The key promise of sociocracy is that all voices matter. In reality our current sociocracy practices are not enough to overcome the way society systemically oppresses the voices of people from poor, non-white, transgender, disabled, et cetera, backgrounds.
Examples of how this dynamic can show up
- Everyone speaks in rounds at a meeting but participants only acknowledge ideas brought up by men
- An all white human resources circle seeks input from organizational members but deprioritizes a Black member’s request to strengthen the organization’s anti-racist policies
- A school leadership circle makes decisions by consent but the circle doesn’t have any student members
In all these examples, people were using sociocratic practices but were not truly listening to everyone. In other words, they were not governing equitably.
In this article I define equity, make an argument for why combining equity and sociocracy is so powerful, and share five strategies for embedding equity into sociocratic governance.
What is equity?
Equity is both an outcome and a process. The outcome is that all people are equipped to thrive as happy, healthy, and impactful citizens of the world regardless of what class, race, gender, caste, abilities, etc. people have. The process is that those most impacted by inequity lead in setting priorities, deciding where to invest resources, and shaping policies. People who have been most oppressed are the ones who best understand the problems and therefore best understand how to break down systems of oppression for the benefit of everyone’s collective liberation.
Equity is different from equality because equality has often been used to describe giving everyone the same opportunities or the same support, but what is equal is not always fair. A child growing up poor, for example, will need a lot more financial resources from the community than a child who’s growing up rich.
Why combine equity with sociocracy?
When we combine equity with sociocracy, we create a powerful tool for change.
One, combining equity with sociocracy makes it possible to fulfill sociocracy’s promise of all voices matter.
Two, I’ve found that social movements and organizations often struggle because more common governance frameworks such as majority rules or unclear consensus processes are inherently inequitable.
So while sociocracy alone is not enough to overcome centuries of oppression, it does provide a framework that makes equity possible in ways more common governance frameworks do not.
Examples of how sociocracy already supports equity
- Decisions by consent instead of by majority rules means no “minority” can be overpowered (I put “minority” in quotes because within the U.S. context, many white people call people of color “minorities” when in reality we’re in the global majority)
- A proposal process that starts with understanding and that ends with evaluating lowers the chances of people causing unintended harm
- Clear aims, domains, and roles makes power transparent and allows people to easily step into leadership roles, participate in decisions within domains that most impact them, and hold people accountable to agreed upon aims
- Organizations drawn to sociocracy, such as worker coops, ecovillages, and nonprofits, tend to be organizations that value shared power and social good
- Sociocracy’s entire ethos is to include all voices so this principle is already aligned with the practice of equity
What are strategies I can use to combine equity with sociocracy?
1. Understand your context
Understanding your context is understanding the circumstances surrounding the actions you take. Elements of context include but are not limited to:
- your own identity
- where you live
- who’s in your community
- what are your communities’ strengths and challenges
- what’s the history of your peoples and place
- who else is working on issues that connect with yours
You must be aware of context in order to accurately diagnose where inequity is systemic and how you can contribute to dismantling it.
My context is that I live in the United States of America, specifically New York City, the unceded territory of the Lenni Lenape, Canarsie, Shinecock, and Munsee peoples. Our city is incredibly diverse in race, culture, sectors, interests, et cetera. I work specifically in youth-led and intergenerational community organizing, where we’re youth leaders and adult allies working together to ensure that young people are equal participants or fully leading in all spaces where decisions about young people are made. I do this as an Asian American adult woman who experienced many of the inequities my communities’ young people have experienced, from racism to sexism to poverty, but who also has a lot of privilege as someone who is light-skinned, cisgender, and college educated.
Ways my context shapes my work towards equity include
- speaking less when I’m in intergenerational spaces
- speaking more when I’m in a majority-white space
- ensuring my organization’s circle role holders are representative of my city’s diversity
- checking my U.S.-centrism when in international spaces
What are elements of your context and how does that shape how you govern?
2. Be explicit about equity
We can only accomplish what we are explicit about. Naming equity as a goal allows your organization to move towards it. Naming inequity as an issue allows your organization to dismantle it.
Here are some places you can be explicit about equity
- Vision: envision a world that is equitable
- Aims: include promoting justice, equity, diversity and inclusion
- Meeting evaluations: reflect on how well equity was or was not practiced. For example, whose voices were missing or unacknowledged and whose voices were overpowering
- Performance reviews: give feedback on how a member is practicing equity as well as where they need to improve
Where do you need to be explicit about equity?
3. Center people most impacted by inequity
Centering people most impacted by inequity is recognizing that those closest to the problem know most about how to solve the problem. For example, a nonprofit dedicated to ending homelessness can only be effective with people who have and/or are experiencing homelessness making decisions.
Strategies to center people most impacted by inequity include
- requiring that all circles consider who’s most impacted by that circle’s aim and therefore need to be included within that circle’s membership.
- analyzing how experiences with your organization (like pay scales, satisfaction, and participation) may differ by class, gender, race, age, ability, et cetera. If you notice that men are having a more positive experience with your organization than women, for example, that’s something to explore further.
Who’s most impacted by the decisions you make and how are those most impacted part of the decision-making process?
4. Make participation accessible
One reason people most impacted by inequity are often outside of decision making spaces is because barriers like less time or money make participation very difficult. Here are some common barriers and ideas for overcoming them.
- Provide in-kind support like child care or transportation
- Advocate for societal policies that increase people’s economic well-being like higher wages or guaranteed healthcare
- Pay people
- Serve food so that people are treated to a meal that they don’t need to spend time getting for themselves
- Call people for one-on-one interviews instead of expecting them to come to regular meetings
- Choose meeting dates and times thoughtfully (for example, meetings need to be after school hours to include students)
- Pay people
- Have sign language interpretation and closed captioning
- Describe images
- Use meeting spaces that have braille on signs, ramps for people with mobility challenges, and family friendly restrooms
- Have breaks
- Have people move around to refocus
- Increase readability of written material with large enough font sizes and dark text on non-white backgrounds
- Include multiple modes of engagement from writing to art to oral storytelling
- Consider having individual thinking time, pair shares, and/or small group shares instead of going straight into rounds
- Share agendas ahead of time
What barriers exist for participation in your organization and how might you overcome them?
5. Learn and grow continuously
We are all participants in systems of oppression. Unlearning racism, sexism, classism, ableism, ageism… it’s a process that requires a commitment to continuous learning and growing. We will mess up. We will learn. We will teach.
- Build relationships and trust with people of different backgrounds because learning ultimately happens in community
- Understand that impact and intent are two different things, so acknowledge when you have caused harm, take responsibility for your actions, make amends, and commit to do better, regardless of your intent
- Learn the basics of anti-oppression from resources that already exist so that you’re not asking people from oppressed backgrounds to explain the basics to you on top of the work they already do
- Practice self-care because healing from trauma is exhausting work
- Invest in diversity, equity, and inclusion training
- Write publicly about the organization’s commitment to equity and the actions it’s taking to become more equitable
- Create accountability processes that enable people to address issues of interpersonal or institutional harm
- Set and evaluate progress towards equity related goals such as 100% percent of Black, indigenous, and/or people of color in the organization report that the organization values their voice and leadership
What is your plan for learning and growing?
To fulfill sociocracy’s promise that all voices matter, we must be intentional about making sure the voices of people who are most impacted by systems of oppression are heard. In our pursuit of a just world, it’s people who are closest to the problem who are closest to the solution.
About the Author
People who gave input and feedback: Ted J Rau, Eric Tolson, Lea Shani, Joann Shen, Bolette Nyrop, Kieran Plissonneau, Hanna Fischer, Sofie Malm, Emma Back, Jerry Koch-Gonzalez, Pascale Mompoint-Gaillard, Marcelino Sepulveda, Stephanie Nestlerode, Sophie Xu, and Blessing Agunwamba
Did you enjoy this article? You might also be interested in, “The promise and the challenge: how does sociocracy contribute to diversity and inclusion?” by Sheella Mierson and Ocie Irons.
Feature image by Fauxels for Pexels.com. Additional photos by Brazos, Olya Kobruseva, and Fauxels for Pexels.com.