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Why we’re engaging with counter-narratives

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In June 2021, the TXI team partnered with InterAction, a Chicago-based educational nonprofit organization, for workshops on both racial justice and counter-narratives as part of our ongoing efforts to become an anti-racist organization.

Our global, national and personal histories are often dominated by narratives that serve the interests of white supremacy and hetero-patriarchy. As InterAction defines them, counter-narratives center “stories told by marginalized people to unearth and disrupt power and reveal collective experiences of oppression.” These narratives provide “a message [or] way forward” from systems of oppression, but they can be difficult for Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) to access.

In this article, we’ll explain why we decided to invest time and resources into a counter-narrative workshop. We’re sharing in the hopes that understanding our motivations for doing this work will help other organizations empower their BIPOC employees to tap into and tell their own counter-narrative stories.

Background: what is InterAction?

InterAction is an educational nonprofit organization led by queer people and women of color. With an approach rooted in critical race theory, intersectional feminism and anti-capitalism, the InterAction team uses the power of counter-narratives to dismantle oppressive structures and build diverse, equitable and inclusive communities.

Kelly Yu, InterAction’s program manager and lead workshop facilitator, describes the team’s primary focus: to help vulnerable young BIPOC thrive and flourish. “We really believe that in order to resist [oppressive] narratives … it [requires] speaking our lived experiences for ourselves and on our own terms.”

How we laid the groundwork for a counter-narratives workshop

Racial justice is one of the three pillars of TXI’s ongoing Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging (DEIB) efforts. We saw potential for a counter-narrative workshop to undergird our efforts to center people on the margins.

Counter-narratives are anti-racist by definition. When we normalize stories that further and legitimize dominant interests, we silence marginalized voices in the process. Intentionally questioning dominant narratives is just one action necessary to heal the systemic violence these narratives inflict on BIPOC. By engaging with counter-narratives, we hope to center the voices and experiences of our marginalized employees.

By holding this workshop during working hours, when employees were “on the clock,” TXI aimed to demonstrate that we recognize this affirmation is critical for our organization to function and excel. Indeed, the burden to foster an inclusive workplace culture is on companies, not employees.

In addition to affirming our BIPOC employees, we wanted to be deliberate in recognizing the labor and expertise of InterAction’s team and demonstrating our understanding of the value they bring us.

As interim chief equity officer Lloyd Philbrook explains, that meant limiting our impact on InterAction: “We wanted them to have to do as little work as possible in order to mold the Racial Justice 101 and Counter-Narrative [workshops] to our organization.”

In other words, we didn’t want to ask them to reinvent the wheel to run these workshops for a tech organization instead of a group of BIPOC young people.

We also committed to providing compensation above market rate, a decision that resonated with InterAction. “I felt like TXI was really working with an equity-focused lens, and I super appreciated that,” Kelly commented. As women of color, the leaders of InterAction deserved more for their work. Due to limited cash flow, nonprofits need to be good judges of their time and ensure that people are receptive to their labor.

Although the InterAction team hadn’t worked with a tech organization before, our serious approach to their labor and mission convinced them to partner with us.

A lasting impact on the TXI team

How did the TXI team feel about this counter-narrative workshop? To gauge perspectives, we asked organizers and participants to reflect on their experience.

Kara appreciated that TXI understood the need for colleagues of color to connect with each other outside of the white gaze. They noted that being able to recognize that they were not the only Black female developer at a mainly white, male company was something many engineers in their position never get. “Being able to experience that—and being able to do that not outside of the workday—[are] some of the most important things.”

Another takeaway from Kara: counter-narratives can encourage people to think more critically about the role of implicit bias in shaping de facto truths. This reframing provides the tools to do justice in more caring, intentional ways.

For Lloyd, the value of the workshop lay in the simple power of gathering together to share lived experiences.

To one participant, hearing their colleagues’ stories opened their eyes to complex discussions about gender-based discrimination and biracial identity. “That is a very new area that I’m learning about,” they noted. “I would like to learn more here.”

The process of sharing these experiences can be difficult, but also necessary, as another TXI team member found. “That was a genuine gut-punch. I realized that I have true resistance inside me to telling my story…. That is a huge insight for me.”

For a few folks present, the workshop’s only downside was the time constraint—they wanted to hear everyone’s story. In the future, one person commented, “consistent sessions would be very useful.”

What we learned by creating space for counter-narratives at TXI

Through their experience of organizing and reflecting on the counter-narratives workshop, the TXI and InterAction teams developed five key takeaways for other tech companies interested in engaging with counter-narratives:

  1. Partnerships are a two-way street. Nonprofits––especially those led by queer women of color committed to anti-racist work––don’t get enough money for the amount of labor they put in. A fruitful partnership can only happen when two parties meet each other where they are.
  2. Hire more Black and Indigenous folks to coordinate racial justice workshops. Anti-racist work is grounded in Black feminist theory, so it’s important that anti-racist workshop facilitators hold these identities. While tech firms may feel more comfortable working with coordinators who are non-Black or non-Indigenous, that comfort comes with classist and colorist narratives.
  3. Remember that a workshop signals to employees of color that you care about them. Lip service isn’t enough. Organizations need to take action. A counter-narratives workshop is just one small step toward building an anti-racist culture.
  4. But also… don’t use “care” as a buzzword. Care and healing have specific connotations in business, and companies need to understand their true significance. Caring about Black lives mattering means creating space for healing, anger, and the ability to be taken seriously.
  5. Understanding counter-narratives lays the groundwork for imagination. Disrupting dominant narratives guides people toward imagining liberation. This imagination isn’t a silly daydream. Innovation at an organizational level requires creating ways to imagine by making space to access our own stories and genuinely care for ourselves.

Connect with our team to track our ongoing anti-racist efforts

Engaging with the power of counter-narratives at your organization can demonstrate to your employees of color that you’re committed to fostering a serious environment of openness, vulnerability and growth. It can encourage white allies to listen better and strengthen relationships between themselves and BIPOC.

At TXI, helping our team members access their own counter-narratives is one step in our journey to become an ant-racist organization. If you’d like to touch base about our broader anti-racist efforts, let us know.

Published by TXI DEIB in Justice