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.

Creating a guardianship framework for our organisation

Following the deep work at our recent team retreat, I wrote about the concept of “guardianship” as a central tenet of building an organisational culture that enables pursuing our mission.

For me, the idea of guardianship is strongly linked to two guiding concepts for our work. First, the understanding that our work sits in a timeline that exceeds our lifetimes: in line with the idea of the “good ancestor”, it builds on work done by those who have come before us, and it will be continued by others after we’ve exited our part of the journey. Second, the work we do as an organisation, including setting it up for impact, has to be a collective effort.

Many organisations, including the one I previously founded, grow “under” the person or persons who initiated it. This type of pyramid structure is often difficult to get rid of, and many organisations never do. This can be a choice, and it can also be something that serves some organisations well. I personally do not believe that many of the organisations that say they have a “flat” or a “non-hierarchical” structure actually do – and I think it is dangerous to allege any initiative or group has no structure at all. As Jo Freeman wrote in 1970 in “The Tyranny of Structurelessness”: “‘Structurelessness’ is organisationally impossible. We cannot decide whether to have a structured or structureless group; only whether or not to have a formally structured one.”

The building of Systemic Justice’s work has been envisaged as a collective effort. This effort sits across the entire team, but in line with the realities of the type of work we do (“within the system”) an increased level of responsibility lies with those holding a leadership role. For Systemic Justice, this means that everyone holding a “Heads” level position – meaning that someone is end responsible for an area of work – and I as a Founder take ownership and responsibility for our organisation’s overall ability to pursue its mission. This is an additional task to simply making sure “the work gets done”. It means continuously reflecting on how we do this, and how we can make sure the organisation itself can be best set up to play its role in the ecosystem.

The full scope of what this means in practice is not intuitive to everyone. While we clearly describe when we recruit for leadership roles that they are just that, leadership roles, practice has shown this is not something everyone leans into comfortably. So a central question we identified in our work at the team retreat was what systems and processes should be in place to create a work environment that enables team members to fully step into their leadership in cocreating the organisation. There is a related question about which parts of this are individual paths of growth and which parts are for the organisation to build.

In other words: we need to figure out what guardianship means for Systemic Justice. And these question needs to be answered by the leadership team first, as the ones holding the overall pursuit of our mission.

What does this process look like?

First, we need to discuss what the concept of guardianship means to each of the current guardians. This is a conversation that should start within the leadership team, so there is clear alignment between the persons holding explicit responsibility for safeguarding the organisation’s ability to pursue its mission.

Then, we need to identify what guardianship might look like in terms of guiding principles and values at

  • an individual level: what does each individual guardian hold and commit to do, individually;
  • at the collective level: what does guardianship mean when it comes to the team/organisation; and
  • at the systemic/wider level: what does guardianship mean within the ecosystem we operate.

Thirdly, the outcome of this will need to be documented in a type of guardianship “agreement” – setting out the values and operational guidelines everyone agrees and commits to.

And, finally, once those are in place, a system of regular review and reflection on how guardians are upholding their roles will be key in ensuring we are living up to our commitment. It is important that – just as we do for other aspects of our roles – we have a way to determine the impact and efficacy of those in guardianship roles, and an explicit understanding that, in some cases, changes will need to be made.

This is a personal and collective journey, which we’ll need to find a balance for within both the leadership team and the organisation as a whole. Part of this is embracing the concept of “leadership” as such. Much like the concept of “power”, many of us working on anti-oppression have a tendency to shy away from concepts like this, because of the negative connotations it evokes of being used and weaponised against people. But that is not an inherent consequence of power or leadership. In the right constellation, it is accompanied by responsibility and accountability. And it is this constellation we need to shape for Systemic Justice in a way that aligns with our values.

We are very conscious that the roles and concept of guardianship can be performed by other people, not just those of us who currently hold leadership roles. Having these roles taken up by others facilitates the transition of responsibility from person to person and, ideally, will support us to move away from having the weight of responsibility for the thriving of the organisation sit with just a handful of people or, indeed, one founding person.

We do not yet know what this will look like in practice, but we’ll continue sharing our learnings as we move through this process.