People ask me a lot of questions about anti-oppression consulting work…here are some Q&A I hope you find helpful!
How is anti-oppression work defined, what does that look like, and why do we need it?
The industry term is Diversity/Equity/Inclusion (sometimes also Access, Justice, or Belonging show up in that framing), and I have no problem describing my work that way. The reason I use the term anti-oppression is that the foundation of my work is creating systems, structures and ways of being that are accountable to people who have been marginalized. Even when we want to be kind, compassionate, or inclusive, we often forget that our structures are still accountable to people and communities with power. It doesn’t have to be that way, but it can only be different if we’re intentional about it. Some DEI processes are anti-oppressive, but only if they’re intentionally anti-oppressive.
What types of organizations do you serve? How does it work differently in religious vs. nonprofit vs. governmental organizations?
I have a lot of history with nonprofits, institutions of higher education, faith organizations, and corporations of varying sizes. And I love working with them all because where I catch fire is when folks want to build something transcendent, something visionary in relation to true inclusion in the workplace…turns out you can do that in all those spaces, and while the language is a little different in each one, the core longings and the core hopes are the same. (Interestingly, although I did at one point work in Congress, I’ve only once done any consulting for a governmental organization. I loved it, but I’m delighted to stay in nongovernmental spaces for most of my work!)
What led you to this work?
So I’ve been engaged in racial justice organizing since I was 20, and I’ve been leading anti-racism training for fifteen years. But the launch of Without Fear Consulting as my full-time work was the result of a Jewish labor organizer having a come-to-Jesus conversation with me the summer George Floyd was murdered. She said she knew how much I loved the nonprofit I had founded in Oakland, but the world needed me to do what I was actually good at right now. And what I’ve learned is that my years of organizing experience, my years of launching and running a nonprofit, and the four books I’ve written, all help me show up with teams in supportive and compassionate ways that are also outcome-driven. I’m grateful to my friend for pushing me into work that really feeds my soul!
What are your fees?
I love a get-down-to-business question! My fees are based on organizational budget and vary based on the kind of project I’m doing. You can find more at THIS LINK [which will be on the w/o fear site eventually but is currently at http://sandhyajha.com/consulting, at the link labeled “potential services”]
What can you offer organizations that are just beginning this work?
Organizations just starting out are my FAVORITE to work with! Let’s talk about how to get an anti-oppression or Diversity/Equity/Inclusion strategy started in your organization. Let’s talk about starting a team. Let’s talk about how to integrate anti-oppression practices into board governance and vendor selection and program development and staff engagement. As long as your organization wants to be part of changing the culture, your industry, and/or yourselves, we can build something meaningful together.
What new insights can you offer organizations that are already knee-deep in this work?
One of the things I’ve learned in my work is that for nonprofits with teams, businesses who have done training, even organizations with rigorous equity practices for HR, the biggest challenge is getting the 50,000-foot view of what’s possible, what’s missing, and what could be life-giving in the sometimes frustrating work of Diversity/Equity/Inclusion. I’ve worked with several organizations that started this work two or five or even ten years ago. The best gift I bring is knowing what else is possible, what could be next, and most importantly, how to move towards this work becoming a more sustainable part of the organization’s culture. I love getting to support anti-oppression work’s move from tired to inspired.
What do you think most organizations are missing when they first consider doing anti-oppression work?
Most organizations haven’t asked the very concrete question: How much time are we willing to invest? What might we need to let go of or slow down in order to make space for this? Folks REALLY want to do this work, but they want to do it on top of everything else, instead of recognizing that doing this work well isn’t on TOP like a cupola; it’s foundational. And that means asking how much board time goes into this and what else gets pushed to make space, and how much staff time, and what will get taken off the plates of DEI team members so they have time to do this well on behalf of the organization. When organizations do make that space, it makes the whole organizational culture more alive and vibrant.
What misconceptions do people and organizations have about the work you do? About how you help organizations move forward with anti-oppression and anti-racism work?
I think the biggest concern in multiracial organizations or predominantly white organizations about this work is that it’s about making white people feel bad…and for people of color, the biggest concern is that it’s to make white people feel like they’re doing something good, without making much change. I think what most people learn and appreciate is that (a) I’m not interested in making anyone feel bad, and (b) I’m not invested in keeping systems in place that aren’t accountable to people of color and other marginalized groups. My priority with individuals is to invite them into seeing their role in making change, and my priority with institutions is to make them accountable to people on the margins, which is pretty counter-cultural work…and folks who end up being my clients kind of dig getting to be counter-cultural!
How do you help resistant people come along for the ride?
I get where that question comes from, FOR SURE. I’ll be honest, though. I’ve seen a lot of anti-oppression initiatives unravel because this was one of the goals. I think it is reasonable to create a strategy that recognizes people have different levels of exposure and learning around issues of oppression. I think it’s good to build a plan that prioritizes creating a healthy workplace for people of color and creates a culture of equity across the life of the organization while recognizing that individuals’ journeys will not all be the same. But often when organizations ask how I can help them bring everyone along, I ask them, “Have you had a conversation about what matters enough to you that it would be ok for people to self-select out of your organization if they can’t go there with you?” Not everyone’s going to be passionate. Some people may be fairly passive. But I don’t actually think it’s the work of an organization to bring everyone along. I think it’s the work of an organization to create a culture of justice and equity, which will draw some pretty amazing people to the organization over time.
What is your favorite thing about the work you do?
I’ve gotta be honest: I’m still shaped by years of community organizing, and at its heart, community organizing is about supporting people to live into their strongest leadership skills. So for me, my favorite thing about supporting organizations in their anti-oppression work is when I get to support an anti-racism or anti-oppression or DEI (Diversity/Equity/Inclusion) team long enough that they begin to generate their own content and create their own plan for the sustainability of the work in that organization. It makes me feel like a better world really is coming because cultivating leaders and organizers is so much more impactful than just offering training (although offering training absolutely can be and often is the beginning of the path to being a deeply committed anti-oppression organization).
What is your favorite moment from your work—a time when you thought “THIS is why I do this work!”
The way I engage this work is generally very practical. I’m maybe more interested in outcomes than feelings, although this work engages our very souls, for sure. But I was honored to speak at a conference the winter after George Floyd was killed. It was for an association of professionals who had never offered a workshop or training on diversity/equity/inclusion before. So I talked about the business argument for DEI, and I talked about why a business argument wasn’t enough. And I shared an open letter from a Black woman to her colleagues about how impossibly hard this season was of navigating COVID and parenting and the constant microaggressions combined with an inability to deal with those microaggressions…and during the panel after my keynote, the people of color who were on DEI teams in predominantly white institutions got to talk about what was hard, because I had offered them some cover. On my best days, I think that’s one of the gifts I bring: I say the things that allow other people to say the things.