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February 25, 2015

We Are Better Now

Photo of JDI staff holding a word cloud with "compassion" at the center

Every morning, as I walk into Just Detention International’s (JDI) offices, I am greeted by a beautiful, framed piece of art; it says “compassion” at the center, surrounded by words like “dignity,” “justice,” and “courage.”

This artwork isn’t actually art at all. It’s a word cloud, the result of an organizational development exercise we did at JDI as part of our work with Move to End Violence (MEV). Thanks to MEV, last year all JDI staff were able to gather for the very first time — from our Los Angeles, Washington, DC, and Johannesburg offices. At one point during our three amazing days together, everyone was asked what she or he considered JDI’s three most important organizational values. Each person’s list was tallied up; the more times a value came up, the larger its “cloud.” As the graphic emerged, we were amazed at how beautiful it was, and how powerfully it distilled who we are.

If you are reading this blog, you are probably already part of the social justice community. You almost certainly work hard, perhaps too hard. Chances are that you are having trouble finding the time to pause and look deeply at your own organization’s culture and practices. That’s what MEV helped JDI do, and it has been worth every minute.

At the outset, JDI was already a healthy organization, with a brilliant, kind, and diverse staff, and great cohesion around our mission. But we are much better now.  Three things had to come together for real organizational development to happen: earmarked funding from NoVo; a partnership with our organizational development coach, sujin lee; and the courage and commitment of everyone at JDI to identify, articulate, and address our weaknesses.

We started out making the easy changes; an organizational tune-up of sorts. Based on a MEV-administered assessment and individual conversations with each staff member, we updated job descriptions, clarified lines of supervision, revised our organizational chart, and drafted a handful of new internal policies. Once that was done, we could see more clearly what our bigger goals should be.

First, we recognized that we needed to improve our internal accountability and transparency by creating a new and more robust staff evaluation process. Second, we acknowledged how important it was for all of us to meet in person, rather than by video conference, to focus on team-building, self-care, leadership training, and strategic thinking (with three offices spanning nine time zones, having an in-person all-staff gathering is easier said than done). Finally, many staff members requested that anyone who wasn’t already a certified rape crisis counselor be able to get such training.

This last goal was in some ways the most surprising one. JDI’s staff already are leaders in addressing prisoner rape (JDI remains the only organization in the world dedicated to ending sexual abuse in detention), but many of us came to this work with a legal or communications perspective, rather than a social service background. Staff worried that they did not know how to provide emotional support to the thousands of rape survivors with whom we work, many of whom are severely traumatized. The addition of crisis counseling skills, my colleagues argued, would boost their confidence, while increasing their ability to develop new and innovative social change strategies.

Now, two years later, we are a different organization. We have strong, clear systems in place, including an evaluation model that was uniformly praised when we rolled it out last year. The vast majority of us are certified rape crisis counselors (myself included). And perhaps most importantly, all staff finally know one another — the way you do once you have shared meals, gone on a silly Hollywood tour together, and talked about heartbreaking violence and abuse.

Thank you, MEV, for enabling JDI to move firmly toward its explicit goal of ending prisoner rape while being the very best place to work.

Art by lizar_tistry