When we fall into the same old traps…

In this second post for Organizational Transformation week, here at Classroom to Capitol, I’m tackling an ugly reality of nonprofit social service work and, in the interest of full disclosure, my parenting, sometimes, too.

Because the truth is, sometimes the ways in which we interact with those we serve (or parent) serve to replicate the same power imbalances against which we rail, when we view them on the “outside”.

You’ve seen it, no doubt:

  • Eligibility rules that are ambiguous and seemingly arbitrary, the sort of institutional equivalent of “because I said so”
  • Organizational cultures that afford greater prestige to men, and to those higher in the hierarchy (like when we refer to the Executive Director as Mr. SoandSo but the receptionist as “Maria”)
  • Programmatic requirements that force everyone to attend the same classes, fill out the same paperwork, not because those activities actually contribute to the amelioration of the social problems that prompted a particular individual to seek services, but because that’s how people prove that they “deserve” help

    We fall into these patterns of power and oppression not because we’re bad people, of course, but because we’re people, and people tend to seek comfort in regularity and predictability and status, and those pursuits are not necessarily compatible with the promotion of maximum empowerment for those who have historically been marginalized and oppressed.

    But I promised you that this wasn’t just a post about how you should change what you do in your organizations, right? I understand that changing the way we view those with whom we work, in every way from using language like “constituents” instead of “patients” to authentically making room on decision-making bodies for the full participation of those we serve, isn’t easy.

    I understand not just because I’ve been there, as a nonprofit leader and as a consultant to the same.

    I understand because I fight the same internal battles at home, too, where parenting offers opportunities every day to choose to live power imbalances that put me purportedly on top, versus a challenge to figure out how to make our family a sort of laboratory for empowered living.
    On a daily basis, that means that I can’t change the rules without accountability, even though I’m the mom. It means that the kids’ preferences on little things matter just as much as mine, and that, even on the big stuff, I can’t disregard their views without an honest discussion and a full examination of my own rationale.

    It’s not a democracy, exactly, any more than a nonprofit organization is. That’s what people often fear when we talk about transparency and participatory governance in nonprofit organizations, but it’s more like an excuse to duck our obligations to social justice than a valid concern.

    We’re not a 1-person-1-vote family.

    We’re something more, and better, just like our organizations need to be, too.

    Because avoiding the temptation to fall into the same old bad patterns means starting from the premise that power is only as valid as the way in which we wield it, that we can’t decry the abuse of authority in others without being willing to own it in ourselves, and that our relationships will be stronger when they are based on a presumption of equity than when reinforced through hierarchy alone.

    Ultimately, turning our organizations inside out like this should make us stronger advocates externally, too, because we’ll gain an empathy for those targets against whom we’re arrayed when we understand the universality of the temptation to oppress, at least in subtle ways. It also restores some of our moral authority and reduces our vulnerability to charges that “you do it, too.”

    But, more immediately and much more importantly, it will turn our organizations into places where people learn how to relate fully and equally, as agents in their own rights.

    And that’s what I remind myself every time I so want to say, “because I’m the Mom.”

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