Organizations attempting to establish a functional globally representative body, including ethnic minority members of the demographics the organizations represent, can find that overcoming entrenched differences to inaugurate effective change is challenging. This think piece in three parts summarizes outcomes, processes, and challenges of effectively increasing inclusion of excluded minority populations in leadership, using the example of an international organization based in the United States. When ethnic minority members of an international scholarly and creative organization inaugurated a Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) Caucus to protect their rights and establish safe opportunities for them to participate in the organization’s leadership and activities, I was asked in May of 2021 by a member of the initiating committee’s leadership to run for the position of the Caucus’s Representative to the Executive Board, a voting position. I was both surprised and forewarned by the fact that, after I accepted the nomination, I ran unopposed for what I thought should have been a highly sought-after, career-building opportunity for junior faculty members who had participated in establishing it. Both surprise and forewarning were occasioned by the fact that ethnic minority members of the organization who had founded the BIPOC Caucus knew that the inaugural elected Representative of the BIPOC Caucus to the Executive Board could face resistance and challenges that may have exceeded the career-building potential of being an elected Board member. The BIPOC Caucus Representative might become a target for resistance to racial integration and the establishment of interracial opportunities within the U.S.-based international organization. This concern turned out to be an accurate prediction of what I would experience when I was elected without contest to that position for 2021-2024, my first term. This think piece summarizes insights gained while working as the only elected ethnic minority in a decision-making body of a U.S.-based international institution that had not previously sustained racially integrated leadership in decision-making positions at any level within the organization.
Encouraging perspective comes from recognizing the goals that were accomplished in my first two years of service as the voting Representative of the BIPOC Caucus on the Executive Board.
1. The Caucus was able to establish a Counter Space, which is both a physical conference room and virtual conference space in which the BIPOC Caucus exercises autonomy in programming. This space was necessary because BIPOC members felt they experienced exclusionary programming and limited opportunities to present their work in potentially stereotyped or misrepresentative discussions about their ethnic groups’ literatures and scholarship.
2. The BIPOC Caucus Representative’s emergency appointment of a second officer to serve as programming coordinator and public information officer became an immediate necessity. The BIPOC Caucus’s election of a second officer charged with scheduling events in the Counter Space was unsuccessful. The person elected by one vote to the position chose not to speak with or work with me, as the elected Representative of the BIPOC Caucus, for reasons that were not explained. Since I had no previous acquaintance with the person and received no explanation as to why they ran for a position whose obligations they declined to fulfill, I consulted the Board and was advised to dissolve the second job title. I developed an unglamorous but more descriptive office and appointed an officer to fill it. This second person, whose appointment was approved by the previously appointed BIPOC Caucus Representatives and the voting members of the Board, demonstrated over the next two years the success of this appointment by the functional and successful establishment of the events and spaces described below.
3. The Caucus immediately established two Safe Spaces in the onsite conference. One Safe Space was a small reserved room in which anyone seeking isolation to re-center, reflect and regain calm during the conference could sit alone and uninterrupted. The other Safe Space was designated as a space to escape specifically race-based interactions that the person seeking the space felt were harmful. Rules of the Safe Spaces were: no talking, no touching, no eating inside it. Those who used the Safe Spaces self-established a system so that only one person at a time seeking asylum went into each Safe Space and was left alone there until that person chose to return to conference participation.
4. The Caucus established Brave Space conversations. Brave Spaces offer rules of engagement designed to protect the vulnerable and possibly experientially traumatized ethnic minority members who agree to answer questions about sensitive interracial topics. Brave Space conversations take place in the BIPOC Caucus’s Counter Space, to ensure that they are moderated by volunteers following these guidelines: the moderator is an active intermediary, meaning that questions are directed to the moderator rather than to panelists; the moderator restates questions to the panelist(s) that questioner(s) would like to have answer them, thus serving as a buffer and slowing down the conversation for the benefit of those with any perceptual challenges; the panelist(s) then choose(s) whether or not to answer each question, each panelist’s decision being final and not subject to challenge or debate; the moderator restates to the audience the responses given; any panelist or audience member may indicate to the moderator that individual’s wish to withdraw from the conversation; this decision is also incontestable. The pre-established time limit of the conversation must be strictly observed, and the moderator should remind audience members and panelists that, once the Brave Space discussion has ended, the racially probing conversation is over and should not be pursued elsewhere.
5. A Food Event was established in the Counter Space, one of the most surprisingly challenging BIPOC Caucus committee wish list items. For reasons of economy, inclusivity and finding a non-conflicting slot in the schedule, the BIPOC Caucus’s Food Event became a Brown Bag Lunch at a Board-supported, donations-driven discount, at which the Guest of Honor and/or Guest Scholar of the conference make themselves available to discuss topics related to the theme of the conference. The BIPOC Caucus’s Food Event mitigates the fact that students and underfunded professionals—such as creatives who are not simultaneously academics—might not be able to afford the Guest of Honor’s Luncheon and plenary and the Awards Banquet that closes the conference. The need not to conflict with other Board-sponsored activities determined a Saturday noon slot for the event; the need to keep the price low to encourage inclusivity established it as a Brown Bag. This event skyrocketed in popularity from its first in-person conference to more than doubling that number in its second year, resulting in some tension and distraction from the presentation while distributing the Brown Bags.
6. Finally, BIPOC Caucus Awards were to be established. The Caucus Representative and Scheduler initiated surprise Awards to be announced at the Banquet in two categories: Exemplary Ally for persons who were not Members of the Caucus but had performed extraordinary service furthering its goals, and Uplifter for ethnic minorities who had performed extraordinary service. The first year’s award recognized exceptional work Allies and Members put into establishing the presence and functionality of the Caucus. The second year awarded exceptional courage by Members and Allies furthering the goals of the BIPOC Caucus, necessitating and establishing third and fourth Award categories: a Featured Creature to recognize supportive corporate persons, and Ghost of Honor to recognize those giving extraordinary support who were unable to be present at events.
In my second year as BIPOC Caucus Representative with an appointed Counter Space Scheduler and PIO, the Caucus escalated its visible and functional impact on the organization. By summer of 2022, the BIPOC Caucus acquired a dedicated Ally in the newly elected Representative of the Board’s Student Caucus. We Caucus Representatives were able to coordinate efforts to make and second each other’s mutually beneficial motions in ways that strengthened both Caucuses and established an alliance of trust and joint membership between the two Caucuses, a previous strategic weakness, establishing cross-racial collaboration. With this new Ally, the BIPOC Caucus continued to make progress that benefited both ethnic minority and underfunded membership.
1. In fall 2022, the BIPOC and Student Caucuses jointly impacted the organization’s accessibility by increasing access to the virtual conference through the virtual Counter Space. This initiative began with a proposal to the Board that the virtual Counter Space be made a cost-free stream where registrants unable to pay to present or attend could fully participate in that single stream free of cost. This motion required registration to prevent the virtual Counter Space from becoming Open Access and subjecting presenters to unregulated exposure of their intellectual and creative property. However, before voting on this motion, Board members proposed and passed other motions, including:
a. full membership and access to all virtual streams, meaning all events and presentations, for presenters in the Counter Space,
b. and the creation of an underfunded professional category of registration that would allow self-identifying underfunded attendees to pay the reduced student rate for membership and full participation, including voting rights.
After the Board passed these measures, I drafted and proposed a statement of anti-plagiarism and anti-aggression and motioned that the Board have it signed by all conference attendees, as a required step in registration. With these measures in place, the motion to let the Counter Space be offered as a cost-free registration stream passed in time for the organization’s first annual virtual conference.
2. By the second year of having a voting BIPOC Caucus Representative on the Board, the original Counter Space Scheduler assembled two teams to assist with planning and supervising events in both the onsite and virtual Counter Spaces: an intercontinentally-based Creative Council and an equally global Scheduling Team.
3. Following the newly elected President’s effort to move the organization’s base from a high-voting-impact politically mixed U.S state to a majority progressive state, the BIPOC Caucus established a group called The Freedom of Thought Riders to coordinate safe membership outreach and inclusivity that would not conflict with state mandates regarding racialized subjects in U.S. public institutions.
4. The Freedom of Thought Riders proposed to the Board that students and underfunded professional conference registrants, who may be unable to pay for the Guest of Honor Luncheon and Banquet where books are distributed to attendees, should receive a book voucher to enable them to choose a book from the conference’s bookroom, beginning with the upcoming spring 2023 onsite conference. The book room manager weighed in with the Board, bringing decisive support and planning how the book voucher system in the book room could work. The Book Vouchers, along with Safe Spaces, Brave Spaces, the Saturday Brown Bag, and the Counter Space Immersion Events featuring problem-solving role-playing games and musical interludes, proved to be another popular BIPOC Caucus initiative.
5. At the virtual fall 2022 conference, a popular African American husband and wife team jointly offered a Guest of Honor plenary interview presenting the history and theories behind their publication of a graphic novel exploring historical and inherited trauma, interviewed by two European-American scholars. This interracial exploration and presentation modeled cooperative amplification of BIPOC voices in the publishing, consumption and analysis of that specific genre of U.S. literature.
6. In spring 2023, having featured seven women of African descent as Guests of Honor and, once, as Guest Scholar at its conferences, the organization recognized its first African-American male Guest Scholar and continental African male Guest of Honor. These men had been elected by the BIPOC Caucus, when offered the chance by the Executive Board’s previous President and 2nd Vice President.
Note that both the virtual fall 2022 conference, featuring an African American woman Guest of Honor presenting with her collaborator husband, and a South Asian Distinguished Scholar, as well as the onsite spring 2023 conference featuring two men of African descent as Special Guests, were well attended and enthusiastically received by members of the organization. International organizations seeking racial and ethnic integration of leadership and participation can achieve similarly rapid, effective and visible inclusion.
By: Alexis Brooks de Vita, Ph.D.
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