Changing Direction: The Patterns and Roles We Choose

The years I spent in international development, and as an international executive made clear to me the repeated and systemic patterns of sexism, racism and classism, all deeply embedded in US culture.

Our tendency is to do what we know, and what makes us comfortable. When we do not know what to do, our pattern is often to do more of what we have already been doing. When we take our products and services to other markets, we re-create what we already know and what makes us comfortable, regardless of the impact on others.

So much of the work of international non-profits and corporations repeat practices that work best within systems meant to exclude, divide and keep people poor and abused. These structures are also designed to keep those who work for these organizations and businesses separate from the reality so many others live, including those they serve. They acclimate to the culture from untouchable spaces.

You need not look further than the tonnage of containers filled with (often years worth) of familiarity as a must for any family posted overseas from the US. Containers shipped in lieu of supporting local products and services, regardless of what is actually available in that country.

This is coupled with the selective relationship of expatriate communities, filled to the ceilings of opulent spaces with conversations of what does not work, and what is wrong with the people of country x. You will not see their clients or beneficiaries at these gatherings, unless it is for intentional tokenism and photo ops.

There has long been an underlying consensus around the need to help others, and particularly women, given their exponential roles and contributions both socially and economically. But help to what degree? What are the visible and unwritten lines?

For example, many of the campaigns to donate chickens, cows, and goats, or even micro loans, remain relevant to international donors, and while they may support some immediate needs, they mostly keep people in the same place and situation they were in already.

Such assistance comes with an underlying message to the recipient that you can have this much to go this far; however, you will not be in a key decision making role in our organization, our companies will not be employee owned, our children will not attend the same schools, we will not live in the same neighborhoods, and so on, for every life domain. The message is that we are in relationship and photographs together as long as the power play and attention is in my favor.

This is hardly congruent with the visions of equality asserted by so many organizations and businesses, or the slogans and taglines of equity and access, when we cap and control the distribution of resources based on models not created by those who know best what they need.

In our discussions of white supremacy, which is the structure primarily used in US international aid, disaster relief and war by these endeavors and businesses, intentionally and not, reflects the same.

Climate and natural disasters and other extreme conditions exacerbate and highlight who we prioritize and why.  Who gets rescued and not and when? Who gets sheltered and how and when? Who eats and not? Who has access to clean water and not? Who pays what price and not? Who is forced to relocate and not?

That we support others in various ways does not make how we do this necessarily appropriate, sustainable, inclusive, diverse, equitable or dignified for those with whom we are working or to whom we are in service. We have retained a model that relies on a death toll for specific people.

Non-profits, businesses, laws, individual practitioners, that state their intent around diversity and inclusion, equity and access, are still operating in a vacuum of missing conversations. It is not only a question of equality and inclusivity, although that would be a grand start.

It is a matter of centering and re-centering marginalized people, while creating new ways of being, relating and doing business. It is a matter of all identities of men, white women and men, the wealthy and those in power, stepping aside, to create the necessary space for radical, imperative change.

It requires taking on different roles and shifting the distribution of resources to support this change. Without this, we remain in a human existence that requires the continued traumatization, murder and oppression of many, for the wealth, power and control of a few. Without this, those who do not have equitable access and centered roles/leadership, will continue live in fear, stay or become unwell, and unable to fully prosper. We are all living in a toxic soup of a society, and we keep making the same recipe over and over and over again, under different names.  What roles are we playing in this?

This is not about waiting for a government or an organization, it is about making a choice today in how we speak, how we relate, how we project, how and with whom we do business and why. It is about where we place ourselves vis-a-vis what is needed, and not how we have always done things because it makes us comfortable. It is about whose words we read and the teachers, practitioners and partnerships we choose.

From what center, space, privilege and power are you willing to step away to create change? This is the question in which I am living in my personal life, and as I create a new structure with service based offerings.

This is the time to pause and assess, far beyond stock images of inclusion, token donations, and fragmented support, to new and specific ways of (re)structuring and unstructuring, and how to engage differently in our transactions and transformation.


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