Culture can make or break collaboration. Culture guides how members of a collaborative will work together and impacts what the group is able to achieve together. When the goal of collaboration is to address inequities in a system or community, it is critical to build a culture that centers equity and inclusion. Without this intentionality, collaborations, just like organizations, will default to behaviors of white dominant culture—behaviors that can stand in the way of the authentic inclusion and long-term, systemic thinking needed to achieve equitable outcomes.
Since March 2020, we have worked with a community of practice of more than 35 nonprofit organizations focused on healthy food access and consumption. The goal of this community is to increase access to and consumption of healthy foods—particularly in Black, Latinx, Indigenous, elderly, and rural communities. The funder of the community, Walmart Foundation, has been intentional about fully ceding power to participants and us, as the backbone of the collaborative, in deciding how to build this community.
From our work with this group, we have seen firsthand the importance of intentionally building a culture that prioritizes equity and inclusion. As designers and facilitators of this community, we have reflected on mistakes we’ve made and celebrated small wins that have happened along the way. As we reflect on our experiences with this community and other collaboratives we’ve been part of, we see three aspects of white supremacy culture, as described by Tema Okun, that can be common—urgency, quantity over quality, and paternalism.* By sharing our experiences, we hope to help other collaborative efforts find ways to actively work against harmful aspects of white supremacy culture.
Right-sizing the sense of urgency
A false sense of urgency can crowd out space for thinking about the long term, recognizing where you have gaps in perspective or in knowledge, or building an inclusive space where all voices are welcome and heard. Sometimes collaboratives move too quickly to action because of external pressures such as funding timelines or in response to the urgency of the issue they seek to address.
When we started our work with the Healthy Food Community of Practice, we recognized early on that we did not have full representation of the communities we wanted to serve among the participants we were bringing to the table. We knew we needed to start somewhere, and at the time it made sense to start with the organizations who raised this idea in the first place, which happened to be mostly large, national organizations. In hindsight, we should have paused to ask ourselves some questions: What is the implication of building the community around these organizations? How might that help us or not help us achieve the goal of creating healthy food access and consumption for historically marginalized folks? Taking the time to dig into those questions would have led to a more intentional, and probably more inclusive, design process.
At the same time, a common challenge we’ve seen with collaboratives that do not have some urgency is they can become groups that are all talk and no action, and this can be a waste of time and resources. Some balance is needed between an unnecessarily heightened sense of urgency and lack of urgency that can also feel like lack of accountability to the community you say you want to help. Collaboratives can resist white dominant culture by creating regular space for reflection and self-awareness about how urgency is showing up in the work, centering the people affected by the collaborative in the reflection. If you are feeling urgency, what is driving it? If there doesn’t seem to be any urgency, what is the cost of that? How might adjusting where or how you place urgency bring you into closer alignment with your values and how you want to work together?
Countering paternalism through shared power
Without clarity at the outset about how decisions will be made, it can be easy to default to patterns where decision making is clear to those with power and unclear to those without power. Lack of clarity and intentionality about decision making can also result in people affected by the decisions not being involved in making them. This can become more complicated in large collaboratives with many participants, when someone is playing a backbone role, and/or by funding relationships.
Nearly all these dynamics are at play in the Healthy Food Community of Practice. The participants represent organizations of various sizes and hold a range of roles within their organizations. It’s not practical (or desired by the group) to engage the full community in every decision. For the decisions where we do engage the full community, there can be power dynamics at play among participants. As facilitators of the community, we recognize that every decision we make is a form of wielding power.
One way we have tried to mitigate these dynamics is by forming an advisory council, a group of seven to 10 participants that we engage periodically to advise the program design. We offer a stipend to help compensate for the extra time participation requires, and when members join, they are signing on for a period of five months. At the end of their term, new members can join the advisory council so that the power that comes with this role is shared broadly across the community over time. The advisory council has added an important voice to the design of the community, helping to ensure the topics we elevate for discussion and thought leadership bring maximum value and relevancy to the community.
When we had extra funds available for the community (due to the shift from in-person to virtual meetings in 2020 and 2021), we worked with participants to design a participatory grantmaking process. As a result, the community awarded grants to three collaborative efforts happening among participating organizations. This was a step towards countering paternalism, however, we recognize that we could move further along the power-sharing spectrum. Ultimately, it is the communities that are most impacted by the issue of nutrition insecurity that should be deciding how funds are allocated. We continue to learn and evolve to move further along this spectrum.
Flipping the “quantity over quality” default
In general, there is an over-reliance on quantifiable outputs and metrics as a way to gauge effectiveness in the nonprofit sector. This is driven in large part by funders and the “what gets measured gets funded” refrain that is so common. This way of thinking crowds out space for developing thoughtful processes, building relationships, clarifying values for working together, and prioritizing long-term, systemic change over short-term gains. While it is always important to respond to immediate needs, we also need nonprofits to have the resources and time to work upstream to change the systems that are causing the immediate needs.
To flip the “quantity over quality” mentality, collaboratives can first ask, “why are we coming together?” and “how do we want to work together?” before getting too far in figuring out “what do we want to do together?” Our theory of change for the Healthy Food Community of Practice centered relationship building as a foundational step in forming the community, recognizing that this was a critical first step for the group to move toward learning, action, and field-building. The community began by establishing some shared goals and norms for working together. These have evolved over time as the group has deepened relationships and dug into the work together. As more BIPOC leaders have joined the community and we have been having tougher conversations about the intersection of race equity in food systems, the norms and behaviors that guide the community’s conversations have needed to evolve. While we recognize it is not possible to prevent all harm, we also believe it is our role as the backbone to establish conditions that prevent as much harm as possible and equip people in the community of practice to repair harm when it happens. We continue to learn how best to do that.
We have also found it helpful to create opportunities for “small wins” as a way to help deepen relationships and help the group find common purpose. The Healthy Food Community of Practice has formed small work groups, which they call “innovation pods,” to work on discrete topics, such as developing a revised theory of change for nutrition education that is more culturally competent and conducting research to understand how the pandemic impacted benefits enrollment processes and form recommendations moving forward. These small wins help participants build relationships with one another, help the group take steps toward their broader goal, and help build momentum for larger actions the group can take in the future.
Once the work is underway, collaboratives can rethink how they measure success beyond outputs and outcomes. Interaction Institute for Social Change’s Results-Process-Relationship Triangle offers a helpful frame for reflecting on what’s working well within a collaborative and areas for improvement.
Building a culture that prioritizes equity and inclusion
Culture builds within a collaboration whether you are intentional about it or not, and collaboratives that don’t focus on building a culture that prioritizes equity and inclusion are likely to default to the white dominant norms that are deeply engrained in our ways of working. We know this because we’ve been there many times. While we’ve learned there are many ways white dominant culture could show up in harmful ways in collaboratives and many ways collaboratives could buck against it, here are three possible places to start:
- Right-sizing the sense of urgency: Create space for regular reflection on whether and how the group is feeling urgency. If you are feeling urgency, what is driving it? If there doesn’t seem to be any urgency, what is the cost of that? Where might a different level of urgency bring you into closer alignment with your values and how you want to work together?
- Countering paternalism: Be transparent about how decisions are being made. Work toward sharing decision-making power. Ensure you are involving people that will be affected by the decision.
- Prioritizing quality, not quantity: Prioritize strong relationships and thoughtful, inclusive processes as equally important as achieving measurable results. Hold space to reflect on process and relationships in addition to results.
* If this statement is raising feelings of defensiveness for you, consider the words of Tema Okun: “The invitation for this and every characteristic is to investigate how each and all characteristics and qualities lead to disconnection (from each other, ourselves, and all living things) and how the antidotes can support us to reconnect. If you read these characteristics and qualities as blaming or shaming, perhaps they are particularly alive for you. If you find yourself becoming defensive as you read them, lean into the gift of defensiveness and ask yourself what you are defending. The description of these characteristics are meant to help us see our culture so that we can transgress and transform and build culture that truly supports us individually and collectively.” We are sharing our reflections in the spirit of contributing to a collective culture of equity and inclusion in nonprofit collaborations.