Hugo House Loses its Leader Amid Landmines of ‘Decisional Equity’

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One of the significant shifts in the many struggles over racial inclusion at non profits is a power shift over who’s in charge. Diversity activists don’t just want more inclusive programs and more people of color on staffs and boards. They want a greater say in forging policies, not just better policies. It’s about ownership of change, though it’s usually glossed over by buzzy euphemisms.

Much of this story is playing out in the Black Brilliance Project, stemming from the summer protests and pushing for participatory budgeting where “the community” has a greater say than just giving input to elected leaders. This kind of power shift also underlies the protests at Hugo House, whose long-a-lefty leader Tree Swenson has just been forced to resign after years of rebuilding the organization. The leader of the Hugo House protests, writer and Hugo House teacher Shankar Narayan, was quoted in a Seattle Times story as dismissing the Hugo House’s racial-equity proposals by saying, “They’re doing these tweaks without consulting or talking to anybody.” Doubtless the Hugo House leaders talked to many writers and activists, but “consulting” is not the same as “empowering.”

A clear statement of the rationale for this shift to shared decision-making comes from a Black educator and artist, Toya Lillard, who inveighs against decisional tokenism and advocates “decisional equity” in this essay. Lillard writes:

“There is a chasm that often exists between white executive leadership at nonprofits, higher education institutions, and philanthropic entities and people on the ground, with their hands deep in the soil, tending to the needs of communities, navigating root systems and ecosystems of support. Built upon the fundamentals of white saviorism, the nonprofit sector rewards leadership that speaks and acts on behalf of Black and Brown folks, and casts a specious eye toward leadership from within those communities….

“The nonprofit sector must immediately lean away from the precedent of empowering white leaders to act on behalf of Black and Brown people. Period. All organizations must lean into rewarding, cultivating, and trusting leadership within their respective stakeholder communities and the communities being served. Change will feel snail-like as long as white organizational leaders, tenured professors, board members, and funders control and dictate the pace of inclusion and the adoption of anti-racist practices.”

Among the many difficulties of this transition is the situation where empowered minority decision-makers have a tough time mediating among the needs of the organization they lead and the impatient imperatives of the minority communities. This was the difficult tightrope that Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best was forced to walk. She owed her job to activism from the minority communities but had also to manage and earn respect from a police department with entrenched and well-defended bad practices. As often, the only honorable way out was to quit, as Chief Best did. 

3 COMMENTS

  1. So ‘other than Bipocs’ can only give money, BUT can’t have a say-so …….How is that going to work ? Are schools going to be segregating teachers ? Are we going to have a area for set aside for the many ethnic groups based on %’s ?
    Is it really about give me what i want, because of generational abuses (reparation) and don’t interfere.

  2. Thanks, David. I’ve been trying to work out a way to say the same thing without sounding like a white privileged reactionary. I’ve written to two of the HH board members to indicate my support but want to give a fair hearing to the WOCA critics. HH is jewel. It’s painful to see this happening.

  3. We are in a difficult moment in our history. I wonder, will the process of “leaning into” reparations and reconciliation cause us to look back at this angry, aggressive time as deeply unproductive, and divisive? I understand and agree with the anger felt by those who have been oppressed by structural racism. But the slash and burn approach to solving problems usually just creates new problems, which then have to be fixed down the line, and can actually contribute to the demise of organizations. I admire Tree Swenson and Carmen Best, and I’m grateful for their hard work. I’m also sad that they are penalized by having to give up their hard-earned careers, because of angry, recalcitrant, punishing vocalizations. At what point in the future will we stop looking at color of skin as defining, and get to the place where it doesn’t matter what you look like, it’s you’re abilities and intelligence that rule the day. And, when the process of inclusiveness includes those who have worked hard to get where they are. It’s painful to watch hard-working people like Best and Swenson be pushed out by the very forces they were willing to engage with. There must be a better way.

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