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.


3 replies
  1. Jamiey Kelly says:

    A colleague shared this article with me, and I wanted to share my reflections here. It’s clear that the issue of non-discrimination and equity are so very important to so many of us volunteering and working in community organizations.

    I’m trying to get the premise of this article: is the key idea here that we don’t need an anti-oppression policy (like a single one) but that instead we need anti-oppression policy (like a group of policies with anti-oppression implications or considerations)? Or is the idea that organizations cannot improve their anti-oppressive practice and culture by committing to those values through policy, rules or general guidelines, so its better to not try? What about organizations with anti-oppressive mandates?

    I also wondered while reading this if there might be a chance that, when community organizations approach Coco with the desire for an anti-oppression policy, they might have a very particular interpretation of what anti-oppressiion policy would apply to, for example in regards to non-harassment, hiring or disciplinary policy?
    My understanding is that anti-oppression is both a value and a practice, and that all organizations have different paths towards this destination (especially those that focus their services on marginalized communities). Isn’t it possible that a single anti-oppression policy might work for one organization really well and fail in another?

    • Kira Page says:

      Jamiey! We are so sorry for the very delayed reply! Somehow your comment got lost in a sea of unapproved spam comments. Thank you for your thoughtful and engaged response!

      I would agree that yes, one point we were trying to make is that it makes a lot more sense to us to have “a group of policies with anti-oppression implications or considerations” (or rather, that all or almost all organization policies have anti oppression considerations built into them), over having a single anti oppression policy.

      The second point were were trying to make is that organizations cannot improve their anti-oppressive practice and culture by committing to those values only through policy, rules or general guidelines, and potentially by trying to commit to those values first through policy/rules rather than starting with culture change. This includes organizations with anti oppressive mandates (this is mostly who we work with, in any case). What we mean to say is: in our experience, if an organization tries first to create an anti-oppressive organization through policy, and not through culture shift, these efforts will often fail. In some contexts policies can create organization change, but in the contexts we work in, we don’t see this working very well. What we see in our work having long term impact is starting with cultural change in the organization then changing the rules by which we operate. As we note in the article, this is quite a different dynamic than in institutional contexts.

      As for your question “if there might be a chance that, when community organizations approach Coco with the desire for an anti-oppression policy, they might have a very particular interpretation of what anti-oppression policy would apply to, for example in regards to non-harassment, hiring or disciplinary policy?” – sometimes this is the case! We always ask lots of follow up questions. We always take the question “we want an anti oppression policy” in good faith, of course, and figure out what is meant by that or what lies beneath. In general, the sentence “we want a policy about X” is often just a way of saying “we are having a problem with X”.

      I think it is precisely because “at all organizations have different paths towards this destination”, as you eloquently put it, that we are so skeptical of the idea of an “anti oppression policy”! This might have worked for some organizations (and we are always interested in hearing what has worked for others, especially as the way through this question is so complex). And certainly, if an organization believes that is the way forward for them, go for it! But for us, it has been a rich and helpful realization that if we start elsewhere (than policy), we get farther.

      Cheers, Kira

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