Hi everyone, just a quick reminder that I’m having a Facebook Live update/AMA at 12:30pm PST on 10/22, so join if you’re free. Also, October 22nd is World Wombat Day, which I am proposing we turn into World Wombat and Flu Shot Day, a magical holiday where we send our friends pictures of wombats to remind them to get their yearly flu shots (Mark my words, this tradition WILL catch on). The flu killed 80,000 people in the US last season; please get flu shots for yourself and your family if you can.
A couple of years ago, I was discussing potential keynote topics with a group of conference planners. “How about fundraisers’ role in addressing systemic injustice,” I said, “including the need to have courageous conversations with donors about difficult topics like slavery, colonization, wealth disparity, and reparation? I’ll start with some light humor, maybe a few pictures of adorable kittens, and then BAM—racism!”
“Uh,” said the planners, “I’m not sure our members are ready for…that…” There was an awkward silence. I ate some BBQ chips. In the foreground, some tumbleweeds rolled by. A horse snorted nervously.
This happens a lot. This belief that others are not “ready” for things, that they are too fragile to handle stuff. I’m going to call it Gatekeeper Fragility, aka Meta-Fragility, a sense of emotional discomfort caused by thinking of others’ potential experiencing of emotional discomfort, which leads to prevention of uncomfortable conversations and gatekeeping of progress. Here are other examples of this. While it applies to anything, for instance an ED afraid that their team can’t handle the truth about financial troubles, or a grantwriter afraid to give feedback to funders about their crappy grant practices, I’m going to focus on issues of equity:
- An ED or board chair thinking that white board members are not ready to handle the topic of white privilege
- A board afraid that donors will leave if their org publicly denounces white supremacy and hatred
- A membership organization fearing to rock the boat by having racial equity be a central theme of a conference, and not just a track
- Moderators on a Facebook Group shutting down threads on issues of race, ableism, transphobia, etc., or banning folks who bring up these issues
- A foundation staff not wanting to point out to the board trustees that the board is mostly white and that 90% of their grants have been going to white-led organizations
- Any of us, afraid we’ll offend our colleagues if we give them constructive feedback when they did something racist, misogynistic, or ableist
Yes, there are certainly power dynamics in many situations, like giving feedback to a funder (Funder Fragility is definitely a thing, which is why mechanisms like GrantAdvisor.org exist), or junior staff—who are often BIPOCs—calling out senior colleagues—who are often white. But oftentimes, it’s an assumption that others are fragile and can’t mentally or emotionally handle certain conversations, and I’ve observed that it’s often those with the most power and privilege who have these assumptions. Those with the most privilege are often the most emotionally fragile and meta-fragile. And we need to solve this problem, for several reasons:
We are gatekeeping progress: To do this work effectively, we all need to grapple with difficult issues like white supremacy, racism, slavery, colonization, misogyny, bigotry, power, privilege, and the ways we each may be complicit in perpetuating injustice. By ignoring hard conversations because we’re afraid that other people’s feelings might get hurt or whatever, we’re preventing progress from being made, which goes against our sector’s mission.
We are are stepping on people’s autonomy: Most of the people we work with are not kids, and even many kids are able to have challenging conversations. People are grown-ass adults, so trust them to be able to handle things, including whatever discomfort that may arise. And if they’re not ready for certain conversations—like about white privilege and racism—then they have the choice, as adults, to leave.
We are blocking people’s personal and professional growth: Some of the best growth is achieved through having uncomfortable conversations. You may be thinking you’re doing someone a favor by withholding difficult feedback or preventing them from hearing challenging perspectives until they’re more “ready,” but you might actually just be stopping them from getting information and practicing critical thinking skills that could be helpful for their career and life.
I know, it’s not as simple as I’m making it out to be. Sometimes people aren’t ready to discuss certain things. On occasions, I bring up a difficult topic and watch people in the room lean back or become visibly upset, despite the pictures of kittens on my presentation slides. But I think that’s actually a good thing. We have to embrace these conversations, embrace the discomfort, and be OK with the fact that some people will be uncomfortable if we want to advance equity and justice.
So, let’s get over meta-fragility and start having difficult conversations and challenging people. But let’s keep these things in mind:
See if you may be projecting your own thoughts and feelings: When you say “others are not ready to have this conversation on the 1619 Project,” do you really mean YOU’RE not ready to have this conversation? Do some reflection and be honest with yourself.
Be OK with losing some people: Our work shouldn’t be held hostage by people’s various forms of fragility. If your board is “not ready” or extremely resistant to discuss transphobia or white supremacy and you can’t seem to persuade them, then maybe instead of not having these discussions, you…get new board members.
Don’t get this confused with allowing hatred or ignorance to have platforms: People who advance terrible stuff have successfully appropriated the concept of “free speech” or “diverse perspectives” to further their awful views. Do not fall into the trap of allowing anti-vaxxers, climate change deniers, racists, bigots, transphobes, etc., time in the limelight.
Let us all get over Gatekeeper Fragility so we can be more effective in our work. Let me know your thoughts. And Happy World Wombat Day! Please get your flu shot if you can and haven’t.
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