Written by Laura Plaut, Executive Director


February is Black History Month.

Among other things, this month is a good opportunity for me as Common Threads’ Executive Director to reflect in public on where our organization is on our journey toward building an internal culture of equity. While future posts will focus on how we are promoting equity in our programming, here I focus on what we have been doing to examine and improve our internal organizational culture, as viewed through an equity lens.

I founded Common Threads fourteen years ago. For many years we remained a relatively small organization.  In the  past several years, our team has grown substantially (to its current size of 5 staff and 21 AmeriCorps service members.)  A big part of Common Thread’s journey as an organization is intertwined with my own learning about my privilege and biases, and how I lead as a white woman. I’m grateful for how those around me – staff, board, and our AmeriCorps service members past and present –  continue to challenge and improve my perspective and leadership capacity in this arena. I’m fortunate to work with smart, brave people who care passionately about racial justice and food justice and who consistently raise issues and suggest how I, and Common Threads, can do better.  When I make mistakes, which I do often, I am striving to own them, learn, and do differently. 

Over the past year, we’ve been working hard to notice organizational norms and behaviors that either support or impede a culture of equity — a culture where people from diverse backgrounds feel seen, heard, and valued for their perspectives and contributions. Until now, we’ve not publicized our internal racial equity work. But, like seeds slowly germinating beneath the ground, our silence has not meant lack of growth.  

Last spring, when the schools we usually serve closed due to COVID-19, we used some of our free time to participate in Food Solutions New England’s 21 day racial equity habit building challenge. If you have a passion for food justice and racial justice, I recommend this resource.  This year’s challenge runs from April 5-25, and the materials from last year’s challenge are currently available on the Food Solutions New England website.  To be honest, participating in this training while also scrambling to reconfigure Common Threads in the midst of the pandemic felt like drinking out of a firehose. I had less time than I would have wished to invest in the rich resources provided, but others on our team engaged very deeply in this material in ways that motivated them to demand organizational reflection and change.

Then on May 25th, George Floyd was murdered. Many organizations chose to speak out against the long history of sanctioned police violence against Black people.  Many on the Common Threads team, including me, took individual action: speaking out, marching, and  donating to civil liberties organizations as individuals. Yet thinking from an organizational perspective about how to frame our grief and outrage at George Floyd’s death took some work.  

Our team at Common Threads had diverse views about how we as an organization should respond to George Floyd’s murder.  Some advocated for a laser-focused statement opposing police brutality against Black people. Others worried that it did not feel mission-congruent to focus Common Thread’s messaging on the brutal death of a Black man in Minnesota without also addressing how Brown people here in our Whatcom County community are wronged by systemic racism. Still others felt that our message needed to focus on the intersectionality of systemic racism and the food system.  Ultimately, Common Threads released this We Stand in Solidarity blog post.

Throughout the spring and summer, our conversations deepened. “What can we do collectively to improve our internal culture?” “What are our biggest barriers?” “How can we use more equitable structures for decision making?” A group of staff and AmeriCorps service members  formed an equity task force that met regularly. An important aspect of our organization’s culture is that over 80% of our team  is composed of AmeriCorps service members who are generally with us for one year. This benefits us tremendously: we constantly have new eyes and hearts and minds that challenge old practices and assumptions. Much credit is due to our AmeriCorps members for forming the original equity task force. Since that time, members have continued to introduce us to new resources such as the Brave Space resource and the equity book club mentioned below. I’m certain that future cohorts will continue to improve and build upon the foundation current members have laid.

In June, our Program Manager, Jenna,  attended a two-day training hosted by the National Equity Project on Delivering/Facilitating Meetings for Equity. She did an outstanding job bringing her learning back to our team. We’ve already reaped the benefits of new practices such as an anonymous feedback form: this allows for more candid sharing of information without worry of repercussions or risking conversations that can feel more challenging because of the power dynamics inherent in age, race, organizational position. 

In July, a former AmeriCorps service member, Kiana, and I participated in a month-long Whiteness at Work series. The sessions were built on this excellent free Whiteness at Work webinar  from the Adaway Group. This series introduced me to the Awake to Woke to Work resource provided by Equity in the Center. I particularly appreciate hearing from experts in racial equity work that while each organization has to find its own unique path in racial equity work, there are some best practices that we can draw on such as thinking about specific levers to move organizations through the race equity cycle.

In August, we workshopped an earlier draft of this Equity Statement. I’m struck by how quickly this document can feel out of date as we lean in together to the difficult work involved in building a culture of racial equity. Drafting an equity statement is one thing, living into it is quite another. The benefit of articulating these shared values is that it gives us a measuring stick by which to evaluate our own progress. 

In August and September, with the on-boarding of our new AmeriCorps team, we took a moment to regroup and plan next steps. 

In September, one of our new AmeriCorps service members, Amelia, introduced us to the concept of Brave Spaces. I’ve deeply appreciated the reframe from the “safe space” language I’d previously heard, and the reminder that grappling with issues of race in this country requires a great deal of bravery, commitment, and stamina.

Also, this fall, four members of our team participated in an excellent equity training provided by Youth Outside, fantastic leaders in advocating for culturally relevant and inclusive outdoor education and our full team of new AmeriCorps members once again participated in the 21 day racial equity habit building challenge.

When we launched ourselves into the 21 day racial equity habit building challenge for the first time  last spring, I’m not sure any of us fully appreciated how profoundly it would challenge us.  Nor do I think any of us clearly foresaw the trajectory of organizational growth and change it would inspire. And although it’s obvious, while embarking on critical conversations about equity is always challenging, the constraints and stresses related to the Covid-19 pandemic have compounded these challenges.  Zoom is not the ideal format for honest, scary conversations.

So where are we now? Although we’ve just scratched the surface of learning from available resources, we’ve also begun to turn more attention to what we will actually do with all we’re learning.

In September, we expanded Common Threads’ equity task force to include me and several board members.  Since then, the task force has divided itself into four working subcommittees focused on program, personnel, training, and communications/evaluation. 

Our first step has been to discuss within each subcommittee what Common Threads should “keep doing, keep doing but differently, start doing, and stop doing” – a strategy recommended by Neha Sampat, of GenLead|BelongLab. Examples of things we’ve started doing differently:

  • Developed rubrics to screen for bias in hiring processes;
  • Attended to our communication methods: how both language (English, Spanish, etc) and communication platform (email vs. social media vs. in person) can impact how and with whom we’re communicating and to what degree those communications are successful; Reviewed our employee and AmeriCorps staff handbooks (e.g., removing gendered language and  making legal employment language more accessible).

Among our next steps will be to use the excellent Awake to Woke to Work resource provided by Equity in the Center to look at concrete steps that will keep us moving forward and hold us accountable to reflecting on our successes and our failures. We’ve also committed to participating in an Equity Book Club, the thoughtful brainchild of several of our AmeriCorps members.

As a nonprofit leader, I am committed to giving racial equity the time it so richly deserves while also tending to the other urgent tasks required to keep Common Threads’ operations viable.

As a white woman on my own learning journey, I humbly acknowledge that grappling with a history of white supremacy and white body advantage is raw and messy work.  I will continue to fail, offend, and disappoint – sometimes quite spectacularly.  When this happens, I will strive to learn from my mistakes, apologize well, take responsibility for the harm I have caused, and treat each new day as an opportunity to do better. I hope you will share recommendations for resources that would help us along the way!

Building a culture of equity requires consistent and committed effort. I wish us all  a soul-searching, gut-wrenching, thought-provoking, concrete goal-setting Black History Month and a commitment to learning about and addressing systemic racism throughout the year.