete change, something that is already likely to attract broad agreement before moving to more difficult, transformative demands.