Disrupting Biases: an Interview with Equity Trainer Ita Meno

Audrey Irvine-Broque

Ita Meno is a part of CQ Strategies, a “Vermont-based training collective committed to justice, equity, cultural proficiency and social justice work with local and regional organizations.” Ita is a part of the team that trains our grant readers and grantmaking committee members on implicit bias and white supremacy culture, with the hopes of disrupting some of these tendencies in our participatory grantmaking process. We spoke with Ita about their work ahead of our spring grant reader cycle.

So, first off, what is CQ Strategies, and how are you involved with them?

CQ Strategies is a training collective that does cultural competency and organizational development work. It started as a group of people who wanted to study together and do some self-growth. Somebody in the community heard who all were studying together and asked them to pull together a comprehensive training series. They got me involved because of my experience doing trainings around the community.

For over a year now, CQ Strategies has been our partner in developing curriculum for our participatory grantmaking process. I wonder if you could speak about how your work connects to the Grassroots Fund’s mission and programs.

The idea of democracy is super exciting to me. And collective decision-making and collective approaches to navigating our society are really beautiful to me. I think it’s how we were intended to be. So when the opportunity to participate in this grantmaking process came up, we thought, what a cool way to help out an organization - that is already doing collective decision-making - to take it deeper. It’s bias and racism that has continued to define our country; even when we take measures to undermine that bias and racism, it still shows up in policies. So how can we start to infiltrate racist institutions, that are probably not racist intentionally, but use systems that were set up and supported by racist notions and racist policies?

We work in the three whitest states in America (Maine, Vermont, and New Hampshire) which often makes thinking about racial equity different than in other parts of the country. I’m curious what it’s like for you to do this work in this context.

I moved to Vermont in 2003, and when I first started this work here 15 years ago, people did not want me to talk about race only. They wanted me to do this broader swath. And I kept saying, “You’re going to have to live with what I’m talking about - or find somebody else,” and people kept just inviting me back, and now we’re still talking about race. My thinking about race has evolved, and so the conversations about it have evolved, but everyone’s thinking about race has evolved in the last 15 years, so the conversations are richer.

I’m new to Vermont, so as you’re saying that, I’m thinking a lot about Representative Kiah Morris, the Vermont legislator who recently stepped down from her position because she was repeatedly harassed and intimidated by white nationalists in Vermont.

I am continuously appalled by people’s behavior. Like I said, I’ve been doing this work for 15 years in this area, and I remember when I first got here people were like, “We don’t need to talk about race, Vermont was the first state in the country that outlawed slavery!” Without thinking about what the ramifications of that actually are. They outlawed slavery and then made exceptions to it, just like every other racist institution. Like how our country came so far because of Civil Rights legislation, but then we also see all of the laws and policies that were created after the fact that allowed white people to be lifted up, and black people to still be harassed and suppressed in legal ways.

What you’re saying about people feeling like racism isn’t as much of an issue here feels pretty tied to bias. So I’m wondering how you see bias trainings and white supremacy culture trainings fit into this larger context of racial discrimination?

We have all inherited a way of thinking about things and prioritizing a certain way that things should be done, just one way. Somehow, with all of the billions of people in the world, we’re told there is only one right way of doing things, and it’s problematic. That one right way is reinforced by many thousands of years of conflict, showing us that those that are on the side of the “winner” are the ones that are right and just. As such, we lose all of the learnings that were available to us from those who did not “win.” I think that, in this country, it’s called white supremacy culture because it’s white people that have worked intentionally and unintentionally to maintain their status as leaders in this country.

Because I’ve been working on our Young Leader program, I also want to give readers a little bit of a teaser about the new work on adultism that we’re going to be piloting at the June Grantmaking Committee Retreat. I think it’s something that gets sidelined a lot in learning about different kinds of oppression.

I know! Isn’t that amazing? Especially because this is how we first learn oppression: as children from the adults around us. I think that one of the best ways for us to unlearn adultism is for us to do stuff with our bodies, and to do experiential activities, as opposed to teaching bias lecture-style. We know that developmentally and pedagogically, we actually learn through our bodies and hearts first before we can even learn through our mind. So we might be doing some goofy things, or practicing experiential or cooperative learning, at this Grantmaking Committee Retreat (which you can apply to be a part of here).

As we’re closing, I want to know if you have any parting advice for those who are reading this and want to know what they can go do, or read, or consider right now to bring these lessons into their work.

The best piece of advice I’ve gotten in the last couple of years is: nothing about us, without us. If you’ve internalized the idea that “I’m doing this work for them,” then you’re already doing it wrong. You know? You cannot be doing this work unless you’ve set aside money to support people of color, to support young people, to show up to your stuff. If you haven’t figured out that you need people onboard doing this work with you, rather than you doing it for them...why don’t you know this already?


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