Are we treating symptoms or systems?

Some reflections on the work of building anti-racist organizations

Sophia Robele
24 min readApr 18, 2021
Photo by Koshu Kunii on Unsplash

As I have been messily striving alongside others to live into the question of what it takes to address the root causes of racism in the context of an organization, specifically in the development field, I continue to be struck by the complexity and necessity of naming: to the power and challenge that lies in giving expression to the questions and tensions inherent in this work, in order to create openings for further inquiry.

This post is an attempt to give voice to some of the things that feel important for me to name right now. It is not an attempt to speak on behalf of anyone else or claim to have answers and conclusions. It is simply a reflection of what is surfacing for me in this moment, of what feels true, of what is weighing on my heart, of where it feels like there might be value in expanding or refocusing the conversation.

It is an effort in particular to put language around the pieces of the conversation where I continue to sense divides between what is being said and what is being felt, between what is being acknowledged and what is being embodied. In this, it is really as much a letter to myself — an articulation of the truths and questions that feel important to attend to in bridging my own divisions — as it is an invitation into further dialogue with others.

1. To respond to racism as a systemic issue requires an embodied awareness of what constitutes the ‘system’.

An institution’s policies, governing frameworks, and hiring procedures are the vehicles of racism, not its source. To reform a policy, to mandate a training, to institute a hiring requirement, to hold managers to account with checklists is to put a temporary band-aid on the inequity entrenched within organizational systems. Band-aids are necessary of course. They mitigate some of the harm in an immediate way. But they can only go so far if you never properly tend to the wounds underneath. If you require staff to hire in a way that brings more ‘diversity’ to an organization, yet invest little time and attention in the work of examining the forms of blindness that allowed these architectures of exclusion to be left unquestioned by many in the first place, then the outcome is likely to be a more racially diverse workforce situated within a culture unfit, and in many places resistant, to actually harness the true value and necessity of diversity. If you ensure that all staff have taken some trainings on implicit bias, yet have not cultivated the long-term, sustained spaces within which people practice what it means to be present to one’s place within a system and relationship to the people in it, then the result is likely to be a focus by some on self-monitoring based on rubrics of problem areas, as opposed to a culture that prioritizes listening and attention as the entry points for continuous contextual unlearning, re-learning, acknowledgement and naming. If you strengthen the procedures for staff to report cases of racial discrimination, yet have not addressed what those with the privilege to not ‘see’ racism define as a racist act, then you may end up with accountability mechanisms that serve to reinforce the gaslighting of those who experience racial discrimination in forms unfamiliar to those who do not.

A racist system does not start nor end with a policy or accountability mechanism. Our organizational and political systems reflect the infrastructures of dehumanization that emerged from and are sustained by our systems of thought, our systems of language, our systems of relationships, and our systems of collective acceptance or denial of reality (social norms). We must be willing to navigate the complex terrain of our interior and relational systems if our goal is to dismantle, not just mitigate the harm of, systems of injustice.

2. The fact of something being intangible or ‘subtle’ does not render it less pernicious.

Violence and dehumanization are not mere features of overt forms of abuse. They are not crimes we can claim innocence from by avoiding negative acts. The violence of racism that manifests in physical forms — in the literal destruction of human bodies — is only a sliver of the magnitude of the harm produced by a racist social order. The true death toll of racism extends far beyond physical death: it entails the death of human spirits, the death of social fabrics, the death of youth, the death of community, the death of the psyche, the death of possibility, the death of democracy, the death of human wholeness, the denial of life among the living.

Part of the reckoning required to confront racism is a reckoning with all the forms of destruction we choose to not see (often by placing the spotlight primarily on the destruction that is most easily seen), with the knowledge we allow ourselves to avoid every time we fail to pause, question, and name, with the truth about ourselves which is intertwined with the truth of our shared histories and present realities. Yet how often in our workplaces do we actually center the conversation on the forms of psychological, spiritual, and social forms of death in our midst? How often do we make the connection between the violence that takes place in a police shooting and the violence that takes place in a meeting room, where the weapon of dehumanization is not a gun, but a remark or expectation about who should speak that reinforces a hierarchy of humanness? How often do we name the daily accumulation of trauma faced by our colleagues — trauma we are all implicated in — of having to continuously justify one’s value and humanity, of experiencing the isolation of not being seen or heard while simultaneously facing the danger and exhaustion of hypervisibility, of putting in manifold times the effort to climb ladders designed to keep others at the top, of having to work with well-intentioned people committed to addressing inequality through their work but resistant to examine the inequality produced by the norms they abide by, of working in an industry perfectly positioned for gaslighting at the greatest scale: one that can lean on its mandate for social change to avoid dismantling the ways that its processes for change perpetuate white supremacy.

There is nothing ‘micro’ about a microaggression. There is nothing subtle about the effects of the systematic devaluation of someone’s intelligence and capability, of the assumptions of professionalism we make on the basis of someone’s accent or dress, about who we give credit to, about whose narratives of truth we validate. Systems of dehumanization are not upheld by the egregious actions of a few. They are built on and continuously reinforced by the daily fleeting actions, inactions, assumptions, unexamined interactions, and unquestioned rules of engagement in one way or another perpetuated by the many. They are forms of aggression that are perhaps the most pernicious precisely because of the architectures of denial that surround them — because of the ways we normalize them into invisibility, of the ways we refute their connections to the inequities institutionalized in our policies.

Within this reckoning we must also recognize that the multiple forms of death resulting from systems of oppression are not simply those of the oppressed, but equally of the intended benefactors. To quote Toni Morrison, “it requires hard work not to see.” In our unavoidable participation in systems of social organization premised on dehumanization, we become implicated in processes of perpetually justifying our collective crimes. And, as James Baldwin notes, we “cannot deny the humanity of another without diminishing [our] own.” It is irrelevant whether or not we are conscious of our justifications, or whether they take the form of passivity and blindness as opposed to outright validation of racism. To reckon with what it means that we are all victims of and impoverished by racist systems — that we cannot achieve our full humanity, our full possibility as individuals or a society, as long as we operate within them — is to see that racism is not the problem of people of color, nor an American problem, nor a single, isolated challenge among others. It is to see that none of us are free until we all are.

3. Specificity is not antithetical to intersectionality.

Naming is crucial. We can’t fight racism if can’t name it. We have to name anti-Black racism. And anti-Asian racism. And ethnic racism. And racism against indigenous people. And every other form of racism. We have to name the ways that the experience of a black transgender woman is not the same as the experience of a black man. That the experience of a light-skinned person of color is not the same as dark skinned person. Or that of a person with a disability. That it is possible to be both privileged and marginalized. And to experience a completely different reality of being a racialized body according to your geographic location.

There is a tension in this work of naming, however, that also feels necessary to name. Inasmuch as we have to be clear about intersectionality — to be clear about the fact that anything that is anti-racist is necessarily intersectional otherwise it is not anti-racist — we also have to be clear about the effects of the ways in which we invoke intersectionality. Which requires us to first have clarity about what is already being named within a given context and what is not (not even what issues are being effectively addressed or resolved, but simply which ones have even been granted a sliver of visibility and acknowledgement as an issue in the first place, and by who) and to understand the social-cultural-historical-political dynamics that underly the patterns of omission. For instance, we might consider what it means/whether it is benign if an institution that is committed to the principle of non-discrimination rarely uses the word ‘racism’ in corporate documents or HR initiatives (or permits its inclusion only by way of implication, subsumed under language like ‘diversity’), yet might reference other specific anti-discrimination priorities, such as those tied to gender-or disability-based inequities.

We also have to be vigilant and precise about when and how it is necessary to expand the conversation, and when our impulse to expand might actually simply silence. Or when what we are doing is inadvertently dissipating focus on anything by shifting the focus to everything, and in this treating anti-discrimination work as a zero sum game. For example, to consider when we are really just enabling people to reside in the comfort of talking about the principle of intersectionality (i.e. the fact that multiple forms of discrimination exist and are interconnected) rather than arriving at intersectionality by way of being specific in our examination of something like racism. Or within conversations where racism is being centered, to consider what is at play in the impulse to immediately de-center it with “but what about [insert other form of discrimination]?” To consider whether this response actually serves the purpose of advancing an intersectional lens in such context or becomes another form of erasure. Whether our impulse to shift the focus, even if done with good intention, ultimately serves the same agenda as crying “all lives matter” in response to “black lives matter.” Or alternatively, to consider how a conversation about anti-Blackness, when actually understood within the broader framework of white supremacy and global systems of power, might actually not be about centering a single identity or uniquely American issue at the expense of other identities and manifestations of racism, or classism, or gender discrimination, etc. in the first place.

4. Our behavior change efforts must go beyond compliance measures and ‘awareness-raising’ that targets the intellect.

It is hard to prioritize something if we do not comprehend its effects. It is hard to comprehend the effects of something when we place all our attention on that which is most visible, most quantifiable, most external, most reportable, most individually punishable, most outwardly deplorable. Appreciating the gravity of racism requires an awareness of what it means that we are all directly implicated in its destructive force. It requires an understanding of destruction as something that permeates every aspect of a person’s being and every facet of our interconnected existence. In this, the damage and scope of racism in an organization is not something that can be accounted for by the number of people on a survey who report that they have experienced or seen it. It is not something we can determine the severity of by the number of cases that have been reported by those who can demonstrate it has happened. It cannot be fully grasped by the figures of how many people of color are in senior management roles. Surveys and numbers can help. They can provide a clear, unarguable signal of something that is broken, an initial eye-opener, particularly for those most inclined to refute the existence of a problem. They might serve as a basis for shaming or for demanding accountability, typically in the form of immediate procedural changes, but they do not reveal — and sometimes even mask or draw attention away from — the full scope of the problem.

The nature of the solutions we prioritize tend to mirror the nature of the methods by which we classify the problem. If we measure the problem on the basis of numbers and surveys, then we are likely to respond with a focus on the quantifiable and immediate: the number of people of color hired into certain types of positions, the number of awareness raising dialogues held, the number of people who completed a training on implicit bias, the number of people filing reports of racist abuse. When we focus our efforts on what can ‘show’ the most progress and forward motion, we often skip the steps that actually generate the forms of change capable of getting at root causes — the kind of steps that within certain definitions of ‘action’ and ‘progress’ might even look like regression from the outside (particularly when the goal is not to move forward but to first move deeper towards the roots: not to implement an immediate solution to the surface level manifestation of the issue reflected by a survey but to establish the processes by which even more layers of nuance and complexity within that surface level indicator can be continually unearthed). Most notably, we overlook the kinds of processes and enabling factors that allow for changes at the level of mindsets and culture. And when we sidestep the human and relational pieces — the messy stuff beneath the quantifiable stuff — we end up diagnosing and treating the problem (and the human systems that drive it) as something linear: as something that can be solved through a set of ‘concrete’ deliverables or by simply creating restraints or checks on people’s behaviors.

In the context of our ‘awareness-raising’ efforts, this linear mindset often appears in the ways we assume that more ‘awareness’ of the facts, history, common biases, or even the stories of what has happened to people in our own organization will inevitably lead to changes in attitudes and behaviors. While the transfer of knowledge, facts, tools, and even lists of what to do and not do to be anti-racist might for some spark a deeper process of self-reflection and further inquiry, the over-emphasis on the intellectual exercises without equal attention on the holding spaces within which such knowledge is shared and explored can often reinforce compartmentalized modes of understanding, and ultimately addressing, the problem. Most notably, we often fail to cultivate a focus on the role of emotions in the work of transformation: of not just creating ways for people to take in information but to actually make space for feeling the implications of their own role within a system. Of investing in the kinds of processes, spaces and practices that allow people entry into their own feelings, and shifting the notion that anti-racist spaces that center embodied practices are too slow, too indirect, or too contrary to the predominant social practices of an institution to have any real effect on culture change.

To be clear, in invoking the necessity for emotions to be centered in the learning journeys of those who are not already seeped in the daily emotional tolls of racism, I am not talking about feelings of guilt, or feelings of empathy that lend themselves to a stance of charitability towards another (or defining those of other racial identities by their trauma). I am talking ultimately about feeling the full weight of responsibility and inherent and necessary heartbreak that comes from the simple fact that we are all connected to each other, while unavoidably living out our connections as participants in unjust systems. I am also talking about the collective learning and normative shifts that needs to happen around the capacity to feel itself: to learn how to draw insight and power from negative emotions, to find grounding in uncomfortable realities through them, and to find deeper connection to each other — and wider possibilities of engaging with the pain of others — by understanding our own. Finding instruction in our own emotions is also critical for arriving at embodied states of awareness in ways that do not place the burden on people of color to share their stories of suffering and trauma as forms of education. Again, it is not about empathizing (i.e. thinking that we can understand the experience of another) nor about making a conversation about us and our personal feelings, but about using our own emotions to connect to an understanding of what makes us human, of what the experience of deep listening, or being seen, or fear, or despair does to our being, of all the ways that we are each continuously making one another, as an entry point into expanding our own forms of seeing — and thereby our ability to engage with — the intangible drivers and effects of racist systems and our place in them.

5. We are always in relationship. The responsibility of this fact is immense.

The more that we connect to and make space for emotions, the more we not only come to truly see the people around us, but also to see the nature of what connects us, and the power that is held, shaped, and shifted through those connections. That is, the more readily we grasp the power of relationships as the scaffolding that makes up systems, and in that, shift from a focus on awareness raising to a deeper, more systemic focus on community building.

In calling for greater attention on relationships, though, I want to be clear : focusing on relationships does not mean drawing attention from the structural nature of racism or discriminatory policies. It means treating our relationships and ways of relating as the levers by which we change power dynamics and systems. It means embodying a long-view of time and the arc of transformation, and not creating binaries between the sources of ‘soft’ culture change and the sources of ‘hard’ procedural and policy change. Nor binaries between individual and communal change: recognizing that even the most personal, individual, interior forms of transformation are instigated, shaped, and sustained by the nature of our relationships: that inner work is not distinct from, but rather lives within, our collective work. It is also to recognize that even the big institutional changes we might envision (including, in the context of development institutions, how you dismantle and replace the colonial legacies embedded in our operating systems) can only really happen through a critical mass of paradigm shifts, which can only really happen through, be made visible by, and thereby enact power via networks of human relationships. How can we consider the possibility for any kind of social change that entails changes in worldviews, mindsets, hearts, systems of care, human interaction, the work of becoming better human beings to other human beings without considering the ways by which our mindsets, understanding of reality, emotional state, and ways of moving through the world are continuously being created and altered through relationship: both on a physical, immediate level (i.e. the people we interact or associate with) and on a broader internalized scale (i.e. the ways we understand and live out our sense of belonging or not belonging to different communities, or to people we have never met)?

In many ways, the narratives of anti-racism work that obscure the centrality of human relationships or treat them as ‘soft’ or a distraction from the ‘real work’ are actually manifestations of white supremacy culture. They keep us trapped in logics of solutionism, short-termism, and transactional objectives. It feels like we rarely perceive and embody anti-racism efforts within our own organizations as part of a ‘movement’ the way we do the work that happens in the streets (probably for intentional, political reasons), but maybe we need to. Movement builders inherently grasp the necessity of relationship: if you actually listen to elders of the civil rights movement in the U.S., for instance, there was always a concerted focus on building a ‘beloved community’. The fight to dismantle unjust systems of power was not just about tearing something down but about constructing the relational ecosystems for change from the ground up.

Whether or not we choose to focus on human relationships in our anti-racism work, though, the fact that relationships make systems means that there is no neutral position. The relationships we cultivate or don’t cultivate, the ways we interact or don’t interact with our colleagues, the ways we design or fail to be intentional about how we design the spaces within which interactions unfold, the time we spend or don’t spend on learning how to listen and be present to each other: all of it is continuously shifting or reinforcing norms, shifting or reinforcing someone else’s and our own ways of seeing and being. The courage that is required for anti-racism work, if we really acknowledge the source of transformative change, is the courage of “liv[ing] up to and into the necessities of relationships that…already exist, with things we find we already care deeply about.”

There is no single path to do this work. But ultimately, I think it requires intentionality. It requires the courage to slow down and make space for relationship-building as a means of addressing that which is urgent and existential. It requires intentionality in how we understand the ways that relationships are already playing out within our existing norms and social practices. And how changes in hearts and minds happen in small circles, which are connected to and influence infinite layers of wider circles. It also requires intentionality in how we leverage our small circles, how we cultivate social fields and the levers of transformation we foster within them — love, trust, respect — to change the ways we talk about racism, the ways we practice and co-create alternative ways of collaborating, to openly and honestly challenge each other and ourselves in generative, thought-expanding ways.

6. We cannot afford to wait for the master facilitators and trained experts to open the spaces where collective understanding and change emerges.

This one might be the most challenging, nuanced, and urgent point I continue to grapple with in asking myself and others what it looks like to support systemic solutions to a systemic problem. If relationships are foundational to anti-racism work, then it follows that we need people who are intentionally and systematically creating the spaces and opportunities for generative relationships to emerge. We need a lot of people doing this, at many levels, in interconnected ways, over long (life-long) periods of time.

One challenge to this, however, is the common mentality in organizations that because racism is a charged, complex, emotional, messy issue and a topic where the ways we understand and talk about it vary immensely, the only time it is ‘safe’ and valuable to broach the conversation — to open the can of worms on it — is when we have an ‘expert’ facilitator in the room. That the value of the dialogue lies fundamentally in the skillfulness of the facilitator. Or the value of a session meant to raise awareness lies in the knowledge of the designated transferer of insight (e.g. a DEI expert, a historian of slavery, an author, a psychologist, a high-level panelist). And of course, there is truth in this. There is truth as well in the perception that opening a space in which a range of views can surface without a mechanism to guide and correct and mitigate viewpoints and power dynamics that are problematic can lead to more harm than good.

However, it is also true that if we operate from a premise in which we only create openings (for dialogue, for reflection, for collective action, for co-creation, for learning, for naming, etc.) when they can be designed and led by those who are master facilitators, scholars of racism, DEI people, psychotherapists, external consultants, etc., then the scope of our efforts would remain extremely limited. Moreover, the depth of our efforts would largely reside at the level of disparate openings — rather than cultivation of spaces for collectively practicing, sustaining, and institutionalizing openness. It is ultimately a ‘both, and’ situation: Yes, skilled facilitation matters. Yes, expertise on an issue brings value to a process of learning. And it is not enough.

So where does that leave us? The place I’ve landed for now is in the hard-to-articulate distinction between a facilitator of a dialogue or of an issue, and a facilitator of the enabling conditions for learning and connection. In fact, in calling for more of the latter kind of facilitator, I’ve come to realize that what I have really been saying is that we need more system leaders. The role of a system leader is not to have the answers or expertise on the issue itself, but to “cultivate the conditions wherein collective wisdom emerges over time through a ripening process that gradually brings about new ways of thinking, acting, and being.” They engage in “conscious acts of creating space” defined by generative questions, deep listening, mutual learning, and through this, change via relationship- and trust-building processes. No doubt, being a cultivator of conditions requires as much skill as anything else. But the role, intent, and end game of being a system leader as opposed to a facilitator (in the traditionally understood sense, particularly for anti-racism work) feels somehow more universally applicable. And can only really be learned through practice.

And critically, being a system leader does not require each of us to convene all the colleagues in our bureau in a dialogue on white supremacy or decolonization. Practicing anti-racist system leadership might look like experimenting with ways to form different kinds of connection among a handful of people in your team, and discovering how to sustain ongoing processes of inquiry, action, reflection, and learning within whatever spheres of influence are available to you. Or being intentional and reflexive about the ways you create co-design spaces (and define co-design) with stakeholders in a project, and treating the space itself as the site of transformation: to view change as emergent from an accountable, accessible, and collaborative process, rather than as a point at the end of a process. Or holding fast to an awareness that any work done to tend to relationships, to create the conditions for emergence, is not tangential to structural change but the crux of it — that the foundation of social systems is human beings — and using that awareness as the compass for continually asking better questions, making connections, and re-defining markers of progress and time horizons for change.

7. We have to be willing to experiment.

To accept that transforming systems of injustice entails creating the enabling conditions for the emergence of new behaviors, learning, and thinking requires a profound embrace of uncertainty. It is impossible to know what is ‘enabling’ in any given context, or what exactly we are enabling, or what that enablement will lead to in other parts of the system, without a process of trial and error fueled by a humble posture of learning. This might sound obvious — that to affect change within a living system, to design new systems, requires experimentation — but it often seems like something we lose sight of in practice when it comes to anti-racism work in organizations. Or perhaps, it is something we invariably resist because it threatens the logic that underlies our neatly defined action plans and the assumptions we treat as givens (assumptions about the effectiveness of a given approach, assumptions about where responsibility for action lies, assumptions about how different layers and forms of action interconnect, assumptions about our understanding of the problem itself).

Or maybe, it has to do with our calculations of potential harm versus potential benefit in a given action, or the value we place in the immediate outcome versus the learning produced that informs our emergent pathway towards future outcomes. Yet part of the complexity of anti-racism work (or really any work that is about complex systems) is that what might be mitigating harm in one part of the system might actually be reinforcing it in another. At the most basic level, in our impulse to mitigate harm — whether out of concern that we might get it wrong, might be in the wrong, might offend another, might reveal our own ignorance or bias, might expose ourselves to backlash, might heighten someone else’s experience of pain, might expose an organization to reputational risk — we might opt for doing nothing at all, ultimately sustaining a status quo that is predicated on harm.

While we must be mindful of our positionality when it comes to racism and take every effort to understand what we are dealing with in our specific ecosystem so as to reduce harm in the actions we choose to initiate or support, we must also contend with the fact that it is impossible to not get things wrong in the process. In fact, we might even get some things wrong and right at the very same time: an action that might be transformative or healing to some might be simultaneously harmful or unhelpful to others. This is where the posture of learning is vital: not simply as an individual mode of operating, but more broadly as a characteristic we must foster in our culture through our own attitude and actions. We can’t avoid getting things wrong or the repercussions for others or ourselves, but we can be transparent about our intentions, our role, and the spirit of learning and openness underpinning any action we test, thoughts we share, space we create. This transparency does not make us immune from criticism, but rather helps to shift the relationship of both the receiver and giver of the criticism or call-out: it positions the thing that is ‘wrong’ — or more accurately, the way we collectively and internally respond to it — as a crucial element in the overall learning, culture change, and relationship-building process.

And when I speak of experimentation, I don’t just mean prototyping some equity checklist or training or programmatic approach. I really mean treating the relational dimensions of change as the site and focus of our experimentation. For instance, rather than focusing our questions on what tool is most effective at embedding an equity-centered and decolonial lens into a programme design process, we should start with asking, testing, and generating learning around what incentivizes people to institutionalize such tool into their work in the first place. Or what leads to changes in the perceptions and norms that dictate how we currently prioritize our time and attention within decision-making processes, or how we perceive where our ultimate accountability lies in defining such priorities (e.g. to the donor or to the community we are serving). Or how these changes in perceptions, or changes in the relationships among actors involved in the project, influence people’s willingness to remain committed to anti-racist and equity-centered principles in the work, even when their application might derail the efficiency of a process or create tension with an institution.

More broadly, we have to be willing to experiment with what it takes to build ecosystems of belonging and harness them to alter structures of power, whether our fields of learning are among the stakeholders of a project, within a team, or within an institution at large. Part of this entails treating our existing anti-racism tools aimed at culture change (e.g. a certain format of dialogue) as hypotheses we are testing, rather than outputs of a static strategy. It means treating every action as a source of insight into what builds connection and capability: an opportunity to lean in or shift approaches, and to better understand how our own actions connect with others in the system. Admittedly, what I am describing is not an easy process: the point of experimentation is that we invest not just in the action but in the ongoing reflection and learning process that enables us to feel our way into the deepest levers for transformation in our unique relational ecosystems. But for the most part, there are no simple, objective metrics we can fall back on to assess the changes that take place in hearts and minds, or existing theories of change for organizations that articulate the multi-faceted ways that shifts in hearts and minds are influenced by and influence diverse social fields, which exist within and shift organizational cultures, systems of oppression and industry paradigms. Nevertheless, this is the work. We have to be able to see the system — to understand it through the learning derived from our own actions — in order to change it.

8. The foundation for everything must be love.

When we prioritize the work that is about building the foundations of trust among a group of people, of laying the groundwork to understand who and what we are to one another, the necessary work of taking risks and getting it wrong becomes a lot easier. In fact, the boundaries of what is ‘safe’ or where we might create harm in the first place completely shift. The same words and actions that in one context might serve to divide or hurt or breed misunderstanding, can in another generate mutual learning, deeper connection and mindset shifts. Just consider the things you are willing to say to a good friend versus a stranger when it comes to challenging topics — the ways you are willing to challenge that friend, or the uncertainties you are willing to share, or how you understand their mistakes, or the ways you interpret and engage with the ways they challenge you, how you allow yourself to be changed by that interaction.

The work of building trust within workplace contexts is not something soft or sentimental. And it also doesn’t mean we need to be best friends with all of our colleagues and partners in order to uproot racism. But it does require consistently operating from a place of love, as well as genuine curiosity, of the people we seek to engage with in striving for transformation. On simply a practical level, it is through the establishment of architectures of care and trust, not through shaming or rationalizing, that we enable other people to confront the edges of safety required for real change. In this, the extent to which we lead with love dictates the extent to which we are able to act as the stewards of each other’s humanity, rather than the custodians of each other’s comfort.

In other words, we need to stop pitting love against justice when it comes to how we orient ourselves to anti-racism work. Love is not avoidance. Love is not distraction or complacency. Love and justice are inextricable.

“Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.” — James Baldwin

Love is the foundation for vulnerability, which is the foundation for transformation. It is the antidote to fear and ego: the barriers that often hold us back from acting on what we know. Love must always be the starting point, the motivating force, the guiding compass for how we understand, engage with, and chart pathways for action to build new frameworks for equity and justice.