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The Words Matter

By Elena Hilton

One of my favorite movies of the past few years is Arrival, which stars Amy Adams as a linguistics professor who’s recruited to figure out how to communicate with aliens that have landed on Earth. I’m not one for sci-fi stories, but as a writer, I love how the movie centers on the role that language and communication play in expressing who we are, how we think, and how we view the world. Words are more than just letters strung together. They shape our ideas, how we process information, and how we form judgments. And they are among the most powerful tools we have.

During my first month at Mission Partners, I took part in Mission Forward’s Race and Identity Training. I learned so much valuable information during that one-day session, but the activities around equitable and inclusive language stood out to me most. Prior to the training, I thought I had the tools to incorporate equity into my work, but it’s less about knowing everything, and more about continuing to learn and question the systems as I know them. In the workshop, we addressed our own identities, where we hold power and privilege, and where we are often pushed to the margins. My identity as a white woman in the United States allows me certain unearned privileges because of my race, while my gender means I must navigate the effects of sexist cultural values and policies. 

To that end, I wanted to share some tips I took away from our Race and Identity training, and continue to use in my day-to-day work at Mission Partners. Hopefully they will spark some a-ha moments for you, too:

  • Labels don’t apply to everyone.

Our brains are constantly searching for ways to categorize information through labeling, but certain words and phrases that might be embraced by some, could be shunned by others. When thinking about how to describe individuals and communities, it’s important to remember there are no “one-size-fits-all” labels. As a white woman, the most important thing I can do is ask, listen, and research, because my identity means there are many community experiences I don’t know firsthand. When discussing communities, I make a concerted effort to determine how those communities refer to themselves. When discussing individuals within communities, I’ve found the best course of action is to ask what terms they’re comfortable with, listen, and adapt to people’s preferences.

  • Think twice about the word “empower.”

“Empower” seems like a bold, positive word, doesn’t it? I definitely thought so, but during Mission Forward’s Race and Identity training, I learned to think about it from a different perspective. When we say an organization or a movement is empowering people, what we’re really saying is that those individuals don’t have power or agency on their own and require help from outside forces. Of course, that’s not true. Instead of using the word empower, consider using “support,” “offering tools,” or “working together to achieve a goal.”

  • Say what you mean.

Racially-coded language is embedded in so much of our day-to-day communications, you might not even realize how certain words have contributed to bias and discrimination. When writing, take a step back and think about what your words imply, paying careful attention to common phrases. One of the most commonly used terms when talking about young people who live in under-resourced communities is “at-risk.” Ask yourself, at-risk of what? Living in a certain area doesn’t make you a risk. A young person living in an under-resourced community shouldn’t feel like they are to blame for the institutionalized barriers impacting their life. 

Don’t be afraid to call out systems of oppression. A word that gets avoided a lot is racism, especially in reference to statements made by people in positions of power. If something is racist, say it’s racist. Don’t say it’s “racially charged” or “inappropriate.” In fact, many news outlets, such as NPR, have explained their decision to label some of President Trump’s tweets racist. By explicitly calling out racist tropes, NPR listeners who weren’t familiar with the history of the phrase “go back where you came from” had an opportunity to learn. So, let’s call racism what it is so we can work to address it by offering solutions on how we can move towards combating it.

If you, like me, are always searching for ways to make your communications materials more thoughtful and inclusive, I’d encourage you to check out this resource that’s been enlightening for me: SumOfUs.org’s Progressive Style Guide.

  • When in doubt, use statistics.

Data is your friendwhen used correctly. Words alone pose a challenge in crafting a complete, accurate narrative. “Aggregating” data by lumping groups together usually is not the right course of action, as it can erase identities. For instance, think twice before saying you have statistics on “Hispanic women.” Categories like this are typically far too overarching and likely can’t fully depict the individual cultures and backgrounds that fall within them. Disaggregated data ensures that people in communities are not viewed as a monolith. 

To offer some ideas, data points and research could be used to dispel the myth that the racial wealth gap is the result of individual actions. Or you could use data to show how racism causes higher Black maternal mortality rates and many other health-related problems. Just keep in mind that research, like language, can hold biases based on how its compiled, so do your due diligence to ensure the statistics and data at hand aren’t worsening or ignoring existing disparities. 

  •  Use people-first language.

The simple way you place a word to either be an adjective or a noun can make all the difference in how your audience thinks about the person you’re describing. Instead of saying “homeless person,” reframe your syntax to say a person experiencing homelessness. Instead of “foster child,” say child in foster care. People are so much more than their situations and environments. 

  • Continue learning.

What I am learning here at Mission Partners is using equitable and inclusive language doesn’t happen without effort. It requires an intentional commitment to continually learning about intersectionality and applying that knowledge on a daily basis. Above all else, know that communication has the power to shape our thinking and our culture at large. When you mindfully choose inclusive and equitable language, you’re helping to encourage a more inclusive and equitable world. 

Interested in learning more about how you can bring equity and inclusion to the forefront of your work? Reach out to us for a cup of coffee, or join us at Mission Forward’s next Race and Identity Training on December 11. 

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The Power of Equitable Design (And 3 Tips to Become a More Inclusive Communicator)

By Eleni Stamoulis

“Design creates culture.”

One of my professors from grad school said this to my class when teaching us about the ethics of graphic design. He then showed us national campaigns he designed that sexualized women or encouraged young people to smoke. He was not proud of these successful designs, but shared them with us to show what our responsibilities were as young designers. It was the first time I realized that my work as a graphic designer has a much larger impact than simply conveying information in a visually appealing way.

Since starting at Mission Partners, I’ve been able to see first hand the impact design has on how messages are received and audiences are engaged (or left behind). Every day, we think about these intended and unintended consequences in our work, realizing that there’s design in everything we do and every decision we make—whether designer is in our title or not. We practice inclusive marketing and equitable design, which works to create social change through design and reflects our diverse world. In essence, it is “design for good.

We are a visual society. With the explosion of social media, the visual literacy of our culture has only increased. Think of how many platforms are purely image-based and why social content with images produce 180% more engagementImages are a common language we can all understand. But, if you were to go through today building a collection of all the images you see on social media and in digital advertising, what do you think you’d find? And what—or who—might be missing? In inclusive marketing and equitable design, the images and graphics that are being put out into the world should reflect the diverse and accepting world we want for the future—a world with less hate.   

As I reflect on my own growing practice of equitable design, I wanted to share the top three tips that I think can benefit all communicators—including those who don’t have “designer” in their title: 

1. Be more intentional about stock photography. 

It’s important to show a variety of races, cultures, genders, sexual orientation, ages, abilities, and body types. But also be aware of the positioning and context of the photo. For example, in a recent project, a coworker sent me this photo to use. The image depicts a brainstorming session in a workplace, with a mature, white man in the center writing on the glass wall, with a Black woman on the right and a white woman on the left. While it’s a great photo, it shows the white, male figure as the leader, consequently putting both women in a subordinate role. The image subtly perpetuates the societal notion that white, males are the leaders in the workplace. Instead I sent my coworker two alternative images to use—both are similar brainstorming sessions with sticky notes on the wall. The first shows an Asian woman at the front of the group and the second photo, a Black woman (actually the same Black woman from the original photo). These two images conveyed the same message, but a woman of color was in the leadership position. While this may seem subtle, it’s a small way to challenge existing assumptions and stereotypes. My favorite sites for diverse, free stock images are Unsplash.com, Pexels.com, Burst by Shopify, and Nappy.co. (If you can invest some money into stock imagery, I suggest PhotoAbility.net and RepresentationMatters.me for great photos of people with differing abilities and body shapes, respectively)

2. Make your design accessible for people with differing abilities. 

Don’t forget that inclusive marketing materials and equitable designs don’t just consider what goes into the final product, but who will see and read them. It can feel overwhelming to think about all the accessibility issues that need to be addressed, but your social media is a great first place to begin. Start by adding alt text to your images so people with visual impairments can enjoy them as well. Alt text, or alternative text, is used to convey the information that the visual represents when it cannot be seen by the user. For people using screen readers, this is the text that is used to explain the photo or image. Adding it is slightly different for each platform so simply Google “How to add alt text on [insert social media platform]” to find out how. Other ways you can ensure accessibility in your designs is to run graphics through a colorblind simulator or add captions to a video. 

3. Make sure the images match the words/message. 

When all is said and done, words are unbeatable in their ability to be precise and detailed. It is important that your message is consistent across both the visuals and the written language. Not only will the message be clearer for your audience, it will be a more powerful, memorable, and lasting message.The visuals of a project are often dictated by the message, so it’s important to make sure your message is clear/provides a solid foundation to build on. If you’re interested in creating a message centered on equity or in getting more tips on the good work you’re already doing, register for one of our Mission Forward® workshops on equity. We host two separate workshops that can help you be more equitable in your language: 

  • Race + Identity Workshop works on building shared language for addressing and reducing harmful environments at work, providing guidance on effective practices and the latest language around diversity, equity and inclusion. Our two-pronged approach addresses both institutionalized racism and oppression as well as the interpersonal racism and oppression. 
  • Equity + Design Thinking Workshop helps you work through your stickiest communication challenge. You’ll learn how to apply a human-centered, equity lens to very specifically to your communications materials, messages and process. Our team will help you work through your current or upcoming communication materials to make sure you are communicating through an equity lens and finding the right solutions to the problem.

As Antionette Carroll, founder and creative visionary of Creative Reaction Lab has said, “Design is the intentional and unintentional impact behind an outcome.” And, as we often remind our clients and workshop attendees, we are ALL designers, even if we don’t have the degree or title. Every decision we make, every message we develop, has consequences and can easily reinforce or break long held stereotypes and biases. There’s great power in design—and equitable design ensures that you can use that power for good.

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Why Listening to All Sides Matters

group of diverse people covering their ears

By Carrie Fox

Last weekend, I was listening to a radio program when I heard a fascinating interview. Truth is, I can’t remember the name of the individual being interviewed. I can’t even remember why he was chosen to be featured in the story.

But I remember very clearly what he said.

The radio interviewer asked this individual—an immigrant from Peru and small business owner in Texas—about derogatory language that has been used by the President specifically in reference to Hispanic and Latino immigrants: “When you hear those words,” she said, “you don’t hear him speaking about people like yourself?”

“You know,” he said, “the way I see it is, he speaks his mind. And I take from it only what I want to hear.”

When the interviewer pressed him, asking again whether he agreed with the President, he said:

“You know what? I don’t pay attention to it.”

Taking only what I need to hear? Not paying attention to it?

I wish I could say that this felt unusual when I heard it (it certainly felt uncomfortable), but it’s not all that different from what I’ve heard many times in interviews and conversations over the last few years.

This individual had every right to feel the way he did, but it might not have been the best approach.

Here’s why:

In politics, philanthropy, or professional settings, it’s common to “hear what we need to hear,” and to conveniently disregard the rest. In fact, a study published by the American Psychological Association found that people were twice as likely to select information that supported their own point of view rather than consider an opposing idea.

Science confirms: we hear what we want to hear and we disregard the rest.

It’s this issue exactly that led me to write about the troubles of like-mindedness recently, and why Mission Partners now hosts regularly sold-out workshops on how to bridge cultural and communications gaps in and out of the workplace. It’s why we train on how to build healthy, inclusive, and racially-conscious work environments, and—I suspect—it’s why we’ve seen a significant increase in requests to conduct perception research. Rather than traditional market research on a key issue area or brand, we’re conducting research on how organizations—and their leaders—are seen and perceived by others. It’s the perfect tool for organizations who are ready to fill gaps in understanding, and organizations who want to hear the whole story, especially after they’ve too long prioritized hearing only what they wanted to hear.

But, what’s interesting is that organizations aren’t necessarily calling us to ask for perception research. They’re calling because they want to understand why their donations are dwindling, why their membership numbers are falling, and why their subscribers are leaving. (Sound like a question you’ve wondered, too?)

The reality is, in nearly every case, it’s because at some point, the organization simply stopped listening, and started hearing only what they wanted to hear. The good news is: conducting a perception audit can give an organization exactly what it needs—including what it needs to hear—to build a powerful comeback.

Simply put: There’s great value and power in understanding what’s being said, even if you chose to disregard it the first time. And while hearing the information might not be easy, it’s also not out of reach.

Consider this:

  • The next time you’re in discussion with someone you disagree with, don’t try to “win” and don’t try to convince anyone of your viewpoint. Instead, sit quietly, listen, and keep an open mind. Ask them to convince you and see what you can learn from their point of view.
  • Or, the next time you feel compelled to share a link on social media about current events, ask yourself why you are doing it. Is it because that link brings to light information you hadn’t considered? Or does it confirm your currently-held world view? Instead of posting that news link, consider tracking down an article that makes a counterpoint and engage your network in an entirely new perspective.
  • And, as I shared in my like-mindedness post, vary your listening habits. Instead of listening to the same morning news program every day, consider trying something completely different. See what you can learn when you simply listen to a different perspective.

Whether we like it or not, we all tend to believe that our opinions are very well-informed and valid, even though we often don’t know why we think the way we do. It’s simply easier to believe what we want, or what we’ve always believed. But there’s no knowledge or power in that. Instead, work hard to listen, and to understand beyond what you believe.

Then, see if your opinion still stands.

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Four Ways that Organizations Miss the Mark on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Efforts

Two people of different races and genders sitting in front of their laptops

By Becky George

It has long been known that there are quite a few gaps to fill in the arena of diversity, equity and inclusion. Often, well-intentioned organizations try to tackle this work in some capacity but, in reality, may not have the resources or people-power to make it as effective as possible.  

At Mission Partners, we have committed to boldly speaking equity and working towards a more just world. We lead with racial equity and steer away from diversity-only conversations. Internally, we model how one might address this in their own workplace and want to share learnings and pitfalls. We have years of experience helping organizations develop their own equity action plans to meet and exceed their goals on diversity, equity and inclusion. 

Our Mission Forward® Race + Identity workshop is an important first step that provides guidance on effective practices and the latest language around diversity, equity and inclusion. Our two-pronged approach addresses both institutionalized racism and oppression as well as the interpersonal racism and oppression. We understand the importance of recognizing how these two levels of oppression cannot be solved without addressing the other. Unfortunately, we have seen this happen repeatedly which prevents progress from occurring. 

Here are some of the ways we’ve seen organizations miss the mark on equity work: 

  1. Hiring a “Diversity Officer” – Without full buy-in from all of senior leadership, staff members who are hired for this type of position may not be set up for success. Goals and deliverables set for this person will likely not be met due to an organization’s competing priorities.
  2. Letting work crises push equity work off the table – In times of crisis, it is easy to let things fall by the wayside to focus on what must happen to end the crisis. However, if equity-based work is not at the center of crisis strategy then the communities who need the support most will likely not be prioritized well.  
  3.  Relying on people of color to own all the “diversity” work – Although it is important for people of color to be key stakeholders and leaders in the work, it is a pitfall when they are the only stakeholders in the work. It is the duty of everyone within the organization to take ownership of the work to move into progress. 
  4. Continuing to do things the way they’ve always been done – If organizations do not take the time to examine their policies, practices and procedures, they risk replication of ongoing inequitable standards. 

The concept at the center of our Race + Identity workshops is to build a culture of empathy as well as develop shared language on racism. We use the time to brainstorm and learn what has and has not worked within organizations to create the next steps on how to implement more actionable equity plans in the workplace. 

| At Mission Forward®, we create transformational trainings that model what is possible in the world. We believe that the future will be inclusive and just. 

Each month, we bring together six thoughtful participants who are ready to tackle racial equity in their workplace and give them practical tools to do the work. As with all of our other workshops, we take a person-first approach in centering equity and justice. Soon, we will be debuting our executive-level Race + Identity workshop for C-Suite leaders and other senior leadership members. Contact us at connect@mission.partners to hear more. 

Our workshops are adaptable and relevant. No matter the industry or the discipline, whether you work on issues of healthcare or housing, to authentically center equity, there must be a willingness to talk about race and center anti-racism in all of our work.

To learn more about Mission Partners’ upcoming Race + Identity Workshops, and to reserve your seat, visit MissionForward.us


Listening and Taking Action on the Black Maternal Health Crisis in the U.S

Speakers on-stage at Mission Forward event

By Bayonia Marshall and Elena Hilton

Early last week, Mission Partners hosted its 2019 Mission Forward®  Spring Reception, Hear Her: A Call To Action on Maternal Mortality. Held at Kaiser Permanente’s Center for Total Health in Washington, D.C., this thought-provoking event featured distinguished speakers who offered a wide range of perspectives on Black maternal health and mortality. Our two panels approached this topic from both a local and national perspective, and we heard from prominent midwives, journalists, doctors, and policy leaders. This gave us all an opportunity to dive deeper into what actions are necessary to make progress toward equity in maternal health as well as our own areas of work.  

(On a personal note, Hear Her coincided with Elena’s first day joining the Mission Partners’ team as a new Strategist. “And what an amazing introduction to Mission Partners it was. I was blown away by the expertise of our speakers, and the enthusiasm and thoughtful participation from everyone in the audience was truly wonderful to see.”)

During the first panel of the day, Aza Nedhari, a Certified Professional Midwife, Family Counselor, and the Founding Executive Director of Mamatoto Village, and Ebony Marcelle, Director of Midwifery at Community of Hope/Family Health and Birth Center, spoke with Washington City Paper’s Kayla Randall about how Black women right here in the Washington, D.C. area have been directly affected by policies and a culture that undermine Black women’s authority on their own reproductive and maternal health. The inequities in the city—specifically in Ward 7 and 8—mean women living there often encounter far more barriers when searching for nearby health providers. In those areas specifically, maternity wards have closed  leaving people with few accessible options for care. Both Aza and Ebony emphasized how helpful collaboration between OBGYNs, midwives, and doulas can address inequities at all stages of maternal health, and how midwives and doulas should not be seen as luxuries that only wealthy women can access.

One point that really stuck with us was the distinction of how the issue is framed in the United States. Panelist Linda Villarosa, a New York Times Magazine contributor and Director of the Journalism Program at The City College of New York in Harlem, said it clearly: “When I first began [writing on maternal mortality], I thought ‘Oh, it’s about race.’ But [soon learned] it’s not about race. It’s about the impact of racism.” This sentiment was reaffirmed during each discussion throughout the morning. Black women’s voices and concerns are often brushed aside, and healthcare professionals have shown time and time again they don’t always trust Black women to be experts on their own health. By not only acknowledging racism and the disparities in the healthcare system but by taking action, we can help to address the underlying causes for Black maternal mortality and lower the number of preventable deaths in the country.

Along those lines, Dr. Joia Crear-Perry, Founder and President of the National Birth Equity Collaborative, also made an excellent point: “If we’re going to brag about American exceptionalism, we need to do things that are actually exceptional, like supporting healthcare for women and people of color.” Solving this crisis requires not only listening to and amplifying the voices of Black women and supporting Black women-led initiatives, but also advocating for healthcare policies that benefit underserved populations. Ensuring all hospitals accept Medicaid, and that doulas are recognized by each state as a vital part of maternal healthcare, will help make the U.S. a safer place for every pregnant person. Our panelists also encouraged women not to be wary about advocating for themselves. If one doctor isn’t listening to you, find one who will.

For those who were able to join us, we hope you gained as much from these conversations as we did. This is a call to action so we encourage you to not only listen, learn and invest but to take what you learned from Hear Her and apply this knowledge into building safer, healthier, and more inclusive communities where Black women’s voices are centered and lifted up.

If you would like a copy of our Call to Action guide, please email us at connect@mission.partners. We also recommend joining us in this lifetime commitment to anti-racism work by signing up for one of our workshops on equity and racial identity by visiting MissionForward.us.

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One of Many: A Black Woman’s Birth Story

Black mother looking at her baby

By Tasha Chambers

Note: Mission Partners is honored to share this guest blog post by Mission Partners’ senior strategist Tasha Chambers, in recognition of Black Maternal Health Week.

There are moments in life you never forget—a graduation, a wedding, the death of a loved one, and the birth of a child. By the time I was 34 years old, I had experienced all of these moments but to me, there was nothing more momentous than having a baby.

After about a year of trying to conceive, my husband and I were blessed with that experience.  

This baby, which was baby number two for us, would be the experience that I didn’t have with baby number one—a natural childbirth.

A historical lens on Black midwives

Explaining to my husband that I wanted a natural birth was not the easiest.

“Dou who?” he asked. “And, how much did you say her services cost again?”

The lack of knowledge on midwives and doulas, in my own community, is easily a result of the erasure of Black midwives and the appropriation of midwifery as many of us know it today. Black midwives brought with them, to birthings, the traditions of the African diaspora – community, singing, music, food, herbs and physical touch. It was truly a sacred experience.

Years later, that same sacred experience would be largely erased from Black culture. Black midwives, acting as both midwife and doula, would be forced to get permission from licensed doctors to perform their services. Black midwives’ homes were inspected, and they were required to take trainings for a service that was inherently their own.

Enforcing these terms was yet another low moment in this country’s history in the way it devalues Black women’s experience and knowledge.   

Struggling to find a Black midwife, many Black mommas I trusted referred me to a non-Black midwife who came highly recommended. She was the only option at that time.

Unfortunately, I was not able to move forward with her: She specialized in home deliveries, which was ruled out for me because of my previous Cesarean section. So, I went with the next best thing—selecting a doula to be my natural birth advocate in a hospital.

Yes, I am magic. And, my pain is also real.

Exhausted from Google searches and referrals, I selected a doula, a person who was not Black, who seemed to have a huge following and years of experience. With my due date rapidly approaching, I felt like she was the best option.

On April 5, 2016, my birth experience began. After about 50 hours of labor, my husband and I made our trek to the hospital for our natural birth. (Take a lesson from me: A natural birth at a hospital is not an ideal birth environment.)

Baby number two had not dropped low enough into the birth canal for delivery, and my water had not broken. My doula suggested that I forcibly break my water to speed up the process. I agreed with her recommendation, and she jetted off to another client. She sent a surrogate doula, another person who was not Black to stay with me while I labored, a disconnect from our agreed-upon birth plan.

Fast forward a few eventful hours and baby number two was delivered via a second C-section. My birth plan was disregarded. As if things couldn’t get worse, my blood pressure fell drastically and I spent two hours in surgery to stabilize.

After my blood pressure normalized, I was rolled to my room. When I arrived, the nurse began pressing on my stomach, which is not uncommon after a C-section but should only feel slightly tender with anesthesia.

This time, the pain from the nurse pushing on my stomach was so bad that I felt like I had jumped out of my body. I grabbed her hand and pleaded with her to stop. My OB-GYN tried next, and I did the same with him. I questioned why they would keep pressing on my stomach when I alerted them that I was in excruciating pain. I nearly blacked out from the pain.

The anesthesiologist came in next. He whispered: “They authorized me to give you the cheap [medicine]. It wears off quickly. I’ll give you something stronger.”

This was one of those moments I have never forgotten.

Even as a Black woman with quality health insurance, my medical providers made decisions and assumptions for me. They assumed my pain could be tolerated. They made a decision that I couldn’t afford to be comforted like others.

My pain didn’t matter. My birth plan didn’t matter. My motherhood didn’t matter.

Fighting for our birthright

While my last and final birth experience was traumatic, I was one of the lucky ones. In the US, 4 in 10,000 Black women do not survive complications before, during, or after birth.  

Data reveals that the United States has one of the worst maternal mortality rates among developed countries. Additionally, black women die from pregnancy-related issues nearly four times more often than white women.

Learn More. Join Mission Partners on Monday, May 20 for Hear Her: A Call to Action on Maternal Mortality in the U.S.

Black midwifery is resurging in our community helping to change our narrative. It is a joy to see that Black women have the opportunity to go through a birth experience with a midwife or doula who shares lived experiences, an understanding of the Godly work of our ancestors, and who sees their humanity. Hopefully, it means that other Black mothers won’t have to endure an experience like mine.

As a Black woman in America, my story is all too common. But in this year of 2019, it shouldn’t be. And it’s why I hope you’ll join me and the Mission Partners team on Monday, May 20 when we’ll bring maternal health experts, community leaders, and community members together, to help drive momentum towards creating change.


Bring on Your Unsolvable Problems

by Carrie Fox

What happens when you put a mechanical engineer squarely in the center of a university’s department of obstetrics and gynecology? No, this is not the start of a joke.

In fact, it’s at the center of one of the most fascinating research projects aimed at making childbirth safer.

Dr. Joy-Sarah Vink runs the pre-term birth prevention center at Columbia University Medical Center.  As she said earlier this week on NPR, “rare diseases are being cured in this day and age, but we don’t know what triggers full term labor…when it comes to pregnancy, basic research stalled decades ago.” Most of our research about pregnancy comes from research performed in the 1940s.

But, as other parts of the medical field have evolved, it’s those gaps in knowledge that become issues of life and death.

So, Dr. Vink teamed up with an unlikely ally in Kristin Myers, a mechanics and design teacher who got her start in the automotive industry studying how rubber works under high heat. Together, they’re advancing a powerful new research study to understand what leads to the loss of a pregnancy right on the cusp of viability.

I found this story by NPR’s Alison Kodjak especially fascinating because it’s a perfect reminder that some of our most complicated problems are at the root of some of our most basic and shared experiences. 

But, that’s often where the opportunity lies.

There’s great beauty and power in bringing together unlikely allies in the pursuit of problem solving. It’s an approach I’ve championed since the very beginning of my career, working with the team at The X PRIZE Foundation—an organization that at its heart challenges how we take on some of the world’s grandest challenges.

The reality is that when most of us have a problem to solve, we zero in, take it apart, and focus on that one problem until we have it solved—or think we have it solved. But what if we’re thinking wrong about how to find the right answer?

Putting problems at the center of our thoughts shuts down our creative abilities, but when we start by thinking about the solution, visioneering our desired ending, as my colleagues at the X Prize used to say, we have a far greater success rate of developing that much desired breakthrough idea.

That concept is at the center of our Equity+Design Thinking Days at Mission Partners. Each quarter, we welcome up to 8 people in our Bethesda office to bring on their stickiest social impact or communications challenges for a day of guided Design Thinking exercises designed to provide fresh perspective to the problem.

Design Thinking is a human-oriented problem-solving technique that involves exploring and reframing complex challenges to generate fresh, new solutions. The process was first described by the late Nobel Prize Laureate Herbert A. Simon in his 1969 book Sciences of the Artificial, in which he outlined the core concept that designers have to first empathize with the people whose issues they are trying to address. Design thinkers, vs. traditional problem solvers place human needs at the core of their final product.

Since that time, Design Thinking has seeped its way into nearly every field and every industry. The human-centered approach has helped product engineers get in front of consumer needs and has turned social impact entrepreneurs into booming enterprises.

Given the emphasis we place on Design Thinking, in all of our work with social impact organizations, we decided to turn the process into a public workshop experience, embedding equity-building into the process as well.  Now, our quarterly Equity+Design Thinking Days help social impact professionals work in real time with a small group of unlikely peers to take on their challenges in an out-of-the-box, and most importantly out-of-their-office environment experience.

Through teamwork and project-based learning, participants are given fresh opportunities to see their challenges from a completely different perspective, and therefore gain fresh ideas on how to go about the solution.

No matter the industry or the discipline, whether you work on issues of healthcare or housing, to meaningfully take on the issues that lie ahead, there must be a willingness to go after problems in new ways, and to put people at the center of the solution. Most importantly, there must be a desire to take on the seemingly unsolvable. For when you do, you can experience solutions in powerful new ways.

So, bring on the unsolvable.  We’ve got just the day for you.

To learn more about Mission Partners’ upcoming Equity + Design Thinking Days, and to reserve your seat, visit MissionForward.us



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On Brave Actions and Bold Speak

By Carrie Fox

Above my youngest daughter’s bed hangs a framed sign that reads “Be Brave”.

My husband and I were intentional in hanging that sign, and we remain focused on instilling its message in our children: to stand up for what is right, to speak up when something feels wrong, and to use their voices and actions for good in this world.

But on this third Monday in January—Martin Luther King, Jr. Day—when the complexity of their young questions is mounting— about the world we live in, about the actions of those in power, and about the federal workers, small businesses owners and families hurting in this government shutdown— those two words “Be Brave” are far easier to speak than they can be to live.

This weekend’s protests at the Lincoln Memorial—including a now viral incident of young people hooting, hollering and mocking a Native American activist and Vietnam veteran—reinforce my sense of urgency as a parent, a business owner, a board member, a Girl Scout troop leader, and a white woman of privilege. I must be willing to do the hard work: to acknowledge and leverage my power, to bold speak when I witness injustice, and to own when I have allowed an injustice to occur if I am to raise racially-conscious, brave and bold girls. Professionally, I must expect just as much from myself if I am to build a racially-conscious business.

“Our lives begin to end when we become silent about things that matter.” 

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Frankly, it’s hard to know if I have the tools that this requires. And it’s hard to know how best to translate the same lessons I’m working to instill in my daughters to our work at Mission Partners. But I know one thing for sure: we learn to be brave by watching. We learn by what we see, and what we don’t see.

Remaining silent on issues of race and injustice at home or at work is the worst we can do. And so, just as we intentionally hung that sign above our daughter’s bed, and just as we’ll intentionally mark Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life this weekend in service, there are a few other intentional changes we’re making at Mission Partners this year that I hope will inspire other brave actions, as well.

  1. We’re strengthening our skills in bringing Race to the table. Last year, Mission Partners committed publicly to advance issues of equity in our work, but this year, we’re naming it. We started this year with a frank conversation on the themes in Bryan Stevenson’s book, Just Mercy, and we recently invested in Race and Identity training for all full-time employees. We hired Becky George, as our full time Director of Community Engagement, who will bring these same skills to our clients and network. And every Tuesday from here on out, we’ll feature a story on our weekly newsletter that sheds new light and understanding on issues of race in the workplace. Our personal commitment to addressing individual, interpersonal, institutional and structural racism will be a theme for this entire year and will extend into everything we do as a team.
  1. We’re creating new platforms to bold speak. Mission Partners last week hosted the first meeting of our Loyola University Social Impact Fellows, with 12 brave students who will journey this year together, identifying injustices around them, building the muscles to bravely explore solutions, and boldly speaking out for change. This group of undergraduate students across disciplines will work together over the course of the next 10 months to advance issues of social justice in communities where we live, learn, and work. If and when we don’t feel we have the tools, we will build them, together.
  1. We’re prepared to challenge injustices when we hear and see them. Throughout this year, Mission Partners will place a continued focus on questioning, challenging, and boldly speaking up about the systems around us. We will use every communications skill we have to advocate for social change and systems change in our communities. We’ll challenge clients when we hear words that reinforce negative stereotypes, and we’ll speak up when we see actions that reinforce racism, because we know, just as Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “our lives begin to end when we become silent about things that matter.”

This is a moment in time to be brave and to bold speak, but it certainly won’t end at the close of this new year.  At Mission Partners, our way of working with one another and with our clients is steeped inside understanding, learning and applying a racial equity lens to all that we do- this year and every year moving forward.

If we’re lucky, our Congress will choose to be brave this year, too. But while we wait for necessary signs of progress there, it’s time right now to get to work here—to use the tools we have to bravely act and boldly speak in the name of justice.  Our kids and our future deserve no less.



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The 5.5 Million Women Protest in Kerala You Should Have Heard About

Vanitha Mathil - Womens Wall // Vincent Pulickal-EPS

By Becky George

On New Year’s Day,  our world experienced a beautiful display of women standing together in solidarity against gender inequity.  Reports state millions of people in Kerala, India stood together to create a literal 385 mile vanitha mathil or “women’s wall,” in contestation of  the Sabrimala Temple’s refusal to abide by a Supreme Court ruling that lifted a ban on women from entering the temple. My family hails from Kerala and for as long as I can remember, I have known that I am a descendant of fiercely powerful women. Malayalee women have an undeniable strength in their being. Perhaps it was the courage of my aunt who left her home in Kerala to create a better life for her children while paving the way for her sisters and cousins. Or the determination of my mother who somehow convinced my father to leave his comfortable home to put down roots across the world in Texas. Maybe it was the thoughtfulness of my family to ensure I always had a connection back to their birthplace. Possibly, it was the bravery of my cousin that led her to leave an abusive marriage to create a better life for herself and her daughter.  These stories of the women in my life, among many others, are the reason I work towards building a better world for future generations. With the support of my family, I have spent my entire adulthood fighting for women’s rights and justice here in the United States. It is also because of my family that my story will always be connected to Kerala.

In September of 2018, India’s Supreme Court voted 4 to 1 to confirm the ban on women or girls of menstruating age from entering the Sabrimala temple in Kerala was unconstitutional. “The golden-roofed temple, which is thought to be more than 800 years old, is considered the spiritual home of Lord Ayyappa, a Hindu god of growth. Nestled atop a steep mountain amid a lush green tiger reserve, it’s the site of one of the world’s largest annual pilgrimages, with millions of Hindu devotees making the journey each year. Sabarimala had previously been off limits to women of menstrual age on religious grounds, with proponents of the ban arguing that since Ayappa is considered celibate, allowing “impure” women into the shrine would be disrespectful. Others have maintained that women cannot complete the 41 days of penances, a condition required to undertake the pilgrimage.”[1] Since the protest, three women have managed to access the temple, sparking outrage and violence from opponents of the Supreme Court ruling. Many are calling this time period the “Kerala Renaissance.”

Kerala, known for its beautiful lush green landscape, stunning backwaters, and delicious food—Anthony Bourdain once raved about it—is also known for fostering a long history of women’s rights’ movements, holding the highest literacy rate and lowest sex-selective abortion rate in India. Kerala was the first state in the country to open a school for transgender students, which provided a safe space for learning and decreased dropout rates. In short, Kerala’s history of women’s empowerment and gender equity in India was the foundational support to this event. The demonstration was a collaboration of 176 social and political organizations with the support of the Kerala government. One of the protest organizers aptly said, “Social change doesn’t happen in a day. It needs time. But with these small steps, we’ve made it easier for the next generation to embrace it.” [2] Perhaps this will be the catalyst for systemic change in India beyond patriarchal ideas on menstruation and a move towards higher levels of girls receiving education, lower rates of female infanticide, and true equality for women in the country.

Starting the new year with this story from my motherland gives me such hope for the year. I am inspired to continue to fight inequities based in the systems of oppression of the United States. Here at Mission Partners, we work towards creating more equitable communities and are inspired by this moment in India. As we map out the strategy for the year, we are determined to dismantle the systems in place that prevent liberation and equity.  We stand with the women of Kerala and hope you will as well.

[1] “Sabarimala temple history – Tag – Konitono.” https://www.konitono.com/tag/sabarimala-temple-history/. Accessed 5 Jan. 2019.

[2] “Millions Of Women In India Fan Out For 385 Miles To Champion … – NPR.” 4 Jan. 2019, https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2019/01/04/681988452/millions-of-women-in-india-join-hands-to-form-a-385-mile-wall-of-protest. Accessed 5 Jan. 2019.


Time to Begin Again

Another year has arrived and with it, millions of little moments to start anew. New routines. New commitments. New projects that will surely pull us in all sorts of directions. But isn’t that the beauty of new beginnings? We get a fresh start, each day a blank page, and each day an opportunity to move towards making our world a better place for everyone.

At Mission Partners, 2018 gave us a solid glimpse for what’s to come in this year ahead. As our nation continues to grapple with issues of justice and equality, our work was and will continue to be bound together by a commitment to build more equitable communities, and a fierce acknowledgement in the power of people to break down barriers and build connecting lines between even the most divisive of issues.

In 2018, we

  • developed bold new strategic plans for nonprofits, foundations, and socially responsible organizations who committed to increase their impact—and to challenge the status quo.
  • built fresh, new narratives that led with strength and simplicity—and that were based on insights gleaned through research—about housing, health, higher education, philanthropy, and public media.
  • led and facilitated board meetings and community convenings that challenged long-held ways of working, and identified new solutions to bring often unheard voices to the forefront.
  • hosted and facilitated community meals and working groups to drive changes in antiquated systems, including philanthropy and the workplace.
  • designed creative campaigns that presented the impact of established organizations in new ways, driving increased community impact and engagement.

Perhaps most importantly, we committed ourselves even further to the work of equity, inclusion, and identity in our practice with clients and in our own organization. We expanded our leadership team with Becky George as Director of Community Engagement, which will allow us to scale our Mission Forward trainings, workshops, and convenings in the year ahead, and we elevated Bridget Pooley to Director of Client Services to ensure that our work and impact is consistently strong across all projects and teams. We introduced a new series of Equity + Design Thinking Workshops, and we’ll soon begin offering a new workshop series focused on deepening conversations around Race + Identity.

We believe that communications and collaboration can change the world. In this new year, we plan on challenging ourselves to be the best we can be for ourselves and our community. We look forward to building a better future with you in the year ahead.

With gratitude in our hearts and fervor in our souls,

Carrie Fox