Keep The Momentum
A few thoughts on doing deep structural change
Social and organizational justice work can feel lonely, isolating, and even soul-crushing at times — and I feel that it is designed to be that way — but know that you are not alone in your sentiments. While there are a seemingly endless number of consultants that will do a lot of surface-level work at a premium, you have chosen the righteous path of interrogating and dismantling oppressive systems with the hope of building new, more equitable ones. The following are a few things I’ve personally come to realize over the years doing this work. While by no means is the following list exhaustive, these are some things to keep in mind as you’re doing the immense labor of taking on the behemoth of systemic power.
- Stay vigilant.
When reimagining systems, everything is a frontier and it’s often much easier to revert back to established, but problematic processes. It’s not that they’re better, it’s just they’ve had more time and energy to develop and refine. You’ll get there, too. Give your interventions time to organically adjust to this new reality. Give people time to learn and adapt to anti-oppressive working environments, because that also takes training. And if something isn’t working as intended, there’s no shame in readjusting or starting fresh. Just don’t give up on justice. It’s easy to allow oppressive and capitalist propaganda to creep back into your thoughts, but you must stay vigilant to your chosen purpose.
- Know where to direct your energy.
Admittedly this is something I struggle with, myself. In a world where oppressive propaganda is manufactured and proliferated across multiple channels, it can become difficult to pinpoint where to direct your energy (in other words, who to blame). Not only that, since we have trouble identifying these flows of power, we also make assumptions as to the degree of power that individual contributors have to enact real change. Make sure that if messaging should be targeted toward leadership or power brokers, it remains that way. Otherwise, you’ll tell employees to engage in more progressive practices only to realize that the organizational structures and culture aren’t conducive to it and still incentivize hyper-capitalist behaviors. If individuals do not have the power to challenge a system, you may end up getting them in trouble.
- Formalize only when necessary.
There’s always a need to set hard boundaries and polices in the workplace on specific issues like bullying, harassment, discrimination, etc. For all else, however, it is possible to provide processes for those who require it, while giving more autonomy to those who seek it. In fact, excessive formalization and worship of procedure are not culturally universal ideals and can be an arm of white supremacy. Excessive bureaucracy has also proven to be a mechanism for codifying systemic oppression in the workplace. Bureaucracy can build in oppressive institutional power and can frustrate the immediate change that is needed for liberatory practices. Furthermore, we tend to conflate bureaucracy with democracy. It must be noted that participatory governance and bureaucracy are not synonyms. We can design better organizations that value transparency and honesty, while encouraging and respecting employee voice — all of which is most often prevalent in flatter, less bureaucratic organizations.
- Build *dynamic* capacity.
Two of the most important elements of any organizational justice strategy are accountability and sustainability. As mentioned previously, the lure of reverting back to old behaviors is immense. After all, we are human and we don’t have unlimited amounts of energy. And while self-managed organizations are better equipped for broad participatory interventions, which include organizational justice strategies, not every organization can or is willing to flatten institutional hierarchies in the near term. However as an anti-oppression interventionist, you want your strategies to endure far past your engagement or contract. Therefore it is important to build the internal capacity to do the work. And it’s simply not enough to encourage broad participation from all employees, you must assign dedicated individuals and teams that leverage individual and collective power to sustain progress (this can include organizational justice staff, affinity groups, justice councils, etc.). The more channels for disruptive practices and liberatory change, the better; and this also ensures the dynamism required for sustaining momentum. Individuals and groups can fatigue in organizational justice work quickly, and so multiple avenues helps buffer against interruptions in the process through the distribution of tasks and displays of solidarity.
This is tough work and can feel grueling and even chaotic at times. If you notice, the underlying theme in all of the above items is collective power. That’s not just for your interventions and work products, you must feel that sense of community as well. Find strength in the collective because none of this work is remotely possible with the individualism that drives our workplaces today. Solidarity and power to you on your journey.