Last weekend I was in the trainer’s chair (zoom box?) with a great crowd of adults who were learning ways to leverage their passion for disability rights and inclusion. I was helping them understand certain nuts and bolts of board service – exploring dynamics of change from within organizations.
We hadn’t gotten very far before someone spoke up about their previous experience. It wasn’t hard, they said, to get on a board, as many groups are happy to be able to say they have a concerned parent represented. What WAS hard was having a voice, even while seated. “They just have their mind made up before we even get started”. There were general nods around the screen, and references to tokenism started lighting up the chat.
It’s a pretty standard failure. It’s not uncommon for boards I’ve worked with to share their puzzlement and frustration when they finally onboard a representative from the community they serve, but a year or two later they’re back to the same members that have been around for years. They may decide it was a one-off mismatch, while people who feel shut out from real contribution would rather bite their tongue and take their energy elsewhere. Recruit, depart, rinse, repeat.
There are important biases and power dynamics to investigate behind these problems, but – as I told the group this weekend - there are also straightforward practices that go a long way in switching up this wearisome dynamic. One obvious way to enable authentic participation from everyone is making sure they are able to prepare for meetings. Do people have easy-to-digest information in advance? Do they know what kind of effort each agenda item needs: take in information, brainstorm, make a decision? Do newer board members have someone to help them with the background of complicated issues or even typical acronyms? Another path to widespread engaged participation is crystal-clear standard protocols. Those confident or in-the-know members will always find their way. As a new or cautious member, though, I’m much more likely to suggest something for group consideration if I know who to contact, what information I need to provide (one-paragraph summary of background? Time needed?), and how the board makes decisions about agenda possibilities.
There’s an international community of facilitators energized around a set of group facilitation tools called “Liberating Structures”. The name itself shows the paradox – structures are often less of a barrier to liberation than the lack thereof. Show me a group that just likes to “play it by ear” and nine times out of ten, I’ll show you a group that is dominated by one or a few.
Making change from the inside of organizations means not only bringing passion and energy for the mission, but passion and energy for good process. The exact solutions will vary based on each organization’s needs and culture – figuring those out is a great starting point. Process can be what inclusiveness looks like in action.