The bravery to step into a room and ask, How does injustice live in us? How are we behaving in ways which undermine our values? That’s the kind of leadership that’s required of us as our sector reels from the Oxfam scandal.
We need to face the fact that it is not acceptable to have a large women rights project and a public commitment to the emancipation of women, whilst women working in our organisations feel unable to disclose and address sexual abuse.
And that it is not OK to have an expressed commitment to listening to poor and marginalised people, if those very people are unable to engage effectively with our organisations or influence the direction of our work.
No matter what policies and procedures we commit to paper, at the heart of our response to this story must be to ensure that our values are at the centre of the way in which we work.
This will mean more than strengthening policies and procedures around identifying and addressing abuse. We actually have to unpick power dynamics, to believe people when they raise concerns and accept that we are not infallible. Our resistance to oppression needs to live in our organisations, to be something we constantly commit to address.
In practice this will means us doing two things much more explicitly. Firstly, it will mean addressing the ways in which we are privileged, both personally and collectively and are able to exploit power over others. Secondly, it will mean tackling the ways in which we have tended to allow and encourage our people to exploit and exhausted themselves.
The structures of injustice are manifest in our society and play out, whether we like it or not, in how we do our work. How do we disrupt them? I think we have to start by resisting them within ourselves. That means being open to reflecting on them and changing how we work. It means asking difficult questions. What does it mean for our day-to-day practice to be a person committed to ending inequity? What organisational structures and practices will make that possible?
Answering these questions will take leadership. Our organisations will likely need to look different too. Less like ‘corporate brands’ and more like dynamic new leadership for our times. They will need to build solidarity rather than empires, more effectively working alongside and helping to raise the voices of organisations, movements and people in the global south.
To make the changes necessary we need to understand how privilege feeds our organisational systems and cultures. Staff need to be invited to reflect on this together in well held spaces within organisations where honesty about these things can be developed. Leaders must ask what specific processes, activities and decision making structures need to be re-made? And then act on what they hear back from staff, stakeholders and all the people with whom their organisations work.
For too long white middle class people have dominated the better paying jobs in our sector and partnerships have exploited organisations in the global south. Addressing our privilege will mean looking closely at who we hire and why and how we distribute resources. To address the lack of diversity in our staffing and improve our approach to partnership, we actually need to commit to re-distributing wealth ourselves.
The ways in which we exploit ourselves are linked to the ways in which we exploit others. Our organisations cannot be healthy when the people working within them are constantly exhausted and feel unsupported. Burnout manifests in our sector, as Alessandra Pigni (see more here and here) has pointed out, not just because we are passionate and work hard, but also because the environments we work in don’t adequately reflect our values. Our people will get more resilient and make better decisions if we can take the relentless pressure off them and practice much more of what we preach.
There is a great opportunity here to open up and address the lack of transparency and value-drift which has troubled us for so long. Leaders have to commit to making changes and this might lead them to having to make some uncomfortable decisions about the kind of funding they accept. Heavily restricted budgets are a contributing factor in some of these issues with staff sacrificing themselves to the cause in the absence of adequate funding for activities, and organisations following funding that detracts from their central values and strategy.
Re-making our sector is no small task. These questions will challenge not just organisations, but everyone committed to trying to make the world a better place. But now more than ever we need to resist the temptation to simply address the immediate issue and carry on largely as before. The world will not become a fairer and more equitable place by us hoping for it, we urgently need to start living it in each and everything that we do.
Mary -Ann Clements is founder of Jijaze: Working with organisations and individuals who believe that our own care and healing is a critical part of creating lasting change. She blogs regularly here: https://medium.com/@maryannmhina