Nicole Havelka Consulting
in Antiracism - Change Leadership - Community - Creativity - Mindfulness - Social Justice

White Supremacy Culture Is Killing White Organizations, Too

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I had been combatting the habits of white supremacy for years, and I didn’t even know it.

When I first started working as regional church denominational staff, I got called by churches to help them figure out what they needed to do to attract young people. I’d take a phone call or have a meeting during which they’d complain about how families in their communities didn’t value church any more – sports and a whole host of other activities always took precedence. I’d listen calmly and sympathetically. Then, I’d begin to suggest that maybe they needed to find a way to bring church to those young people and families, rather than expect them to come to the church. That suggestion was usually greeted with blank stares.

To help them come up with new programs, I developed a weekend-long session during which key leaders in the church came together to articulate their purpose and vision, state their goals, and develop a new program to live into that renewed purpose and goals.

This process looked great on paper, but I ran into the same problem over and over again – the “new” program they designed looked strikingly similar to what they had done in the past. It was the exact program that they were telling me did NOT attract new young people or families. I read countless books and articles on how to facilitate vision, mission and goal-setting processes for organizations. I used a number of techniques with the hope that the right one would spark some out-of-the-box thinking. Nothing worked. They most often designed a program that looked a lot like the ones from the past. Those programs usually continued to (not) work in the way they had already been before we ever spent a weekend on the process.

Only recently did I realize that the problem in these situations was not my lack of facilitation skill, nor was it that these people were inherently uncreative. They were trapped in “either/or” and “only one right way” mindsets endemic to white supremacy culture. While doing a deeper dive into learning about the culture of white supremacy and racism, I immediately recognized the stuck patterns in those weekend-long conversations, as ones outlined in Tema Okun’s article “white supremacy culture.”

In either/or thinking, ideas are good/bad, right/wrong, etc. With the “only one right way” mindset, people believe there’s only one right way to do things and that everyone will eventually adopt their way of doing things.

All of the church groups with whom I’ve worked are white church communities. They were fully steeped in these habits and could sense no way of getting out of the toxic tea they and their churches were drowning in. Because they were so accustomed to their old way being the only way, they could see no other options, no matter how how much the circumstances around them changed or how clever the facilitation process.

This system is designed to keep new people, new ideas and new ways of doing things out of the picture. This system is very successful at keeping the existing people comfortable. It is also very successful at repelling new, potentially more diverse people, who would likely bring with them new ideas about how to do church.

I’ve now realized that these churches didn’t really need a new program; they needed a new cultural mindset. Now, I have long since given up on the idea that one new practice will be a magic solution. Still, I’m wondering what impact the “yes, and” mindset would have on stuck organizations if they fully commit to it. They could make a rule to practice “yes, and” each and every time they encounter a new idea in order to get out of the either/or and “one right way” thinking that is killing their organization and keeping new people out.

So the next time your group encounters a wild idea, try using the “yes, and”  technique rather than dismissing it. (Check out this week’s Mindful Monday video below for more on this.) Even if this idea seems strange or wildly impractical have a “yes, and” conversation for a while. Build on the idea, rather than dismiss it, and see what you come up with. Pause and let the ideas settle before your next meeting. You may not stay with the original idea, but you may come up with something wonderfully unexpected.

Embrace a “yes, and” mindset in these upcoming events:

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