Last year, True North EDI honed in on four core values that represent both our internal and external approaches to community and change. Those values are Illumination, Creativity, Joyful Orientation, and Grace. When our team met at the end of the year to celebrate our successes and reflect on what we’d learned this past year, we found it difficult to capture the complexity of all that had happened. As a thought exercise, we each took one of our core values and used it as a lens to think about and share our experience in the field. Below, we wanted to share some of what came up in that conversation.
We leaned heavily on the value of Illumination this past year. For us, this value often means we are making what was previously invisible to some of us (or many of us), visible to the whole.
It’s become clear to us that the most successful partnerships we had with clients this year were the result of meaningful and intentional relationships. Understanding the client, their field of work, and how EDI could deepen their commitment to their mission and vision set the foundation for the strongest partnerships. We helped make visible to these organizations how the values of EDI can help them be who they say they are in the world.
It was even better when we were curious about what kind of learners/doers our partners were and how we could be responsive to those learners, while still designing to center the experience of the most marginalized people in the space. We recently had a client say to us that they had never worked with a consultant firm that so deeply seemed to understand what it was that they were trying to do in the world. This knowing, connecting, and illuminating was always a strong start.
The landscape of our work in EDI is changing. The majority of our new clients (and many of our current clients) have had some kind of EDI training or consultancy in the past 2 years. For many new clients, that work was extensive. However, we know that extensive doesn’t necessarily mean robust. With this in mind, creativity was central to meaningful partnerships.
It’s our experience that the landscape that we and many of our clients entered into when they began the work of EDI was like a 2D map that lacked texture. It was commonplace to approach the work through a deficit lens; “organizations lack this knowledge and these understandings and when they have that knowledge they will behave differently and create better policy”. This is part of white supremacy culture; it renders people and processes two dimensional. Within that space there’s no place for complexity or generative conflict, but most importantly there was no clear vision for what equity would look, feel and sound like both internally and externally if the work was successful.
Now that the landscape has become more clear, we’re feeling that reality in a new way in our organizations. Clients who entered this work through the lens of information are now seeing that this is not an issue of cognition-none of us can just think our way out of it. It’s true that people currently may have more content knowledge than they have in the past, but what have they done with that knowledge? In the worst cases, the access to endless content and information rendered some people frozen; the knowledge availed them of nothing but fear, avoidance, and guilt. This is where we feel True North EDI’s central framework, Elemental Design, is a crucial tool. Elemental Design aims to creatively balance the spirit, embodiment, and emotion with the intellectual aspects of the work. It requires balance and texture which we’ve felt the field has historically lacked.
We need whole people in the fight against racism and inequity. We ultimately want to leave our clients in a position to create change because we’ve guided them through a creative and responsive praxis (theory, reflection, action). We also want to create the conditions for feeling some ease, agility and possibility in the work.
Pain does not live at the center of our work.
Last year, we were asked to participate in a conference that required us to write a description of a workshop we would be facilitating. After submitting a description, the program manager asked that we revise the language by outlining some of the “pain points” we would be addressing. We spent a good amount of time trying to brainstorm additional language that centered these so-called pain points and found ourselves struggling. It wasn’t an outlandish request, but the approach was misaligned with our own.
For a long time, be it intentional or not, our field has centered the pain of BIPOC as the catalyst for white understanding. This approach would show up in our opening questions about experiences and in the videos, articles, and diatribes we would share. The umbrella of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion and all the work that falls within it is truly expansive, and while we do not want to shame anyone’s approach or strategies, we’ve learned that like anyone or anything else, we can cause harm if we aren’t careful about who and what we center.
Pain helps us learn by creating fear, but fear can cause paralysis. Paralysis, in this context, is the antithesis of growth. For those who have experienced more than enough pain as the result of oppressive systems, why would those individuals want to sit through a three-hour workshop that is placing that pain at the center of the experience? In 2022, we shared this perspective with many clients as we co-created engagements and scopes of work. Because of this sharing, we found ourselves in more meaningful and healthy conversations that prompted us to reimagine what this work might look like in truly diverse professional spaces. More than ever we relied on our values-centered and organizational health model that aims to allow each individual—regardless of their background—to step in from where they are and walk away with the same opportunities for learning and growth as everyone else.
Nothing in our Joyful Orientation value is meant to deny or divert our eyes from the existence of the individual and collective pain that this work requires us to navigate. It does, however, serve as a critical reminder that we all have a right to joy, in all its complexity and richness.
We’ve learned that grace and perfectionism are unhappy bedfellows. Grace can mean a lot of things. It can mean forgiveness, compassion, and for many, evoke a sense of something greater than one’s self. For True North EDI, we think of grace as most akin to the concept of ‘space.’ Within that space, all of the above and more can be deposited, and it is up to individuals and collectives to decide what that space looks like. Regardless of what that is, we’ve learned that growth through and toward equity requires the movement and possibilities that only grace can allow for.
The space created by so-called perfectionism, on the other hand, is not human-sized; it is cramped, binding, and forces us into a paradigm of winning and losing. While our TNEDI workshops and learning programs call out the risk of allowing perfectionism to be an underlying operating value, it has proven to be easier said than done. In 2022, we saw many of our clients and their respective professional communities arrive at the crossroad where their commitment to equity and an operating value of perfectionism intersect. When grace was present during those moments, we witnessed restorative practices that allowed for the transformation of conflict and spaces created for sharing and authentic listening. We saw commitments to prioritize impact over intent whilst still acknowledging the humanity of intent. The presence of grace allowed these organizations to proceed clumsily but forward toward whatever ‘true north’ they set for themselves.
Like everything else, we put the concept of grace through an equity lens. To whom is grace historically extended and to whom is it denied? When is grace being used as a reason to wait for change that is long overdue? When do we extend grace at the cost of our personhood and dignity? These are questions we continue to grapple with.
Whether you are in a position of leadership or another member of a professional community, it’s important to remember we are creating a world none of us have ever seen. There is no agreed upon standard or model, no manual for us to refer to. We have lessons learned and meaningful data, but those have never been in short supply. What we need more than ever is the space to imagine and iterate, to stumble and stand, and permission to find our way as a collective of whole and complex human beings.
In the months to come, we hope to share our official values language that outlines what each truly means for us at True North EDI as well as public opportunities to engage with us. In the meantime, we wish you a year of peace and prosperity that comes with the pursuit of collective liberation. We hope for more opportunities to partner, co-conspire, and continue sharing our passion and expertise.
Your friends at True North EDI