Contending with Power, Self-Preservation, and Vulnerability
In our latest Q&A from our series of reflections on failure, our Grants and Program Associate, Danielle Royston-Lopez, shares reflections about separating the personal from the systemic, rejecting white supremacist frameworks, and contending with the discomfort of having power.
What have you needed to unlearn in your role at Kataly? What was standard practice where you used to work that you had to work to do differently here?
I have needed to unlearn perfectionism. My perfectionist tendencies have made my professional career seem successful on the outside, but it’s been an uncomfortable experience for me. I have over-indexed on making sure every detail was absolutely perfect, and felt totally responsible for the work I was doing — but in a personal way, rather than professional.
I conflated doing and being. If I’m doing a good job, I’m a good person, I’m a really good part of the community. Particularly when we’re talking about social impact work, your job can become too tied to your life. Separating the doing and being is really a work in progress. Part of what has helped is seeing the bigger picture.
When I was working in nonprofit administration and my storytelling wouldn’t match up with the aspirations in the community, I would take that personally. Why wasn’t I connected enough to the community? I needed to understand the systemic barriers to self-determination that the community was pushing against by challenging me, and center myself less to see that those barriers impact all of us in our varying positions of power and influence in social impact work.
Applying a big picture analysis to my work helps me see that there are systems and structures in place that divide community from institutions. I needed to look at how the traditional systems of social impact aren’t set up to connect us all because genuine connection builds community power that challenges the status quo. I alone cannot fix that larger issue. I can reflect on the past and hold awareness for my perfectionism when it arises. By having more grace for myself as I practice that, I can extend more grace and understanding to others.
Now, when things don’t go the way I expect, I’m able to not take it personally, and that actually allows me to show up to the work with more of a sense of diligence because it’s less about protecting myself and more about the integrity of the work.
Why do you think it’s important for philanthropy to reflect on failure?
Reflection on failure is essential to accountability, but we also have to make sure to separate our practice of reflection from white supremacist frameworks, like perfectionism, the conflation of doing and being, the idea of there being only one right way, or power being a finite resource.
By reflecting on failure, we get to be in a space where we can accelerate towards the changes we want to make internally, which ripples out externally.
For example, working in development and fundraising, I would often be in the position of battling my peers for resources, and oftentimes very little money. I knew that funders putting out RFPs saw that competition happening. Instead of encouraging us to work together or collaborate, the decision was made to just pick one or two or three of us individually. That’s a failure, but rather than make it a personal failure, we can focus on the system that perpetuates the idea of power as a finite resource and creates a scarcity mindset within well-resourced foundations that lead to these kinds of decisions being made. Most importantly, when we practice internal accountability, we can find out how to shift our mindset and practices to make a more positive impact.
What’s a way you feel you’ve failed?
Once I got into my role at Kataly, a lot of my connections from my previous work experiences wanted me to bring potential grantees into Kataly’s orbit. I didn’t know what to do, and I kind of ended up not doing anything with that information. I found myself being defensive. I would keep people at arms length and tell people I don’t have decision-making power over grantmaking.
My peers were showing me that I’m in this position now and it comes with this kind of power. I found myself feeling like the power I had was a finite resource. I started thinking that if I said yes to one person then it would be a slippery slope, and I fell into the trap of all or nothing thinking.
My inaction and defensiveness was a failure. What drove that inaction and defensiveness was fear — I let that fear get the better of me and let it create a wall between me and my peers.
I have been able to build comfort with being in a position of power by engaging with my team in discussions around power and what it means for us at Kataly to hold the contradictions of philanthropy while also navigating our positionality in this field of work.
I try to pause when I want to act from a place of scarcity, urgency, or perfectionism, to ask myself, “How do I actually want to show up right now?” and then let the answer to that question guide my decisions, recognizing I won’t always get it right.
I understand that in my position at a foundation, my decisions and actions have incredible consequences that cascade out well beyond myself. The perfectionist in me is terrified by that.
There’s a vulnerability in sitting with being in a position of power/resource. I believe it’s essential to sit with it and get clear about what my responsibilities are, because doing that pushes against my tendency toward perfectionism and self-preservation. It’s so vulnerable to show up imperfectly, but with care and diligence. I hope that by showing up in this way I can build trust, strengthen relationships, and join with voices who interrogate the status quo and dismantle patterns of thinking that are oppressive to myself and everyone around me. I believe that’s how we get to a self-determined, liberated, and authentic future.