Building Systemic Justice

Building Systemic Justice reflects on what it takes to build a different kind of organisation: one that lives its values of anti-oppression, justice, and intersectionality. Read more about Systemic Justice here.

Building a different kind of organisation: questioning the wisdom of “best practices”

In my previous blog post I asked: “How can we build an organisation that lives its values of anti-oppression, justice, and intersectionality not only in how it approaches working with the communities it seeks to serve, but also in the way it works internally, in its systems, processes, and internal power-sharing? … And what implications do these choices have for navigating both the expectations and requirements of external stakeholders?” 

When I built the Digital Freedom Fund, it was my first time setting up an organisation. Like a good student, I worked on its design by envisaging the work we wanted to do and figuring out what we needed for this. For each element, I did my research and spoke to other organisations, including other funders, to better understand what “best practices” were in making sure we had the right processes, compliance documentation, policies, and governance. I wanted to make sure that we built structures that would hold, even if people –– including myself as Director –– would come and go.  

I believe we succeeded in doing that. And: once we started our work on decolonising the digital rights field, it also became clear that we also needed to start an internal decolonising process, to walk the talk. This, however, was only part of the puzzle. I also found that a lot of the perceived best practices in the non-profit field actually weren’t serving us well as a team, or me as a leader. It is an easy trap to fall into, however. Funder requirements push their grantees towards a certain NGO mould that is difficult to break free from, and thinking of alternatives is hard work, especially if you also want to be able to focus on doing the work. So we easily succumb to group think, without wondering who actually says those are best practices to begin with. 

Now, with Systemic Justice, we want to do things differently. Instead of focusing on systems and processes, we are starting from our values and asking what realising them in practice means for every aspect of our work. Essentially, we are questioning everything and taking a fresh look at:  

  • what is required from us by law and regulation,  
  • what are relics of NGO culture everyone thinks are rules (but often aren’t), and  
  • what the leeway is that this leaves us in building systems and processes grounded in organisational values of anti-oppression, intersectionality, and justice. 

What are we working on at the moment? Everything 🙂 But here are a few highlights: 

The first thing that often comes to mind when thinking about governance tends to be “the Board”. A lot has been written already about the problematic nature of non-profit boards (Vu Le aptly described them as “archaic and toxic”) and many of us will be struggling with unhelpful Boards, either working with them or sitting on them. Boards are a great example of how many of our “best practices” are imagined.  

In deciding to not just copy-paste this and hope for the best, we are also thinking of governance in a more holistic way and working on co-creating a governance structure that aligns to our values. This includes the team and reflecting with them on how power should be shared within the organisation (we’re exploring a hacked version of the sociocracy model) and what way of working together can make it possible for everyone involved in this project to help accomplish its mission.  

Even if you have the intention to recruit different colleagues than the NGO-industrial complex tends to produce, your recruitment processes might be tailored for optimising exactly that. HR is hard to begin with: how do you make sure to open the door to different experiences and types of knowledge? We are working to build a different recruitment process, starting from explicit intentionality to build a majority BPOC team that can properly support the communities we aim to serve.  

We started by changing the way we frame qualifications for roles: instead of listing qualification (“a university degree in…”) we are looking for competencies (“ability to…”). In this, experience in an employment context and other areas is taken into account. Instead of looking for a long list of unicorn traits, we try to clearly differentiate between what is essential for the role, what can be learned, and what is a bonus. In our recruitment process, we practice maximum transparency: we host information calls, share a briefing note with candidates for the first interviews which includes all interview questions, and communicate a clear (and brisk) timeline for all recruitment steps from the start. Finally, we explicitly encourage applicants who do not have lived experience with systems of oppression to reflect on taking on a role in an organisation doing community-centred work to address issues of racial, social, and economic justice.  

It is very easy to copy-paste a set of policies, especially if funders love to ask you for this in application processes. But which policies do you really need? Context is extremely relevant here: what may serve a multi-national NGO is not necessarily relevant to a startup. We believe policies should be created from an organisation values perspective, to ensure a heavy focus on compliance with regulatory requirements (or those imaginary best practices) does not result in practice that undermines those values. Policies that are adopted should also be meaningful: everyone involved in our work should be able to understand and apply them in practice, and understand what the consequences are if people deviate from them. They should also be reviewed regularly, both on compatibility with our stage of development and the impact they have on the team in practice 

Remote working  
Two years into the pandemic it feels almost archaic to want to set up a physical office for a new initiative. Yes, sharing space together is a vital part of connecting and working together as a team, but we think there are other ways of doing that. Such as hosting several team retreats throughout the year and ensuring there is support available for smaller meetups as and when this is helpful. We hope that a remote working model will also allow us to recruit across Europe: without the added filter of who is able and willing to leave existing social networks and obligations behind to relocate, we should be able to work with a team that brings a much richer mix of not only geographical knowledge, but also contexts and perspectives.  

We are grateful to be working on this and many other topics with the wonderful Fabiola Mizero, and a fabulous team that is embracing the opportunity to rethink the structures we are used to operating in. We’ll keep you posted about these topics and more over the coming months. If you have ideas and thoughts to share with us or are interested in any aspect of our journey in particular, don’t hesitate to get in touch