With A Lever - Intro (Part 1)

A DIY Guide to Institutional Change for Racial Equity

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April 12, 2021

(5 min read)

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The function of freedom is to free someone else. - Toni Morrison
With a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, I can move the world. - Archimedes


To achieve racial equity, every institution, without exception, needs to change. Eradicating systemic racism requires overhauling our society’s individual components. Though there has been a national moment of reckoning over the persistence of racism and anti-Blackness in particular, increased awareness of the problem does not automatically result in improved conditions. Real change is possible but requires us to first imagine and then intentionally work to create a society in which Black lives matter and the concerns of other marginalized folx are taken seriously. This requires more than individual commitment to anti-racism. We also need to change our institutions so that they can help us work toward anti-racism instead of acting as tools to reinforce and uphold existing hierarchies. This applies on the large scale, to our justice system and electoral system, but it also extends to the everyday institutions such as our places of work and our schools. These smaller institutions also need to change and crucially, anyone who is committed to racial equity can and should work to create that change. This guide is intended to assist those seeking to engage in racial equity work at the institutions they are already part of.

Why work to change institutions?

Our lives are shaped by institutions. Some of us are supported by them, granted opportunities, afforded credibility. Others are crushed by them. Companies, political parties, universities, and unions are all institutions. Thus, most of our waking hours are spent enveloped by institutions. Institutions are inescapable because society expresses and transmits its values through them. Inequity within an institution is reflected in the positions it takes, the roles it fills, the fights it lends weight to. Institutions are amplifiers so shifting an institution, ensuring its commitment to anti-racism, has ripple effects beyond the institution itself.

We also already shape the institutions we are part of. We reinforce the status quo when we acquiesce to it. We change institutional norms when we speak out. Institutions seem monolithic but they are made up of individuals. Being part of an institution means being connected to other people within it and those human connections can bring change. Indeed, building community is one of the most important things we can do to create a more just world. Great change is possible when people come together in solidarity and existing institutions provide a ready framework through which we can find and construct community with each other. Not everyone can influence the education system as a whole but anyone who is part of a school or a university can work to change it. Not everyone can shift the needle on underrepresentation within their industry, but anyone can work to ensure that their company does a better job recruiting and retaining women of color.

Can institutions change?

If the world is different from the world a hundred years ago, a millennia ago, it is because our institutions changed. But institutions are difficult to shift. Institutions, like societies, only change when enough people decide they must. Even with the repeated calls for racial justice and the frequent reminders of its necessity, there may not be enough collective will to make changes at a particular institution.

Thus, approach the project of institutional reform knowing that failure is possible. But even failure to attain a specific agenda can make a difference. Fighting for change models behavior for those who come after, making it more likely they will pick up the fight. Demanding that an institution do better is also a way to convince people who are not yet committed to the same goals. The myth of the "marketplace of ideas" obscures that there is nothing so convincing as watching others wholeheartedly fight for justice. Finally, you learn by doing and you build community in adversity, both of which make you stronger.

Disclaimers

This is not and cannot be a comprehensive guide. Each institution is different and so the path to anti-racism and ensuring it values Black lives in particular must be individually tailored. Instead, what follows is an attempt to define principles for discovering and implementing that individually tailored solution. The guide assumes the reader does not need to be convinced that racial equity is necessary, but rather needs a framework for how to think about changing an institution from the inside. It assumes there is some resistance to taking sufficient steps to ensure racial equity and that the reader will need to organize to create pressure for action.

My experience is shaped by time in educational institutions, government, and non-profits, organizations that profess a higher calling, an altruistic purpose. It is therefore sometimes easier to harness the stories that the institution tells about itself to change it. Finally, the advice that follows is arranged in chronological steps to make them easier to understand but that does not mean anyone needs to follow them in rigid order.

Part 2 

Google doc version of this guide.


Contents

Intro - Part 1 

  • Why work to change institutions?
  • Can institutions change?
  • Disclaimers

Six Steps to Institutional Change

Conclusion - Part 9

  • A brief checklist for self-reflection
  • A few last words
  • Author's note






Alda Yuan

@aldayuan

Alda is a lawyer, amateur writer, and even more amateur cartographer. https://twitter.com/Aldayuan

With a Lever

A DIY Guide to Institutional Change

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