June 2021Strategy

Organizing Institutions for Racial Equity: A DIY Guide

Socialists know systemic problems are not solved by fiat. Instead, solutions to our society’s collective ills must be addressed through collective action. And so, shifting our society toward anti-racism so that it better values Black lives and addresses the needs of the marginalized is no exception. If racism is systemic and institutionalized, it follows that all institutions, large and small, need to change. And because each of us is enveloped by institutions, we are well-positioned to advance institutional change for racial equity by leveraging our pre-existing connections. But organizing for change within institutions is not easy, and while there is no substitute for learning through doing, concrete advice can still be helpful. To that end, With a Lever is a DIY guide assembled to help individuals spark institutional change in regard to racial equity.

Changing institutions in particular is important because our lives are shaped by institutions. Some are uplifted by them: granted opportunities, afforded credibility. Others are crushed by them.

Companies, political parties, universities and unions are all institutions, and we spend most of our waking hours in them — at work, at school, etc. Institutions are inescapable because they are the way society expresses and reinforces its values. Inequity within an institution is reflected in the positions it takes, the roles it fulfills, the fights it lends its weight to. Institutions are amplifiers. Shifting an institution, ensuring its commitment to anti-racism, has ripple effects beyond the institution itself.

We already shape the institutions we are part of. We reinforce the status quo when we acquiesce to it. We change institutional norms when we speak out. Institutions seem monolithic but they are made up of individuals. Being part of an institution means being connected to other people — and those human connections can be vectors for change. Indeed, as concepts like relational organizing recognize, building community is one of the most important things we can do to create a more just world. Great change is possible when people come together in solidarity, and existing institutions provide a ready framework through which we can find and construct community with each other.

The DIY guide will help with this work by serving as a reference and practical tool. It contextualizes the effort to make institutions anti-racist within the broader push for a more just society and provides concrete advice for building and sustaining a movement for structural change within institutions.

First, the guide explains how institutions are difficult to change because their very function is to transmit norms over time. Thus, they are designed to resist change and have immune systems to fight it. That resistance can be overcome, but anticipating the knee-jerk defensiveness of an institution toward attempts to change helps us fight against discouragement. Then, the guide outlines six steps, summarized below. It’s important to note that these steps do not have to be completed in order but are organized this way for clarity:

  1. Evaluate Starting Conditions. Understanding an institution means determining how power flows within it, what its values are and how it has changed over time.
  2. Set Expectations. Fighting for institutional change is exhausting. Understanding the limitations and preparing for both tedium and conflict is key.
  3. Build a Coalition and Get Buy-in on Goals. Institutions are made of people, and a team is necessary —, both for mutual support and to make collective action possible.
  4. Make a Plan and Stay Organized. Once a coalition comes together, it should agree on a plan and establish the basic logistics for organizing. This means having a rough timeline for action, setting up structure and running effective meetings.
  5. Avoid Common Pitfalls. In order to recognize the fact that the struggle for racial equity has always been happening, it is vital to understand why previous fights have stalled or failed.
  6. Maintain Momentum. Keep spirits up by acknowledging the need to settle in for the long haul while also celebrating small victories on the path forward.

Of course, each institution is different and so its path toward racial equity will have to be individually tailored. The information contained within the DIY guide is meant to lay down guideposts, as well as define principles for how to discover and implement that individually tailored solution. Perhaps more importantly, the goal of the guide is to convince or remind readers that each of us is capable of changing the institutions around us, and in turn, influencing the shape of our society.

The full guide can be found in blog or PDF format.

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