Once upon a time I went to NTEN’s annual Nonprofit Technology Conferences and came away with all sorts of innovative, savvy, practical tips that I could take back and apply at work—sometimes that week.
These days I do a lot less operational work in my day-to-day and more strategic work (let me know if you need help figuring out any blob shaped problems!). So, while NTCs are still jampacked with practical knowledge exchange and lots of strategic content as well, I find myself reflecting most on the takeaways and questions posed that strike at the soul, why we do what we do and how that should inform what we do, whom we partner with, and the way in which we do our work.
Here are the things that struck me or resonated, and that I am still chewing on.
We have been lied to, and there are people who benefit from us internalizing these lies.
There was an excellent session (with Aki Shibuya, Bettina Sferrino, Vanice Dunn, and Tristan Penn) taking a systemic look at imposter syndrome. This is something I’ve long struggled with, always wondering when someone was going to find me out, and I really appreciated a look at the systems that perpetuate this experience and who benefits/is hurt by the belief that this something that people like me need to fix internally.
Are there ways in which we all benefit from learning to trust our own voices and judgment, from gaining experience and the confidence that can come with it? Sure. However, the panel also dug into the organizational practices and dynamics that require we feel inadequate – so that we buy into the idea that we must work more hours to make up for what we lack, so that we question our own judgment while accepting the judgment of others in power, so that we strive harder and harder to reach goal posts being moved further and further away because we were never meant to reach them. These can be practices like not having clear and consistent expectations for performance, and “accountability” that is applied unevenly. And while there are more ways to make a shift if you are a manager who has positional power, anyone can model things like, acknowledging when you don’t know something, and using one’s own privilege where you can.
In the chat for another session, there was a beautifully open exchange between several attendees about the use of identity-first (e.g., disabled people) vs. person-first (e.g., people with disabilities) language. The discussion was around whether it was a way to reclaim “disabled” from being a bad word that we must euphemize, or, whether we should recognize that there are people with disabilities who prefer person-first language. (All of the people involved in this thread of discussion identified as disabled or as having a disability.) One person who grew up hearing it used negatively against them (as someone with a disability), preferred person-first language. Another person questioned the need to remind anyone that they are a person first. It ended with some folks deciding they needed to reflect some more on whether this might be internalized ableism and people acknowledging there may be generational differences and people may be in different places in their journeys.
The first keynote was a conversation between Amy Sample Ward and Alice Wong, who runs the Disability Visibility Project (which includes a podcast and book of the same name). There was a lot of discussion how access is love, about survival, and about how normal is a scam.
I’ve been working with a coach for my own personal development, and one of the things I’ve been working is on is not judging how I feel, what I want, and generally things about myself. To declare something (or someone) normal or abnormal is both to participate in this judging and to perpetuate the myths about how the things that make us who we are, that these are things that are wrong (or right) with us. Who gains from that?
What do we gain when we accept all of who we are and who others are? I think only then we can imagine the world that Amy invites us in to build together:
There is no community without accountability—nor without grace.
One of the things I really appreciate about the NTEN community and the Nonprofit Technology is that we a.) keep it real, and b.) thinking critically about technology and the role it plays in creating a more equitable world.
Now, lots of people and organizations throw around the word “community” and don’t always back it up with systems and practice. So I loved what keynote speaker Angelica Ross said about community:
Now accountability and grace are not mutually exclusive. But sometimes, when we want people to do better and we know that they can, we can be frustrated and impatient. However, we can’t control what other people will do or think or feel—even as we feel the urgency of helping others see what we can see from where we sit.
And of course, the penultimate is to actually put our values into practice, and not surprisingly an event full of nonprofit techies is ready to dive in:
Saeed Jones reminded us that there are people in our community who notice how we speak up—or don’t. Are we learning about the struggles of others? How will they know they are safe with us? This can be a form of accountability we practice within ourselves.
Speaking of accountability and actively practicing our values, Ken Montenegro asked a really important question during his session with Colin Boyle about planning for failure:
They were talking about the context of a crisis and how sometimes the person making the decision is simply the person who happens to be there in that moment—and how it’s worth pausing to ask whether this decision should be made by this interim person or whether to gather the right people to make this decision first. Although this was about IT disasters, this too can be applied much more broadly. Are the people making the decision the people who understand the implications and who will be impacted by them?
Stories are powerful because of what they allow us to imagine.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the stories we tell about ourselves and that we tell ourselves (and others) about the world.
One really powerful story we often tell is about failure. Do we tell it as a story of catastrophe, of how we have become failures? Or do we view it as falling down while learning to ride a bike, part of the process of learning how to do new things? Is it a pathway to confidence?
There are, of course, also the stories we do not tell:
Related to the stories we tell (or don’t tell) about failure are the stories we tell ourselves about what we are capable of, and what’s possible. Are we honoring the full potential of who we are?
Speaking of “the full potential of who we are,” the U.S. political divides have lately centered a lot on the power of stories and language and which ideas are okay or not okay. (Judging again!) People are demanding that school boards ban teaching Critical Race Theory, ban saying the word “gay” in schools, and banning books that make them feel uncomfortable. (There are of course, many far more restrictive and persecutive laws being proposed passed across the country—and books and stories and language are part of this broader discourse. There are others who can speak to that better than I can.)
Who gets to see themselves and be seen? Who gets to imagine the future of their dreams?
And stories can be incredibly powerful when we feel alone and disconnected.
And, as Saeed Jones pointed out, many people will say they’re “not poetry people” while still pulling out poems for special occasions.
Imagine if we gave ourselves that gift. (Thank you, Bettina Sferrino, for that lovely prompt.)
An effective meme can function like a poem as a shortcut to that spark of recognition.
That’s me paraphrasing something said by Saeed Jones in the closing keynote conversation with Amy Sample Ward. There were a lot of gems and I finally managed to gather myself enough to draw sketchnotes for this one!
On that note, I’ll let these roll around my brain some more, but drop a line if any of these gems resonated with you as well.