Thrilled & Terrified: A Story of Race & Transformation

GSAFE co-director Kristen Petroshius explains the difficult but important process of bringing racial justice into the mission for LGBTQ equality.

When I become co-director of GSAFE two years ago, I was immediately thrilled and terrified. A large part of my passion about working for GSAFE was particularly to bring my racial-justice leadership skills to an organization. Some board members and staff were motivated to help GSAFE transform from what began as an all-white organization that rarely thought about race to a multiracial racial-justice organization with people of color in leadership at all levels of the organization.

The challenge of leading such a process of incorporating a racial-justice framework to our mission of creating schools in Wisconsin where all LGBTQ youth can thrive excited me. This work was the natural progression of all my knowledge, skills, relationships, and work leading up to that point. At the same time, the challenge of leading such a process brought me much anxiety. People often say, “What starts white, stays white.” What if I put everything I had to offer into helping GSAFE become a racial-justice organization and failed? Would it be a reflection that transformation was impossible? Would all my efforts as an ally be pointless if, in the end, white people or groups really couldn’t change?

In spring 2012, my co-director, Brian Juchems, and I asked our board to commit financial resources and time for the entire staff and board to participate in a racial-justice organizational-development consulting process over the course of a year. After talking through people’s concerns in a series of rather challenging conversations, we committed to training during board meetings for the next year. While our training focused on models of racial organizational development, best practices from other organizations, naming white privilege and racism within GSAFE, practicing interrupting racism, and describing GSAFE’s racial-justice work externally, our end goal was the creation of a racial-justice work plan to identify concrete policies, practices, and cultural changes to make as well as the creation of a “Change Team” responsible for implementing those changes across the organization. We have come far in a year in that we have successfully completed our initial training and created a work plan, and are implementing it through the Change Team. While we are still a predominantly white organization, we are multiracial. We also recognize that while we have come far, we have a long way to go and are only at the beginning of a continual, long-term process.

Two years into my work at GSAFE, I’ve taken the opportunity to reflect on some initial lessons learned. This work can be challenging, and, unfortunately, there are few predominantly white organizations or individuals we can look to for leadership on these issues. It is my hope that through sharing some of our own learning, other predominantly white organizations and individuals can reflect on concrete principles and actions they can take to incorporate racial justice into their own work.

Support & Accountability

My move to GSAFE came from my own passion and drive but also from the requests and charge of many people of color in the community. Upon hearing of my job offer, one friend of mine called and brought me to tears in sharing her enthusiasm: “Kristen, I want my son and your son and every kid of color to be able to go to school and wear a dress if he wants and have a crush on whoever he wants. We need a GSAFE that can make this freedom possible for our kids, too, and I believe you can make it happen.” With this support comes accountability. As a white person, I will never fully understand the impacts of racism and white privilege on our world, my own psyche, the work of GSAFE, and the lives of LGBTQ youth, which makes it essential that I am accountable to leaders of color. At the same time, none of us can ever do this work alone, regardless of our race. Our big, bold dreams of schools where all LGBTQ youth thrive requires an understanding of such diverse lives, issues, needs, and solutions that no one of us or small group of us ever can grasp this multilayered complexity all on our own. Relationships and accountability as individuals and as an organization are key to holding true through the journey.

Authenticity to Myself

The concept of accountability is far from a simple one, however. While I need to intentionally hear and hold myself accountable to community members, especially people of color, I also need to be my authentic self. This means accepting the fact that my approach may at times be different than what some people of color expect of me. As a white person, I approach my work with white people from a place of love and compassion—understanding that we are all at different points on the same journey, that any ignorance or unchecked privilege witnessed in another is likely something I, too, have expressed at some point in my life. I focus on building relationships with white people and their full selves, of meeting people where they’re at, and working with a persistent patience—knowing that this work is challenging and takes time. At times some people of color have considered me to be too patient or too forgiving, have grown frustrated that the change is not fast enough, or have judged me as being “sold out” or “not down.” These sentiments are further complicated by the fact that there is no such thing as a monolithic “people of color opinion,” and different people of color simply have different opinions. While this is all incredibly complex, I choose to hold the “both/and” of this work and sit in the tension that there is never an easy resolution to these issues and that authenticity to myself is a core value I am not willing to compromise.

White culture often leads white people towards a desire to be perfect, avoid mistakes, and understand things in rather simplistic, binary ways, which means that those of us who are white can easily interpret “accountability to people of color” as deference to people of color. However, one-dimensional deference will not help us advance our work. We need real, complicated solutions to these real, complicated realities—and that requires the critical, honest, engaged perspectives of all of us. This also means that those of us who are white take the risk that sometimes by sharing our opinions we may be revealing our ignorance, resting on our white privilege, making a mistake, or causing someone pain. We all need to build systems of support and resiliency to bounce back from these moments, as they are inevitable in this work. If these moments don’t come up, the work probably isn’t happening with any realness.

Diversity vs. Racial Justice

While feedback from leaders of color and white leaders engaged in racial justice alongside our board and staff training moved us in the direction of becoming a multiracial organization, this was not necessarily the outcome when we began. Many predominantly white organizations begin conversations of race with a goal of recruiting more people of color to join their organization. While this speaks to white privilege in itself by demonstrating entitlement that our own (white) work is the most important, this approach also confuses a means for an end. In becoming a racial-justice organization, GSAFE could have decided to stay predominantly white but become a strong ally organization on issues of racial justice. It is because of our statewide scope and the need for more leadership development opportunities for LGBTQ youth of color across Wisconsin that our board, staff, and community leaders felt it important for us to set as a goal becoming a multiracial organization with people of color in leadership at all levels of the organization. In this regard, diversity is a component to becoming a racial-justice organization, but not an end goal in itself nor the only path to racial-justice work.

Critical Resource Questions

In developing a plan for change, GSAFE became the host organization for a statewide Educational Justice Coalition and is developing a new program focused specifically on building the leadership of LGBTQ students of color in Madison public high schools (to launch in January 2014!). In order to do that work, we needed to grow, and in order to grow we needed more resources. While internally and externally both white people and people of color gave us feedback that this work is essential as an end goal, initially developing it as a predominantly white organization positions us to be reinforcing racism—the common practice of white organizations raising money to work with people of color, as though people of color are not worthy of receiving money to create solutions in their own communities. Additionally, while many people of color and white people are excited to see us move racial-justice work forward, many people of color in particular often simultaneously experience fear and trepidation to see us do it. We need to understand that our work rests on over five hundred years of racism, of too many stories of white organizations taking over, taking credit, holding power, tokenizing, co-opting, stealing, blaming, lying or just being ignorant. As long as we continue to be a predominantly white organization, this tension will continue. At the same time, I firmly believe that we need to stay true to our visions, hold ourselves as authentically and accountably as possible, and move forward through the fire toward our vision. We cannot let fear of mistakes or the lack of a clear single path prevent us from advancing the work. We need to change, change is the unknown, and the unknown is scary.

Push Forward/Take Care

Racial-justice work is hard on everyone involved. It can be emotionally draining, mentally exhausting, and all-around overwhelming. As hard as it is, with all the fears and challenges, we also just need to do it. At the same time, we need to be intentional about taking care of ourselves along the way. When my emotions are spent, I need time to rejuvenate. When I am mentally exhausted, I need to say “I don’t know” and come back to the issue another time. When I am overwhelmed, I need to link the current moment to our bigger vision and stay grounded in the process.

At the same time, there are moments in life where we have to demand intensity of ourselves to dig down deep and just push forward, knowing this will not always be the nature of the work (think: having a newborn baby, being in college, or training for a marathon). This is currently the time of GSAFE. While we are multiracial, we are still predominantly white and “in transition”—and there is a lot of pain experienced in this particular phase of organizational development. We have a big, bold vision of expanding our programs and staff while strengthening our infrastructure, and we need to make progress on some critical benchmarks quickly to get us through the pain of this current state as quickly as possible. Our end goal of being a racial-justice organization will always be a process and never an end, AND different moments call for different needs. I firmly believe that the balance of pushing forward and taking care of ourselves is core to developing as an organization, sustaining the work for the long haul, and maintaining our own enthusiasm, capacity, and sense of fulfillment as a staff and board.

Keeping Our Eyes on the Prize

With all of its challenges, it’s important that we keep our eyes on the prize—the bigger picture of what we hope GSAFE can achieve. Our vision is for all LGBTQ youth to thrive in schools across Wisconsin. For this to happen, we must include in our vision dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline, ending AIDS and particularly the high rate of HIV transmission among young black men who have sex with men in the Milwaukee school district, ensuring culturally competent curriculum and school staff that represent the diversity of the student body, advocating for adequate funding of public schools, building Gay-Straight Alliances that create coalitions with student-of-color clubs, prohibiting the use of Native mascots in schools, demanding full inclusion and respect of transgender and gender non-conforming students, and developing restorative justice practices and model codes of conduct to address discipline issues in ways that repair harm and keep young people in school. Safety is a critical component to thriving in high school—and so are discipline, achievement, and the quality of education. In creating an organization for LGBTQ people to bring our full selves, let us remember that we are LGBTQ and also Latin@, black, Native American, Asian, Asian American, white, and multiracial; migrants and people born in this country; people with disabilities and able-bodied people; low-income, working class, middle class, and wealthy people; transgender, cisgender, Two Spirit, and gender non-conforming people. In the LGBTQ community, let us build organizations that can truly reflect all of who we are.

Stages of Racial Organizational Development:

The All-White Club: Groups that, without trying, find themselves with an all-white organization. Many times they have developed plans to get more people of color involved in their group. However, when people of color join the group, they are essentially asked to fit into the existing culture. Many leave after a frustrating period of trying to be heard.

The Affirmative Action or “Token” Organization: Organizations committed to eliminating racial discrimination in hiring and promotion, often with clear goals and benchmarks for staff diversity. There may be one or two people of color in leadership positions. For people of color, coming into the organization feels like little more than tokenism, as there is no larger commitment to racial justice beyond staff diversity.

The Multicultural Organization: Groups that reflect the contributions and interests of diverse cultural and social groups in their mission, operations, products, and services. They actively recruit and welcome hiring people of color and celebrate having a diverse staff and board. People of color are still asked to join the dominant culture and fit in.

The Anti-Racist Organization: Organizations that integrate racial justice into their programs, culture, norms, policies, and procedures—helping white people work together and challenge each other around issues of racism, share power with people of color, take leadership from and be accountable to people of color, and feel comfortable with being uncomfortable and understand that we are all learning all the time.

Source: Standing Together, Coming Out for Racial Justice: An Anti-Racist Organizational Development Toolkit for LGBT Equality Groups and Activists by Basic Rights Education Fund.