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Reflections on Caste

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Over the last few months, the IDF team read and met several times to discuss Caste by Isabel Wilkerson. Here we share some of our personal thoughts, learnings, and what stuck with us.


Wilkerson’s deep, specific, critical analysis of how our country was designed pushes us to think really hard about who, what and how we want to collectively be as a country. We can’t shed our bones. So how do we choose to exist as a multiracial, caste based, democratic, capitalist society and ensure dignity for all of us despite our bones? — Lisa Jackson, Managing Partner

I was taught in grade school that slavery was a “sad dark chapter” in U.S. history. I understood in reading Caste that it is the foundational basis of our economic and social order and realized that my knowledge of the origins of our country was woefully inadequate and incomplete. Isabelle Wilkerson writes that we can’t diagnose America’s race problems of today without knowing a full, honest, and complete history of our country. Going back to the beginning and connecting the dots to see how this “unseen skeleton” or caste hierarchy came into being is helping me see my role to deconstruct and dismantle the whole insidious system. — Jennifer Oakley, Program Partner

In the epilogue of Caste, Wilkerson asks, “Will the United States adhere to its belief in majority rule if the majority does not look as it has throughout history?” This question has been reverberating loudly in my mind over the last weeks and months as the United States experiences just the latest in a long and shameful history of voter suppression. Wilkerson also reminds White Americans that “[you] can be born to the dominant caste but choose not to dominate.” For me, Caste has served as powerful continuation of my learning that anti-racism work happens at many levels—individual, community, workplace—and that civic engagement is a necessary place where White Americans must step out of the complacency of their whiteness and “choose not to dominate” by actively and intentionally using their voice, their vote, and their resources to protect BIPOC voters. So in response to Wilkerson’s question, I’m asking myself whether I’ve done enough to ensure that people who don’t look like me or have the access that I do are able to fully participate in our democratic process. — Katinka Hakuta, Grants Manager

Isabel Wilkerson aptly names caste as “more than a rank, it is a state of mind that holds everyone captive, the dominant imprisoned in an illusion of their own entitlement, the subordinate trapped in the purgatory of someone else’s definition of who they are and who they should be.” As a woman of color in the U.S., a daughter of immigrants, a proud member of the AAPI community, my lived experiences are shaped by complicated and often contradictory legacies of coercive systems of power upheld by generations of people who’ve benefited from my subjugation. I’m well aware of the sociopolitical positioning of East Asians in particular in this country, casting a monolithic perception of Asian Americans as “the model minority,” fixed beneath the white racial hierarchy, pitted against Black and Brown communities, all to distract from the white supremacist scaffolding holding up this illusory power. Stolen power. When one understands the real history of how this country came to be – not the sanitized versions of history pumped into our collective consciousness through white dominated institutions and spaces – one begins to realize the pathology of whiteness, the insanity of whiteness, the irreparable harm cast upon generations of peoples of colors, how whiteness fuels disconnection from humanity, thus, inhibits any empathy from those who are plagued by it. In the wake of this past year, mourning the murders of our Black and Asian brothers and sisters, killed by state-sanctioned violence, perpetrated by those infected by the dehumanizing effects of whiteness, we must remain steadfast in unearthing our humanity through the dis-ease, hold one another’s pain as our own, work to unlearn the internalized hatred of the “Other,” and ask ourselves, beyond the false and meaningless associations and adjacency to power, who are we? — Leah Hong, Program Partner

I read Caste over the course of a month. It was something I needed to sit with and truly absorb. The book and discussions about it have had a profound effect on my understanding of race, whiteness, anti-blackness, privilege, systems of oppression and all their combined implications. As a white woman, I had some understanding of the privilege that flows to me and my family based on the color of our skin. Caste deepened that understanding and allowed me to see more clearly how our country’s history and culture have been shaped by this dehumanizing system. I find myself looking at everything through the lens of caste. It has caused me to examine so many assumptions and more importantly to look for ways to help weaken the systems that hold this hierarchy in place. — Sheila Leddy, Program Partner

I listened to the audiobook and somehow felt and imagined that the author, Isabel Wilkerson, was speaking directly to me. It was a powerful experience reading the book as a team and being able to process together. As a white person reading the book, I found myself so saddened by how much I have been oblivious to both the savagely inhumane realities of slavery that our history books have so sanitized and whitewashed as well as the more subtle forms of racism that Wilkerson so vividly describes from her own personal experience. Her sociological and intersectional lens on how caste operates in the past and the present has stamped my psyche deeply and motivates me personally to want to do more to repair the deeper roots and branches of the caste-based racism that Read More

Silence is Not an Option – Violence Against Asian Americans Must Stop Now

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Sometimes I just respond too slowly. Last year, as protests were happening in the US in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and all of the other murders of African American men and women that had happened before and after his, it took me a while to speak. Internally I was busy processing my anger, grief, and fear for my own son and husband. Externally I just wasn’t talking about it. I didn’t want to. I was tired and scared from way back when as a child my family sat in fear after being pulled over by a white male police officer in my hometown in California. My father had already trained me and my brother on how to behave in this situation so we were prepared. It didn’t make us less scared. I am no less scared today.

I’ve done it again. While I am responding and speaking right now, the violence that is happening now (and has been happening for quite a while before now) against the Asian American community in this country, required me to speak yesterday, last week, last fall. And it requires me to keep speaking, and keep speaking, and keep speaking. Even those of us who are tired now and have been since the dawn of this country because we have had to fight to survive in a country that was designed for us not to do so, even we need to speak and keep speaking and keep speaking. Silence is a form of complicity and we (the collective we) simply can’t be complicit in our own subjugation, oppression, violence, trauma. We just can’t. We collectively need to represent and respect humanity for all of us – and right now in particular we need to do so for our Asian American friends, families, and communities that are experiencing the worst of what this country has to offer BIPOC.

And lest it go unnoticed, we must name the racialized misogyny at play with the violence that is occurring. It is not by accident that the majority of victims are women as the recent New York Times article points out (and many of us know from experience), racism and sexism often combine in ways that result in violence against women of color. Then add to that the commercial sexual exploitation of Asian American women in particular, and the urgency to speak now is even greater. IDF partners with several organizations that are actively fighting for women of color at these intersections (10 Thousand Windows, Chab Dai, Willow International, My Life My Choice, CEASE Boston, World Without Exploitation, International Justice Mission, Precious Women, Mother’s Heart, Route One Ministry) – fighting against the racialized misogyny that allow people like Captain Baker to incorrectly treat Asian American women as either women or Asian American claiming that the deep hatred of the white man who killed these women could not be based on the intersection of both. Kimberlée Crenshaw has been telling us for years that we must understand the intersectionality of women of color in order to address the resulting unique vulnerability faced by women of color in our society:

Intersectional vulnerabilities are not simplistic identitarian claims; they are explanations of the multiple dynamics at play in what we witnessed this week. Indeed, the root causes of these killings — misogyny, racism, and economic precarity — are only further entrenched by the erasure of certain dimensions of this violence. For Asian Americans, and Asian-American women in particular, the bullets that ended the lives of so many in Georgia were the endpoint of a cultural frame that makes them vulnerable to racist, sexualized violence. (The African American Policy Forum)

On behalf of the Imago Dei Fund, we strongly denounce the violence that is happening against Asian American people in this country, and in particular against Asian American women. The humanity and dignity of Asian American women is “bound up” with our humanity and dignity. The violence must stop now. And we must all do our part to interrupt it, to be allies and not bystanders, to support and to care, and to hold each other accountable for how we act and what we say (or don’t say). This requires a persistent commitment in the context of fighting for racial justice. IDF, continues to commit to racial justice in our grantmaking, with our voice, and in our actions.

“If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” Lilla Watson

A Snapshot of Women’s Economic Empowerment in the Philippines

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As we reach the midpoint of Women’s History month and celebrate International Women’s Day, my inbox and social media pages are filled with stories and posts of amazing women. Many of these women have broken barriers, shattered glass ceilings and risen to the top of their respective fields. And make no mistake I am glad we celebrate their accomplishments. But, Janice’s story reminds us to make space to celebrate the power and “essence” of every woman, particularly those who are working to build better lives for themselves and their families. At Imago Dei Fund we are filled with gratitude for the grantee partners like 10Thousand Windows who offer intense support for women and alongside them as they create lives filled with dignity and empowerment. In my mind, this is what International Women’s Day is all about – celebrating the courage, power and love that women can offer themselves, each other and the broader community, especially during challenging times. I hope you will take a moment to read Janice’s story. — Sheila Leddy, Program Partner

It was the summer of 1994, at the age of twelve, when I encountered the question “What for you is the essence of being a woman?” It was the final question asked during the Miss Universe pageant held in Manila, Philippines, my beloved country. I cannot remember the answers of the candidates but the question stuck in my head. I even remembered scanning our dictionary for the meaning of “essence.” Miss India brought home the crown and her answer that impressed the judges was, “Just being a woman is a gift of God that all of us must appreciate.”

Many years later, I found the courage to answer my childhood Miss Universe question. After seven years of working hard building a career in the corporate arena, I just had a powerful urge to leave and join the social sector. I realized that for me, in my life, the essence of being a woman is to make a significant impact in the community by helping vulnerable, under resourced women realize their dreams and potential. I welcomed and embraced the mission of 10ThousandWindows of helping women experience economic empowerment so they may live safe, free, and hopeful lives. I made that scary yet exciting decision 11 years ago and I am glad that I did! I never looked back nor had an ounce of regret in the decision that I made because the work in 10ThousandWindows, which I am privileged to be a part of, has empowered me to empower other women. I believe that every empowered woman has the natural capacity to empower others within her circle of influence. This circle of influence keeps growing and gets bigger and wider as more resources, passion, and dedication are being poured in by us all. Together with the colleagues and partners of 10ThousandWindows, we support and lift each other up in facing the challenges as we serve these women, who dream of having a better world for themselves and their children.

At 10ThousandWindows, 81 percent of the clients that we serve are women. These women joined our program because they do not know where and how to start living their lives again with dignity after it was disrupted by the most unimaginable things that happened to them, which left them traumatized, scarred, and vulnerable. A majority of the women had not even completed basic education or a high school diploma making it difficult to access safe and sustainable jobs. A majority of them had children to care for and were dependent on the meager income from partners, family members, and relatives who mostly worked in the informal sector such as jeepney drivers, street vendors, and stevedores. Many of them were already the breadwinner in the family at a young age because of the loss or absence of functional parents or adult carers. Many of them were displaced and ran away from home because of neglect and multiple abuses. Many of them turned to peers, friends, neighbors, or individuals they thought they could trust but influenced them to engage in risky, unhealthy behaviors, manipulated, deceived, and harmed them.

This brings up a lot of great questions such as “what can we do to make a difference in the lives of these women?”, “what approach or method can we use to empower them?”, “how do we start?”, “what are the resources that we need?”, “who are we going to partner with?” Question after question. There are no quick fixes and there are no perfect solutions because we are dealing with unique individuals with unique circumstances. Each of these women have their own personalities, different stories to tell, and different battles to fight internally and externally.

With the help of field experts and through research and related studies, 10ThousandWindows developed its theory of change. If we prepare these women to meet local market needs by providing them with education, relevant workplace skills training, career guidance, and psycho-social support in a supportive and trauma-informed environment, we reduce their vulnerability. If we can prepare employers so they may develop safe and inclusive workplaces through training and awareness, we can increase the likelihood of success for these women. When this happens, these women will be empowered to protect themselves in the workplace, be able to sustain employment in their communities, and improve their ability to provide for themselves and their children.

UN Women shared some insights about women economic empowerment:

  • Women’s economic empowerment includes women’s ability to participate equally in existing markets; their access to and control over productive resources, access to decent work, control over their own time, lives and bodies; and increased voice, agency and meaningful participation in economic decision-making at all levels from the household Read More

2021 – A Year of Intentional Action

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If there is one thing I have learned that matters above all in my 25 years in the social sector, it is that being intentional in how you act matters. If you seek to be a trust-based grantee-centric foundation, getting there won’t happen accidentally or just because you are well-intended. You actually have to act intentionally in ways that can make it happen.

In addition to being intentional in our actions, it matters greatly how we go about defining the thing we are trying to be intentional about. For example, if you seek to support NGOs to be successful and you define the problem or barrier as their lack of capacity, then your actions are all about having those NGOs participate in endless professional development and capacity building workshops to gain more capacity. If you define the problem or barrier as your lack of trust in the leadership of the NGO, your actions will be something different (anyone want to try unrestricted general operating grants?).

In our work at IDF we are constantly asking ourselves, “How do we define the problem and how do we plan to act to address it? Does this action align with our values?” Whether the question is about the length and content of our application, or who should pay the cost for equivalency determinations, we work with intentionality to ensure that what we do, and how we act, can be traced back to what we value and what we believe.

For example, we believe our role is to walk alongside our partners and to support them in their work. We inherently trust them and their knowledge, and want to make it as easy as possible for them to access the resources we have to offer. Our application is only four questions and our Program Team does the work of getting additional information we need for diligence. There is no proposal required. We only make unrestricted general operating grants. In addition, we provide additional flexible funds to support things like professional development, organizational development, and keeping the spark alive – things other funders rarely provide and that organizations tell us they greatly need.

Working this way means that you are always on alert for when something you are doing isn’t aligned, or not as aligned, as it should be. We recently tackled the fact that when one of our grants ends for a partner they have to wait a quarter for us to determine whether they will be invited to apply for another grant. Why was it this way? For no good reason. We just hadn’t put the time and effort into fixing it. So now we are – piloting a new process with our partners in hopes that if we close this gap, it will support them to plan better and to have some clarity about where they stand with our funding as early as possible (not as early as it is convenient for us!). And yes, we will get feedback from our partners about whether our intentions are realized or not.

I am so proud of our Team and Trustees for pushing on things like this. To be clear, there are many contradictions in our work that we haven’t solved for and we have to own that and continue to push on those. Thank you for your patience as we keep at it.

This year, in addition to continuing to leverage our gender, faith, and community-driven development lenses to get to know potential grantee partners, we are prioritizing the following characteristics of organizations in our process: BIPOC women-led organizations, and organizations with operating budgets under $1 million USD. We believe deeply in the agency of communities to identify and solve the challenges they face. By intentionally seeking out organizations with these characteristics to add to our portfolio, we will be working more often with community-driven and community-led efforts. This supports us in fulfilling our role as a funder which is to walk alongside (never out in front!) those who are proximal to communities and opportunities to advance gender balance, human rights, justice, and spiritual holism.

Thanks to the intentionality and generosity of our Trustees, Ross and Emily Jones, we will also have the chance this year to partner with some exceptional organizations and movements domestically that are working on racial justice. As we define this effort, we will be particularly interested in working with folks at the intersection of our lenses including faith, gender and community driven development. We promise to share more as we learn more. This effort further supports IDF in its mission and pushes us to intentionally include racial justice in the work.

Along these lines, we are also internally working on issues of racial equity, white supremacy, and anti-racism at IDF. As a newly re-formed team, we’d decided that as part of our staff development we would do a few things together on this front. We’ve read books together including Me and White Supremacy, Homegoing, and Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. We have hired an external consultant to address the hard stuff inherent in working in a multiracial environment. We are thrilled to be working with Bina Patel of Saathi Impact Consulting as our team coach this year. While we are a combination of nervous, excited, and curious about where all this work will take us, we are so glad to be doing it together and with the support and engagement of our Trustees.

As we all put our heads down and get to work to make 2021 even a little better than 2020, I of course want to share a poem about staying the course and getting the work done. Dr. Angelou says it best:

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
‘Cause I walk like Read More

Where Do We Begin?

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As the new year begins, the near-universal feeling is eagerness to leave 2020 and its challenges far behind us. In many ways, change is indeed in the air. In the United States, a new federal government administration. Globally, hope for multiple vaccines to protect against COVID-19.

At the same time, many of the hardest parts of the past year simply cannot be left behind. The eyes of many have been unequivocally opened to the current realities of racial inequity and ideological divide. Vast economic disparities have further expanded. Sexual violence, child marriage, and domestic abuse have been exacerbated by lockdowns. To name just a few.

But from challenge, comes hope and opportunity, exemplified by this month’s blogger, Tabitha Mpamira, founder of EDJA.

So with Tabitha’s reminder that change must start within each of us as an inspiration, let’s not turn away from the past year without bringing along the lessons we’ve learned and the doors that have been opened to create hope and opportunities for meaningful, lasting change in the coming year and beyond. – Katinka Hakuta, Grants Manager

“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation,and that is an act of political warfare.” – Audre Lorde

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve written and rewritten this piece. Why? Well, first, it’s pretty intimidating to follow Emily, Lisa, and the other great contributors to this platform. But even more daunting is attempting to capture the complexity and mixture of emotions evoked in all of us after all the human misery we experienced in 2020. And 2021 – not off to a great start! Already it feels like a trailer to the movie we’ve just seen. (“Can I please cancel my subscription?” friends are joking). So how does one choose just one area to lament, when each day another disruptive, dangerous, or shameful ism comes from our politicians, our communities, and the media – even from some of our own family members?

If you know anything about my work, you’d probably assume that I’d write about the “silent pandemic” – sexual and gender-based violence, that is – and normally you’d be right. That indeed has been my main cause. But after watching the Capitol of the most powerful country in the world invaded and desecrated by its own citizens, filled with unfounded hate and violent anger, and seeing the Leader of the Free World incite that behavior, I have to step back and wonder about the impact of all this trauma on our individual and collective psyches – as activists, who care about making this world better than we found it.

The one salient question I now hear most from friends and colleagues, whether it’s white friends who didn’t know how to support the black community during the Black Lives Matter protests, or male friends who want to stand up for women and the #MeToo movement; or from those appalled about the rise of sexual and domestic abuse of women and girls during lockdown; or from straight people wondering how they can fight alongside the LGBTQ community for equality, or help immigrant children in cages is: “Where do we begin?”

My simple answer for these difficult times is: Start within.

According to life coach and author Joi Lewis. “Tuning in ultimately keeps us from tuning out.” And as my mother used to say, when you point your finger at someone else, note that the rest of your fingers are pointing back at yourself. (I knew better than to talk back to my mom, but my kids have argued that the thumb should not be included in her statement.) Never mind, her point was this: We simply have to assume responsibility and our own accountability about whatever needs to be done before pointing at others. If we want more peace in our country, our homes, the world, we must start by cultivating peace within. If we are looking for more empathy and love around us, it has to begin with us. We want to end poverty? Start by sharing what we have. I think you get the point. Turning inward about our purpose, drive, intentions, needs and responsibilities creates the space and opportunities to then attend to the direction that finger was pointing.

We’ve all heard flight attendants’ Oxygen Mask Rule: “Should the cabin lose pressure, oxygen masks will drop from the overhead area; place the mask over your nose and mouth before assisting others.” Although it may sound counterintuitive, there’s a reason that the rule now applies to those of us whose lives center around the call to fight social injustices. No one wins when we, ourselves, aren’t whole.

I spent the first part of my career putting masks on everyone else, from women rape survivors of the Rwandan genocide to suicidal patients at a mental health center in my home town of Lansing. But in 2015, it took young assault survivors in rural Uganda to show me that I was low on oxygen. First, a nine year-old told me her story of being raped, and attending class the next day as if nothing had happened because her family couldn’t afford the hospital fee, or pay police the $12 required to make an arrest. Then a grandmother brought me her five year-old who had been raped by her grandfather; she couldn’t afford the $5 that would have saved the child from AIDS. Wake-up call! I realized then that I had to mask-up if I were ever to make lasting change in that community. Although I had served as a mental health therapist dealing with trauma every day for six years, I had so intellectualized my work that I totally denied my own sexual assault as an 11 year-old. Finally forced to tune in, I realized that the survivor within me also needed an advocate. Therapy Read More

Disrupting White Supremacy in International Development: 5 Lessons from our Partners

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As 2020 comes to an end, we remain deeply grateful for our partners and even more committed to a relational, trust-based approach at Imago Dei Fund. Over the past few months, we recognized a pervasive tension among our US-based, internationally facing partner organizations: confronting the legacy of colonialism and white supremacy in international development as US 501c3s. In response to our partners’ shared experiences, we convened a group to create a peer-to-peer space to engage in critical dialogue and break down silos. We hope that our partners’ reflections and recommendations below will inspire further discussion, and ways to work toward a shared vision of collaboration and equity across sectors. – Leah Hong, Program Partner

For many of us, the end of the year is a time to turn inward and synthesize the past twelve months’ lessons and experiences. With all of the changes and challenges 2020 has brought, reflection is even more necessary. As nonprofit organizations, we faced many hard lessons this year: How to pivot to new ways of working, how to fill budgets in an unstable financial climate, and how to adapt to meet shifting needs with even fewer resources and more constraints in the wake of a global pandemic. Standing here today, we’re proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish – we’re resilient, adaptive and agile, and these lessons have made us stronger and even better able to fulfill our missions.

However, with deep and earnest reflection, we also know there are lessons and hard truths our sector and society still must face. Our four organizations – RefuSHE, Educate!, Spark Microgrants, and Village Enterprise  – work internationally, but are registered in the United States as 501c3s, and receive a large portion of the funding to carry out our work from US-based donors and philanthropy. Importantly, all of our organizations were also founded by “Westerners” (non-local staff from the Global North), and (at least initially) with white US-based staff in top-level leadership positions. As we watched and participated in the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement in the US this year, we had to make sense of our unique position straddling contexts and ask ourselves hard questions. What role do we – as Westerners, particularly those of us who are white – play in perpetuating and upholding white supremacy in international development?

The Spark Uganda team

We are thankful to our partners at the Imago Dei Fund who do the work and encourage this kind of honest, critical reflection, and who held space for us to discuss this question. Immediately, we realized that it was essential to define what we were really talking about. Were we talking about the responsibilities that US 501c3s have to promote racial equity within their organizations? Issues of discrimination in hiring and compensation, organizational culture issues, and lack of representation? Or were we talking about the unique responsibility that internationally-focused 501c3s have for disrupting white supremacy in the international development space? Feeling that the former is extensively covered, we turned our focus to the latter, where it’s our observation that less is written and there’s more to unpack. We also feel this is where our organizations can offer unique value and perspective, as we have all been on a journey wrestling with these contradictions.

We admittedly all still have much to learn and much work to do. However, our shared experiences showed five critical strategies for US 501c3 international development organizations aiming to disrupt white supremacy in the sector:

1. Get honest and specific with your language

One of the first things we realized in our conversation was that we needed to agree on the terms we were using and what they meant. Ambiguity prevents honest dialogue and makes accountability impossible. We’ve observed far too many toothless statements of solidarity this year, and seen how attempts to say the “right” thing prevent anything meaningful from being said at all. That’s why a foundational first step for any organization aiming to examine its complicity in white supremacy is to find the most honest, accurate language to talk about it. For the purpose of this discussion, we used Challenging White Supremacy Workshop’s definition of white supremacy, as it encompasses a global perspective: a historically based, institutionally perpetuated system of exploitation and oppression of continents, countries, and peoples of color by white peoples and nations of the European continent, to defend a system of wealth, power, and privilege.

Our group also discussed that antiracism – in our case – was a term more relevant to the US. We understand antiracism to refer to the active dismantling of white supremacy and its structures, and to recognize the particular history and harm of racist systems, policies, and biases in the US that have placed BIPOC communities at an inequitable position in our country. Decolonization seemed to fit this conversation better – efforts to reverse or remedy the historically extractive and oppressive practices and structures of colonialism within the global context. Upon further discussion, we realized perhaps that term didn’t go far enough. Jailan Adly at RefuSHE suggested a new term: de-imperialism. De-imperialism would encompass decolonization and refer to modern-day economic imperialism that continues to perpetuate unequal power structures and oppression across the globe. Without a doubt, these terms (and the reality they attempt to describe) are deeply interconnected, but getting specific can be a great starting point for a more in-depth conversation.

Terms and definitions might vary from organization to organization – the important thing is that the team aligns around shared meanings. It’s also important to decide Read More

”If you do away with the yoke of oppression and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.”
Isaiah 58:9-10