Living Into Shared Ways of Being that Advance Equity

  • By Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, March 19, 2024


Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO) envisions courageous grantmakers working in service of nonprofits and communities to create a just, connected and inclusive society where we can all thrive. As a team, GEO staff understand this as the guiding star of our work and we also understand that it extends into the way we work. In this piece, the GEO staff describes how we developed and aligned on shared community agreements that advance equity in our internal and external work, share our current ways of being and invite others in the broader philanthropic and social change ecosystem to share what you’re practicing and learning in creating meaningful, mutually-supportive spaces.

Similar to most other organizations, GEO had to shift its internal processes and external programming during the COVID-19 pandemic. Our ways of working shifted in both overt and subtle ways. By the summer of 2022, a new normal had settled in. We had new routines when it came to internal operations and our programming had reached a balance of virtual programs and had returned to COVID-conscious in-person events. Our team was working in a hybrid fashion with a third of staff located outside the Washington, D.C. area, where our office is located.

In our all-staff spaces, there was a palpable need to name the invisible and visible shifts that had taken place in our ways of being with one another. A small group of staff were inspired to lead a charge of defining new community agreements. This group was bolstered by learnings from the Art of Leading for Race Equity program - a collaboration between Crossroads Antiracism Organizing and Training and the Rockwood Leadership Institute. Their participation in the training was generously supported by The Kresge Foundation’s Fostering Urban Equitable Leadership Initiative (FUEL).

As Gita Gulati-Partee and Maggie Potapchuk write in Paying Attention to White Culture and Privilege: A missing Link to Advancing Racial Equity, creating a container with intentional group norms can be an important step towards de-centering white-dominant culture and creating more equitable spaces. GEO is grateful for the the support of Maggie and Gita, who introduced this concept to our team during our 2018 engagement, and offered an initial set of group agreements that served us for many years.

Time and space were reserved at two all-staff meetings to facilitate an activity to move the group through a co-creative process of building new ways of being.

Virtual space: the meeting was hosted on a Zoom platform in a meeting format, captions and transcript services were enabled and the usual meeting features such as chat were available

Engagement tool: We used Padlet as the place to offer written input and record verbal offerings; the tool allows participants to rate ideas and thread responses

Facilitation design: A facilitator agenda included scenario planning, for example, if a specific portion of the activity led to lower group energy and less verbal activity, we would adjust the flow and offer different prompts

Pre-work: Before the meeting, we invited staff to review the Characteristics of White Supremacy Culture and articulated that we would be moving forward with the assumption that there is a shared understanding of the content and language

The first all-staff meeting had a facilitation flow using the following stacked activities:

  • First, we set up small group breakout conversations using a “Wheel of Fortune” game where staff spun a wheel with different prompts (e.g. A meaningful online gathering I’ve had was… I’ve come to experience facilitated spaces as… ) for us to use storytelling as a tool to reflect and find shared points of connection
  • Once we returned to the full group space, we introduced Padlet for quiet self-reflection and space to input the ideas that surfaced from our storytelling
  • We verbally led staff through what was captured in the Padlet, and encouraged discussion on the written responses, e.g. we moved across five categories starting with: ways to show up in relationship with each other, ways not to show up in relationship with each other, logistical or technical support I need to be present in all-staff settings, re-envisioned Ways of Being (GEO Group Agreements) and finally, a space to share things to revisit in a parking lot/bike rack
  • We ended our time together with an invitation to process and continue to reflect on our work together over the coming weeks

Two months later, we held space at a second all-staff meeting to formalize the new Ways of Being and move into agreement on the group norms

  • Space between the meetings allowed time for the re-envisioned Ways of Being to exist in the organization and gave space for continued reflection and individual processing while also reinforcing openness in the process
  • A new Padlet that reflected the re-envisioned Ways of Being (GEO Group Agreements) in high alignment was offered to the group – the same Padlet highlighted some that required more consensus building
  • There was space for quiet, individual reflection which was followed by group discussion
  • A negative poll was used to move the process from a proposal toward an agreement
  • We ended the time reinforcing that what we are building is part of an iterative process, that some agreements may feel aspirational, and that we’ll need to actively encourage our growth in upholding them

In 2023 we engaged Brigham Consulting to strengthen GEO’s capacity to lead racial equity work, both internally and externally. At our September 2023 staff retreat, their team took our staff through a sensemaking exercise that allowed for more clarity and shared understanding of what each of our ways of being meant to us as a team. This also allowed us to include newer team members in the process and for the full team to move forward collectively in practicing these ways – personally, internally and externally. We are grateful to Nadia Brigham and Beca Velazquez-Publes for their partnership and leadership in building out and refining the initial Ways of Being.

Having these ways of being in place has allowed us to engage in sometimes difficult conversations in a way that is human-centered and productive. Some of the examples for how we’ve done this is by:

  • Routinely reminding ourselves of our ways of being during all-staff spaces
  • Individually setting intentions for which of the ways of being we will lean into in a particular day or meeting, depending on the topics discussed or the mindset in which we enter the conversation
  • Explicitly naming the ways of being that we’re practicing in real-time, so others are aware of our intentions, and we can grant each other grace as we lean into living our shared values
  • Writing letters to our “future selves”, naming our intentions for which of the ways of being we’ll lean into in the months to come, and reflecting on how well we met that intention

We hope this deep dive into our initial process is helpful and it’s important we note that it was one we had to feel our way through. The truth is that holding space when facilitating racial equity work cannot be done effectively without explicit agreements in place.

GEO Ways of Being

Below is the full list of norms mutually agreed upon by GEO staff. These have served as a helpful guideposts and reminders for all of us as we collectively navigate the complexity of centering racial equity in all we do.

Compassionate Accountability: We align our brand of accountability with kindness, care and grace. We hold ourselves and each other accountable because of the positive regard that we hold for one another and our shared values and expectations for the work.

Intentional Agenda +/or Intention Setting w/ Openness to Emergent Needs: We honor each other’s time and meeting spaces by showing up prepared, organized, and ready to actively participate. We do this by creating agendas with clear goals, objectives and, in advance, so that the team can prepare to contribute in a meaningful way. We also understand that there may be a need to flex or amend our agenda flow to accommodate generative conversation.

Prioritize Joy & Community Building: We acknowledge joy & community building as an anecdote to the harms caused by this work. As such, we center our individual and collective wellness by making connections with one another, celebrating our accomplishments & triumphs, and having fun.

Freedom to Speak in First Draft: When we honor the authentic voice, thoughts, and ideas of others as they arise, it allows us to show up closer to our authentic selves and reject the fallacy of perfection. When we suspend judgment of others’ ideas and thoughts, it provides the space for folx to speak authentically, creatively, and generatively. We create room to listen more closely to our bodies and minds, increasing the confidence we have in our voices.

Cultivate Openness: We show up with and make space for a curious stance, vulnerability, and transparency. When we do this, it makes possible the opportunity for new understandings, new experiences, and new outcomes, while also respecting that levels of openness are relative.

Offering Constructive Feedback as a Form of Trust, Believing that we all want to do Better and be in Partnership in the work: Feedback is neither positive nor negative, but is productive, benign or destructive. We value productive feedback that leans into our growth edges and centers the kind of relationships we desire to have with one another [kind, caring, and loving]

Listen to Hear: We actively listen, seeking understanding. Sit with it without concluding too quickly. You may be drawn to a different ending.

Communicate and Honor Preferences & Boundaries: We communicate across and throughout GEO [when necessary] to ensure our teams remain aligned, informed and included as we navigate our day-to-day responsibilities. We ask for what we need and respect what others say they need from us. We build and stand on the foundation of understanding and practice as we honor the boundaries for ourselves and others. This is our demonstration of love for self and others.

Culture of Appreciation: We appreciate, celebrate and honor learning in all its forms. We extend gratitude and appreciation not only for what our team "does” or “knows”, but also for who they are. We demonstrate our gratitude verbally, in written word, and regularly. It is a practice of our team to recognize the contributions we make to our collective work in achieving our mission.

Technology Check-In From Every Facilitator for Every/All Staff Space: Our value for participation insists on a consciousness about what it takes to be engaged. Technology checks become a critical part of intentional planning, access, and engagement. It is part of our commitment to build community.

Camera Optional Culture: We honor people’s privacy and the ability to choose how they decide to participate virtually, including joining by audio. We also understand that at times we need to connect more fully, using more of our senses, allowing for deeper connection, and that camera and in-person may be required.

Call to Action

Tell us which one (or two, or more!) of our ways of being resonates with you.

Is there a way of being you’d love to practice with your team?

Does your organization have community agreements or ways of being that help guide the way you work together?

Share what’s been working or not working as you live into your ways of being. Sharing your story helps our colleagues understand that we are in this together. You are not alone in your triumphs and challenges.

Are you looking to create organizational norms to help your team build trust and feel supported?

Consider creating your own community agreements or ways of being. According to the National Equity Project, start by framing the conversation. Take time to define what a community agreement means. Modify this definition if helpful, “A consensus on what every person in our group needs from each other and commits to each other in order to feel safe, supported, open, productive and trusting… so that we can do our best work, achieve our common vision, and serve our [community/families/constituents] well.”

Every GEO team member commits to holding ourselves and our team members accountable to uphold our redefined norms internally and externally. This includes taking the time to celebrate and appreciate when we are doing well. We practice this at our monthly staff meetings and in our individual interactions with each other.

If you find this blog helpful, please share it with colleagues through your communication networks.

Please don’t hesitate to reach out to GEO’s director of learning, Kyle Rinne-Meyers ( if you’d like to hear more from our team.