We Can’t Work Towards Racial Justice and Equity Without Working on Relationships

Nov 1, 2019 | Woke @ Work

Written By Kad Smith, Project Director, CompassPoint

This is the third blog in our series around our journey to center racial justice, equity, and a vision for leadership in service of liberation at CompassPoint. If you missed the first two installments, catch up here and here. In this second part of our blog series, we’re talking about the importance of centering relationships. 


I remember joining CompassPoint at a time when our team was starting to intentionally center racial justice and equity. Since then, so much has transpired at our organization, and the way we embrace our work has drastically changed. As I sit down to try and convey some of the key elements of our collective transition, the process of looking back on my own journey, the many journeys of my colleagues (current and former), and the transformation of our organization feels daunting, while also immensely inspirational.  

It feels important to say, my reflections on these past few years are my own, though in this piece I intend to reflect on things that have impacted the lives of many folks who’ve worked at, and with, CompassPoint.

In our most recent blog in this series, we talked about how we started to frame our collective challenge at CompassPoint: a vision to name and dismantle white dominant culture in ourselves and our organization. But changing our culture in service of equity isn’t an abstract idea—it’s rooted in relationships and community.

If the goal is to work towards racial justice and equity with our partners, how can we not have a workplace where folks talk about their experiences with systemic oppression? How can we not acknowledge the moments in our lives where we’ve been privileged by virtue of some of the identities we hold? At CompassPoint, we’ve maintained that racial justice and equity work has to happen from the inside out.

In this blog, we’ll share some of the structures and frameworks that helped us to begin shifting our culture at CompassPoint. Most importantly, we’ll acknowledge how, at its core, our collective transformation has required us to change our relationships to our own stories, to each other, and to the way in which we approach our work. We’re sharing our story not because we think it’s perfect or complete, but because we think there’s some wisdom and possible inspiration for your own efforts. One thing is certain: there’s no prescribed plan for doing this kind of work, so think of this as an offering rather than a “how-to.”

Building Community

White Dominant Culture and Patriarchy have indoctrinated us into normalizing many characteristics that are counterproductive to the ways in which we deserve to exist within our work. White Dominant Culture norms encourage a false sense of urgency and to measure our value by how much and how fast we “produce.” It encourages us to believe that the workplace is one where we can only bring pieces of ourselves. Embodying racial justice and equity means rejecting the notion that taking the time to make room for personal stories, voices, and experiences isn’t valuable.

Transitioning from a community built on extractive relationships to one of mutual care and support means making room for courageous conversations and healing. It means sharing our politics in the deepest sense by inviting us to share what drives us to make change in the world. It means fundamentally thinking about the way we relate to one another, finding safety in our similarities and solidarity in our differences.

In my time at CompassPoint, the most rewarding aspect of working here has been uprooting the way in which I once thought of “working relationships.” I think about the moments they solidified into something special, where memories became engraved and let me know that trust was truly established—whether it’s through tears of joy I shed at a beloved colleague’s wedding or the long embraces extended by so many of my folks as I prepared to lay my grandmother to rest.

Growing closer isn’t just in service to the work of CompassPoint, it’s in service to our humanity. When we go to work and know that we’re cared for, valued, and believed in, it allows us to feel a sense of belonging and pride, and a level of togetherness that can’t be appraised. But opening ourselves up to sharing our sacred truths is no small request. When we open ourselves up in the pursuit of wholeness, we will also have moments of being hurt, harmed, or disappointed which can leave us feeling even more broken.

I don’t intend to paint an image of CompassPoint as some organization that “has it figured out”. In my four years here there has been pain, there has been harm, and there have been deep ruptures. As folks committed not only to the future of this organization but also the futures of the folks who comprise it, we are accountable for acknowledging those ruptures where they have occurred, for trying to provide healing where there has been harm, and ultimately trusting that when we give folks space to work through pain, there’s deeper trust and connection to be established on the other side of it. The same is true for the leaders, organizations, and movements we work with.

Frameworks Toward Building Community

There have been several key frameworks that have helped us shape the kind of community we want to be in service of racial justice and equity. Listed here are a few that I think have taken root, gone “viral”, and showed up not only in our internal work but our external work, too.

Building a Shared Language: White Supremacy Culture and Understanding Different Types of Racism

So much of what keeps us divided and from exploring the beautiful potential of relationships is fortified by the ways racism plays out in our lives. All of our institutions, organizations, networks, and groups in some way are impacted by racism. But it begs the question—when we talk about racism, are we even talking about the same thing? Building a shared vocabulary is not only essential in building common understanding, but it’s catalytic in dismantling the social pillars that uphold racism in our everyday lives. If racism is the colossal wedge that keeps us from solving so many of the worlds perils, it’s imperative that we begin to truly sit with just how pervasive it is—within ourselves, within our relationships, and within the spaces we navigate.    

The framework of “White Supremacy Culture” has become core to our understanding of ho