Episode 17: Liberatory Design and What It Takes to Shift the Status Quo with Tania Anaissie

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“I really believe that if we design in status quo ways, we’re going to create status quo outcomes.”

Tania Anaissie
Episode #17


In this episode of What the Fundraising Podcast…

I talk to Tania Anaissie, Founder and CEO at Beytna Design, an equity design studio supporting social sector leaders to translate their equity values into action. She is a Founding Creator of Liberatory Design, a new practice of human-centered design that drives innovation towards liberation.

It is time to take the time for ourselves and to be willing to spend the energy in creating safe spaces for people to observe, make mistakes and iterate their designs in order to make a change. 

17. Liberatory Design and What It Will Take to Shift the Status Quo with Tania Anaissie

Tania and I dive into the importance of intentionality and reflection when it comes to designing a project or even finding new partnerships. Yes, it might be challenging to think, observe and not go with a traditional framework, but true solution-oriented models are way more rewarding to the community (and for you!) in the long run. 



Tania Anaissie


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17. Liberatory Design and What It Will Take to Shift the Status Quo with Tania Anaissie
17. Liberatory Design and What It Will Take to Shift the Status Quo with Tania Anaissie
17. Liberatory Design and What It Will Take to Shift the Status Quo with Tania Anaissie

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17. Liberatory Design and What It Will Take to Shift the Status Quo with Tania Anaissie


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episode transcript

Mallory: All right. Welcome, everyone. I am so excited to be here today with Tania Anaissie. Tania, thank you for joining us. When I first learned about your work, I was really just blown away and sat with your website for a while, just learning and absorbing. And so I’m so grateful that you’re spending this time with us today.

Why don’t we start with you just introducing yourself, sharing a little bit about your background, and what’s bringing you to this conversation?

Tania:  Great. Thanks for having me. What to say? I came to this work, I studied design and design thinking in particular and engineering, which was centered on how do we innovate in a way that supports human needs better.

So how do we do better for people? That was my passion and the field that I came from and then started Beytna Design. I’m the founder and CEO unofficially in 2016 to figure out what we were doing, and then officially in 2018, when we could say with some clarity, this is what we are about. 

Mallory: And tell us a little bit about the premise or the underlying framework of your work.

Tania: Yes. So the methodology we use is called Liberatory Design and I co-created it with four other people: Susie, David, Tommy, and Victor. The concept is that I come from the world of design thinking, it’s also called human-centered design. It’s not “Oh, those people are inherently creative and others not”, it’s based on the belief that everyone is creative, but the way that we work impacts how creative the outcomes are that we create. 

So design thinking was a methodology to say there are tools, methods, practices to foster creativity, to bring the creativity forward. And so that’s originally designed thinking where we came from and Liberatory design was asking some questions around. What does it mean to be doing innovation work but with an equity and justice lens?

 So if we want to be rethinking housing, we have to be able to talk about racial segregation and the history of the current context, and the lack of housing for people on the ability spectrum. How do we do this innovation work grounded in the reality of what is, and taking some of the best practices from social justice movements and how we create change.

So that’s how Liberatory Design was created, finding the best of both worlds and then creating something new. So that methodology is the base of most of Beytna Design’s offerings. That’s how we support clients. 

Mallory: So you started to give some sort of overarching examples of what the work might look like, but can you give us something really specific? Either a specific project you’ve worked on and just show us how this framework looks applied?

Tania: Yes. Okay. I can give two quick stories. We do two things, either folks come because they want to be doing equity or justice rooted work within their organization, or we’re looking at something that’s more external, the people that they support and serve and work with. 

So a lot of people interested in this work have been in the social sector, nonprofits, foundations. Now tech is becoming interested in it, and some corporate partners, but some quick examples are in one case, for example, an organization was saying, we want to rethink our culture and having engaged with each other, to be more equitable. Looking at retention of staff, of color, of folks who identify as non-gender binary, like what does it mean for our culture to be more inclusive and equitable?

And so we said, “We’re not interested in giving you a list of recommendations, you know your context, but we will teach you liberatory design in order for you to use the process, to come up with your own solutions”. So then some of the tenants are, we want you to center the people who are most impacted. So if there’s trust and you’re able to approach them without causing harm, could you learn from their experience about what is working and what’s not working? Then you need to define what the real challenges are, which are probably not obvious to you when you start the project and then start to generate lots of different solutions that you can test in a way that’s safe to fail. Meaning you want to fail to learn but not at the cost of other people.

So in that scenario, for example, there was an organization who was looking at how we report and navigate conflict. There had been some historical mistrust of HR, of some people involved. There had been some incidents that were not handled particularly well, the organization wasn’t prepared.

And so it became a question of, we have to redesign our system for how do people identify, name, report harm, and offer reconciliation. What does that look like? So they designed some policies and systems using the design process. So let’s talk to the people who are hurt to then route what we make as an alternative that would better support, not only them, but our whole staff and of course understanding those impacted. So that’s an example of we’re going to redo some internal stuff. 

Another partner that works in the child welfare system had a more targeted approach of how we are impacting youth living in child welfare through our organization. So in that case, it created a council of youth that either currently, or just exited the welfare system to help them redesign a very specific product and training offering for adults who work with these youth.

So that was very much like we have to do better by the people externally, how do we involve them in shaping what it is? It was a long explanation. 

Mallory: No, it was great. It was great. And there actually, there’s so many pieces of it that I’m interested in going deeper around and exploring with you. And this is at the tail end part of your process, but I think it’s really interesting, which is this idea of staying in a way that allows you to iterate, but isn’t causing harm in the process. To me, that seems like maybe it’s one of the fundamental differences between just like a design thinking approach versus Liberatory Design is like really thinking about that piece in a different way. 

So would you talk to us about that?

Tania: Yes, totally. So the “safe to fail” concept I read in an article, which I need to go look up. But I had seen the National Equity Project with some of the folks that co-created Liberatory Design, they had created some questions around what does it mean for somebody to be safe to fail. And as a designer, it was like, “Yes, this is what has been missing” and has been very like fail fast, fail early, very Silicon valley version of design thinking.

And so then we took some of those reflection questions, added more, and built out a tool that’s basically an exercise for folks to walk through, trying to understand what could be unintended consequences. Who will benefit the most? Who could have the most time? What kind of harm are we looking at? Who are the other stakeholders in the system? How might their behavior change? 

And the reality is you cannot predict all of it. That’s the whole point of unintended consequences. But the reality of what’s lacking in traditional design in my opinion, is responsibility for what happens after. 

And then the other question is, do you have protocols for if shit goes down? Do you have a dampened plan? For example, if things are going to go wrong, what’s your immediate repair dampen shutdown process. And that can get real, whether it’s a small thing, a large-scale project. 

I know we were talking to one partner that was experimenting with how they think about parental leave, medical leave. And so we’re asking them, “Okay, you need to test to see if this is going to be impactful for your staff”. But then the question is how can we test a concept of leave if the idea evolves, right? 

Is it ethical to go to staff and say, we’re going to travel this new policy XYZ to get their reactions, and then at the end, say “Actually we decided not to go that direction, so you get into some real nitty-gritty conversations of how would we shift how we learn about this idea in a way that’s not going to create harm and if it does, how do we address it?

Mallory: What’s coming up for me, as you’re talking about, is just how complicated some of these challenges are that organizations individually and sector-wide are trying to face then how important it is. I feel like we’ve seen a lot over the last 18, a lot of urgent reactionary behavior to things like DEI.

But the way that plays out is that they take some urgent action without doing the work that you’re talking about. Maybe some toolkit they found online, or they went to one webinar.

Something I’ve seen in a number of different organizations is they’re not prepared to create safe spaces for the leaders of color in their organization. And so there, it ends up being, I don’t know if more harmful is the right way, but there tends to be a lot of harm created by that situation. 

And the thing that I really appreciate about your whole process is how much time and intentionality there is in all of the steps before there really is the thing being designed.

And I think that’s a real concept that challenges a lot of nonprofit leaders, this idea of slowing down and it’s obviously interwoven with a lot of other things we know about white supremacy and white urgency and all these other things. But can you talk to us about the sort of pillars of this process in your work and why it’s so critical that people move through each of them?

Tania: It’s a great point. And I think sometimes even when design thinking in its original form was first introduced, there was this sort of like, “Why would we slow down? Like we need it now!” And I think it’s harder, to your point, in the social sector because the risk is it really could be life and death for the people we’re working with in terms of the urgency of what they need support with and the crisis that’s happening.

I’m thinking about using cages on the border. There’s a lot of urgency, but it’s like the classic human conundrum. Do we want to do something that’s preventative and invest in our values? Or do we want to do something right now? And I think it’s not a total dichotomy. It’s not either, or, but what people find.

I think when they get into the Liberatory Design practice, it feels a lot better to say, “This is work that’s aligned with my values”. They feel motivated. They feel excited. They’re bringing people in, who are most impacted by the problem and are completely shifting how they work. 

There’s a lot of humility around “oh man, we’ve been making decisions for people, we have to make it with them. We’re going to do our work so much more effectively”. So it’s the train of do you want to be more effective, more rooted in your values, more aligned to what the community is actually asking for and has priorities in +, the outcome is so much better. 

It does require slowing down, it does. Opposed to like we could design a program in three hours by ourselves, in a room, but the chance that it might fail is significantly higher than if we’re embedding, we’re looking at bias, we’re talking about power embeddings, people who have we’re going to be most impacted. 

So what was the original question? When it comes to the different modes of liberatory design notice and reflect are at the core, which is noticing things like history, systems of oppression, identity, and many things. And reflect is about consistently having a practice of understanding, how is it going? How are we doing? What did I bring to the table today? So notice that reflection is the core of how we work. You truly believe if we’re trying to build a more liberated future and present this is just part of how we work now, we’re constantly practicing reflecting. 

And then the other modes, it doesn’t have to be linear, but the idea is these are liberation rooted practices, and they’ll help you get closer to where you need to be. So that could involve with empathize, talking to people with try that could be, we talked about the safety sales and getting your idea out there before it’s a $2 million, 10 year pilot. Like you need to know early if people are invested and they can help you refine it. So there’s a lot of different practices. 

Each one is going to get you closer and closer to the more equitable outcome that you’re seeking, but notice or reflect are non-negotiable, they have to happen.

Mallory: Do you provide tools around the reflection piece?

Even the noticing piece, maybe that helps folks pull out of conditioned tendencies, or maybe limiting beliefs that they hold, or they’re like historic and granting. This is maybe where unconscious bias comes in. So it’s not just about, I´m assuming, thinking about things maybe in the way we are used to, but asking ourselves, perhaps some fundamentally different questions.

Tania: Very true. Yes. Part of the approach of how we work with teams is…a lot of what we’re doing is work sessions, and sometimes we’ll work with teams four or five sessions over the course of a couple of months that are two hours each. And folks are always like “Two hours!” 

We did some surveys recently being like, too long, too short? What are you thinking? They were like, “Maybe it needs to be longer” because once they get in there, it’s like “Oh, this is what we’ve been waiting to talk about”.

But you’re totally right in terms of what we bring up. We do some intersectionality conversations around where, what are the assets that I’m bringing? What are potential biases either that I can see or cannot see at this moment that are gonna impact how I view this project and how other people will view me? We started to find the project if there’s human behavior we don’t understand what in the system is fostering this behavior? 

Like folks are making the best choice they can, but sometimes they’re just given pretty shitty choices. So why does this system create these choices? 

So there’s a lot of just looking under that carpet. Look under that rug, that dusty corner we need to get over there. So we do have some specific questions. I describe it as like bumper lanes or no, it’s like a monopoly. Like you do not pass go. You can’t get through the next phase without reckoning with some of these questions.

Mallory: Yeah, I love that. And I just couldn’t agree more with that. I feel like so often we see a strategy implemented, but not even the sort of consciousness around the inner and external barriers that are involved in the implementation of that strategy.

As a fundraising consultant, people are always like “Create a fundraising strategy” and I’m like, “Okay, but I want to talk about your money stories first. And I want to talk about all these other things”. And they are like “I don’t want the mindset fluff”. And I’m like “This isn’t mindset fluff. This is the core, this is everything”.

If I build you a fundraising strategy that is not aligned with your values, with your ability to talk about money, with how you believe money should be moving through your organization, then I’ve made you a super pretty document that your board feels good about momentarily, but not something that’s going to fundamentally shift the way you raise money as an organization.

Tania: It is so real.

I really believe that if we design in status quo ways, we’re going to create status for outcomes. And it’s exactly to your point. It’s like it hasn’t been working so far. Super great. There are all these things that we assume are like how we work or what is professional or what is good. They’re actually super status quo.

And sometimes you have to, to your point, really tear it back to say, this feels uncomfortable, this feels long, this feels so whatever that is, because we’re operating in status quo ways. So if you want to get to door B,  you can’t keep walking through door A. But you have to mosey with me over to door B. Trust me.

Mallory: Yeah. And what’s so interesting though, is that, the idea for my view of the nonprofit sector, who I want the nonprofit sector to be, what I believe is possible in the sector is that the purpose of it is to break the status quo.

The market determines the status quo and we are here as an entity, not driven by the same market in order to break the status quo when it is inequitable and unjust and disenfranchising groups of people.

So it becomes so frustrating for me when we start using frameworks or systems and processes because it feels so fundamentally the opposite of what we’re trying to do.

Tania: Totally. And I think so many folks are at this moment saying, “I don’t want to be in the charity mindset. I don’t want to be making decisions for people”.

When I was talking to a staff member recently, he’s like “I didn’t even grow up in this city. And I’m at this nonprofit. Black and brown students who live in the city. How am I supposed to know?”

There’s a lot of people feeling that revelation. A lot of organizations are just like, “We can’t keep operating this way. This is not why we got into this work. This is not why nonprofits exist”. There’s a whole larger conversation around the nonprofit fields that I think you’re sparking. But it’s a question of if we have these resources, we have the staff and this ability, what does it mean to do work that’s authentic to our values, but also by the values the community would define?

I think a lot of partners reach out with the hope that it would be so rewarding and so aligned to what we’re trying to do here if the community identified our work as valuable, that’s the whole point. If this community we believe in and want to support, and we know have assets, if they’re reflecting back, “This is a value”, “This is how I want it”. If they’re expressing ownership and leadership over what’s happening, that’s the dream.

But then there feels like a big gap between and there’s also a lot of tension with funders.I feel like you would know a lot about this. Like we want to work this way with community partners, centering what they need, that’s not going to give us the deadlines, the quote-unquote outcomes, the funder wants. It’s so complicated. I’m curious what you would say.

I am working with one founder who has said, “We want to see this kind of work happening as co-ownership and co-design and we don’t think the market rewards it yet. So we want to experiment and start funding. To push the field in this direction”.

So there were some funders who were saying, “What if we give people no restrictions on outcomes, but just the commitment that they’re going to do a process of community ownership and power-sharing. What happens?”

Anyway, I’m getting very excited, but I’m curious how you feel about that tension. 

Mallory: It’s interesting because I’m obviously a fan of unrestricted funding in all the forms, and I recognize that sort of way in which foundation assessment in particular, and sort of application processes and gates have historically favored white-led organizations. And so I love the idea of removing barriers and all of those different ways. 

My hope would be that the staff then goes through really significant anti-racist and unconscious bias training. So that more decision-making doesn’t become subjective without having done the real work that continues to exclude communities of color.

So that’s when I think about what are unintended consequences of things, I’m like, it’s like sometimes with pitch competitions, someone sees things where it’s yeah, we really want to diversify the applicants who get to present in this pitch competition. So they do a lot of work on that, but the judges don’t go through training around how to hear pitches from diverse folks. 

And so then we just run right back into that same problem. Okay, great you addressed access on this side of it, but there’s still this like another fundamental piece that needs to be addressed. So that’s one thing I think about from that perspective.

The other thing I think is when it comes to this work, from a funding perspective, we’re talking about urgency, right? Some of the urgency is both. Yes, there are kids in cages at the border. And that is a real urgent thing that is not like an urgency we have made up in our mind. That is a really urgent thing.

And then there’s also this whole urgent sort of structural component being put on us from a funding perspective and this sort of like a cyclical year cycle, just like desperation cycle year over year. And I think that is also in a lot of ways driven by foundation culture and grant cycles and single-year funding and all of those things that I think we know, like we know that is not the way. We just know it!

And I think it’s going to take bold leaders inside foundations. It’s going to take bold leaders and individual giving and the early adopters to say, “Yeah, I don’t know exactly what it’s going to look like to make an investment in a fundamentally different way, but I’m on this learning with you”.

And I think that’s what true partnership is and when I say to organizations all the time, I’ll ask them about the strength of their relationship with their funders and they’ll rate it. And then I’ll ask them about talking to their funders about more community-centric fundraising principles, and they say “Oh, we can’t bring that up!”

I’m like, “So how are you defining the strength of your relationship with this fund? What is strength in a funder and like grantee relationship look like, and what do we want it to look like? And how can we co-create that together?”

And I think that requires a lot more conversation around power dynamics and so many different things that I think folks are hungry for. And certain people are ready to have those conversations. 

I’m a big advocate for kind of the right corporate partnerships, like long-term corporate partnerships, not like sponsorship of event type corporate sponsorship, but organizations finding companies that are interested in impacting communities in the same way that they are, which I think 10, 20 years ago I didn’t see what I see today in terms of the rise of companies doing more community-centered work or value-driven work in the way that I think the nonprofit sector has. 

And I think what’s interesting about cross-sector partnerships is when they’re right, when they’re not, value signaling and greenwashing and all those things.But when they’re really truly aligned, it’s unrestricted funding. And I think it allows the nonprofits really come to the table with all the value that they have as an organization, all the assets they really have as an organization and set up a more sustainable funding relationship that actually is a more shifted power dynamic than I think what we see in the foundation world, or even in the individual world.  Like it’s much more partnership driven.

I think this is a new phenomenon that I’m excited to watch grow over the coming years, especially as I think businesses or as we watch businesses really shifting in the way that they show up. 

Tania: I just had a conversation with someone this morning about this who does donor advising and foundation work. And she was saying the interest from the corporate side has been growing exponentially in the last few years in particular. So I’m hearing you on that trend, that’s really interesting.

Mallory: My hope is that it’s something that if nonprofits can stay really grounded in their values and in their alignment, which of course they need to figure out beforehand, then they’re not going to get yanked around and find themselves in the same sort of historical power that they have with foundations. But really to say they need to show up to meetings with corporate partners, really looking for a mutually beneficial partnership and not like the companies coming in and asking organizations to do a bunch of volunteer workdays that exploit the local community, right?

Like we’ve seen all the ways that this does harm, but I do believe that there is a real interest in that shifting too and so I really hope the nonprofit sector takes a strong leadership role in doing work like what you’re asking people to do even before setting up some of those partnerships as well.

Tania: It’s super interesting.

It’s definitely a question. I know we do work with some foundation partners too. And a lot of them obviously by who approaches us, it’s like a  select yourself, but have been approaching with some of these questions around, “We want to shift the dynamic. We want to be centered more in what the community identifies as goals and assets, et cetera”.

And it’s like such a strong current coming through. I was working with one partner foundation partner, and it was an equity-centered project where someone had set a certain deadline and people were distressed about meeting this deadline. Calls after hours, back to back to back meetings, getting cut to 15 minutes, it was getting really unbearable. And someone on the team said, “Hold on, why is this deadline such a hard deadline?” And then someone else said “We just made it up. And we could move it”.

And then everyone was just like “What?!”. Especially as a funder who has so much power in these relationships, they were self-imposing their own time because we need to show XYZ leadership or if there’s any foundation, that we’re being productive, that we’re doing work, that our salaries are worth it. And to hear that from the founder who has the majority of the power in these relationships, is just a reminder of how deep the stuff runs, like talking about this status quo that we need to prove our productivity when we don’t actually have any accountability and just the fear.

Mallory: So complicated. What I have a lot of empathy for is the fact that like these structural things are often driven by a lot of personal fear, anxiety, stress, emotions, and that have been the structural impact of so many things. And I work particularly with women fundraisers, and I just read this crazy statistic the other day that said 61% of women would rather talk about their own death than money. 

Tania: What?!

Mallory: Isn’t that wild? You think about that and that’s like a societal, structural, status quo thing. Women were told historically it was very inappropriate for them to talk about money and they weren’t allowed to. And so that now here they are in the nonprofit sector, 75% of the workforce in the nonprofit sector, primarily being responsible for talking about money in order to fund their organizations. And they would rather be sitting in those meetings, talking about their own deaths?!

And so you think about the personal implications of that in terms like burnout, exhaustion, all the other things, and then also like the sector wide implications. It also makes me wonder, and I’m curious what you think about this, sometimes when I think about folks who are coming up against so many barriers or like trying to smash status quos in so many different areas of their work and life, and just how exhausting that is. That sometimes perhaps it’s not that they want to keep a status quo somewhere because they believe in it, but just because they’re so tired. 

Tania: That is so real, especially when it’s happening all at once. I love picking up the rock and looking under it of the status quo being like, “What’s in there? I don’t know if I liked that”. But there was a particular phase of my life when I was rethinking my own money scripts and how I want to run business and what I believe about productivity, and my family  relationships, and systems of oppression. I did it all at once and it was exhausting!

There’s already burnout happening. The pandemic we’re hearing is amplifying burnout. People are doing 10 X more work, but deadlines are getting shorter. It’s a hot mess. 

I’m thinking of my own personal life, I love constantly reading. You read a book. It has been months and I’ve read about 40 pages of this book because every two pages, I just have to sit on the couch, just stare at the wall and just, “Whoa”. And so it’s really hard when we put this kind of status quo upheaval, one in the context of not giving people any more space, even to do these two hour coaching sessions, I’m talking about, it’s “Oh, maybe we can squeeze it in”. 

This isn’t always the case. I’ve worked in one organization told staff, “You don’t have to do meetings on Fridays now because you’re doing design work”. Like some people are really intentional about making space for it, but if it goes against productivity, it goes against your worth… All these things that are ingrained in the American version of capitalism it’s hard to ask people to do it all at once.

I think that it is what people are hungry for, but to your point, where do we get the processing time to acknowledge “I’m changing 30 years of programming right now” or whatever that person’s age may be.

Mallory: Yeah. Yeah. I think that’s so important. And I think that piece around giving folks the space around work like this to just like process it. I ran a community centric fundraising workshop for an organization once, and it was like two and a half hours long. And we went into it really unsure of where we were going. It was the first conversation to give folks the space to reflect and process and share, and it was on zoom and all these things. 

Afterwards, I couldn’t move. I was like the container for that. To hold that container was so intense. I remember saying to my husband, “the only other time I’ve been this tired in my life was after giving birth.”

Which seems so crazy to say, but for the rest of the day I was a zombie, I just canceled everything on my schedule.

But it’s so true, we’re like combining modes of being, and as we combine some of these practices or start to bring in some of these maybe unfamiliar practices in organizations, and I think leaders being brave enough to give their staff all the space that’s necessary around that, I think is so critical. 

Tania: That’s so true is part of, to be frank, part of the reason I chose to start my own company, many reasons, but I felt if the status quo is not going to give me the space, I have to make my space. I still could do a better job to your point of canceling meetings when you need it, but I think I take about six weeks off a year to be able to be sustainable in this work.

And I still consistently feel like I’ve found my sweet spot is four hours of work a day. I can be empathic, curious, I can sit on the couch and have those WTF moments. It’s very healthy for me. 

That’s an ideal scenario. I don’t work four hours a day, but I hope that for this next evolution, at least in the US that’s the context I can speak to. I hope there is a movement, like on Instagram The Nap Ministry.

I get my daily dose of The Nap Ministry and just be reminded. I hope this is the direction that we’re headed and I’ll do what I can within even my small little company, in terms of vacation days we give staff to rest, all that stuff, but it’s consistently something I want more of. And I want more for our whole society. 

Mallory: Yeah, but what that made me think about is, I feel like one of the things that’s so hard in any job where you feel emotionally connected to your work.  Like you are emotionally connected to your work. I’m really emotionally connected to my work. And so sometimes, while I feel like I’ve done a lot of work around boundaries and self-care things, maybe in other areas of my life, when I have another organization come to me,  I see the work and it’s not the money. I know I can work with them and support them in the work that they’re doing. 

And I feel like that for like nonprofit leaders who are listening to this too, the no, or the boundary or the space feels like it’s always in this constant tension with helping and helping us such a complicated thing that I’ve really been dealing with in myself in the last few years around am I helping, am I fixing? Am I partnering? Am I supporting, where is this? What beliefs is this coming from? Is it that I think I’m the only one who can do this? 

Like all of the unconscious bias and all the things. And so I think that’s important. Totally. And sometimes we really find ourselves where it never feels easy to say no to an opportunity that is so aligned with our values and what we want to see in the world around us. 

How do you deal with that? 

Tania: Oh, it’s really resonating, I’ll say, everything that you’re sharing. I don’t have a great answer. I would say, part of the thing is we’re growing. So I’m bringing on more staff and starting to say to your point I don’t have to be the one that does this.

People can bring different assets that I would not have. We have a methodology that people can very easily take on. So part of it is just to grow off-board. For the first time this fall there’ll be projects that I’m not on, or that I’m not leading which I’m excited about. That’s part of it, but then another piece yeah.

Something I keep hearing from my mentors, even when I’m reading people that I really admire. It’s just this constant reminder of okay, there was injustice yesterday, there will be injustice tomorrow, there’ll be injustice the day you take your last breath, it doesn’t mean to chill and not do anything about it. 

I think a spiritual teacher actually helped me reckon with this. She’s very blunt,but I needed to hear it was really like, “Who do you think you are to think that you are going to solve this? You’re going to save them? You are going to defeat racism, Tania? Take a step back. You’re contributing to generations of movement building.That’s lovely. It’s rewarding”.

But at the same time, I think this idea of it’s all on our shoulders. You didn’t say this at all, I’m saying it for myself, how I used to be, I was like, “It’s all on my shoulder. I need to do this. I need to help. I need to work this amount. It was a little bit egocentric, right?

She describes a distinction between righteous and self righteous. Righteous is very healthy, its “this is not acceptable. I will not let this be outside of my values. I don’t believe in this. I’m going to do something about it”. 

But self-righteous is “I need to do it, people need my help. Let me tell them how to do it.” It’s very exhausting. It will bring you out very quickly. That’s where a lot of people who are pushing for equity within their organizations fall into that place because they feel alone, they feel like no one’s listening. 

I started off on a tangent, what was the question? 

Mallory: No, I think this is great.

Tania: I try to pull myself back into the righteous anger, which is “I care deeply about this, and the way that I say sustainable is saying no”, it doesn’t make it easier. I pace around. I know in my gut I’ve journaled about it. I have to say no to these clients. We don’t have the capacity, it’s going to push us over the edge, whatever’s going on. 

But it’s still like nails on a chalkboard, but I’ve gotten to the point where we can say it’s also just been enough time for me to trust in abundance. Like things don’t work out and more work comes and more work comes, knock on wood. Very grateful. 

So I started to learn to trust that for whatever reason, this isn’t the right thing right now, it’s not on me to save them. There are other people who can do good work with them. I can refer to them. I’m making it sound really easy. It’s super, not easy.

Mallory: No, I just think life is just full of so many moments of wanting both things, it’s like “I want rest and spaciousness and I want to do good work”.  I think for me, certainly I’ve had to do my own kind of ego work over the years.

My mom was a first-generation American, my family’s from Hungary. My grandma was in the Holocaust and then they were displaced in Holland after that and came to the US and they were supported by so many social services along the way to give me the life that I had. And I grew up with a lot of really traumatic stories.

Stories of people saving my aunt and her family before my grandma was taken. And just these stories that I think play such a role that I think we don’t always look at them. The big thing I had to look at was like, “Is my constant saying yes because that allows me to not address my own trauma around my family? Because if I stay in the helper role, then maybe I’m not vulnerable?”

I’m just dealing with this anxiety around what if and what I so appreciate about you and your work is I think you’re asking people to do that in ways that I haven’t seen before both individually and collectively, that also feels solution-oriented.

You really have created this sort of new model as looking at problem-solving, which I think is so unique and allows folks to tap into their individual empathy while keeping all these other things and even reading your work in my own brain has been really helpful for me to think about this thing this way.

So yeah, I just think, it’s hard to look at our own stuff and it’s really scary and it’s really hard to do it, especially in moments like we were saying before, where there are all these other pressures or we’re exhausted or we’re burnt out. And so just for folks who are listening to this to really give, my word of the year has just been gace.

And whether that’s grace because I hit another big wall because I did say yes to way too many things, instead of beating myself up and being like, “You should have known better, you knew that you shouldn’t have taken this client”. But like having grace because as we navigate and try to show up differently, all of us get tested.

Tania: So true. It’s so true. And I’ve also noticed when I’m burnt out my boundaries are the worst. You would think I’m overworked and have too many clients, but that’s when I take on more clients. When grace is most essential, but it’s because it takes energy to have boundaries and you didn’t have any.

Grace. I love grace. I’m constantly working on it. Someone said to me “This is a lifelong cycle. Stop getting upset that you do it, just know that you love humans. You love doing this work, you will overcome it. And then you’ll have to backtrack, it sucks. But that’s who you are.”

Mallory: Wow. I love that! Oh my gosh. I love that. I’m going to steal that self-mantra. 

I’m curious. What has been the biggest surprise to you as you have done this work over the last few years? 

Tania: I consistently have a habit of thinking that everybody else has it figured out and I’m making things up on the fly and the more I’ve gotten into this work, sometimes I’ll look at a proposal and be like, wow, I don’t know can we do this? And then we get in there. I’m like, oh, these people are real humans with real feelings and, oh, this is a problem that we can work on together. I don’t have to know the answers to everything, we’re going to work with community members.

I think I’m consistently surprised by the fact that the work is emergent. That seems so obvious, but I think my school child trained brain is still expecting there to be the magic ablation or the set of answers. And I just keep reading books and keep going to training and I keep talking to peers and it’s just okay, we’re all figuring it out because we were all trained in status quo.

We’re trying to unravel it as generations did before us, we can learn from them. But to build a new future, there is no copy-paste because it doesn’t exist. 

Mallory: Yeah, and it brings up for me. I did a podcast interview with Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett who wrote How Emotions Are Made.

And she talks a lot about the reason why we predict our emotions in order to essentially conserve our metabolic energy. We only have a certain amount of metabolic energy and when we’re in situations of uncertainty and our brain cannot predict what’s going to happen, we get an increase in arousal and that’s what we interpret as anxiety and stress and all these things. 

And so she’s like we do everything we can as humans to prevent that. And so I think about what the intersection is of that, which is scientific biological studies, and then what does that mean for how we can support ourselves and support other leaders where they’re every day is naturally going to be unknown, because if we are trying to break the status quo, that is just the truth.

And so then how do we support leaders to be able to operate in this sort of heightened, arousal state perhaps, but without activating all of our nervous systems in a way that does burn us out. And what is the relationship? 

It’s such a big question that, of course, I’m bringing up various things, but that’s just something I feel like I’m really grappling with right now.

If we know this to be true, and we know that our emotions impact how we show up in the actions that we take, and what we do, then how can we support each other and the system to have it be a both-and situation. 

Tania: I love that question. It feels like I’ll be trying to figure my version of that out for the rest of my life.

Mallory: Me too! Okay. Before we go, can you tell us all the ways that folks can find you? And then I love to invite every guest to share a nonprofit that they love for people to go check them out and give if they can. 

Tania: Oh, that’s so rad. So we have Instagram and a website. That’s where we live. I’m not great at Twitter or Facebook. You can find me there, I will be very chatty.  Our Instagram is @beytnadesign. Same for our website beytnadesign.com

And a nonprofit I’m excited about is called Justice Funders, they’re in Oakland. And they are really rethinking philanthropy and experimenting and working with philanthropy partners to reimagine what a justice-oriented future of giving looks like.

I’m a big fan.

Mallory: Me to go! Go and check them out. 

Thank you so much for having this conversation and spending this time with us today. 

Tania: What a treat! Thank you for having me!

17. Liberatory Design and What It Will Take to Shift the Status Quo with Tania Anaissie
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