Accountability is a practice within racial justice and equity practices that calls attention power and privilege. In this episode with Mojdeh Cox of Pillar nonprofit, we break down the ways in which organizations and individuals within the nonprofit sector can adopt practices of radical accountability in striving to align with practices of Decent Work. Bio: Mojdeh Cox, Executive Director- Pillar Nonprofit Network Mojdeh Cox believes in the power of collective compassion, creativity and action to work towards solutions to complex social issues. Her dynamic 10+ years of experience working in co-visioning, co-designing and executing political and issue-based advocacy campaigns, and her social policy work equipped her with the analysis and practices needed in community-based leadership roles designed to bring people together.At a time when government, businesses and nonprofit organizations look to contribute to the dismantling of systemic barriers, Mojdeh brings forward expertise in labour relations, human rights, and equity, diversity, inclusion and belonging. For over a decade, Mojdeh has coached organizational and community leaders, businesses and not-for-profit organizations on re-imagining their work through a heightened equity lens rooted in social justice.
Accountability in the context of racial justice and equity practices draws attention to power and privilege. In this episode with Mojdeh Cox of Pillar Nonprofit Network, we break down the ways in which organizations and individuals can adopt practices of radical accountability to help advance Decent Work in the nonprofit sector.
Bio: Mojdeh Cox, Executive Director- Pillar Nonprofit Network
Mojdeh Cox believes in the power of collective compassion, creativity and action to work towards solutions to complex social issues. Her dynamic 10+ years of experience working in co-visioning, co-designing and executing political and issue-based advocacy campaigns, and her social policy work equipped her with the analysis and practices needed in community-based leadership roles designed to bring people together.At a time when government, businesses and nonprofit organizations look to contribute to the dismantling of systemic barriers, Mojdeh brings forward expertise in labour relations, human rights, and equity, diversity, inclusion and belonging. For over a decade, Mojdeh has coached organizational and community leaders, businesses and not-for-profit organizations on re-imagining their work through a heightened equity lens rooted in social justice.
Open letter to the sector: A call for radical accountability in social impact | Future of Good
Digging In With ONN Episode 4 Transcript
This transcript has been edited for clarity.
Yami: Before we begin, we want to acknowledge that ONN's head office is located on the unseeded territories of the Mississaugas of the credit, the Anishnabee, the Chippewa, the Haudenosaunee and the Wendat peoples. We know that Tkaranto is diverse to many First Nations, Inuit, and Metis communities, documented and undocumented. And for all of the listeners, those of you who identify as settlers, there's a really great resource called nativeland.ca. That's n a t i v e dash land, l a n d . ca, where you can find out whose land you're on, and not only for the purposes of acknowledging but building relationships and practices of solidarity. So make sure to check that resource out.
Kavita: Welcome to Digging In with ONN, we are your hosts Kavita and—
Yami: Yami! And this is a podcast that focuses on public policy systems change that impacts Ontario's nonprofit sector. Specifically for this series, we'll be focusing on decent work using an intersectional lens that centers learning around racial justice, practices of equity, as well as truth and reconciliation. For today's episode, we have Mojdeh Cox joining us to talk about radical accountability. Welcome to the podcast, Mojdeh. Could you take a moment to introduce yourself for our listeners?
Mojdeh Cox: Absolutely. Thanks so much for the warm welcome and the invitation to join you. I'm Mojdeh Cox, I'm the incoming, I can still say that right? I'm still under seven months into the job. I'm gonna milk this for the next five years just to give everyone a heads up. But I am the new incoming Executive Director for Pillar Nonprofit Organization. And we're a network organization similar to ONN that operates on a smaller scale in the London and surrounding area. Our vision is to have an engaged and inclusive, vibrant community. And we do this by strengthening individuals, organizations and enterprises who are invested in positive community impact. So there are no rules where we come from other than the fact that you're setting your intention for positive impact.
Yami: I like that. I like that no rules!
Mojdeh Cox: No rules here, you just sweet go with the flow. But one of the things that we want to ensure that everyone's intention is rooted in that good positive community impact.
Kavita: That's wonderful. So in the article, you speak about radical accountability and state that in order to shift systemic racism, we need to commit to being radically accountable. So for this episode, can you start us off with what is radical accountability? And how did you arrive at this framework?
Mojdeh Cox: Well you know, I don't really know if there is a framework out there for radical accountability, I'll let you know how I keep stringing these two words together, and what they mean to me. So first and foremost, you know, I remember when I was a young activist, I was often called radical, and I found that perplexing because I thought, well, I thought I was doing the right thing. And I wasn't able to really quite identify what was what we understood as radical, so radical about what I was saying you were doing, until a dear friend now but an old prof of mine, tapped me and said, "You know what radical actually means? It means getting to the root of something. And so truly radical means affecting the fundamental nature of something."
So from that point on, I thought, what I'm doing is radical, well, rock on, I'm gonna—you know, that's rad! I'm gonna keep doing some of that radical stuff. Because getting to the root means that you're not coming up with topical solutions for something, a bandaid solution, stopgap measures, we're really getting to the fundamental nature of impacting changing something. And so as my sort of career and personal life progressed over the years, one of the ways that I had, I think, prioritized accountability in my life is through parenting. And so, you know, as an individual, as a woman, I'm a mom and I, for the longest time couldn't articulate much of what was going on in my home by nature of being locked in a system where, for one thing as a racialized woman, you already had a million barriers in the workplace. Talking about your family life, and you know, it'll muddy things up.
I found that my road to understanding accountability started with motherhood and parenting, like many of my important life lessons. And to me, that is accountability is the act of being responsible for something and being able to justify your rationale or how you are accountable. And, it actually defies what most people who I've had conversation with over the years around accountability, was like this pointing out outward, you're always holding someone else, or something else, or systems accountable. And that always was one that perplexed me because I thought, well, systems aren't inanimate, they don't just operate on their own. It's people who drive systems that are not working for us.
So to me, radical accountability is really getting to the fundamental root of accountability. And that is self-reflection, and it belongs to the individual and that ownership, and that being able to be fully responsible and being able to justify your rationale, thoughts, behaviours, actions, and describing the how, in a way that we haven't asked of anyone, when we're talking about dismantling, injustices at the systemic level, it's important. Why that's important, is that when we do this outward-pointing for accountability, it feels as though we're removing ourselves from the equation, as though we have nothing to bring to the table when it comes to integrity and accountability.
I think that through dismantling systems, everyone has a part to play. We will, in fact, have far more advancement if we carve out our space, and stay true to that intent. So there is an anatomy of radical accountability. And I can share that with you. But I feel like I've been talking for a long time.
Kavita: No, that's why we have you here, we want to listen to your wisdom and to help us, you know, really understand the root of your definition of radical accountability. I think you've explained that in a really accessible way. I hope that our listeners, not just listen, but start to, as you said, take ownership for the parts that we play in the systems that we're trying to dismantle.
Yami: And I'm excited. And the reason why I'm excited about talking about radical accountability, and the article that we were referencing earlier is in The Future of Good that Mojdeh wrote this past year. And I think what excites me and why we're so excited to have you talk about radical radical accountability is that when we think about Racial Justice and equity issues and systems change, there's often that desire to be like, who's gonna be accountable for this work. And often, it's leadership, right? And in the literature, which we'll be linking articles to, to this podcast, there is a conversation about leadership taking a role, and how we understand leadership is often top-down. What I appreciate so much about your framing of radical accountability is that it's everyone's problem, it’s everyone's issue. Everyone needs to be in that mode of wanting change, and that there are possibilities there.
I think in nonprofits, often we look at a hierarchical nature of who gets to define leadership and accountability around the work. This podcast and ONN do have an emphasis on decent work, which is about creating the conditions for workers to thrive in the nonprofit sector. I love that dialogue, where it's like the internal reflection, but also the external. Because on issues of racial justice, it could be around anti-Black racism, but for Black organizations, how are you taking an intersectional lens for settler or white-led organizations? How are you taking an intersectional lens in terms of doing that inward and outward dance as well as in pushing forward practices of reciprocity around Truth and Reconciliation?
I dubbed you a leader within the nonprofit sector- we dubbed you a leader in the nonprofit sector, and so I'm curious about how radical accountability can influence some of the themes around- you've spoken to this but decent work, such as culture, and leadership within organizations, I know a lot of leaders listen to this podcast, and by leaders, I do mean on a hierarchy lens so executive directors who feel at a loss and who often are looking for guidance on what it means to be radically accountable to their team, but also to their community -as a leader of the nonprofit sector, how can folks be radically accountable, specifically leaders to influence culture shifts and change within the organization as well as if they're embarking on, for example, an audit or if they're embarking on systems change within the organization? What are some key considerations that you want to offer specifically around decent work?
Mojdeh Cox: Pillar Nonprofit Network, frankly, can assist you. You're not alone. Regardless of where you are in Canada, through impact consulting, we do this type of work, we help so many organizations within the sector and beyond. So first and foremost, shameless plugs, reach out if you need any help, we'll help you. But I'll give you a couple of nuggets here around what can sector leaders particularly do to address and draw the connection between decent work, radical accountability and dismantling systemic discrimination, particularly around race-based bias- and gender race bias, I think we can't really be looking at this through the intersectional lens, I should back up because that is what your question was. So my apologies there.
How to do this. A couple of nuggets. The first inclination that I find through my experience, and helping organizations in the past, I've worked in the consulting field prior to my gig here and worked with organized labour directly. So Decent Work was something I've lived and breathed for a decade and a half. Knowing how to apply this at a systems change level for dismantling systemic discrimination. Many organizations first jump to what? Attracting diverse talent. And I can say one thing, stop right now, that is not where we need to start. Stop that right away. We cannot bring people into environments that are unsafe. So frankly, we should be backwards retention, what's the infrastructure that we need to build? What are the mechanisms? What are the policies? What are the procedures? What are the elements that are required for the retention of diverse workers and colleagues within the workplace? Think that way first, because then you're going to be building up the environment that will actually support these diverse perspectives that you're going to hopefully recruit.
The other way around is really damaging. I've been in several of these circumstances where organizations really are with very good intentions, trying to build around their diversity agenda, and they're going on this mass recruit without setting up this infrastructure and they’re scratching their minds saying “I am not attracting diverse applicants” and “I'm not able to retain them”. Well, begin with retention. So things to think about, things like pay equity, think about Decent Work in its most foundational sense. What are the terms of conditions for working people within your organization? How can you improve that? The nonprofit sector, unfortunately, it's faced with some real distinct challenges.
I feel like nonprofit sector leaders, including board leaders, need to help and put their hat in the game and try to change the narrative around operational costs. We used to boast around “this as how few dollars go to operational expenses” as if it's something to be proud of. We now know in 2021, we cannot boast about investing in the human beings in our organizations so nominally, because that's the output you're going to get. That's the quality of the impact and the deliverables you're going to get. If you're boasting about spending so little on operational costs, that means you're boasting about spending very little on the human beings that are executing the work. We have to change our mindset.
So how do we do that? There are a couple of things to focus on. As I mentioned, retention first. Build the environment that no one can leave, as opposed to attracting people first, because that is so damaging, it's hurtful. It perpetuates more systemic discrimination than anything else. Secondly, look at Decent Work in its most fundamental way. Basic working conditions, the future of work is flexible, the future of work isn't micromanaging, the future of work is shared leadership
Yami: Finger snaps!
Mojdeh Cox: The future of work is looking at individuals based on their individual needs. The future of work is being trauma-informed. The future of work means having policies that do not help perpetuate more discrimination. It's zero tolerance for harassment and racial discrimination. If this is the language, we need to help. And guess what, we don't need to do it alone. I’m not sure if this is the most popular opinion but we have systems in place right now in several workplaces, organized labour is always open to hearing from us in the impact sector to say how can we treat people better within our organizations? And we can look at the language that's in collective agreements to know how to model our policies? Leaders in the sector need to be brave and bold. Engaging with organized labour doesn't mean that your workplaces will be organized. And if it does, that doesn't necessarily mean that it's a bad thing.
Yami: And you’re specifically talking about labour unions, right?
Mojdeh Cox: Absolutely. Absolutely. That's exactly what I'm speaking about. And frankly, these are organizations that should be able to help us, we’re low cost. We don't have the excuse of saying we don't have the money to seek out the expertise to inform us of what we should be doing. The sector of organized labour is ready to deploy some help at any given time. I've spent a decade and a half with them and I know that that's what they're here for. So we can no longer be proud of those things. And you know what set quotas until it becomes organic. That might not be a popular opinion. But if there's pushback, or if it's hard to achieve certain goals when we have to set some quotas and work around numbers, we also know that the workplace is one of the leading places where working people experience racial discrimination and other forms of discriminatory violence. We have to frame it this way. Discrimination is violence. It adds and it compounds. It really is one of those things that we need to keep on the radar, as is a healthy, psychologically healthy and safe work environment, so looking at the standard, and the way that we can apply things based on our budget and our capacity.
Being able to apply some of the measures that frankly, should be ready to hit start on today within the workplace. Have common language is another tidbit. Start with common language. Name things like microaggression. So when colleagues walk up to another, you know, and someone touches someone's hair, no one should say, I've been living under the rock and I didn't know it's inappropriate to touch someone's hair in the workplace. Like, no more. Time's up. Time's up. And frankly, there should be zero tolerance around racial discrimination as we have zero-tolerance around things like theft in the workplace. We should deem these things as-
Kavita: as equally egregious, right?
Mojdeh Cox: Absolutely. Thank you. So, you know, it's not easy. None of these things are easy. But these are a couple of nuggets that I think that everyone should start to think about. Right away.
Kavita: There's so much goodness there that I feel like this podcast session could gon for a long time.
Mojdeh Cox: I know I have so many more!
Kavita: Unfortunately we don't have that much more time! As you just began to, this work is not easy. If we think about, as you said, we're all part of a system and if you're trying to dismantle the system and start with a new idea, which is radical accountability. Now, in the path to advancing that, I would imagine that people are going to face barriers. There are going to be challenges. As we start to close out, can you talk to us a little bit about the challenges that not just leaders, but anyone who wants to take on radical accountability, as we all should, the challenges that they might face and some of the solutions or things that you have found useful in your path? And how you're moving forward with that concept in your own work and in your own life?
Mojdeh Cox: Where do we start? Thank you for that question. I think it's a great way to round things off. I can say that from my own personal experience, the most difficult piece is the action through change behaviour. And I feel like that is something that's linked to one of the first things that I would recommend. Everyone who wants to be a part of this movement of dismantling systemic barriers and looking at systems change in a different way must do is check their ego. The hardest piece for me in the elements or the anatomy of radical accountability has been the action through change behaviour. Because it's always hard to change your practices. That is one of the challenges that people are not sure if what they're doing is the right way forward, and there's no right or wrong answer for that, well, I can't quite say that there is a wrong answer for sure. But there is no right or wrong way of doing self-reflection. And setting intention, you have to find your own cadence and your own rhythm in doing that. So I have pointers for leaders who want to and people in general who want to get involved in this movement that will build around radical accountability.
One that already exists around systems change and wanting to dismantle barriers for others, and one another, is three Cs. Check your privilege and your ego. First and foremost, if that's what you're leading with, take a moment of pause and step back. And that's these are all embedded in the anatomy of radical accountability. So we're checking ourselves. And then what we're looking at is change. Again, action through changed behaviour. So consider what you can change. And if you are in a position of power and authority, the third C is charge. And that is to bring people along with you, delegate, recognize other people's strengths, make place for everyone. Know where to find that balance, take some space or make some space,take a step back, or occupy more space, depending on what your social location is, and your demographic.
This work is challenging on so many fronts. But I think the hardest part, if you really want to actively engage in radical accountability, in my opinion, the real self, that me element is the hardest part to navigate. I just want everyone to know that that's so natural and organic. I think one of the greatest places to start is to build on emotional intelligence. Accountability is one of the elements of trust. A lot of this work ahead is rooted in trust-building. And if we think about how we build trust with one another, how we are trusting, and how we want to be more trustworthy around others, what are those things that elevate that for us?
One thing I've learned is that it's not in grand gestures. If you ask anyone, what trust is for them, it's always in the small things. Small, repetitive, consistent things that you're able to do and appear for others and show up in different ways that are needed, be actively listening. These are ways that we can connect the dots with other folks and bring people along with us. We really have to deploy traditional organizing tactics around this work, and can't do it alone. That's what organizing really, truly says. I think for us to recognize that three C's in combination with the anatomy of radical accountability, all of this is a natural part of this work. The sticking point is always checking your own ego and privilege. For some, that's really difficult, for others, it's not a practice they've ever engaged in. All of that is normal.
If you follow these elements, I think you'll be on the right track. I think being willing to fail and learn along the way is a part of leadership in general. I think we're at a moment that we have to improvise in these uncertain times, I think many of us have kind of resigned to failing and learning through mistakes because of what we've endured over the last 18-20 months. Keeping that up and knowing that that's a part of the experience as well, falling back off and trying again, but be genuine about it. You can't just keep saying sorry without the changed behaviour. But can you say to folks when you step on someone's toes, you don't say sorry, for example, what's happening in London. What we're hearing about is somebody's saying the N-word in the classroom. Can't say sorry about that. It's 2021 Times up. Where's the accountability? Where's the radical accountability there?
Mojdeh Cox: How are we holding ourselves responsible? That's just an example. You don't say you're sorry for things that are impacting people's lives.
Kavita: I think that's really important for leaders or leadership in general, but I think everyone to accept this idea and become comfortable with this idea, that you learn more likely from your mistakes and you do from your successes and we need to be okay to fail, and that we're going to learn so much from that failure. From that process of getting back up.
Yami: I think you're onto something. I know that we said this is the last question, so I want to honour that, but I think that piece that you bring up around failure is so important because I think sometimes part of systems of white supremacy is trying to get it perfect. And try to get it perfect after the audits done with an organization, hosting that conversation with staff, wanting it to be perfect, wanting to have programs that are perfect and racially diverse, wanting to have boards that are perfect and racially diverse, and that have Indigenous representation, and queer representation and trans representation and women, and etc. It's this notion of perfectionism, that's stifling our ability to do the work at times because we're afraid that we don't know we're gonna say the wrong thing or do the wrong thing. And it's like, I love normalizing that and really appreciate that invitation from you and Kavita, for that. So any last words Mojdeh? I know, we'd love to keep you on for longer. But any last words for our listeners that you wanted to share before we close out?
Mojdeh Cox: Yes, I think that one of the things, and thank you for that invitation, I think that we are at a moment where we really have to route our understanding of this moment. In this way, I just saw really disturbing images of homeless encampments being dismantled by use of force with the same overuse of force that really jolted us a year ago when organizations widely were putting out Black Lives Matter statements. Where are they today? Where young, Black, Muslim women have knees, dug into their necks? I mean, I'm sorry, if there's no content warning before me saying this. But I'm coming out of the weekend of discovering a lot of really horrific acts of violence against marginalized, young Muslim women who are at the frontlines of a plight that we should all care about in the sector in a meaningful way. These are individuals who care for their neighbours. And they've been brutalized over the weekend. So it's sitting on me, it's resting on me.
The invitation to say a few last words is that really and truly, there is no other time to do this. Time's up. We want to ensure that we embrace mistakes, we must recognize that in the sector, we're not living under a boulder. And we have to hold ourselves first to account to drive this change. If we don't, nobody else will. We can't be waiting for anyone else. We cannot be pointing our fingers out to anyone else the time is now. Because time is up. This is a matter of life or death for some, if we don't hold that consequence, as close to us as we would if it was life or death for our neighbour, our true neighbour, our direct neighbour or friend or family member that we care about deeply, we're not going to get this work done. Can't trick ourselves into caring about our communities, we really just have to care enough. And that's where the radical accountability piece I think is really important here. Understanding our proximity.
Kavita: There's no excuse to not take that first, second, third step just because you're scared that you might do the wrong thing.
Mojdeh Cox: Frankly, those community organizers who had their necks under the kneel of very prominent and heavy police officers didn't have the opportunity to say they were too scared to fail. So who are we to then not do what we can do when we have 20 something year old, racialized Muslim, many of them in several intersecting social locations that marginalize them at the frontlines of a fight that in fact that we should all be in, caring for those experiencing homelessness. Can't police people out of being empathetic. So we have to think about things in a really different way. We have to be bold enough to say the things that people are sometimes not sure whether they should say or not.
Kavita: And to recognize that it's a privilege to talk about things that other folks are experiencing on a daily basis. There is a privilege in you not being able to take that step. Meanwhile, it's someone's absolute reality and their lived experience.
Mojdeh Cox: One last thing that I want to say, when we're trying to find our rhythm in this work, when it's so difficult, I think we have to really root ourselves in the why. I come from a mixed-race, multifaith immediate family and raising four children who are multifaith in mixed race. And I wake up every single day with the reality that my Black presenting children walk their lives each and every single day with far less privilege than I do. I can't change that in the moment. What drives me, and I'm deeply vulnerable here and expressing this is that my fuel comes from that, my motivation comes from the fact that I wake up every single day and go to bed every single day, knowing that I have more privileged than my children. And no matter what I do, I cannot change that. It's a systemic barrier. And so that's my why. And so I guess I ask the audience, What's your why? That would be the first step, What's your why? Find your why. And I think that that will guide you and motivate you and fuel the rest of this journey.
Yami: And on that note, you all can't see me but I'm raising my hands. Like it's a sermon right now. Thank you so much Mojdeh for joining us on the podcast today. And there's just so much, and I know Kavita, you would agree with me in saying that it has been an absolute pleasure having you on. Thank you folks for tuning into the podcast. We're your hosts, Kavita and Yami. We hope that you'll join us for future episodes as we continue to dig into issues that matter to the nonprofit sector. Be sure to share, rate as well as subscribe so that you are first to know when episodes are live.