A commitment to equity starts with training

Meyer staff and trustees during a two-day LGBTQ equity training in June 2017

More than a decade ago, I began a training regimen in Pilates with certified instructors. It started out with simple moves. After years of training sessions, I eventually added the Russian Split and the Snake and Twist on the reformer, advanced exercises that build on the basics of Pilates and require both patience and practice. With my newly acquired knowledge, I am now capable of carrying out advanced Pilates sessions on my own and helping others in their learning journey.

When we first began exploring equity at Meyer Memorial Trust around 2012, we started by training in racial equity, the most common catalyst for diversity, equity and inclusion work. Understanding DEI and operating within a DEI lens is complex work. Race intersects with all areas of DEI, so it is not uncommon to focus initially on race to help folks unpack the ways in which oppression works.

Our interactive anti-racism equity training has been grounded in the examination of racial and ethnic oppression through a framework that allows us to examine how the three expressions of racism (illustrated in the cardstack on the left) show up. White supremacy is at the root of historic inequity in the United States. It promotes monoculturalism and the disenfranchisement of communities of color.

Meyer’s trainings — I figure we’ve undergone just shy of two work weeks of daylong equity trainings so far — help to sharpen our skills, strategies and ability to address structural racism and to advance racial equity and social change. The thinking: Once people understand how everyone is harmed by those systems, we can work together to create change within them.

Last weekend, to celebrate Meyer’s 35th year as an Oregon foundation, our staff marched at the Portland Pride parade in support of Meyer colleagues, friends, relatives and neighbors along the identity spectrum: lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual and more. (For a glimpse at the diversity of the “LGBTQAlphabet,” take a look at this video from Equinox and The Center [the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center]) A few days earlier, we completed our second two-day staff and trustee LGBTQ equity training, with expert trainers from Pride Foundation, dRworks, Yee Won Chong Consulting LLC and Neola H. Young Consulting.

I have four young grandkids, two whose assigned sex is female and two male. In an effort to be a better informed grandfather, I walked into the training feeling an urgency to understand more about gender. It was a thoughtful, challenging experience. At times, I felt moments of uncertainty even as I was enlightened about deconstructing the gender binary, deadnaming and why the Oregon Equality Act of 2007 is such an important bulwark for the protection of jobs, housing and access to opportunities for the state’s LGBTQ community.

I learned much, and the trainers did what they do best: challenge firmly held beliefs. When the training wrapped up, I felt more emboldened and empowered to work against the discrimination of people who identify as transgender, gender-nonconforming, gay, lesbian or bisexual.

Our training has broadened to include LGBTQ issues for a few reasons. A key reason is to assure Meyer staff who identify as LGBTQ that our foundation believes this is important work. Its framework and construct echo the racial equity training Meyer staff and trustees have undergone, to help us understand the broad concepts, oppressions and discriminations that can shape the experiences of LGBTQ people.

When Meyer started equity training, I remember saying to a staff member, “Well, I don’t expect us to become a social justice organization.” Somehow, that felt a step too far for this organization. But with training, I’ve come to realize I didn’t even know what a “social justice organization” really was or why they have had to exist. Marginalized human beings encounter multilayered experiences of personal and structural and cultural -isms every day, at the bank, enrolling their kids in school, buying real estate. Before we began, those truths weren’t anything I, a cisgender white guy who benefits from white privilege, knew innately.

That’s the thing: Without training and education, I wouldn’t have a counter-narrative to the sanitized history that makes it appear that there is no reality beyond one through a binary gender lens or the myth that this country was not built on the bodies and blood of people of color. Time and again, those deeper dives into equity through a racial framework make clear that white people must educate ourselves about the history of racism in the U.S. and how it  manifests at the individual, institutional and cultural levels.

Without training, even well-intentioned people don’t have the ability to identify cultural, structural and institutionalized racism. Or to shift their perspective so they can focus their efforts on dismantling oppression. Being progressive isn’t enough: If we care about making systems change, we must use our position, power and privilege to eliminate racism. As an institution born of wealth, unfettered opportunity and power, we must keep learning.

Why? Because we make mistakes, and equity training teaches us that when mistakes happen, owning the problem and offering a thoughtful remedy is a key step toward the flourishing and equitable Oregon that is our mission.

A great example of applied learning: last year, we were criticized for our terminology when referring to people with disabilities on our website, mmt.org. Our intent wasn’t to harm, but using the word ability to encompass people with disabilities did cause harm. Apologies without recompense don’t go very far.

For us to understand where we went wrong, we had to understand why our word choice was wrong. So we read books and we talked to experts and to people with disabilities. We haven’t done organization-wide training, that still lies ahead, but we will because training helps us to become smarter allies, more sensitive advocates and, frankly, better-informed accomplices.