A DIY Guide to Institutional Change for Racial Equity
A Note About the Form and Function of Institutions
The power of an institution lies in its ability to coordinate individual behaviors for a collective purpose. Institutions accomplish this by creating a culture that propagates, entrenches, and transmits norms by making them seem like “common sense.” To take a simple case, picture a high school class. When a bell rings, the teacher stops talking and the students gather their books to scatter to the next class. For someone who has never sat in a classroom like this, the flurry of activities accompanying the bell would be mystifying.
The key to understanding how institutions transmit norms is to realize that the socialized response to the ringing of the bell with this particular set of activities is the result of normative choices. The average high school student attends six or seven classes each day. Surely, for some students, spending all day on one topic is more effective. So why not teach one topic a day? Even this assumes a system in which knowledge is divided into separate topics rather than woven together in an interdisciplinary way. So why have different classes at all? Neither the students nor the teacher think about these normative questions when they go about their day but that doesn’t mean their choices don’t have normative consequences.
The purpose of this example is to illustrate how institutions shape individual behavior. Institutional culture makes following a normatively bounded path natural and sensible, which hides the fact that there are choices being made.
Obscuring normative choices makes it easier for institutions to resist change because rejecting things that don’t fit the institutional culture will appear to be common sense. People internalize the values of an institution and can act as its immune system against change without recognizing what they're doing. This isn't always a bad thing. Institutions have value. The problem is that institutional cultures are shaped by our society, which is infected with structural inequality and systemic racism. That inequality is reflected, reproduced and magnified by our institutions.
Practically speaking, what does this mean? When working to change an institution, its ability to transmit norms is a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, there will be knee-jerk defensiveness to change because it will be seen as an attack on the integrity of the institution. People will say they want to be anti-racist and genuinely believe it but nevertheless act to reinforce existing norms and thus thwart their own professed goal. On the other hand, if racial equity itself is institutionalized, if the conscious effort to center the experiences of marginalized people is normalized, it has a chance to last.
Step 0 - Just get started
The only real requirement of making institutional change is to get started. Taking action is the best teacher. Books and guides like this one can be helpful but real knowledge comes from trying and doing. You will make mistakes, but nothing will change if nobody pushes for it. One point of caution is to avoid thinking about this process of making institutional change as "leading" change. Instead, the goal is to facilitate a movement that collectively demands it. Not only is a group harder to ignore, this will also give the efforts longevity, which is crucial when tackling systemic and deeply ingrained issues such as racial inequity.