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There are No Perfect Solutions in Equity-building, Just Hard Ones

By Jondou Chen, Evaluator, Rainier Valley Corps

A word bubble with quote marks in it. The space in between the quote marks is blank, signifying that it's hard to know what to say sometimes.

Note: Two years ago, when Rainier Valley Corps was still a tiny baby organization trying to figure out our way while building infrastructure that can support our programs, we experienced real and deep challenges in what it means to engage in racial equity, anti-oppression, and social justice work. These challenges reached a fever pitch and resulted in us calling a community meeting in hopes of solving some of the challenges. It was a hard and painful series of conversations. Jondou Chen, then a volunteer, now our evaluator, wrote this reflection in response to that meeting.

It was 8:30 pm on a Monday night. I was sitting in the Rainier Valley Corps (RVC) office with 13 other folks. Everyone was a person of color, and I counted 8 or 9 different ethnicities. We had talked for the past two-and-a-half hours, asking ourselves what it really means to be an organization committed to racial equity.

Now, I could stop this story right here. We could all feel really great about ourselves as an organization. Look at how diverse we are! Look at how committed our volunteers are! Listen to how many times we’re using the word “equity”!

If you were to really listen though, and if you were to watch our faces right then and there, “great” is probably the last word you’d use to describe what was happening.

It was a hard conversation. The meeting was only supposed to last until 8 p.m., but we kept pressing on. Looking around the table, I saw decades’ worth of community organizing and civic leadership experience. All of us had come from long days at work and had families and friends to go home to, and yet each of us were fully present. While we were all used to being problem-solvers and used to making hard decisions, nothing was coming easily that night.

Vu Le, executive director of RVC, and members of the RVC executive committee had called for this meeting to address a sequence of challenging racialized events. Some of these tensions were between people of color and white people within RVC. Others were between different persons of color as they tried to make sense of what had happened and how to proceed.

These were the questions we had to ask each other and ourselves:

  • What does it mean to be an organization that serves communities of color — one that has white volunteers, committee members, interns, and consultants?
  • What does it mean to build solidarity between communities of color and white allies?
  • How should we talk about and address microaggressions and implicit bias?
  • How do we balance needing to be an organization that is a safe place for people of color — and also one that recognizes that each of us is on our own journey toward racial awareness and being committed to anti-racism?

In this meeting, folks arrived at differing and sometimes conflicting answers to different questions, and eventually, some people decided to leave RVC.  

This meeting was  a closed door meeting for folks of color, and when our fellow community members of color left, they took a piece of us with them. They also left us with some hard questions about whether or not we had done enough to support them individually, and also whether or not we had done enough to support their broader communities. Sure, we had talked about equity as an organization, but did we acknowledge the unique forms of racism perpetrated against specific groups within our membership? Did we know and address what each group needed from other folks of color? 

We had this meeting in order to speak our truths, to ask our questions, and to offer our reflections on what had gone wrong and what we still needed to do. We talked about anti-Blackness and colorism, U.S. nationalism, the Black-white binary, and the lateral violence that communities of color perpetrate against one another because of our internalized oppression. We talked about #BlackLivesMatter and new racial discourses in society that we have to be aware of and participate in if we really are about enacting equity with integrity.

By 9 p.m., some of us finally did start to disperse, though many of us stayed well past nine to continue with side conversations. We knew we didn’t have perfect solutions. We knew we couldn’t turn back the clock and reverse what had already been done. Our best solutions were hard ones. Enacting equity with integrity sometimes means not having all of the right answers and taking the time to stay with what is uncomfortable.

We recommitted to recognizing our impact regardless of our intent. We recommitted to creating conversations for all RVC members to talk about how we’ve been racialized against one another, even among people of color. We recommitted to redoubling our efforts to serve all communities of color. And we recommitted to not being satisfied until all of these things are, in fact, what we actually do.  

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