A Founder’s Reflections on Pausing and Transitioning
POSTED ON SEPTEMBER 9, 2019
By Amy Mandel (Bio below)
During our “pause for the cause,” AMKRF has entered a time of organizational reflection and analysis building. As a part of our work, we are sharing reflections about what we’ve learned in the process of building relationships with one another and analyzing power, white supremacy, oppression, alongside liberation.
I’ve been spending time reflecting on some big questions lately: What is the value of building relationships and internal culture for an organization like ours? How has the internal work we’ve done as a team impacted our external work? And how has this work aided our journey toward a new organizational structure and a forthcoming leadership transition?
A year ago, we began working with Beth Trigg and Tamiko Ambrose-Murray to build a team culture centered on a shared set of values. We built analysis together and in community. We envisioned and launched an extensive community-based research process. Our grantmaking and programming will be forever changed because of this work.
But because of Tamiko and Beth’s work with us, I have changed. And the way the rest of the team shows up has changed.
When the “pause for the cause” idea emerged, I began to think about the Center for Participatory Change (CPC). I had heard about CPC’s transition process–how they had learned to have the hard conversations and continue to build trust. I wondered how our team could be changed by a similar process. I have long admired CPC because my sense is that their values are not only reflected in what they do but how they do it. Since I first started having contact with CPC staff, I was heartened by the way they bring their whole selves to their work. I want this for AMKRF because I believe that “whole selves” make the most impactful change.
It’s hard to say exactly what has made our internal work and the community research process so impactful. But several things stand out. As consultants and guides, Tamiko and Beth co-created a deeply intentional process grounded in relationship building and ritual. They insisted that we take the time we needed to grow and to let things percolate.They brought incredible faith in me and in the staff. Throughout, they held onto the possibility that AMKRF could go from where we have been to where we want to go.
This process has taught me so much. Here’s some of what I have learned that I want to share with my friends and colleagues doing this work…
Relationship building pays off. Alongside our community research, staff have spent time building relationships with each other. Each team member demonstrated tremendous willingness to show up, even when our conversations were difficult. We’ve added several practices to our culture. We do personal check-ins at the beginning of each meeting. We eat lunch together in a social way once a month to keep up on each others’ personal lives, joys, and challenges. We’ve incorporated ritual and reflection into some of our meetings to set the tone for the space we want to hold. This work has morphed us from a bunch of individuals to a functioning team.
Trust is indispensable. As we spend time together, we are learning each other’s personalities and vulnerabilities. Trust is growing in ways that are beginning to allow us to talk about more difficult things.
Real relationships built on trust are crucial to building alliances and collaborations and, ultimately, to changing hearts and minds. This is something our facilitators, Tamiko and Beth, have modeled for us beautifully. As our trust deepens, we have been able to experiment with a new decision making model, we call the advice model. It allows us to work more seamlessly, for staff to have greater autonomy, and for community to have greater voice in our decision making processes.
Directness is critical. The niceness that has been bred into white women through patriarchy and white supremacy was entrenched in our organization. It got in our way. The learned tendency to protect each other’s feelings leads to indirect communication. Our entire team is becoming more direct about what we each see, want, and need for the organization to function. I have learned that if we commit to being direct and honest that our conversations, although sometimes challenging, lead to more points of view being expressed, which make our work stronger.
Time is a friend. Fear of not responding adequately to the real crisis of this time can prevent those of us in movement and nonprofit work work from taking our time: How can it be ok to slow down when the needs of our grantees and our community are so great and the world seems to be on fire? This culture breeds a deep sense of urgency–Be productive. Get it done. Do it fast so you can do more. Do it perfectly. In the past, this intensive pressure led us to replicate oppressive dynamics in our grantmaking and programming.To keep us from knee-jerk responses and to ground our work, we need to slow down. Building anti-oppressive ways of being takes time. The time is worth it.
Embrace messiness. This pause for the cause has been so non-linear. Internal work happened alongside community research. Pilot programs were launched to distribute funding in the interim. A new staff person was onboarded, and we began conversations about what a new structure of leadership might look like. It’s been a messy process, which has challenged the perfectionism that was embedded in our organizational culture. Perfectionism requires that we overdeliver and, in the process, suppress some parts of ourselves. This bringing-the-whole-self work is NOT easy. It’s messy and uncomfortable, but it is real and productive. It feels atypical, and yet feels so very healthy. For the first time, it feels like our work is sustainable. And as we embrace the messy, we are able to find new ways, better ways, to do philanthropy and support local leaders.
When we started our journey, I felt proud of my work as AMKRF’s founder and visionary, yet I was increasingly working at the edge of my capacity to manage and implement AMKRF’s vision. A significant period of time has passed since I was working on the ground as a community organizer. There are gaps in my own skill set and limits to what I can see because of my own identity as a wealthy, white woman who was