3: Assembling our ride or die

ride or die [sey-krid]

n. the person (people) who stand by you in any problem and vice versa

We understood very early on that the first step in building programs focused on transformation was to identify a team who not only aligned philosophically with our budding vision, but who also aligned with our deeply collaborative approach and had the necessary combination of skills to implement this vision.

Our First Radical Act

"When a sista is real, she is “a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order. It’s good, you know, when you got a woman who is a friend of your mind.”

Toni Morrison, Beloved

The programs we are reflecting upon in this guide were created within an organizational context. Interestingly, although the programs we (Trish and Aida) were creating both focused on developing the leadership of Women of Color, within the organization they were seen as completely unrelated bodies of work because they had different funding streams and the two of us worked on separate teams. We were not encouraged to see our work as connected or to work collectively— in fact just the opposite. In many ways, those surrounding each of us presented the other person and their developing program as a threat to the success of our own. Meanwhile, each of us was struggling to find the creative thought partnership and technical support within our own teams to bring our respective programs into being.

Separately, we were each asking ourselves, “How can we, with integrity, design programs that encourage women to center interdependence but allow our institution to keep us siloed?” Finally, we were brave enough to ask this question of each other. After a deeply healing conversation where we explicitly named all the ways that society generally and our institution specifically had discouraged us from seeing each other fully, we named that each of us possessed unique gifts which would make our respective programs that much stronger. So on that same day, we committed to supporting each other's programs no matter what, and we also committed to supporting each other no matter what, having no idea what that would mean in practice.

What it has meant in practice is that today, each of us still holds primary institutional accountability for our respective programs (the women’s fellowship for Aida, Power 50 for Trish), but behind the scenes we hold responsibility for the programs collectively. It also means that we’ve built and continue to experience the deepest of personal and professional sisterhoods which we have then had the privilege of inviting an incredible team into as well.

Bringing in Outside Collaborators

Our next step in building our programs was to assemble a team that had the skills, shared analysis, and deep commitment to creatively cultivate the leadership of Women of Color. We deliberately built a team: 1) with knowledge of organizing, structural racism, and leadership development to enhance our offerings and 2) whose external perspective would continuously push our thinking beyond our organizational deliverables. We also believed our team must comprise people who have been directly impacted by the conditions making it crucial to call Women of Color in and up. These lived experiences significantly contribute to program design and facilitation as we are already seeing in the 2020-21 women’s fellowship whose ride or die team includes alumnae.

Our primary team members — Viveka Chen, Zuri Tau, and Holiday Simmons — became our vital outside collaborators. These were individuals we had encountered in different spaces over the years — some who we’d worked with extensively and some who we’d interacted with only briefly but whose body of work and presence demonstrated that they might be down to build something deep and radical.

Our Superpowers

It is difficult to reduce any team member to a single attribute because each has many talents. But we do so here to illustrate a few of the seven superpowers we identified on our team (see 'Superpower Team' figure. For each person, we lift up some of the resources and practices they exposed to us.

Viveka (knower) is called “the oracle” because of her deep facilitation experience, her workshop design prowess, and her vast knowledge across our content areas, particularly racial equity. She wrote the design guide for Power 50 (see Section 4: Envisioning & Design), created the wireframe structure we use (see Section 5: Wireframes & Sessions), and coaches participants.

Zuri (compass) is skilled at honing in on outcomes to make sure they correspond with program design, and at creating adaptable learning and assessment tools that are comprehensible, fun and do not undermine the power in the room. As a sociologist and evaluator, she has a deep interest in naming Women of Color as knowledge creators. Zuri evaluated Power 50 & the women’s fellowship and helped translate what was happening in the room into frameworks the team could use to understand the larger contributions of WoC in society (See Assessing Our Impact in Section 4: Envisioning & Design).

Holiday (healer) masterfully matched somatic practice-to-content to nurture a culture of safety, resilience, empowerment, and healing; exposed us to decolonizing tools; and embodied a tender masculinity that participants received openly. Holiday was initially brought in to support the women’s fellowship team to deepen their trauma-informed approach, and ended up becoming a team member, facilitator and one-on-one coach for participants (See Principles of Trauma-informed Care in Section 7: Leaning Into Generative Conflict sidebar).

Aida (witness) is masterful at observing what is happening in the moment, quickly sensing emergent opportunities for learning, and is unafraid to lean into generative conflict. She is often the first team member to name the issue simmering under the surface of the room and stop conversation to address it. She took the lead on designing the women’s fellowship at Community Change and currently leads all aspects of WoC programming for the organization.

Trish (weaver) is described as “the dopest connector” because of her adeptness at identifying what mix of talents are needed to bring something to life, seeing how those talents show up in people who are often overlooked, then connecting those individuals across diverse social locations in a manner that makes everyone feel they belong and are brilliant. She led the design of Power 50 at Community Change and carved out the space for broader WoC programming at the organization.

There were other people along the way —many of whom we honor in the Acknowledgments —who shared their gifts with the team at critical moments offering guidance, expertise, or co-facilitation, but this team formed the core.

Starting with Self

Our team goal was to facilitate programs that WoC invest in and can be proud of, an aspiration that began during the visioning phase of program design and continued through the planning of each gathering. We knew that how we showed up and what we offered were foundational and that to ask the women to be receptive and generous without having practiced the same among ourselves would be disingenuous and counter-constructive. Starting with self, there were a couple of questions we kept at the fore:

  • What is necessary to know or have experienced to feel prepared to lead this space?

  • How can we enter into the space we’ve designed from a place of centeredness and possibility?

Here are three learnings that were revealed about the critical link between team preparation and program facilitation. They are not definitive — other facilitators will no doubt glean different lessons —but they are true to what we experienced and attempted to deliver.

  1. Getting to know our strengths, challenges and triggers as a facilitator and as a team

As we were initially getting to know each other, we relied on more formal tools such as Gallup’s Strengthsfinder and the Move to End Violence program’s Facets of Core Strengths tool. Over time, however, we got to know the depths of each other’s strengths through feedback from one another, informal check-in questions (i.e., How are you aligned with or a contradiction of your zodiac sign?), and by witnessing each other in design and facilitation mode.

Being acutely aware of each other’s strengths, challenges and triggers also prepared our team to lean into generative conflict while remaining grounded in purpose. As conflicts arose, we came to know who asks great questions that lead the women to deep reflection and awaken their thinking? Who has experience with what’s showing up in the room right now? Who can bring us back to center at this moment?

  1. Understanding what might be projected onto us and how it can trigger vulnerabilities

Each of us comes from a social location that informs our worldview and makes it more or less difficult for us to recognize embedded societal norms. Social location includes unchangeable elements (race) and mutable elements (economic status, gender, physical ability). Some questions we asked ourselves to explore our social location were:

  • What aspects of my social location are shared by the majority of the people in this program and which are not?

  • What types of experiences have I had because of my social location? (See Social Location Overview & Worksheet, SEW Consulting

  • What are my biases because of my social location?

  • How might I be perceived by others outside of my social location and what feelings does this evoke in me?

Knowing how we are perceived helps us to recognize what we embody—what our bodies convey and what it triggers in others.

  • For example, there is general discomfort discussing economic class differences however this does not mean the differences go unnoticed. Unspoken are the qualities attached to class and cultural capital that can create tension (i.e., a person’s manner of speech or the way they dress.) When associating high salaries and degrees in higher education with whiteness, we may treat those who possess these qualities as the “white person in the room” or may feel treated as such.

  • In another example, facilitators are timekeepers and keepers of the agenda and in this role might be reminiscent of a strict teacher, parole officer, or some other controlling entity serving an organization or system rather than the people.

Understanding potential triggers helps facilitators interpret the responses that feel unnecessarily resistant or as refusals from members of the group.

  1. Sharpening our observational skills to notice what is showing up as disruption

We also prepared ourselves individually and as a team by thinking about common ways “disruption” manifests. We identified four questions to keep in mind during gatherings. See Section 7: Leaning Into Generative Conflict for illustration of these questions through four portraits of disruption.

  • How might disruption show up? For example, someone has stepped outside of the circle or shut down a conversation.

  • How is it impacting the space? For example, the mood in the group has shifted and the women are becoming distracted.

  • Why might the woman be disrupting? For example, is she fearful of going deep or exposing something about herself?

  • How and who can call her in? For example, can we remind her of the community agreements, ask her critical questions that invite everyone into the discussion, or have the group pause to do reflective writing?

How & Where We Build Together

We see our forming as a team as an ongoing process requiring both long, spacious spells of time together for deep planning and relationship building, as well as short, regular check-ins that allow us to reconnect and move the work. The thread that connects all of these moments is genuine reverence for each other’s gifts, respect for each other’s ideas, trust in each other’s intentions, love and celebration of each other as whole people.

Design Retreats: As we were first developing the programs, we gathered the core team for a series of multi day retreats aimed at naming the core outcomes and activities of the programs. (See Section 4: Envisioning & Design) Another explicit goal of these retreats, however, was to get to know each other deeply as people and as teammates. So our design time was intentionally punctuated with centering practices like Tai Chi to ground us upon arrival, long meal breaks that allowed for laughter and casual conversation, exercises that revealed our strengths and triggers, and whenever possible, we took retreats in and near each others’ homes so we could get to know each other's' families and lives beyond the program.

Regular Check-ins: Design and facilitation is an ongoing, adaptive process so we pre-scheduled and committed to regular check-ins through the course of the programs. Frequency depended upon role (i.e., program staff, such as Aida and Trish program staff, met twice weekly). Outside collaborators met monthly to check in and more frequently in the lead-up to a retreat.) The purpose of these spaces was to create intentional opportunities to share reflections on how the program was developing, give each other feedback about our facilitation and how we were showing up, and to design upcoming sessions.

WoC Pedagogy Conversations: Our evaluator and compass, Zuri Tau, helped us recognize our role early on as knowledge-creators in addition to being program facilitators. So we created a separate space monthly from our regular check-ins where we would bring in other people in our circles with an understanding of or interest in WoC leadership cultivation to place the program experiences we were having in broader historical and sociological contexts. Whenever possible we would translate what we were learning or observing into learnings for publication or frameworks that could be applied to different areas of organizing and leadership development.

Reading & Reflection: In addition to connecting with other individuals who were cultivating WoC leadership, we also shared and reflected upon readings with one another to help create a shared understanding of what we were trying to create and rooting ourselves in a legacy of thinkers/learners.

WhatsApp Group: Our WhatsApp group became and remains the place where we build and deepen our relationships on-the-go. It is the in-between space to ask the team for a tool or for advice on how to handle a situation. More importantly, it became the space to let our fellow teammates know that we were thinking of them - whether it was sharing good news, updates on how a plant that had been gifted was progressing, videos of each other's families, or a photo of a beach sunset we wanted the others to enjoy along with us.

4 Questions for Leaning in With Your Ride or Die

Our Team's Go-To Resources & Inspirations

Accompanying Journaling Prompts & Coloring Pages:

Journaling Prompt: Time to draw! Recreate the superpower team figure (page 28) and brainstorm some folks who remind you of these qualities. Make the circles BIG so you can make expansive lists of your possible Ride or Die.

Coloring Page: Mandala, from various Eastern spiritual traditions, is a configuration of symbols used to focus the attention of practitioners and as a spiritual guidance tool to establish a sacred space.