The Brussels Sprouts of Equity

[Image description: A bunch of green brussels sprouts, on a stalk. Image by Skitterphoto on Pixabay]

Hi everyone, just a reminder that if you’re free on May 23rd at 10am Pacific, please join Hildy Gottlieb and me on this free webinar to discuss Catalytic Thinking and how to get our sector out of the rut. Auto-captions will be available.

One of the greatest joys of my life is being a parent. I always joke though that having a baby is like getting a multi-year federal grant: At first you’re elated, then you realize how much work it takes, and the requirements change every year. One of those requirements is feeding them. Children, with very few exceptions, are picky and unpredictable eaters. They go through phases where they’ll only eat plain pasta. Or bread innards. Or cashews they find on the floor, garnished with dust bunnies.

Why am I talking about kids’ eating habits? I bring it up because one of the questions I get asked most is “How do you keep going when you try to effect change, especially around DEI, and it just goes nowhere?” Colleagues bring up attempting to get their board to adopt salary transparency, or their ED to approve trainings around anti-racism, or their foundation board trustees to give more funding to marginalized-communities-led organizations, etc. Often these efforts get rebuffed, and it feels futile.

A lot of our work is like an ongoing quest to feed the brussels sprouts of equity to finicky toddlers. We know it’s good for them. We try to make it as appealing as possible. And often they will dismiss it, or they throw a tantrum, or they reluctantly taste it once and spit it out. But here’s the thing. According to research, it takes kids 8 to 15 exposures to a food before they develop a liking to it. However, most parents give up after 3 to 5 times. (And that’s why so few kids have kohlrabi as their favorite vegetable).  

So what may feel futile is actually part of the process. For the past several years, for example, I’ve been ranting about overhead. I think it is ridiculous that we still must talk about it and that some foundations are still fixated on it. Endless studies have shown how effective general operating funds are. And the hyperfocus on making sure nonprofits have low overhead rates disproportionately affects organizations led by and serving marginalized communities, because they tend to be smaller, and it’s harder to have lower overhead rate when you don’t have a finance team that can dissect numbers and finesse all of this made-up garbage to appeal to funders’ and donors’ Bronze Age views on the topic.

I and so many others have been saying the above to anyone who would listen, including many funders, and getting more and more distraught that the message keeps having to be repeated. But one day, a foundation credited something I said at their conference for their move away from restricted funding and toward general operating. It took several years, and who knew what finally kicked them into gear.

That’s just one example. A significant part of our profession feels like beating our heads against a wall. Do not despair, thinking that what you are doing is having no effect. You may think that bringing up an important equity consideration at a meeting or retreat, or passing along an article, or bringing in a local consultant, etc., and then nothing changing means you failed. But maybe you didn’t. You may have delivered the 4th or 5th or 8th exposure out of the 12 or 15 exposures that it takes for the message to be perceived and internalized.

Our work, especially the work around equity, is not simple or direct or easy. It often feels pointless, and it’s tempting to give up after trying three to five times. But don’t. You may have to try some new strategies, such as finding someone with formal power who has already bought into what you’re trying to do and get them to deliver a serving to their peers. Or you may need to expedite things by inundating people with exposures over a short period of time.

All of this, of course, comes with a caveat. Some of us, especially those from marginalized communities, are very tired of force-feeding equity, diversity, inclusion, and justice to reluctant toddlers who wield unearned power and influence, and it seems like they’ve had 18 or 30 exposures to the brussels sprouts of DEI and are still very resistant to change. That’s fair. New strategies may be needed, including figuring out how to remove these people from their positions, or using public shaming (like Crappy Funding Practices), or advancing legislation.

Still, point is, a lot of change comes from persistent effort over a long period of time. It comes with frustration and exhaustion and a fair amount of cussing, trying to get people to like these deep-fried brussels sprouts of equity drizzled with the balsamic glaze of justice. Sometimes you may have to put down the spoon and rest and have others take over. But don’t give up or feel like what you’re doing isn’t making a difference. You may be one serving away from a breakthrough, and if not, you may have pushed someone or an organization or movement one step closer toward that breakthrough.