Why We Don’t Believe in Having an Anti-Oppression Policy

COCo often get requests from nonprofit organizations to share examples of a anti-oppression policies, or to help them develop their own. We say no to these requests, and we thought it would be fun to explain why!

Anti-Oppression is an Approach, Not a Set of Rules

We may really want significant change in our organization. We may be seeing a lot of pain and hurt caused by a lack of structure, support or accountability. In that context, policy might seem like the obvious starting point.

However, anti-oppression is an approach to analyzing our organizational structure, our cultural contexts (large and small) and our interpersonal relationships. It is a rich tool for understanding our world. It requires time, listening, and collective buy-in if we want to create real and lasting change.

New Policy Will Not Create Culture Change; Culture Change Comes First

Our experience in community organizations shows that policies only work if they:

  • Are well understood by the people using them
  • Make sense for the specific organizational context
  • Reflect the values and intent of the organization

It might work in larger institutions to force cultural change through policy change– but in small and medium sized community organizations, it needs to come from the bottom up. This is why we start with:

  • What is the problem now? Understand what are the practices, beliefs, and cultural norms that are explicitly or implicitly excluding people from full participation in the organization
  • Build shared language. An organization might have some people talking about inclusion, others about diversity, and others about anti-oppression. We might be using the same words to describe different things. Clarifying what we mean by anti-oppression (or inclusion, or diversity) could mean creating a statement of intent, or creating our own definitions of these words – but it’s not a policy.
  • Create a shared vision of he future. This stage also helps organizations understand that living our anti-oppressive values, like our other values, is something we do every day. It can also help us get ready for the challenges we might face in trying to create that ideal future!  

The Major Challenges to Anti-Oppression Are Usually About People  

Sometimes our policies really restrain our ability to act in equitable ways. Usually, though, the barriers we see are things like:

  • The group has a low ability to manage conflict
  • The group has unhealthy working conditions
  • The organizational culture is rigid and has a hard time with change
  • The membership of the organization does not support the change in question

None of those things is easily fixed through policy. Without addressing them first, we aren’t going to get very far.

Anti-Oppression is a lens we can apply to improve our existing policies  

Once we have helped organizations recognize the problem, and have built buy-in around a desired future, we can start looking at applying anti-oppression to our existing policies. For example:

  • How can create policy that removes bias from our hiring practices? How can our procedures guide hiring decisions to be more equitable?
  • How can we create policies that protect our staff, volunteers, and Board members from harassment?
  • What procedures could we add into our event planning that help us think about inclusion from the beginning, and not just at the last minute?  
  • What steps can we include in our program evaluation so that our services are continually improving their inclusiveness and relevance?  
  • When we are thinking about disciplining or firing an employee, how can we make sure that we have considered unconscious bias before we make a decision?

Do you agree with us? Have you had success in your organization by using anti-oppression policy as a lever for change? We are happy to have our take on this issue questioned, and feel free to comment on this article or share your experience by email.