Joe was hired by the Will Steger Foundation to begin to address the question: “What can WSF and YEA! MN do to become more open, available, and useful to people of color and lower-income people?” Traditionally, WSF has been a predominantly white organization and it’s YEA! MN program has drawn in a predominantly white group of high school students. Lately, the organization has started to have more conversations about what this reality reflects. We began to question what the skin color of those involved with WSF says about our organization. Joe will write a monthly blog about his work and will organize a series of workshops and conversations about equity at the WSF for the WSF staff.
Two weeks ago I sat with Anita Patel in her office at the YWCA in downtown Minneapolis. Anita serves as the Vice President for Racial Justice and Public Policy for the YWCA. We were meeting to discuss and plan a workshop or facilitated discussion that she would lead at the end of May for the Will Steger Foundation team. As we talked, I became aware of two things. First, I began to notice her inspiring awareness and articulation around issues of race, white privilege, and equity and was excited knowing that she would lead our staff’s conversation. Secondly, I began to see with clarity that through her workshop the WSF would start to create more concrete, foundational stepping stones toward becoming a more equitable organization.
Throughout this past year my role as Equity Consultant at the Will Steger Foundation has been to organize three workshops facilitated by professionals outside of our organization for the WSF team. These workshops are meant to help us grow as a staff and team a certain level of mutual understanding about race inequity, white privilege, and environmental justice. They are also meant to be a space where we as an organization can start to build realistic, but courageous, concrete plans for how we would like to transition both the short term and the long term.
Our first workshop was facilitated by Lisa Albrecht, a professor at the University of Minnesota’s School of Social Work. I had Lisa as a professor in college and was deeply inspired and moved by her classes, which focused primarily on social and economic injustice and white privilege. During her presentation to the WSF team we started to lay the groundwork of mutual understanding about what white privilege is and how racism and white privilege are woven into our lives and everyday interactions, our organization, and “mainstream” environmentalism as a whole. Her workshop offered us an educational opportunity to begin to build a common understanding of what it is that we want to change before we start to make a more concrete plan to transition.
Our second workshop, which we had just this week, was led by Anita Patel. Our workshop began with an introduction from Anita about her work at the YWCA and a case study of another organization that also committed to becoming more equitable and open. Next, we discussed what strengths we have as individuals and our organization when engaging with this work. All of us took turns talking about our own cultural backgrounds and our individual strengths, in regards to working for justice and equity, that we have cultivated through our personal history. I was deeply moved to hear WSF staff open up about their family’s history, their religious or spiritual history, and to validate their history by pointing out how it nurtured their notion of right and sense of justice. Anita then directed this energy by breaking us into small groups and challenging us to come up with a vision statement around equity for the Will Steger Foundation. The statements that each group came up with were strong, encouraging, and thoughtful. They were reflective of a group of people taking this work very seriously. They were, for me, signs of hope.
At the end of the workshop Anita asked us each to share something that we were taking away from today’s conversation. When it was my turn to talk I expressed something that I have been feeling all year. I expressed that this workshop and these vision statements are indicative of a great unfolding of a beautiful and courageous transition at the Will Steger Foundation. I am very proud to be a part of this process.