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Building A Road Map for Diversity and Anti-Oppression Work for Your Coalition

by Mary Keefe, Executive Director, Michigan Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence

This article was written by the author for the RSP Executive Director Manual (2007)

I want to personally extend a warm welcome as you enter your new role as an executive director of a sexual assault coalition. This work will be filled with incredible challenges as well as amazing opportunities. Your unique gifts as a leader are about to blossom. You have just joined the ranks of some of the most passionate, brilliant advocates on the earth. Welcome to the work!

I was asked to share how the Michigan Coalition has integrated anti-oppression work into our daily coalition efforts. Having just celebrated my tenth anniversary with the Coalition, I find the last decade rich with experiences and relationships that have brought the Michigan Coalition closer to its goal of being representative of a very diverse movement. We do, however, still have a long way to go to be able to accomplish this goal in full.  This is a very personal journey for me, and you will find this chapter is written from the heart, as opposed to a comprehensive paper on the topic. It is from the perspective of an executive director who has worked hard to promote the leadership of Women of Color, from an ally point of view. It tells the story of Michigan’s journey and is sprinkled with practical advice that may (or not may not) fit your state, but might get the creativity flowing for you and your coalition.

Your coalition’s footprint and analysis on the integration of anti-oppression in the Movement will be unique to you and your state. Michigan’s story is still unfolding, and as proud as we are of our accomplishments, especially the support of Women of Color leadership and our developing relationships with Communities of Color, we know we still have a long road to travel.

The goals of our movement have always been broader than helping one individual survivor at a time. We are simultaneously working to change societal attitudes that promote men’s violence against women, as we work to ensure that our advocates are there, 24 hours a day, at an arm’s reach from each and every rape survivor who may need us. Sexual assault and domestic violence are seen in our movement as a result of a society that demeans and dehumanizes women, and is integrally linked to other societal oppressions such as racism and homophobia. Our mission is indeed vast, and I welcome you to a most amazing leadership opportunity.

There are some wonderful resources at your fingertips, and I encourage you to seek them out, including some very important work done by the National Organization of Sisters of Color Ending Sexual Assault (SCESA). SCESA is a Women of Color led non-profit organization committed to ensuring that systems-wide policies and social change initiatives related to sexual assault are informed by critical input and direction of Women of Color. On their website you will see information about important SCESA work at the national level, including, the Leadership Project, which is seeking to increase the number of Women of Color in key decision making roles while offering opportunities and support to effect and influence societal change and policy decisions related to sexual assault.  Please see SCESA’s landmark publication “Women of Color and Leadership at Sexual Assault Coalitions” which is included in this section.

Another important resource in this manual is the article written by Polly Poskin, Executive Director of the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual assault, analyzing the history of the Sexual Assault Movement. This is an important reference tool for your anti-oppression work also.

As a starting point for this dialogue, find a copy of your coalition’s philosophy statement, mission statement, board, staff and membership rosters. Your mission and philosophy might be found in your agency brochure, your bylaws, or your employee handbook. It actually should be in all of those places. As your organization’s governing mission and philosophy, it should be prominently displayed in all of your corporate documents.  Once you locate your mission and philosophy statements, read them carefully. The road map for the anti-oppression work of your coalition begins with your mission and philosophy. From there, your map and your path will be as unique as your state.

Assessing your Coalition Mission and Philosophy:

  • Does the mission and philosophy statement include reference to your coalition’s work on behalf of all survivors?
  • Is the concept of valuing diversity included in your corporate documents?
  • Is the intersection of all oppressions as it relates to anti-violence against women work referenced in the documents?
  • If so, or if not, what do those words mean to you and to your coalition?
  • How does your coalition measure up, as far as being true to and a living representation of this mission and philosophy?

Michigan’s philosophy statement may look similar to your state and maybe even other states. These concepts form the foundation of our work, and ground us as a movement:

Michigan’s philosophy statement: Ending domestic and sexual violence against all survivors requires social change that promotes equality through individual, institutional and cultural changes. To this end the MCADSV will:

  • Provide statewide leadership on public policy issues affecting survivors and the programs that serve them.
  • Advocate for the availability and accessibility of high quality, culturally competent services.
  • Strengthen service provider programs.
  • Be accountable to survivors.
  • Encourage leadership of women.

MCADSV believes that ending domestic and sexual violence requires social change to end sexism, and includes social change to end all forms of oppression.  We recognize that oppression based on race, age, sexual orientation, income and physical ability promote and reinforce the belief that it is legitimate for one group of people in our culture to dominate another group.

Now, for reflection on the other documents, I recommend taking a thoughtful look at these with your coalition leadership team. You might think about completing the following section of assessment questions as a group over the course of a retreat. You will need the collective thinking and history of the staff, and maybe some board members, to help you answer these questions. It might be a wonderful activity, early in your tenure as a new coalition director to map your strategy of anti-oppression work together as a team.

A Critical Thinking Tool for New Coalition Executive Directors

  1. A Coalition Membership Assessment for Diversity

Reflect on your coalitions’ membership roster for a moment and think about these questions:

  • Does it include community based sexual assault programs that serve survivors from Native/First Nations, Latina/Hispanic, Asian/Pacific Islander, African/African American, and/or bi-/multi-racial populations on a daily basis?
  • When seeking (or even researching) services or advocacy, do survivors from diverse backgrounds have the opportunity to reach out to a culturally relevant program?
  • If a culturally specific program is not available, which is often the case in many predominantly rural or even urban areas, are the sexual assault program staff highly trained on the needs of survivors from traditionally marginalized populations?
  • Do LBGTQ survivors have a place to reach out to that is affirming and welcoming?
  • Is the response for survivors consistent across your state, affirming and welcoming of the needs of survivors from diverse backgrounds?
  • Do survivors regularly experience racism and/or homophobia in the various systems that they interact with?
  • Is there opportunity for professional development to increase skills, knowledge and competence of staff in working with Communities of Color at the state and local level?
  • Have problems been identified related to race/ethnicity within the work to end violence against women at the local and coalition level?
  • If so, has the coalition leadership been able to determine the scope of the problem in local programs and the level of support received by Women of Color advocates from their programs?
  1. A Coalition Internal Assessment for Diversity
  • Is the agency staff and board representative of your state’s geographic, racial/ethnic and other diversity?
  • Are opportunities provided for the development of Women of Color and LBGTQ leadership and networking, such as Women of Color and LBGTQ task forces?
  • Do the staff feel the coalition is a welcoming and affirming workplace for diverse staff?
  • Do the board and staff have an established opportunity for the development of skills and knowledge in the area of anti-oppression and privilege? How rigorous are these opportunities and do they provide a safe and affirming place for the exploration of issues of privilege and oppression? Do staff of color feel the workplace is affirming? Are white staff encouraged to explore issues of unearned privilege, to do their own work related to oppression and privilege?
  • Have Women of Color been given the opportunity to actively discuss and address the unique factors that exist in serving Communities of Color?
  • Does the job description of the coalition executive director include a component related to supporting and advancing the leadership of Women of Color statewide?
  • Does the job description of key coalition staff include a component related to t working to advance the needs of marginalized communities and related competencies?
  • Do professional development plans of all key staff give the annual opportunity to update and/or deepen skills and relationships with Communities of Color and LBGTQ communities?
  • In your coalition’s strategic plan, is there a goal or objective related to anti-oppression work and/or diversity?
  • How old is the plan, and might it be time for an update?
  1. External Assessment
  • Women of Color (WOC) in Key Leadership Roles
  • The following questions came from Paula Callen, MCADSV Director of Program Services, and liaison to the WOC Task Force, as well as from members of the MCADSV WOC Task Force, in preparation for some assistance we provided to another state coalition who was working to re-charge their Women of Color Task Force. They are very thought provoking. As you look at the landscape of leadership in your state, you might want to gather some of your key WOC leaders together and ask some of the following questions:
  • Why don’t we see more Women of Color in key leadership roles in our work?
  • What happens to WOC who become leaders in our organizations? 
  • Do you think WOC leaders can be successful leaders?
  • What do Women of Color need to be successful?

This brief coalition diversity assessment tool will begin to define your coalition’s anti-oppression and diversity work that lies ahead. By setting aside time to fully explore these questions, you and your leadership team, board and staff, will have the opportunity to uncover where work remains.  No coalition executive director will have all the answers to these important questions alone. The answers to many of these questions will come from diverse stakeholders in your state. Looking at the issues across the spectrum of the organization, as well as identifying a process to safely and accurately answer these questions will be your roadmap for strategic planning in these important arenas.  Your work as executive director will be to develop the relationships and identify a process to explore these questions in a relevant and authentic way. You have a long road of relationship building ahead of you as a new coalition executive director.

Further data collection might also be in your coalition’s future. This would be a way of capturing the voices of those who may not yet be at the center of coalition’s work. Continued relationship building may be needed to bring these voices to the forefront. This is a golden opportunity for a new executive director to put on those traveling shoes and go visit some communities.  Begin some really important conversations to deepen your understanding of the needs of Communities of Color and other culturally specific communities, as well your understanding of the needs of and Survivors of Color, Indian or Native survivors, and other survivors who may identify with an oppressed or marginalized community. Additional assessment may include the development of community specific outreach strategies as well.  Coalitions can also explore their role in supporting the efforts of communities undertaking meaningful process of community self-assessment on issues of sexual assault. 

Unique Leadership Opportunities for the Coalition Executive Director

The executive director plays an important role in developing the leadership of Women of Color.  The executive director has an organizational vision and can articulate that vision to the public, board, and WOC leaders at every opportunity. In your publications and your public remarks you have an opportunity to frame the issues and promote the leadership of Women of Color. You are at the center of important dialogues. As executive director, you can go to meetings and conferences and be part of this dialogue. I recommend not sending a representative when possible. When the executive director goes to events, it sends an important message about your priorities.

As executive director you have the opportunity to invite and value the opinion of WOC on your staff, on your board, in your task forces, and in the Movement while promoting their opportunities for leadership development. You also play a key role in the community engagement strategies of your coalition, building partnerships and relationships with communities. You can offer leadership development opportunities for Women of Color doing the work in a variety of ways and forums. You can be supporting of the professional development needs of Women of Color on staff and in leadership roles around the state. All of this helps to build a strong infrastructure of Women of Color leaders. 

Ally Work:  Supporting the Michigan Women of Color Task Force

As a white woman doing the work, I have had an opportunity to be witness to the most incredible burgeoning of Women of Color leaders. I have had the opportunity to watch the growth of our vibrant, active and mission driven Women of Color Task Force. Over the years there have been a number of Women of Color who took a risk to befriend me and help me see where racism existed in the Coalition and in our programs and in the daily lives of survivors. Without their help, racism was invisible to me, as it often is for people with unearned white privilege.  I was grateful to my coalition Board President who advised me early on to take a rigorous anti-racism curriculum, entitled “Doing Our Own Work,” a work shop for white, anti-racist women. This was a life-changing opportunity, and I have similarly encouraged white coalition staff to enroll in the class to deepen their understanding of white privilege in a safe, encouraging place, with other white anti-racist colleagues holding us accountable for our continued learning and development.  Please see the Resources section for more information on Leaven, Inc., and the “Doing Our Own Work” program. Acknowledging that racism existed was an important first step. Each and every step since then has been enlightening for me.

Any journey of understanding on these issues begins with the personal commitment of coalition leaders. This involves taking risks and making mistakes along the path, but our commitment keeps us moving forward. As an ally I needed to do my own work around the issues of racism and privilege, including examining my own personal contributions to the issue.

Some of the lessons and personal resources I utilized and took from “Doing Your Own Work,” include:

  • Explore organizational, institutional, societal oppression
  • Tools to build authentic relationships
  • Acknowledge the profound personal resources required for ally work
  • Willingness to take risks
  • Willingness to listen
  • Willingness to make mistakes
  • Willingness to articulate the issues, be brave and sometimes confront

It has been important every step of the way to take leadership from Women of Color on issues and strategies related to racism in the Movement. This means being open to feedback from Women of Color leaders, making myself available and open to learn what I need to learn. I have been open to making mistakes along the way, and grateful for the learning opportunities each of my mistakes have given me. Building relationships with Women of Color leaders in Michigan has been key to our progress. Over time, wrestling with tough issues have brought us closer, and we have built authentic and honest relationships with each other.  Facing conflict as a natural part of our process and the struggle forward helps develop a deeper understanding of each other.

Even though I am not a new executive director anymore, I make a point of going to every work shop offered at national conferences on building anti-racist coalitions and institutions, cultural competency, and history and oppression of traditionally marginalized populations. I always learn something new, or get reminded about something that has faded for me over time.

Build a Strong Infrastructure for Women of Color Organizing at Local, State and National Levels

There are opportunities every day to support, promote, and build a strong infrastructure for the cultivation of Women of Color leaders in the Movement, both at the coalition and at local programs. As a new executive director, you have some incredible opportunities to advance the leadership and the voices of Women of Color at a variety of tables. Some tangible suggestions include:

  • Encourage the participation of Women of Color leaders in the Movement, (time to organize) on the clock, not off the clock.
  • Encourage participation in all meetings, retreats, (pay mileage, rental car and/or air-travel expenses) for travel to meetings at the state and national level. Make sure in your budget you have ample resources to support the voices of Women of Color and their organizing, as well as a pool for scholarships to attend conferences and/or trainings.
  • Pay for conference calls for Women of Color to organize.
  • Support fundraising by Women of Color and LBGT Task Forces and write grants in partnership with task force leaders for task force priorities.
  • Respect and promote Women of Color only space and their autonomy.
  • Ensure that Women of Color are a priority for scholarships for all state and national conferences and meetings.
  • Support professional development opportunities for Women of Color and other task force leaders.

Professional Development: A Critical Tool

In Michigan, we encourage anti-oppression training to build skills and understanding around the issues of unearned privilege, oppression, and the intersection of violence against women.  This is a mandatory professional opportunity for coalition staff and board members, and it is utilized as a tool for personal and organizational transformation.

A primary goal of all coalition technical assistance and training we provide for individuals and organizations is to build skills and knowledge that increase options for survivors from diverse backgrounds. The coalition training agenda works to strengthen the capacity of mainstream programs to offer culturally relevant services, as well as support the efforts of Communities of Color to promote their own solutions to ending violence against women. 

Building Partnerships with Communities of Color

You also have a unique opportunity as a new executive director to build and strengthen partnerships with Communities of Color and tribal programs. As you think about your goals, reflect on how your coalition and/or program can support their work. Make sure there is a primary (not secondary) place in your coalition for community based efforts and Communities of Color or culturally specific efforts. There are some wonderful dialogues unfolding nationally and in communities across the nation regarding the new funding allocations in the VAWA III legislation for Communities of Color. The future is filled with opportunity to support Communities of Color working to stop violence in their own community. Embrace the opportunity to build partnerships. Partnerships can be unique to communities and to states, where local sexual assault programs are not necessarily taking the lead. Programs will have the opportunity to check in with Communities of Color, to make sure what we say we are doing for them is what they need. These partnerships, when nurtured with the right ingredients, value the voices of Women of Color, value their work and value their contribution.

Concluding Thoughts

Welcome to the work and thank you for accepting your very unique leadership role in our nation’s efforts to end sexual violence. The work and the struggle is never done but it is always rewarding.

“The work is like climbing a mountain.  But when you get to the top, the view is beautiful.”  Ruth Oja, Hannahville Indian Community

Acknowledgements and Dedication

I would like to dedicate this chapter to the following extraordinary and brilliant Women of Color leaders whose wisdom I have been a good student of, who I have listened very carefully to and many who have been brave enough to tell me the truth about myself….

Especially to the Women of Color Task Force and Movement Leaders in Michigan:  Paula Callen, Kalimah Johnson, Vickie Fredrick-Toure, Denise Diggs-Taylor, Cheree Thomas, Dr. Tameka Gillum, Shelia Hankins, Lois Williams, Angelita Velasco Gunn, Jessica Coloma, Melissa Limon, Norma Tucker, Joyce Wright, Mieko Yoshihama, Dolores Gonzalez-Ramirez; Important other voices I have listened to include the following national Women of Color leaders; Condencia Brade and the phenomenal leadership of the Sisters of Color Ending Sexual Assault (SCESA); Monika Johnson Hostler, Staci Kitchen, Donna Edwards, Karma Cottman, Nan Stoops, Nita Carter, Lupe Serrano, and other voices of inspiration:  Barbara Smith, Audre Lorde , bell hooks, Beth Richie, and Betty Powell.

To the following white women who have been my teachers and role models on my road to “Doing My Own Work,”  Melanie Morrison, Eleanor Morrison, and Leaven, Inc., Jenefer O’Dell, Ann Flescher, Gail Krieger, Karen Lang, Amee Miller, Sherry Brockway, Joan Olsson, Gail Nelson, Kathy Hagenian, Ruth Oja, and Lynn Rosenthal.