Transforming New America for the new America

Article In The Thread
New America
Jan. 4, 2022

In this conversation, New America President & Chief Transformation Officer Paul Butler and staffer Joe Wilkes explore what a new America could look and feel like and the work New America is continuing to do to move towards the ideal of a more equitable, multi-cultured United States. They talk about New America’s strategic planning for the future and the work of our programs and staff in the upcoming years.

Joe: It's now January 2022, and since George Floyd’s death the entire country, the entire world, has continued to talk about the pervasiveness of systemic racism and its severity in our country — some asking, “what do we do about it?” At New America, we’ve had to ask ourselves this question too. We’ve had to grapple with the fact that we may not be doing enough and we need to do better. What comes to mind when you think about the process New America is undergoing to transform itself to be what a new America needs?

Paul: Wow, big question. I always start with a single line: transforming New America for the new America. I start, especially because we are so close to it in regards to time, with the piece that you wrote about Rittenhouse and anti-Black vigilantism and the two verdicts in November of last year with two different outcomes (just about a week apart), yet they’re so connected. And what do those two verdicts say about where we are as a country; how we as a society are thinking about race — with anti-Black vigilantism in the Rittenhouse case and murder of Ahmaud Arbery. These were two very different “perspectives” on what is justice, and both cases show that we still have so much work to do as a country.

Seeing what happened with the Rittenhouse trial, the Arbery verdict itself isn’t a cause for celebration — the verdict we saw here isn’t a pattern yet. And what we all saw was something horrific, disturbing, and racist, but I know many of us watching had the concern that it could’ve been Rittenhouse all over again. That’s the sad truth. Those two verdicts give us this sense of instability about where we are with the value of Black lives in this country and our understanding of racism. So, I start there as it is a commentary on the work that is still yet to be done — where Black lives are valued, justice is predictable and certain, and that we count on the system to do the work of protecting us.

So when I think about work we are doing at New America and particularly across our equity transformation, that equity folds itself into all of the other spaces of work here at New America. And hopefully our work extends a critical lens to the systems of society, whether it be education, technology, foreign policy, etc., and how equity does and does not manifest in all of those areas of our lives. That’s the essential work of where New America is going, and that’s just the start.

Joe: I definitely agree with you that that’s the starting point. And with my experience working in the communications department and seeing the majority of the publications from our programs, I have definitely begun to see a change since we have begun this transformation journey. I’ve started to see growth in our products, growth in thought about what we write and how we track equity work as well. And so as I am beginning to see the work done in our equity transformation sessions bleed into the work of our programs, New America, at least in the context of the individuals in research roles and doing the bulk of the work within our publications, is for the most part a very white organization. While it is fantastic that the individuals we have here are wanting to do more around equity within our work, I can’t help but think about the representation piece and what that would also do for the work.

Paul: So there are definitely two sides to the coin. First off, Black representation really does matter, and when I think about New America and our transformation as a whole I think of it in two levels: table stakes and transformation commitments. Table stakes are the things we often take for granted, and as a society and an organization we are becoming more aware of the need to do the basics, which includes retaining, diversifying, and developing staff, thinking about our work more critically, and asking those sets of questions that will push equity forward. There’s a lot on that list and representation is a part of that table stakes. And then transformation, which is pushing harder on that: So if representation is table stakes, getting those represented to the table is transformation. We as an organization are still building the table stakes, for instance building a shared language with Tamara Osivwemu, our racial equity consultant, an inclusive language style guide, etc. are all a part of the table stakes. That’s foundational. Setting a system up to where we’re pushing harder still needs to be done. So where I want to push and prod a bit with the transformation piece is: If all of a particular team was white (or people of color) does that relieve them of the obligation of putting equity at the center of the work? The answer is no, it takes the evolved learning of all people.

There’s a balance in there. Representation isn’t the only answer, it also takes the evolution of thinking in the individuals that we have already. It’s one of many dimensions. And across New America you’re seeing writers and researchers, regardless of identity, thinking about these things.

Part of the work now in 2022 is going to be that talent piece. We’ve laid some of the foundation, the bricks — shared language, empathy, how to have courageous conversations — and now for the bricks of transformation we’re focusing on talent, not just new talent but the development and career paths of the talent that we have here at New America.

Joe: 2022 is not only just a big year for New America, but the country as a whole. So going into 2022, thinking about our organizational transformation, how do you see us pushing forward the ideal of a new America that permeates every corner of our offices?

Paul: First let me take a step back, the culture of New America matters and making sure that we have a safe and inviting place that people will want to do their work and feel valued is important. I’ve had conversations with people about ways that New America hasn’t been inviting to different identities, and we have to fix that if we want to be true contributors and influencers in the larger societal conversations within the country and the public policy space. We can connect directly our influence and ability to affect how things are done back to the people that work here. And for me that is the throughline. We have the potential to really transform society, which means transforming our space to create long-term impact in a new America.

Joe: I really appreciate you talking about that piece of creating an inviting and valued environment for work. And I love that it is this throughline that you’re thinking about in regards to pushing forward that evolution of thinking within our organization’s work. And throughout the pandemic, just like the rest of the country, we’ve had to take a look inward and process this racial reckoning that we’re having within ourselves and no longer just talk about the situation but do.

Paul: Let me ask you a question, which I know is hard to do in hindsight. But where did you think we would be, if anywhere, at this point in time when we started on this transformation journey?

Joe: In a way this question has two answers: what I hoped and what I forecasted were very different. I would be lying if I didn’t say that in regards to my hope I wish we were farther along. But when I think about my forecast at that time, I’ve been pleasantly surprised and proud of New America for taking this journey and no longer continuing to just have conversations around it but beginning to take action as well. And it would be remiss of me not to mention that this is a long process that is individual as well: some will think it is moving too fast, some too slow, and you’ll have some who think it’s the perfect pace.

Paul: What stood out to me was your observation about the pace being different for everyone. Within our framework, we are on this journey as an organization, but we are all also going through this journey individually. There is so much more we need to do at the table-stakes level, which can be very individual, and they’re not radical ideas. These table-stakes at the individual level are for New America, for what this organization should be aspiring to be, as we have a significant role to play in reaching towards the ideal of a new America. We can set an example of what we want a new America to look like, and we’re farther along — not that there is a singular end-point particularly — than where we started.

And in a year, I would like for you, a person of color who works here, to say “I feel really good” about the work and the leaps we are making, even though we’ll know there’s still more to do. So in a year, what would be either your hope or your forecast of what it’s like to be at New America?

Joe: I think in a lot of ways it comes down to that idea of an evolved shared thinking where we’re all thinking about that work, it’s being included, and a person of color, or a different identity, doesn’t always have to be the one to make sure those things are included. And for me that shared evolved thinking is at the core of what it takes in reaching that goal of a new America. So I would like to direct that question back at you as well and ask you what your hope would be.

Paul: For me, it’s so important that we as an organization know why we are doing this. So come January 1, 2023, I would love, in the sense of our organizational culture, that we reach a place where, for example, no one has to experience microaggressions, or that we at least have the emotional capabilities and vocabulary to address it. My aspiration is to curate a work dynamic that allows people to bring their best selves to work. And that requires some system changes, but also individual transformation.

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