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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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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

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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.

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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.