When I started working at APEN almost 12 years ago, I stepped into the role of Campaign and Organizing Director, supervising the work of our local organizing teams. While I was excited to be organizing around affordable housing and tenant protections locally, it was a difficult transition. I was grieving the loss of a friend to cancer, and it was my first time working in the environmental justice movement and leading a team of people. I felt pressure to do well and win campaigns amid unfavorable political conditions.
A year or two into the role, my team started meeting without me. They were frustrated with the lack of clarity around their own decision-making power and expectations between teams and wanted to better understand whether this was a shared experience. At the time, I felt really hurt. I felt excluded by people who I considered friends and anxious that I wasn’t doing my job well.
Reflecting back, I shouldn’t have taken it as personally as I did. It wasn’t about me, it was ultimately about organizers having space of their own to figure out how to navigate the challenges that they were facing without someone with positional power in the room.
In trainings about power, facilitators often talk about how power can be invisible to those who have it, but very visible to those who don’t. In this situation, I had not been aware of my own positional power in the team. I learned about the importance of recognizing those differences in order to be able to be intentional about holding power well.
Given that heteropatriarchy as a system grants power to men, masculine, and straight folks, feminisms requires consistent interrogating around the power structures in our society and movement, and our own relationship to power.
As I’ve moved into greater leadership roles within the organization, undergone so many transformations through healing work, gained new insights as I’ve become a parent, and deepened my own understanding and commitment to gender justice, I continue to circle back to similar themes: how we hold power, how we hold both sustainability and accountability in our work together.
While we’ve spent much of our journey making sure we had a deeper understanding of feminisms and the values of the feminist cultures we want at APEN, we always knew that we needed to make it real through changes to our organizational policies, practices, and processes. That meant putting values like open communication, generative conflict, shared power, and collective care into practice.
1. Salary Scales and Addressing the Gender Pay Gap
Capitalism has created deplorable conditions where people need money for survival, nonprofits depend on funding from extractive sources, and we are told that our self-worth is reflected in how much money we make — leading to a lot of conflicted feelings, internalized questioning, and complicated discussions about salaries. Externally, we know that there is a racial & gender pay gap where heteropatriarchy values particular people and particular kinds of work as more “valuable” as others. As an organization that invests in multiple strategies and their integration to achieve campaign wins, we feel that external pressure on our salaries and the impact it can have on creating gender inequities internally.
Adding to the difficulties, APEN previously didn’t have a salary scale, or clear organizational processes around salary and raise determinations. As a supervisor, I didn’t know when or how to advocate for my own or my supervisees’ salaries as it wasn’t clear what the range was or what was possible within our nonprofit budget.
We developed a written salary scale with tiers and a range for each tier. We wanted to make sure that people with similar experience and performance are paid similarly, regardless of the type of work they are doing. That meant putting roles with similar levels of responsibility into the same salary tier. We also shifted to making decisions around salaries and raises at the same time of year for everyone. This process change gave us the ability to address structural inequities, such as raising the floor, minimizing the differences between our highest and lowest salaries, and addressing differences between staff who had been at the organization longer (and hired under a much lower salary scale) and new hires who were joining the team at much higher salaries.
2. Navigating Power in Decision-Making and Supervision Relationships
At APEN, we operate with the orientation of leadership from everyone, collaboration in teams, people having power in their roles, and all staff being involved in important organizational decisions. However, we are not a cooperative where everyone gets an equal say or an equal vote in the decisions. As an organization that is both a non-profit and one with a hierarchy, our cooperative orientation to the work can obscure how power manifests.
These dynamics often showed up in decision-making processes and supervision relationships. Many traditional supervision models prioritize discipline over support, material needs over emotional meaning, and productive capacity over the whole person. We wanted our supervision to support a culture that reflects the regenerative economy we are creating: Collective Care. Belonging and Connection. Healthy Struggle. Safety and Wholeness.
Because of the inherent positional power dynamics within a supervisor-supervisee relationship, it was important to create some standards so that power could be held in accountable ways. We created a feminist supervision guide grounded in the feminist cultures values that laid out supervision expectations, organizational policies, guidelines, and resources for supervisors and supervisees. For example, we expect supervisors to embrace people’s agency to have power over clear areas of their roles and responsibilities. We expect supervisors and supervisees to name and address problematic dynamics with direct communication. When it comes to accountability for the work, we expect that supervisors and supervisees both have clarity around roles, success metrics, and goals.
Knowing how easy it is for a document to simply be filed away, we also started quarterly supervision roundtables as a place for deeper peer learning, coaching, and support. This year, we are holding a collective training for all supervisors to be in this learning together.
3. Co-Directorship and Shared Power
At APEN, we want to build a culture of shared leadership and power. When Miya shared that she would be transitioning out of the Executive Director role, we took the opportunity to explore other leadership structures that better reflected these values. Traditional models of Executive Directors have deepened the reliance of our movements on individual charismatic leaders, and placed impossible expectations on people in these roles.
We reached out to former Co-Director of California Environmental Justice Alliance and longtime APEN ally, Strela Cervas, for support. Strela interviewed Co-Directors and Executive Directors from 12 movement organizations, and compiled research on two types of leadership models: Sole EDs and Co-Directors. There was a lot of excitement for having more shared power, capacity, sustainability, and resiliency in our leadership structure. There were also some concerns about decision-making confusion or unclear roles and responsibilities.
Our organizational decision to move forward with a Co-Director model gave the opportunity for more people to envision moving into greater leadership, including myself. With a deep love for the people and our work, I was drawn to the possibilities of growing my skills and leadership for that purpose but also knew the level of travel, stress, and responsibilities often required of Executive Directors was incompatible with what my young child needs from her parent.
I had a very long journey to becoming a solo parent by choice, and along the way I was held and supported by a beautiful community. When it finally happened March 20, 2020, amid a global pandemic, I was forced into doing something as important and impactful as raising a child in isolation. It was so.incredibly.difficult. The experience further deepened my conviction of the importance of our work happening in partnership with others.
It’s been about a month into our start of the Co-Director model, and while there is still a lot to figure out as we transition to this new structure, it has proved to be all the upsides we envisioned — stronger thought partnership, sustainability, resilience, peer accountability, and growth.
As I move into a Co-Director role, I am experiencing so much excitement and many of the same fears as I did when I first started at the organization. I’m excited to help lead APEN’s growth and evolution as we deepen our roots, and build power to lead a just transition for our communities. While I have more awareness than I did back then, I also know that I will make mistakes, experience setbacks, and face challenges as part of the growth I have to do.
There is still so much more to do to put feminisms into practice at APEN. We are bringing more transparency and clarity to our decision-making processes. We are planning another revision to our salary scale this year to align our salary ranges further, especially in this moment of inflation and financial pressures, and improve clarity around the levels within tiers. We are also excited to explore how to bring a more intentional gender lens to our work as we embark on our two “north stars” of stewarding a just transition away from our fossil fuel infrastructure and building resilience in our communities on the frontlines.
Vivian Huang is Co-Director at Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN) where she organizes with Asian immigrants and refugees to build power and steward a just transition.