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Our Internal Racial Justice Learning Journey

by Terri Hall, with Caitlin Dourmashkin

Shortly after GWI began transitioning into becoming a worker self-directed nonprofit mid-2019, one of the processes we underwent was to examine the power dynamics that existed in our organization, something that we called a Dynamics Reset. While all six Worker Trustees valued the idea of “Good Work,” our engagement with the framework of Just Transition made it impossible for us to question and acknowledge the presence of unconscious race dynamics within our team (comprised of 3 white and 3 BIPOC Workers.) An outcome of Dynamics Reset was a request that our Learning Circle facilitate internal learning sessions around advancing racial justice within our own organizational house. Little did we know that 2020 was around the bend, and that voices on our streets crying out “Black Lives Matter” would throw flood lights on what some seem to have been unable or unwilling to recognize: systemic racism and injustice are evergreen issues in American society, and that racial tensions, violence, and racist impact persist in our communities. Closer yet, these painful dynamics can operate both consciously and unconsciously within our homes and workplaces, resulting in mishandled power, inauthentic relationships, and smothered talents and potentials. 

How do you begin to broach a topic as deep and uncomfortable as racism in a work environment? One thing The Learning Circle (Susan and I) agreed upon was that we would do it slowly. This was not about getting it done and checking off a box. We knew that we were not going to, nor were we equipped to, cover everything one might hope to in going down this road.This wasn’t going to be a one-off. It would be a journey; one that provided enough spaciousness so that Workers could access the courage, vulnerability, and time needed to share our truths and integrate what we were learning into our beings and practice. We also knew we needed a process that would be time-bound so that we would actually do it and not procrastinate undertaking it because it seemed too daunting. 

GWI had previously referred to the guiding paradigm of “head, heart, and hands” in designing our Fellowship curriculum. We used that same framing in planning this learning experience. We determined three aims in order to address our heads, hearts, and hands. Here’s how the Learning Circle expressed these aims: 

Over the course of several learning sessions, we intend to support our team to stretch into the driving racial justice and social equity principle of Just Transition. We would like to initially focus on racial justice, aiming to: 

  1. Develop a shared foundation of the history of racism, particularly aspects with relevance to today, including the current political climate, and this global pandemic (head)
  2. Support us to individually and collectively gain deeper awareness that helps us shift our actions in our interpersonal working relationships, team dynamics (heart / hands)
  3. Allow us to integrate understanding of the legacies of racial privilege into our efforts to fulfill GWI’s mission to cultivate, connect, support, illuminate ways of resisting our extractive economic system and building a regenerative one (hands)

To live into these intentions, our full team engaged in six learning sessions (two for each aim) over the course of five months. Each session lasted from ninety minutes to two hours. Most required Workers to do some form of pre-work (e.g., read articles, watch videos, write personal stories.) Over these months, we went to places expected and unexpected. We engaged with the work of Carol Anderson, Michelle Alexander, and Leticia Nieto and Race Forward trainings (among other resources.) We wrote and shared personal stories going back to childhood experiences of our own grappling with racial identity, power and a racist society. We absorbed and processed feedback from members of our Network and began identifying ways to become an organization that clearly advances racial justice.

We ended this series acknowledging that while this particular Learning Circle offering had concluded, our individual and collective learning would and must continue. That’s how we realize our own wholeness; that’s how we become capable and equipped agents of change.

We launched this series of articles and reflections in September 2019 to share our journey of moving from a traditional hierarchical nonprofit to a worker self-directed nonprofit. We hope by opening up this transition it might help others take the first steps towards sharing power in their workplaces.

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