The role of privilege in creating the life you want

The role of privilege in creating the life you want

As we kick off this project, we want to put the topic of privilege front and center—anchored in our belief that creating the life you want must not be solely for people with privilege and power. Self-determination is, after all, a universal human right.

So far, we see two related ways that privilege shows up in this inquiry. First is the fact that so many stories about people forging a new work-life path focus on those with a safety net: savings from a corporate job, or a modest windfall inheritance, or a partner who can carry two (or more) people for awhile.

But who needs agency and space more than people working multiple hourly jobs, or piecing together income from the gig economy, hoping they don’t need the insurance they don’t have? Or factory workers who move away from their families and communities for a vague promise of a brighter but distant future?

The notion of even thinking about work-life balance only seems to occur above a certain income level—or even, as Kimberly Seals Allers asserted in Slate, for women of a certain color: “White women are calling for time to mother, but black women still need money to mother.”

Cali Yost helps companies institute flexible work practices. She told me that one of her corporate clients wanted a flexible culture at all levels of the organization: They had some wins among their highest-paid talent, but perhaps most exciting was when the administrative assistants realized that by creating a shared coverage schedule they could provide better support for their executives and more flexibility for themselves. Terrific example. But what about contractors and gig workers who don’t even have a steady employer to help them create that space?

This project is not (just) for or about those who have enough money to hire help or take an extended vacation. Eva and I will explore how people, organizations, and communities with a wide range of demographic profiles are redefining wealth and success in ways that don’t require ever-growing salaries.

The second dimension of privilege we’re examining is the broader issue of the race, gender, and power dynamics of work. Earlier this month, I attended a talk on white privilege by fellow Green School parent Andrew Horning, who called out aspects of white culture (citing the work of organizations including Racial Equity Tools and Dismantling Racism Works) that are so normalized in the U.S. that I, for one, had come to think of them as just work culture. For example:

  • a vision of “professionalism” that dismisses emotion and praises perfectionism;

  • a deep-seated belief in meritocracy and individualism;

  • a sense of urgency, quantity over quality, and a belief that progress means growth;

  • “worship of the written word” that prizes fact over feeling and “knows” that there is such a thing as being objective or neutral.

Many of these qualities are also stereotypically male. Susan Schor, who is part of Eileen Fisher’s leadership group (the apparel company doesn’t have one chief executive), told The New Yorker that the company has managed to “bring in a very caring, feminine style of leadership that valued people working together, that valued coöperation rather than competition, that made room for having a full life.”

Does this imply that non-white (or non-male) cultures espouse the opposite values? It seems like a stretch to assume so. But in any case, once assumptions about how people should be are made visible, it is no wonder that women and people of color are opting out of predominantly male and white work structures. According to the 2018 State of Women-Owned Businesses Report commissioned by American Express, between 2007 and 2018, the number of women-owned businesses jumped by 58 percent, while all businesses increased by only 12 percent. The rise in the number of businesses started by women of color was even more dramatic during this period—up 163 percent.

As Jewel Burks Solomon, a tech executive and advocate for representation and access in the industry, told USA Today: "I am personally more interested, not in a conversation about how do we get traditional venture capitalists to invest in more black-founded companies," she said, "but how do those of us who care create new, inclusive models which are designed specifically for founders whose businesses have historically been undercapitalized." Emphasis added by me to say: Those models are what we aim to highlight in this project.

Of course, as women and people of color create new models, white men are left running those traditional structures that still maintain most of the power. As The New York Times pointed out, in 2015 more large companies were run by men named John than by women.

We might optimistically assume that one day those outdated institutions will crumble. But until then, are men of privilege creating the future of work, as they have the past? Three of the big coworking spaces here in Bali—Outpost, Hubud, and Dojo—were founded and are run by white men, as is global giant WeWork. (Hubud and Dojo merged in March.) Not to make assumptions about their values or backstories: WeWork co-founders Miguel McKelvey and Adam Neumann grew up on a matriarchal collective in Oregon and a kibbutz respectively. But calling out race is important because even with the best intentions, there will inevitably be biases and assumptions that can only be addressed if they are acknowledged; and of course, best intentions aren’t always present.

To be sure, there are equalizing factors in the new digital economy: One female digital nomad in her 50s here in Bali told me that she gets more work now, remotely, than she did in the U.S. “because no one can see my age or gender—it’s all about the work.” There are different coworking models emerging: Earlier this month, we profiled Sheree Rubinstein, who founded One Roof, a women’s coworking space in Melbourne. The First Presbyterian Church in Jamaica, Queens, a historically middle-class African-American neighborhood in New York City, is setting up TwentyThirty Dream Hub, a coworking space and “empowerment hub” for young adults. (More on TwentyThirty Dream Hub to come on this blog.)

Is it possible for employers with a traditional, patriarchal legacy to become truly equitable? Fractured Atlas is a U.S. nonprofit that supports artists and arts organizations, and since 2015 has been on a journey to become an anti-racist, anti-oppressive organization. The breadth and courage of their work is intense (from “unbiasing” hiring to starting monthly race-based caucusing), as are their results: They’ve gone from zero to 50 percent women and people of color in executive leadership in five years. We’ll have more on this blog on their work in the future; in the meantime, suffice to say that bias and racism don’t fade away on their own.

We also recognize that privilege colors our point of view as storytellers and as people who are on “The Life I Want” journey ourselves. Eva and I are well aware of the privilege we were born into: We are both American and look white (Eva is white; my mother is Filipina but I’m fair-skinned and got my hair and eye color from my Caucasian dad). We were both able to afford higher education without taking out big loans, which has allowed us to make work and life choices that haven’t always prioritized the highest salary.

Even now, as we pursue this self-funded storytelling project, we recognize that we can do so because we are reaping the rewards of our privilege, including savings, safety nets (Eva is particularly grateful for universal medical coverage in Australia), and multifaceted support from family and friends throughout the years.

A big part of our journey is understanding how our privilege informs our worldview, and bringing in the voices of people with a diverse range of backgrounds so that we can tell a more complete story and inspire change that reaches everyone, not just people like us.

We will do our best to call out privilege where we see it—in this inquiry, as we do in our daily lives. We invite you to help us check our own privilege and challenge us with other points of view on the issues we cover and opinions we put forward. And we encourage you to suggest people from different walks of life whom we should profile.

We would love to hear your stories and opinions about how creating the life you want does not require money or privilege—and how work does not have to perpetuate the power structures that are no longer serving the majority.

Or does it?

Tell us at hello@thelifeiwant.co.

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