A few years ago I was approached by a colleague that was planning to step down from a prominent and powerful board. He told me that he would like me to take his place.
Boy was that an ego boost. I was excited at the great opportunity to advance my own personal power and with it the power of my organization. To be placed in this role would springboard me into another level of influence. I would be a fool to pass it up.
But I did.
The recent Planning Commission appointment debacle raises the same issue. There, a privileged white male (words that will immediately alienate many readers…) was appointed to join a commission full of privileged white people, myself included. The commission is now 6 of 7 white people. And a majority of the members, in a city of 1 million people covering 180 square miles, reside in one particular area of the city.
The appointment process was a striking example of how those in power continue to hoard power. Our system was set up to deliberately exclude poor people and people of color. Today, the System is perpetuated by those of us who at best, do not recognize there is a problem and at worst, see it and perpetuate it.
For white men in particular, you hold the power. The system was built by you for you. As someone who benefits from the system it is difficult to see it. You can get offended at the notion that your hard work and smarts was not the only reason you have gotten ahead in this world. Reading these words probably makes you mad. For those of you who have continued reading despite feeling defensive, thank you and I’ve been there too.
(If you’d like to explore those feelings a little more, the articles linked here might help. They did for me. (Nonprofit AF, deconstructing white privilege.) And for those of you who might hear this message better from a fellow white dude, read about Macklemore’s struggle with his rap career by listening carefully to the lyrics in “White Privilege II”.)
I also fully acknowledge that how I wrote that paragraph is going to turn a lot of folks off but I’m tired of trying to get you all to simply be open to considering the possibility that maybe your worldview is possibly not entirely accurate. It’s up to you to do your own educating at this point since we’re all tired of trying to break through your willful ignorance. This privileged white woman’s been there too, and all I can offer to pique your curiosity is that it’s kind of fun to explore blindspots.
But I digress.
Here’s the good news. We didn’t create the system we were born into. As an aside, it’s a system that harms men in cruel ways too, boxing them in to a definition of masculinity that leads to all sorts of unhealthy outcomes. There is much to be fixed and the good news is, by learning about it, we can start to repair the parts that don’t serve us well. To do so, we must work to understand the experiences of others and be more cognizant of how patriarchy, classism and racism prevent equal access to opportunity.
One important way to begin to change the System is for our leaders to recognize that it might not be them that should be taking up a seat at a table at this point in time. Take a look around. Is it you that should seek to to sit on a certain board or commission? Is it you who should run for office? You may have lots of experience and knowledge but is it your lived experience that is most valuable to leading the conversations at this point in time?
That is not to say you don’t have plenty to offer. You do and you should. But your leadership at this point in time must take a different form. Instead of occupying the visible leadership roles we need you to use your power, expertise and privilege to identify, support and advance the leadership of women of color. Awesome, qualified women exist. They are qualified and don’t need much other than you to step aside. It is time to voluntarily vacate your seats, to suggest other candidates when approached for leadership roles, and make way for the voices that are most qualified to redress society’s ills.
Shiloh Ballard is a white woman who is in an ongoing learning process, has made and will continue to make mistakes, and invites people to tell her when she’s messing up on these issues. She is eternally grateful to the people of color in her life who mentor her. In her professional life, she is Executive Director of Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition and encourages you all to build a better community through the joy of riding a bike. Read about the Bike Coalition’s statement on diversity, equity and inclusion.