accountability learning privilege

Putting Relationships First

Equity Matters, a Seattle-based consulting firm, has a set of ground rules they use for workshops and discussions. One of those ground rules is, “Put relationships first — Work to build community and trust with an awareness of power dynamics.” I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently and what it means to put relationships first both on an individual level and as a way of disrupting systemic racism, switching between a macro and micro focus.

First, let’s talk about what I mean by the word relationship. We have relationships with everyone we interact with. That doesn’t mean all relationships are close or that they bring us contentment or joy. We have a relationship with whoever happens to be driving the bus we just boarded. We have a relationship with that coworker who won’t respond to emails. We have a relationship with the sibling whom we know loves us but just isn’t that close to us. We have a relationship with that good friend who knows what we’re going to say before we’ve even formulated the thought.

Now that we’ve identified our relationships, we can talk about why we would want to put them first. Putting our relationships first requires that we humanize the people with whom we have those relationships, regardless of how we feel about them. Dehumanizing rhetoric has been used time and again to encourage shunning, imprisonment, torture, and execution. Recognizing others’ humanity is the first step towards a society that does not allow oppression on any terms.

Relationships, however, are interpersonal by their very nature, so how can we use this humanizing principle to disrupt institutional or systemic oppression? When we prioritize our relationships, we can step outside of ourselves and our needs to find out what other people may need. We can gain insight into the experiences of marginalized people. We can start to examine where we have the power to make change for others.

Some of us have a lot of power within institutions, and when we have humanized the people who work within or are served by that institution it becomes much more difficult to agree to policies that make their lives harder. Congruently, it becomes easier to interrogate existing policies for racism or other forms of oppression. In addition, we can examine how our organization may be interacting with other institutions to create systemic oppression.

Those of us who don’t have much positional power in our organizations can still lobby for change. Think about the direct relationships you have in your position, and then think about how you might put those first. What would it look like, and what could you do to influence leadership?

Putting your relationships first prioritizes the people you interact with in your life. I’m not sure anything is more important than people when working toward a vision of a just society.

By the way, you should check out the rest of the Equity Matters ground rules here, and buy a license if you think you can use them in your next meeting.

© 2019 Judy Blair LLC

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