NYSCASA’s Anti-Oppression Work: Lessons Learned
by Joanne Zannoni, Executive Director, New York State Coalition Against Sexual Assault
NYSCASA, with the support of the National Women of Color Network, has been actively engaged in anti-oppression efforts since 2012. We have set agency anti-oppression priorities, re-established the women of color caucus and the aspiring allies workgroup, created a person of color listserv, developed an advisory group, secured grant funding for our anti-oppression work, taken a critical look at our organizational structure, revised personnel policies, and enhanced hiring procedures. This work has been both incredibly challenging and satisfying. I could share many aspects of our anti-oppression activities, but I will focus on some of the lessons we learned during our journey so far.
Lesson #1: Get Support
When I became NYSCASA’s Executive Director in 2010, I inherited an organization facing many serious challenges. In the midst of all of this, staff mentioned the women of color caucus and allies workgroup that had been active only a few years before. Staff also shared that NYSCASA was supposed to receive some anti-oppression training, and when I followed up, I learned that the organization had missed the window of opportunity on that. Just a couple months after I was hired, during our staff strategic planning retreat, the topic of traditionally underserved populations came up, and it was clear that our organization had work to do. I did not feel able, at that time, to lead the agency effectively with regard to anti-oppression efforts, and so I told everyone that I felt it was incredibly important work we must do, we would revisit the issues, and I would be looking for support to assist us in undertaking anti-oppression activities in a manner that was helpful, not harmful.
About 18 months passed before the National Women of Color Network offered the National Call to Action Training and Technical Assistance Project (NCTATAP). NCTATAP was designed to provide anti-oppression support to state/tribal/territorial domestic violence, sexual assault, and/or dual coalitions to encourage constructive organizational culture and improve quality of services to communities of color. I completed the application, and NYSCASA was one of the eight coalitions selected to participate in the inaugural class in 2012. Actively participating in NCTATAP truly increased our capacity as a staff to do the work thoughtfully and effectively.
Lesson #2: Take Action – No Excuses
Between 2010 and 2012, when I was not feeling especially prepared to lead the coalition’s anti-oppression efforts, I did not use this as an excuse for inaction. Anything we deem a priority gets our attention. During this time, I talked with colleagues about anti-oppression work to find out what resources might be available to NYSCASA. I also identified an opportunity for action that felt manageable—working to diversify NYSCASA’s Board of Directors—and I identified a list of seven strong candidates of color for the Board’s consideration. As a result of those initial efforts, the Board became and has remained more diverse than the Board I inherited in 2010.
Lesson #3: Be Clear About Your Organization’s Capacity
NYSCASA’s participation in NCTATAP included each staff member completing a survey and an interview. The purpose was to assess where our organization was on the Cultural Spectrum of Service Delivery and to provide recommendations for our anti-oppression work. Some staff seemed a bit nervous about the survey and interview, so I told them reassuringly not to worry, be honest, and it will be fine.
When I read the report of our compiled results, I must admit my heart sank. Our Cultural Spectrum of Service Delivery score was about as low as it could be. Furthermore, the first recommendation felt completely devastating. It said:
Throughout the interviews, several respondents identified challenges that were associated with leadership transitions and the feelings about the loss of staff members in the past few years. Given the current challenges faced by the organization, decide if anti-oppression training is appropriate at this time.
Yes, our organization was facing a lot of challenges, but we were already much stronger than when I started at NYSCASA in 2010. I shared the results with staff and sought their feedback about moving forward with the anti-oppression training. Staff unanimously agreed that the assessment had underestimated us and that we were committed to moving forward with our anti-oppression work.
Lesson #4: Expect Good Doses of Discomfort All Along the Way
Any organization will inevitably consist of people with different experiences, perspectives, personalities, and backgrounds. Some of the anti-oppression work must take place individually, but there must also be enough cohesiveness for the group’s work to move forward. There were times when I or another staff member needed to provide a co-worker with additional support and encouragement to participate in some aspect of the work. There were times when some staff, infused with outrage, wanted NYSCASA to take bolder steps than most of us felt would be helpful, and I had to reign in the impulses with a dose of reality. Working effectively as a team is important.
Lesson #5: Respond Respectfully and Lovingly
People have a lot of fears when it comes to addressing racism and other forms of oppression. People often have had unpleasant experiences that increase their anxiety. The NYSCASA staff was not unique. We each felt vulnerable at times. One of the things we learned during the on-site NCTATAP trainings was the importance of doing the work with love. Nudge gently. Communicate caringly. Take this approach, and people will be honest in a way that allows genuine progress to be made.
Lesson #6: Know That You Might Feel Lost Sometimes
There is no well-established route or roadmap to follow. It’s helpful to get support from others who have ventured down this path, but your journey will be unique. You can’t just follow thoughtlessly in somebody else’s footsteps, you have to blaze some of the trail yourself. You can find out what others have done to help inform the decisions you make on your trek, but you need to consider what parts make sense for your organization and what parts don’t fit well. This isn’t the kind of work that you can do meaningfully by following somebody else’s checklist. You’ve got to wrestle with the issues for yourselves to be successful.
We asked our NCTATAP training team for guidance on how to handle different tasks. We brainstormed how to restart the women of color caucus with colleagues and allies. We asked other coalitions for sample policies. We requested and received a lot of support, but we consistently applied our critical thinking skills to what was before us.
Lesson #7: Identify Your Priorities
During the on-site NCTATAP training sessions in 2013, our training team helped us to identify and develop our top eight goals and objectives. Our goals included restarting the women of color caucus, using privilege to influence policy and to advocate for inclusive practices, and documenting our anti-oppression work to help replication in other programs. With regard to our goal of using privilege to influence policy and to advocate for inclusive practices, NYSCASA identified five key activities: (1) review and update NYSCASA policies and procedures for inclusivity to ensure that we recruit, retain, support, and promote women of color; (2) participate in systems advocacy; be a spokesperson for inclusivity by advocating to policymakers, funders, and others who have the power to make decisions; (3) include an anti-oppression lens when providing feedback on legislation; establish, grow, and support an advisory board for the purpose of including input from people of color to help guide NYSCASA work; and provide training, information, and resources to rape crisis programs and allies. I will refrain from listing all of our goals and activities here because you will be more likely to come up with your own wonderful ideas if I don’t stifle them with NYSCASA’s list.
Lesson #8: Expect to Have More Questions Than Answers
Each step of the way brings something new. Some of the tasks might be pretty simple and straightforward, but some of the tasks will take far more time, energy, and effort than you ever imagined. You may start off an activity easily, but then questions arise as things evolve. We had questions about what our goals should be, how to achieve our goals, and who would take the lead on specific activities. We wondered how we could jumpstart the women of color caucus. We knew we wanted to review our personnel policies through an anti-oppression lens, but we weren’t sure we knew what good policies even looked like. We started an advisory group, but we haven’t figured out the best way to engage this group. After more than a year, we are still working on how we can best ensure a woman of color witness is present in our aspiring allies group. We are considering whether we can open up the aspiring allies group to phone participants. And there are dozens more questions to which we haven’t figured out the answers.
Lesson #9: Be Ready for More Change Than You Originally Expected
Our NCTATAP training team warned us that engaging in anti-oppression work tends to lead to other organizational changes. That is what happened for NYSCASA. No sooner had we developed our anti-oppression goals in 2013, then staff bravely raised other big issues—supervision and pay equity. NYSCASA saw dramatic organizational structure changes early in 2014, followed by additional in-depth dialogue as a full staff on the best organizational structure and how to address pay equity. These were incredibly difficult conversations, but we worked through them to a point where we arrived at solutions that we could all live with, even if we couldn’t reach perfect consensus.
In 2015 when we received funding for some new projects and had the opportunity to hire three new staff, everyone remembered that we had made a commitment in 2013 that the next position we had available would be filled by a qualified woman of color. In 2013, only one NYSCASA staff member was a woman of color, staff turnover was essentially nonexistent, and our best hope was that eventually we would have one position to fill. We had done a lot of work on strengthening our hiring procedures, but staff seemed concerned that we would fail at recruiting people of color for our positions. I was the lead for hiring the Associate Director, and two other staff members were the leads for hiring the Policy Coordinator and the Outreach Coordinator for PREA. Well into the hiring processes, I checked with staff to see how it was going and discovered that they were hoping that I had a qualified woman of color candidate for the Associate Director position (I actually had two) because they did not have qualified people of color for the other positions. I had a conversation with the full staff to let them know that this was not acceptable, that ideally we would hire three qualified people of color to strengthen our staff’s diversity, that I would accept two qualified people of color to fill the positions, but that I would not settle for only one (which would translate into two women of color out of a staff of eight). I shared my philosophy on the matter that there are two possible explanations when we say we don’t have a qualified person of color for a position: (1) there aren’t any qualified persons of color for the position (which I don’t believe); or (2) there is a flaw in our process for recruiting and hiring people for our positions (which I do believe). Given this philosophy, I said that we needed to re-advertise the positions and do a better job of recruiting. We reviewed the long list of places we had initially developed for sharing the job postings and identified additional places, including word of mouth and other less formal avenues, for sharing the job openings—and then we distributed the job postings through all of the initial and new avenues on our list. This was not a popular expectation, but staff agreed to redouble their efforts, and the results were wonderful. The three positions have been offered and accepted by two women of color and one man of color (translating into half of our staff of eight being people of color).
Lesson #10: Engage in Process and Action
Find the balance. You can’t just talk and process all the time because things don’t get done that way. You can’t just check off tasks without wrestling with the thoughts and emotions because the tasks have less impact. We worked at finding the right blend of process and action. We ultimately decided that the first hour of each monthly staff meeting would be set aside for holding us accountable for completing tasks (i.e., providing updates on previously identified action items, determining next steps, and assigning tasks and deadlines to keep progress moving forward). We decided that our monthly aspiring allies group would be the place where we focused more on processing articles, current events, and issues.
Lesson #11: Accept That You Will Make Mistakes
I entered into this work really wanting to do things right. We all were concerned about doing things wrong. It mattered to us. We didn’t want to hurt each other. Striving to effectively engage in anti-oppression work is a good aim to have, but expecting to always do it right isn’t reasonable, and having those feelings can paralyze you into doing nothing. We have learned that we will make plenty of mistakes in spite of our best intentions, and we have learned that people are resilient enough to stay on the journey in spite of those mistakes. We try our best and learn and keep moving forward.
We spent nine months reviewing and improving personnel policies. People were really impressed with some of our changes—for example, we have no set holidays because we allow each staff member to select the 11 holidays they wish to take off. In spite of all this careful attention and effort, we realized after we had our newly revised and Board-approved personnel policies that we had missed a couple of important details. We will handle these in the next round of changes.
We also thought that we were doing something wonderful by establishing an advisory group consisting of members who represent the interests of traditionally underserved communities. Then we read an article about trickle-down community engagement and realized what a privileged mainstream approach we had taken. We are still working on how to fix that one.
Anti-oppression work isn’t easy. You may feel like you don’t know what you’re doing, and you probably don’t. But figure it out. Get support from others to help you figure it out. This work is too important to not do. Be brave. Have faith. Take the first step.