Must the show go on? COVID-19 and the Hidden Inequity of ‘Personal Choice’
By Xiomara Padamsee
As you may know, we are in the midst of a blog series highlighting cross-cutting themes that show up across our recently released DEI focused case studies. This month, however, we are interrupting our regularly scheduled programming – as it seems we are nationally – to talk COVID-19.
Must the show go on? COVID-19 and the hidden inequity of ‘personal choice’
Even as more large systems suspend activities to encourage social distancing, I continue to hear from many organizations in the non-profit, education, and philanthropic space where internal guidance around whether or not adult staff should travel or work from home really amounts to “use your discretion”, “it’s your personal choice”, or “suspend non-essential activities”. Here’s the problem: there are some messy, uncomfortable, hidden inequities in these generalized, personal choice messages.
Like others, I have spent many hours in the last couple of weeks learning about coronavirus and trying to figure out – what are the risks to our people and what is our responsibility in terms of response? You see, Promise54 is structured as a virtual nonprofit organization with a staff of 25 and approximately 100 partner organizations at any given time, spanning coast to coast. This means that each week we deploy 4-6 teams to different US locations to facilitate key meetings, workshops, and presentations – each of which have tens to hundreds in attendance and typically take months to structure, plan, and prepare for. Then a few times a year, we host convenings for our national cohort programs which involve our staff running multi-day live events for ~150 folks from 30-50 different US organizations.
As I sat in my hotel room last week before mass cancellations began, I was faced with a tough decision: would we ground travel for our staff, requiring substantial rework, cancelling many hard-to-schedule live client events, and calling off one of our hallmark events – our annual 2-day live convening for 150 folks from our national DEI Accelerator…or must the show go on? I turned to our organizational values for clarity.
I am in love with our core values (and a note to any organizational leader who is not in love with your core values: redo them!) because they so clearly articulate who we are as an organization, what matters to us, and how we aspire to operate…and because of this, they are a clear lens through which to lead.
As I reflected on our Be Well core value, I thought about the literal interpretation and of course wanted to do anything within our control to mitigate risks of community transmission and encourage our staff and clients to prioritize their health. And, as I considered the potential ‘personal choice’ approach that I know many other organizations have adopted in relation to travel, i.e. “opt out of travel if you’re not comfortable,” I thought about the less literal interpretation of this Be Well concept. This less literal piece has more to do with taking care of ourselves and each other in the face of the psychological and emotional burden that often comes with DEI work and most often falls disproportionately to those who hold historically marginalized identities and/or have less formal power and authority within their organizational hierarchies.
There are so many ways that despite good intentions, this “don’t travel if you’re not comfortable” message could actually amount to those who experience having less privilege, less voice, less agency, less power within their organizations, having to bear more burden, more discomfort, and more risk. A few examples (and many people’s realities likely fall at the intersection of these and other examples):
- I (or somebody within my family or household) may have a pre-existing or current health condition that puts me in a higher risk category, which I may not feel ready to (or may never want to) share with colleagues or supervisors due to expectations around what is perceived to be “professional” or how psychologically safe I feel. I may feel forced by a ‘personal choice’ message to share that information as an explanation or rationale for my more conservative travel choices as compared to colleagues. And I may fear this will lead to perceptions of me being less strong, driven, focused, or dedicated to my work or my organization.
- If I’m a person of color (and/or someone with other historically marginalized identities) who already spends a substantial amount of psychological energy covering various parts of my identity to fit in, be seen, heard, or valued within my organization, I may feel compelled to watch and follow what my white colleagues (or other dominant identity colleagues) choose to do so that I do not call attention to my identifying differently or thinking differently in a way that could negatively impact what I am entrusted to do or how much of a “fit” I am perceived to be.
- If I have less decision-making authority, less access to information or resources, and/or work in a position with less influence or power within an organizational hierarchy, I may feel compelled to do as my supervisor does for fear that otherwise I could be perceived as less ready to advance or less promotable.
- If I work on a team where a colleague opts out of travel first, I may feel even more pressure to travel to hold the weight for others and enable the ‘show to go on’.
And so to mitigate risks of a well-intentioned ‘personal choice’ message actually landing in a way that creates disproportionate burden for any – especially those that already carry disproportionate burden in other ways – I grounded all travel for our organization for the month of March (and now we’re thinking through April and May using this same values-based lens). This has required us to lean in hard to another of our core values, Embrace Possibility, to restructure all sorts of programming into a virtual format and ensure that it remains as engaging and meaningful as it would have been live.
I could imagine a range of reactions to my choice: board members not understanding the risks beyond physical health (which may be perceived as minor), funder relationships being difficult to manage given substantial financial investments tied up in cancelled events, or even client partners feeling anxious or disappointed because of impacts to timeline or our team not being able to attend events that will continue on without us in their offices. However, the actual response – from client partners, board, and funders alike has been overwhelmingly positive.
Some lessons I learned and am working to keep top of mind as the situation continues to require hard decision-making:
- Rely on our clear and compelling organizational values to make decisions,
- Articulate when and how we are leading through our values so that others can serve as thought partners and accountability buddies,
- Choose board members, funders, client partners, and staff who understand this commitment to values based leadership and decision-making, and
- Regularly walk away from opportunities to partner with others who don’t share that clarity.
This is a crazy time and in many ways our decisions at Promise54 are less complicated because we are not a direct student-serving education organization nor do our decisions carry a substantial immediate ripple effect on local economies. That said, this experience has been a helpful reminder to me to remain thoughtful about the ways in which the actual impact of well-intended messages and decisions can still be harmful … and good intentions should never trump painful impact.