By Cheri-Leigh Erasmus

As renewed protests around racial equity continue in the USA, and all over the world, the development sector finds itself taking stock of its own practices and how organizations and practitioners may perpetuate unequal systems through their work. Through an ongoing Learning Exchange made possible by OSF’s Economic Justice Program, a group of team members from Accountability Lab and the ONECampaign have recognized this as an important learning moment that challenges organizations to engage in difficult conversations and, more importantly, take action. Although this work on racial equity was not initially part of the exchange, the moment called for it, and it would be impossible to ignore the collective outcry and calls to action. 

When it comes to facilitating difficult conversations we often only get one opportunity to do it right, and when convening people around a theme as sensitive as racial equity, one can actually cause harm and break down trust in an organization if it isn’t planned and facilitated in a thoughtful, respectful and meaningful manner. This is one of many reasons individuals and organizations steer clear of initiating convenings on racial equity and related topics, as it comes with risks. Making the decision to plan such an event was an invaluable learning opportunity for our working group and while we don’t have a perfect formula, we would like to share what we learned along the way as a resource for others. 

Difficult conversations need goals and plans too

A conversation on racial equity in international development can take a variety of shapes. One potential avenue was to create a space where participants could share lived experiences and bring more awareness to pervasive issues in the sector. Another would be to use an acknowledgement of challenges as a starting point, and to craft a session that would focus on actions that can drive change at the organizational and systemic level. Our working group chose the later, primarily because collectively we identified a need for more solutions-driven conversations that could surface tangible action steps as this would align with our learning goals. Our decision was also based on taking stock of the conversations that were already started in the sector. We wanted to add value rather than duplicate. 

As a first step, we crafted very clear envisioned outcomes that would ultimately drive the selection of panelists, the external organizations we would invite, as well as how we framed the conversation. From the very beginning, our outreach and how we spoke about the session internally reflected our goal of curating a list of realistic actions as an outcome. This also helped us create trust in our process within our organizations, as we could explain the goals, structure and follow-up beyond the conversation with a level of clarity that relayed the effort that went into planning the session.

Panelist selection

Needless to say, selecting panelisting was a crucial decision. All of us have participated in conversations where panelists were knowledgeable, but struggled to convey salient information in a relatable way, or steered the conversation in a different direction than what participants signed up for. Our decisions around panelists were grounded in our envisioned outcomes. We recognized that the panelists could make or break our ability to facilitate a solutions-oriented conversation, and identified people with the ability to share actionable insights on the theme. Similar to all other organizations who joined the conversation, ONE and AL were also participants and we made a decision to keep the panel entirely external.

When considering potential panelists to engage, we prioritized individuals from diverse backgrounds in terms of areas of expertise as well as the geographies where they’ve worked to bring a variety of perspectives to the table. We also considered balanced power dynamics. Organizers can fall into the trap of building a panel around one or two strong personalities who can inadvertently overpower the conversation, and we wanted to create a space where everyone could contribute equally. On this point we have to thank our panelists who actively welcomed each other’s opinions.

The audience really matters

Consider whether you are hosting an internal or external conversation, as these two formats will likely include different content. Internal conversations of this nature can be incredibly useful for exploring an organization’s structure and very specific challenges in depth, and can render tangible action plans. We decided to open the conversation up to other grantee organizations within OSF’s Economic Justice Program learning collective. First, this fit well with our learning goals of creating resources for others in the sector, while also bringing in a variety of actors that would enhance our ability to talk about change at the systemic level. There are pros and cons to both internal and external conversations, and this decision is another point at which you should be driven by a clear set of outcomes and an understanding of the risks involved. 

In addition to selecting a group of organizations we would invite to participate, we also planned for the audience’s experience in the space. All of our outreach materials highlighted that we would use Chatham House Rules as the foundation for the conversation, as we wanted people to post comments and questions freely without worrying about it being attributed to them in future outputs. The section of the conversation where participants’ questions were fielded were also not recorded, as we promised at the beginning of the session, and the moderator omitted participants’ names when relaying questions to the panel. One learning here was that we should have taken steps to completely anonymize participants’ comments and questions in Zoom’s chatbox, which is definitely something we encourage others to do. We cannot stress the importance of making the goal and format of the conversation clear to participants in advance, and to stick to those commitments throughout. 

Preparation is everything 

Conversations on racial equity are inherently emotional, traumatic and uncomfortable, and organizers take on the important task of creating a vessel for constructive dialogue amidst the many lived experiences in the room. This vessel cannot be built without empathetic planning. Once there is a clear vision for the format and outcomes related to the conversation, it is important to be consistent in the language used when reaching out to all stakeholders – both discussants and participants. The language you use will shape the expectations these parties bring into the space, and reinforce the intentions of organizers. These expectations need to be made very clear to discussants or panelists, so that they can make informed decisions about their participation in the event based on the envisioned outcomes. 

It is critical that you brief discussants ahead of time both through a written run-of-show containing themes and questions that they can use to prepare, as well as a preparatory meeting that builds rapport and gathers their input and ensures that everyone is on the same page with regards to themes and outcomes. Clarifying key terminology and creating a shared understanding between organizers, moderators and discussants can also be beneficial. The more detailed the planning and briefing phase, the better. 

The world doesn’t need just another conversation

In tumultuous times when there is excessive pressure to do or say something because it is the right thing to do, one may find yourself participating in performative conversations that are not created with the intention of leading to action. From the beginning, we saw the conversation as part of a bigger set of outputs that would be of use in the sector, and not a singular event. 

If there is a sincere need and desire to address critical challenges in an organization or system, organizers must plan for there to be actionable steps beyond the conversation. Asking for feedback and input after your conversation is one way to keep participants’ attention on the important topics, while also providing organizers with valuable data for learning purposes. Additionally, creating outputs that capture salient thoughts from the conversation as well as suggested actions can be a valuable resource to help participants bring others into the conversation. Make these outputs as engaging and diverse as possible. All of us engage with information in different ways, so consider videos, podcasts and blogs that can appeal to a variety of audiences and that can be used to catalyse conversations independently.  Individuals are becoming more reluctant to invest time in convenings that may be seen as performative, which makes clearly stated outcomes and action-oriented dialogue more important. 

Practice the equity you preach

A quick Google search will leave you with many examples of how people of color’s lived experiences can be used in conversations in ways that aren’t fair or equitable. If we acknowledge the existing structural inequities and if we are truly pushing for reforms, there is also a need to compensate and to walk the walk by not expecting panelists or facilitators to participate in fora that are inevitably emotionally taxing without compensation. Our working group made a decision from the start that we would compensate our panelists for their time fairly. In a sector where we so often rely on people who are willing to give their time for free or at a reduced rate, we do want to encourage others to consider the connection between equity and remuneration of expertise and emotional labor. 

Working towards racial equity is an ongoing process of learning and unlearning which requires a variety of changes at the individual, organizational and systemic levels. We recognize that individual conversations will be different, and they’re meant to be that way, but there is no substitute for authenticity, clarity and thoughtful planning in this process. You’re bound to make mistakes, cause offense, and get stuck along the way, but the potential of moving towards significant systemic change outweighs the pitfalls if change is indeed the intention. 

*Erasmus is Global Director of Learning