Below I offer an analysis of IMPACT Chicago using the Characteristics of White Supremacy Culture developed by Tema Okun to consider the ways it is (and is not) an empowering culture. This analysis was prompted by recent organizational discussions about if and how to adopt an explicitly anti-racist mission statement. Thank you to Amy Amoroso, Ellyn Bank, Amy Harmon, and Martha Thompson for their helpful input on this analysis. I am writing from my perspective as a long-time volunteer with IMPACT Chicago, not for the organization. [Editor’s note: see below.]
Culture of Improvement (instead of Perfectionism). IMPACT Chicago is forward-focused and seeks to continually improve. In my experience, IMPACT Chicago people routinely adopt a problem-solving mindset, rather than a blaming one. We are an organization that is open to learning and to change. Mistakes as we learn are expected.
Realistic Planning & Solid Decision-Making Processes (instead of Sense of Urgency). In numerous ways, IMPACT does an effective job at planning realistically and making decisions rationally. Examples include:
- Our grant proposals do not over promise and allow the necessary time for partnering with organizations to meet their needs. All of our grant work has been centered on community groups. Their needs have been at the forefront.
- Our training timelines recognize that building the level of quality we need takes repeated experiences and time to internalize, reflect, and redo.
- Also, our shared governance structure (board, instructors, admin) is designed to push us to build consensus, although this can take more time.
In terms of areas for improvement, examples include:
- Filling classes has consistently put pressure on our decision-making and planning. The sense of urgency around filling classes falls disproportionately on the shoulders of our Registration Coordinator. We have shifted work to promote courses much earlier and this is proving helpful.
- Many people feel rushed because we are all doing this work on the margins of our lives. There is no one who has IMPACT as their primary focus.
Call-In Culture (instead of Defensiveness). IMPACT has done well creating a call-in culture through the curriculum, in the following ways:
- the focus is on front-loading principles to our students (e.g. a focus on behavior rather than appearance to communicate an anti-racist stance).
- Feedback to participants is given in a manner that is forward-focused (e.g., what they can do next, rather than what they didn’t quite get).
- The instructor and workshop leader teams regularly review feedback from participants and adapt our programming to address concerns and make improvements.
- Our training process requires those in training to receive large amounts of feedback and incorporate it into their work.
In IMPACT Chicago, behind-the-scenes organizational work is largely done by women. Given our mission this is no surprise, but this pattern holds up across the not-for-profit world. I believe we need to accurately represent who has done the work, particularly when it is routine and unglamorous work. This work should be visible and valued. Pointing this out can be mistaken for defensiveness. In fact, this is an act of calling-in and I believe forms an important part in the fight for equity.
When people propose ideas without learning about what has been done or when people assume something is not being done because they are not aware of it, I have personally experienced defensiveness and have observed it in others. It is a challenge to ask people who volunteer their labor to run the organization to continually educate others about the work that is being done, when they could be keeping up with that information independently (by participating in social media, reading IMPACT’s blog, reading the eNews - to name a few). I have found it demoralizing to hear suggestions to do something a certain way when that is how it is already being done.
IMPACT tries to make invisible work visible so that it can be appreciated. Our current culture is one of appreciation within teams, but I believe we could improve appreciation across teams.
Quality over Quantity (instead of Quantity Over Quality). IMPACT Chicago has consistently chosen quality over quantity in all our programs. Instructor and Workshop Leader Training is rigorous and effective. Conflicts are handled with respect and with an eye toward establishing a high-quality process (e.g., how to fix the process that may be fueling the conflict).
Many Ways of Knowing (instead of Worship of the Written Word). As a largely virtual organization except when courses are taking place, IMPACT Chicago uses written policy, notes, and task tracking to communicate. However, our training recognizes that “doing” is an irreplaceable part of learning and our training is centered on “doing.” Experiences are processed in conversation with feedback.
Democratic (instead of Paternalism). Our organization chart is not hierarchical because we know that each area (admin, board, instructors) has to step up to lead but always in conversation and collaboration with the other parts. We could improve in terms of balancing the workload across the teams. In the recent past, the board has served solely as a sounding board without responsibility for fund-raising, board development, financial oversight or other areas that could rightly sit with them.
Both/And Thinking (instead of Either/Or Thinking). Our problem-solving mindset helps us maintain “both/and thinking.” We seek to understand and deal with complex situations, rather than simplifying or minimizing. We step outside binary thinking in terms of gender, which is important since we primarily are serving people who identify as women and girls . The IMPACT Chicago’s “Yes And” campaign (inspired by improv theater) reflects this approach.
Power Sharing (instead of Power Hoarding). An ongoing struggle is finding people to share the power and the work.
Embracing Constructive Conflict (instead of Fear of Open Conflict). We actively worked on this in the late 1990s and have continued to build our capacity for handling low level conflict in a constructive way. Several prescriptive models (including an adaptation of Rosenberg’s concept of Non-Violent Communication) have been used and help people hold one another accountable for constructively handling conflict when it arises and for reflecting upon what happened if things did not go smoothly.
Collectivism (instead of Individualism). Our work is explicitly not about individuals, but about community. Our instruction goes beyond “personal safety.” We do not talk about sexual assault as a private problem or as something that operates at an individual level. We are focused on violence prevention and community safety. Teamwork is central to our curriculum. Cooperation is valued. We could invest more in learning to work as part of a team following the model set by the Instructor Team.
Sustainable (instead of Progress is Bigger, More). Given that the organization is mostly volunteer-run, progress has been defined as filling our existing programs rather than growing them. Until we are able to offset the costs of our Core Programs, we will not be able to achieve sustainability. To develop greater sustainability, we need to have buy-in from across the organization for programming that is not currently being fulfilled locally or nationally and which does not depend on our expensive and longer length programs. Examples of offerings other than our longer programs include, working with local high schools to deliver their self-defense units or working with organizations serving people with disabilities to regularly offer training to staff and clients.
Subjective/Contextual (instead of Objectivity). We teach tools, not rules and that context matters. Our training emphasizes that a person’s experience is their own and we should not impose our interpretation onto them. We may offer alternative views or provide options for the future while affirming their reality. We are not bothered by being uncomfortable and see it as an important part of growth.
The IMPACT Curriculum has stood up well across cultures, in part due to our structurally- and culturally-situated approach to empowerment-based self-defense. In addition, our programs have been adapted to address different lived experiences (e.g., the IMPACT: Ability curriculum), and we are actively engaged in extending this work (e.g., gender inclusivity). In addition, we collaborate with our workshop clients to ensure we are meeting their needs. The tension here is always that we have limited staff and volunteer capacity.
While we will continue to improve our course content and scrutinize it closely, I believe that our curriculum provides a solid foundation for being both explicitly anti-racist and gender inclusive.
Discomfort (instead of Right to Comfort). As noted above, we value discomfort. In our programs, we encourage participants to embrace the unknown. Our work is not just about safety, it is about freedom. In terms of our teamwork, we often take discomfort as a signal that our process might not be heading us in a direction consistent with our mission, that the task at hand might have to be rethought, or that the interpersonal dynamics need some attention. We are comfortable with the idea that discomfort may be due to a lack of familiarity and does not necessarily need to be fixed.
While IMPACT Chicago has a solid foundation of inclusive practices, there is, and always will be, more work to be done. As with all organizations, the culture needs to be sustained through care and attention to what work gets done and how that work gets done. Yes And!
-- Lisa Amoroso, July 2020
Reference: Okun, Tema, 2001, “White Supremacy Culture,” in Dismantling Racism: A Workbook for Social Change Groups, Eds: Kenneth Jones & Tema Okun, www.dismantlingracism.org.
Editor’s Note: Lisa Amoroso has been a dedicated and effective volunteer for almost thirty years. She has served in all three major leadership areas in IMPACT Chicago (staff, board, and instruction) and in these many leadership positions has been a sounding board and support for Martha Thompson, Director Emeritus and currently Admin Team Co-Leader. Some of Lisa’s many contributions:
- Admin Team Co-Leader 2012-2020, website, database, development of standards, & so much more.
- Board Chair and Board member
- Fund Drive creator and coordinator, 1995-2020
- Class Assistant and Mat Mover
- Workshop Leader, 2018-present