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Building Resilient Organizations: Lessons in Trauma Informed Change and Organizational Resilience

Updated: Nov 14, 2023

If we want to create real change, we have to zoom way out to look at the issues, solutions, and goals from a systems perspective. We also have to zoom way in to look at how we personally contribute to the problems we’re trying to solve.

Icons representing people drawn on post it notes, tacked to a cork board and connected by colored ribbon. Represents organizational structures and networks.

Last year, Maurice Mitchell, the national director of the Working Families Party, published an article, titled Building Resilient Organizations: Toward Joy and Durable Power in a Time of Crisis. In it, he explores the key logical fallacies and traps we often find ourselves falling into alongside definitive recommendations for change.

If you or the organizations you work for or with are committed to (or claim to be committed to) social justice, DEI, or the social determinants of health, this article is a must-read—especially if you find yourself in a position of power or leadership at an organization.

Still, I would recommend this article to any agency interested in organizational resilience, framework building, and large-scale change or cultural shifts.

Before you dive into Maurice’s article and while you are reading it, please pay attention to your body and your feelings. For change work to be effective, we must come from a place of executive functioning and ensure we are staying in that place by using TIC strategies.

Of course, this advice applies to everything I recommend to you, but I’m making a point to say it here because the article explores many new and complex topics and ideas and it specifically addresses common mistakes that we make regarding our ways of thinking. If we are not careful while receiving feedback, our defenses may come up.

Even as an expert in trauma informed change, many of the ideas were new to me and I commit many of the fallacies myself. It is essential to remember that there is no shame in having work to do, and acknowledging that we have work to do is a step in the right direction.

As you read this article and Maurice’s article, you’ll see that the perspectives are often coming from a political and social movement perspective. His ideas on change are also applicable when it comes to trauma informed change movements within your organization.

Image reads “It is not a deficit that you have work to do, and the more you embrace that you have work to do, the more able you are to do the work.“ Shenandoah Chefalo, Chefalo Consulting

Our Most Common Mistakes: Barriers to Organizational Resilience

Larger structures inform how we think, and our thinking supports the larger structures we find ourselves in. Maurice explores the most common and harmful logical fallacies that we struggle with, including:

Neoliberal Identity. Maurice dives into the many mistakes we make when it comes to politics and identity, the biggest one being the conflation of identity with politics.

Maximalism. This section discusses how a harmful “either/or” mentality gets in our way by shaping a limiting view that says “messiness is bad” or “if someone messes up, it means they’re wrong and bad.” Maximalism says that we (and our movements, practices, or projects) have to be “the best” or “perfect” to be worthy.

Anti-Leadership Attitudes. Sometimes a healthy dose of skepticism morphs into skepticism and mistrust as a general rule. This section explores power dynamics in leadership and how extremes on both sides become obstacles to change.

Anti-Institutional Sentiment. People in change movements tend to reflexively see institutions are inherently oppressive, but institutions are necessary for sustainable change. Institutions hold power, and that power can create both negative and positive impacts.

Cherry-Picking Arguments. We often decontextualize perspectives to make sense of them or to support our own points. But context matters.

Glass Houses. While the inside-out nature of our work is essential, individuals are not to blame and do not carry the full responsibility of change. We can’t deny the need for large-scale structural changes. Maurice says, “Both/and thinking is key here.” At Chefalo Consulting, we call this the “YES, and” approach.

The Small War. The small war refers to when we “prioritize a relatively small internal quarrel over, say, a corporate campaign or structural power fight.” The small stuff does matter, but we can’t let it get in the way of the larger goal, what Maurice calls “our north star.”

Unanchored Care. While organizations do have a responsibility to care for their community members, each person’s mental, physical, and spiritual health is ultimately their responsibility. Workplaces can and should support employee wellness, but they cannot and should not “rescue” employees. Maurice eloquently adds that “Violence and oppression are to be avoided but not discomfort.”

Disproportionality. This issue arises when we cannot accurately interpret the scale of a problem. For example, discomfort and violence are often seen as the same, when they are not.

Activist Culture. Activist culture prioritizes visibility over larger processes, protocols, and cultures. Instead, the focus must lie on collective strategies for change.

Image reads “All of us... have opportunities to lead and choices to make about our behavior. Concretely, that looks like each of us wrestling with the ways we exhibit some of these destructive tendencies and making corrections.“ Maurice Mitchell, Working Families Party

I suspect we are all guilty of every fallacy on the list because these are not personal failings, these are common lines of thinking that the structures surrounding us emphasize.

We at Chefalo Consulting are certainly guilty of cherry-picking. Maurice writes, “it is popular to borrow catchphrases and quotes from Black feminists, theorists, thinkers, and collectives…” and when “the arguments those thinkers developed are hijacked and flatted by those seeking personal benefit or legitimacy” it causes harm.

If we remain in our executive functioning, we can push away our defensiveness and instead ask powerful questions like How can we develop and share a deeper understanding of the voices we feature? and Where is the line between uplifting others’ voices and using them for personal gain?

We must sit in the discomfort of our mistakes in order to acknowledge room for growth.

How Do We Build Resilient Organizations?

Understanding a problem is essential to solving it; however, we can sometimes get lost in our emotions when we look at a problem head-on. The important thing to remember here is that this problem is solvable. We can build resilient organizations.

Maurice outlines how with four key dimensions: structural soundness, ideological coherence, strategic ground, and emotional maturity.

Image reads “’Doing the work’ should be viewed as ongoing day-to-day practice.“ Maurice Mitchell, Working Families Party

How to Build a Structurally Sound Organization

Unionize. Leadership should support unions because they can help accomplish several goals of healthy organizations, including:
  • Deepening awareness of problems and organizational health

  • Increasing clarity, equity, and accountability

  • Creating shared language and knowledge

  • Supporting collective organizational goals

Transparency around power dynamics. Clarity around the where, why, and how of hierarchies at work ensures everyone knows where decision-making power lives. When people understand their place and their opportunities for advancement, they feel more sure and more secure.

Pro-leadership culture. Leadership culture defines what healthy leadership looks like, levels power dynamics through collective power, and ensures leaders are accountable and experienced through continued learning programs.

Intentional change. Powerful change doesn’t happen on its own, and capable leaders do not stumble into their abilities. To create change and capable leadership, we must intentionally work towards it.

Ongoing evaluation. Change is cyclical, and constant evaluation of what’s working and what isn’t is essential to positive change.

Diversity. A commitment to diversity isn’t about tokenizing staff—it’s about ensuring a multitude of varied voices are present at the table.

How to Build an Ideologically Coherent Organization

Training. Staff should be trained and retrained in their shared ideology, including emotional maturity concepts.

Unlearning. In order to change, we must reassess what we know.

Political education. Creating common knowledge around politics is a cultural norm that supports change.

How to Build a Strategically Grounded Organization

A clear strategy. Your strategy should be clear and well-understood by all stakeholders.

Theory of change. Strategies should be developed around evidence-based theories of change that will produce results. Education and experience are important for good strategy.

Transparency. Organizational strategy shouldn’t be a secret. Senior team members have a responsibility to educate new hires and junior team members about strategy.

How to Build an Emotionally Mature Organization

The centerpiece. At the center of all your work, there should be connection, meaning, and belonging.

Celebrate. Ritualizing the celebration of collective and individual successes builds connection and insight into best practices.

Care. Organizations should be clear about how they care for their employees as well as where the boundaries of self-care live.

Discomfort. We should avoid unnecessary discomfort through clarity, accessibility, and support; but some discomfort is unavoidable and necessary for growth.

Recruitment. Invest in emotionally mature leaders, since they will build emotionally mature organizations and teach others through social learning. Avoid onboarding too many untrained people at the same time, and hire slowly.

Clarify roles. All staff should know “where they are expected to collaborate, contribute, follow, learn, and lead.”

Value emotional maturity. Evaluate emotional maturity during hiring, emphasize it during onboarding, and reinforce it during performance reviews.

Image reads "There are things we can and must do to shift movements for justice toward a powerful posture of joy and victory. Such a metamorphosis is not inevitable, but it is essential." Maurice Mitchell, Working Families Party

Final Thoughts: Continue Learning & Growing

Thank you for taking the time to read this article, and please go read or listen to Building Resilient Organizations. It provides valuable insights and resources (including discussion notes and useful links) that every leader can benefit from.

Image reads "None of this, of course, will be easy. In fact, much of it will cause great discomfort. However, on the other side of the uncomfortable journey is an abundant, playful, and powerful home for our freedom dreams." Maurice Mitchell, Working Families Party

You might feel like you learned everything you could from this synopsis, but I can say definitively that you have not. Maurice’s article is eye-opening and contains multitudes of wisdom. In his wisdom, he has offered audio of the article so that you can listen to the whole thing as well as read it.


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