Organizational healing with Nyacko Perry
In episode 11 of Mission: Impact, some of the topics that Carol and her guest, Nyacko Perry, discussed include:
Boardsource 2017 research on the demographics of nonprofit boards. Leading with Intent.
Nyacko Perry utilizes a systems-thinking approach to assist individuals, community groups, and organizations, in creating more inclusive cultures. Her decade long career as a transformational change agent includes national and international facilitation with non-profit, corporate, and government agencies. Nyacko is the founder of Yin Consulting, a collaborative focused on personal, organizational and systemic healing.
She is the Organization Development Partner at the much-anticipated Comfort Kitchen, a restaurant, community meeting space, and a food incubator dedicated to fostering collaboration, cross-cultural understanding, and community engagement. Nyacko also serves as a member of the Advisory Board for the Action Boston Community Development, Inc. Roxbury/N. Dorchester Opportunity Center. Nyacko holds an M.S. in Organization Development, with distinction, from American University. She is also a 500-hour professional level yoga teacher, an Afro Flow Yoga® certified teacher, and weaves her mindfulness expertise into her consulting work.
Carol Hamilton: Welcome Nyacko, it’s great to have you on the podcast.
Nyacko Perry: Thank you, Carol. I'm excited to be here.
Carol: So, give people some context, what drew you to the work that you do? What would you say is the journey or the path that got you to where you are now?
Nyacko: That is quite the question. Just for background, I do mostly organizational healings. I'm interested in the wellbeing of people at work, and ultimately doing a process of healing. So addressing and having accountability around some of the past experiences, and making a path forward so that people can feel safe and be the most productive people they can be at work. What brought me to that is quite a journey. I come from a yoga background to start. I was very invested in healing in that regard. Healing for myself, and first for taking care of myself, taking care of my body and my mind, and that quickly grew into ‘how do I facilitate this for other people?’ So I've been a yoga teacher for several years, and after being a yoga teacher for several years, I left and became a Peace Corps Volunteer in Botswana for two years. That experience was the most eye-opening, incredible experience of my life, both exciting and awesome, but also painful and different. Through that experience, I was working with a lot of Government Agencies. I was based in a local village and there were three local schools that I was supporting with what we would consider life skills, which were mostly around the spread of HIV and making sure that the curriculum invested in that and making sure that the students understood what HIV was and how it was transmitted and so forth.
Through that experience, I found that one, I fell in love with my community. I also got rather disillusioned from some of the institutions that were located there, both the nonprofits, as well as some of the government agencies I was working with. Unfortunately, their approach was ultimately, numbers, very numbers based, very centric towards, ‘you know, what are we doing and how is this making us look good?’ and it really didn't resonate with me. So I had a big internal process going on because I felt like there's so much potential to do our full work if you are in collaboration with the community, if you are really acknowledging how they want to go about their own process of doing this powerful change within their system. I became very interested in that, both during my Peace Corps service, but then afterwards, of course. so after that time of being with them, I thought, ‘okay, more so than actually doing direct service, I'm very interested in the systems that hold this direct service. So, that's where I started and looked into the American program that I believe we both did Carol. Then, going through the master's program became very interested in how to bring back this healing component and this idea around people's wellbeing at work. So all of these different parts of my identity and my experience came together through the master's program. I actually had the pleasure of thinking about a theory around organizational healing from the lens of the chakra system. The chakra system is basically energy centers that live within the body.
They're known in yogic philosophy, they're also known in African practices and traditions as well. I was very interested in considering organizations to be human systems, then how do we apply all of these theories we have about the human experience in the context of work? So that's how I got into all of the things that I got into.
Carol: That's awesome. Say more about your organizational theory of healing and, how do you define that, and can you dig into a little bit more about how the theory shows up when you're doing work with groups.
Nyacko: Absolutely. For me, I'm a very feeling person, so the first thing that I do when I go into an organizational system is I'm like, what do I feel inside? Do I feel tension? Do I feel joy? Do I feel like apprehension? and so I very much come from an emotional place and healing. What I consider healing is being in touch [with] emotions, but healing takes many, many shapes and forms. So from my perspective, it's really about accountability. I think that's where healing can truly come through. So if an organization gets data that says ‘actually you have been unfair or you have done some things that have caused harm,’ acknowledging that, and really making that be part of the next strategy. [Saying,] we've heard you, we're going to make shifts. We're going to acknowledge what we've done that has caused harm. We're going to actually make some shifts and involve you in that change process. That's what I consider to be healing, but what I've noticed through the work is that every organization will bring about healing in their own way. For some people, healing can be messy, it can be tough. It's where the leader, for example, has to really take in all of the feedback, and sometimes that within itself is like, ‘ah, that hurts.’ or, I had no intention of doing that. I think this is something that happens all the time where the leader has a very different experience from those that are on the lower levels of the system. I didn't realize that making this pay cut and making this particular shift had an actual emotional effect on your life and your ability to come to work and to thrive. I didn't realize that.
So there's a lot of acknowledging what's gone wrong, but it can honestly be a messy process I've found, but I think for me, it's really about how we create a safe container where people can be honest, and that is usually the first step in a system. A lot of times when I go in, it's very clear to me that nobody's going to really say how they feel, because there's such tension, there's such a tightness and so I open the floodgates, but then the floodgates are open and who knows what could happen. Usually it ends up pretty well.
Carol: Can you say a little bit more about what you mean by creating a container?
Nyacko: Yeah, even in how I practice. So if I'm leading a group, the first thing I do is a check-in. For some systems, that's very normal behavior, checking in [with] ‘how is everybody?’ and when we're checking in, we're not just checking in on ‘how was work today,’ but [also,] ‘how are you?’ and from a facilitator perspective, I want to understand if somebody is coming in with stress, with some tension, with something that's going to influence how they're showing up here. So that gives me more of a background of what's going on.
So, one thing is check-ins, which for some systems is radical transforming where people are like, ‘wait, you're asking me how I am versus how productive I was today?!’ It can be a jarring shift. So I think that that's the first step for me in terms of setting a container. Starting with, of course, the check-in, but also in how I'm holding the space.
I'm not intending to be an authority when I hold space, which for some people is difficult. Because they're like, just tell me what to do and also, this is what I consider to be presence, you know, you're a boss and you come in and you tell us how to do things. So I come in with a radical, different way, which is: ‘hi, I'm here. I'm interested in how you feel.’ I want to support you in this process, I'm not an authority, I hope you feel safe here. So that's how I show up and that really opens where people are like, ‘oh, whoa. I can talk to her,’ especially when it comes down to the data collection process, I tend to do very well in that area because people feel more comfortable with how I show up and how I hold space.
Like I was saying, there is this other extreme where for some people they're like, ‘I don't get it. Why isn't she doing it how I'm used to seeing,’ not to mention, I also don't always look like what people consider a consultant. They're like, ‘Oh, wow, you're young and black and have all these other parts of your identity that I’m not sure about. How do I make sense of you?’ I think that's also a strength that I have. I look different, I represent something different, I show up differently intentionally, and that helps to set a container for people to feel safe.
Carol: You talked about the messiness of the process. I think too often, people are lulled into the idea that if they do this seven-step process, we're gonna manage change, it's going to happen exactly the way we want it to. I often cringe when I hear the word change management, because to me it creates this illusion that it’s all manageable. Certainly you create processes to help people move through it, but it doesn't mean that it's going to be easy. There might be uncomfortable parts, but those are necessary if you're really going to dig into the real issues that organizations face.
Nyacko: Absolutely, it makes me think a lot about Bridges theory. Just that in between when you're trying to mitigate the change process, you actually have to consider that there's this in-between from what you were, to what you're going to be. That middle space is going to determine whether or not you're actually successful and you need to use it, work on that, and think about how your employees are actually talking and feeling throughout this change process, especially for those that are like, ‘oh, we just let go half of our staff and we're merging with a totally different company and we have to completely change our culture.’ There are two cultures that are somehow supposed to merge together. There's going to be so much messiness, and even just acknowledging that and holding space for that in-between, is so necessary.
Carol: Yeah. That theory that you mentioned, William Bridges does a lot of work on transitions. When I'm trying to explain that to people, I often say that in our American, White-dominated culture we always want to be onto the next thing. So we want to go from point A to point C and forget this in-between space where we're not quite there, not quite here, not where we were, but not quite there yet. I think everyone's feeling that right now in the midst of the pandemic or in this massive in-between space and the discomfort that that creates with folks.
Nyacko: Yeah, it's quite eye-opening for all of us and even organizations, how they respond to the pandemic, and it seems like there has to be more attention to the employee experience outside of just how they are in terms of productivity, but how are they?
Carol: You talk about how radical that can be, to ask folks how they're doing. I was talking to a colleague at the beginning of the pandemic and she said, ‘my boss is suddenly incredibly vulnerable, and I don't know if I like it.’ This is very not normal! Many believe - if they're not in the sector - they have this idealistic notion of the nonprofit sector that it's shielded from dysfunctional culture and dynamics because of the mission focus and because of that good intention and trying to create change or good work in the world, but in my experience, too many organizations have very admirable missions for change that they want to see. Yet the values that undergird those missions just don't show up inside the organization and how they're treating people. What have you observed within nonprofits that you've worked with?
Nyacko: A lot of what I'm seeing is the people that are doing direct service are having a really challenging time - especially around their income, more often than not, they're the least paid person, but they're the people that are dealing with the direct work. Then there's a whole disconnect between the direct service people, and the people that are really high up. The other disconnect in that area is race. Race is something I see very quickly, it's like direct service. That's where all the people of color work, and then as you go up, it's just all white. I find that disturbing, what is that about? Then also in terms of who they serve, more often than not, it's people of color, people that represent a disenfranchised identity, and that's not reflected in the leadership of nonprofits. So, there's just this huge disparity and disconnect that I don't understand and I feel troubled by.
Carol: Yeah and it certainly mirrors our wider society, so it's not like the sector at all is separate. It's all within those systems. So can you say more about how you see that culture of white supremacy showing up within the sector?
Nyacko: Yeah, it's this idea of helping. This idea of who we think needs help, and more often than not the people who need help are people that represent disenfranchised identities. Why is it that we don't have those [identities] represented in leadership? I see a huge problem in that, but honestly, my friends that are in nonprofit, when I've worked in nonprofit, it's almost like it's normalized where the whole board is white, the whole leadership is white, [so] they don't know what's happening. They're not connected to the actual experience of the people that they're serving, but they get to make the most important, most drastic decisions.
The people that are closest to the pain should be closest to the access and closest to helping to make decisions - and I'm pulling from my congresswoman, Ayanna Presley - that's the thing [that] people who are representing the identities should be a part of the solution and should be a part of making those major decisions. I rarely see that, and I think we know statistically, it's not there. I think it's like 0.05%.
Carol: Yeah, I don't know the exact stats, but I definitely know I can look them up. BoardSource has done a lot of work on this and [on] measuring and calling for more diversity, and the needle not shifting since they've been measuring it for the last 15-20 years or so. Do you see places where that isn't the case though, where those dynamics have flipped?
Nyacko: I mean, probably occasionally but it's also in our structures. Like our structures in general, our businesses are based on white supremacy. All the way from our educational systems, our business structures. I was listening to the 1619 project, I don't know if you've listened to that, it's an amazing piece by the New York Times that really looks into the history of slavery, and also the legacy of slavery. One major piece is that a lot of our business structures are based on how the plantations were run. They had very complex systems. They had middle management and ideas about productivity, and reports about productivity, how to best feed a slave and have them be as efficient as possible. They were extremely successful in that. So much of our wealth in America is based on that piece of our history. So when I think about structures in general, it [makes it] difficult to live in society and to work in any system. The rationale that I tell myself is that I'm here to dismantle and to support the transition and the change. I think it's very important to acknowledge where our structures come from, where our nonprofit structures come from. If these parts of our communities weren’t disenfranchised, we wouldn't have a use for nonprofits. So how is this an industrial complex? How is it that we're dependent on people being in need and perpetuating that?
Carol: Then [there’s] the sector being dependent on the little bit of wealth that is put into foundations and then the little bit that they give out each year. Where did all that money originate from? Here we are in a field in terms of organization development that wants to be of service and wants to help. where do you see, you know, how do you see, doing that in a way that does heal rather than doing harm?
Nyacko: Step one is acknowledgement, but that's the trickiest part. That's the part where, for example, when George Floyd was murdered, so many people, so many organizations, wrote these very blanketed responses, and there was no accountability in the statement. There was nowhere where we wanted to acknowledge what role we have played in perpetuating this system, and the steps that we want to make to dismantle it, to make some shifts within our organization. It's rare that we see that.
We have seen it in some circumstances, but more often than not, there's a resistance that you've been acknowledging it. It's almost like “la-la-la-la, we're good.” When really, just name it. Name it and start there. I think that's step one, and then once that's open, involving everyone in your organization in the process. Knowing that more often than not, the leadership is not fully aware of all of that goes on in the organization, [and] is not fully connected to the people that are being served, lifting up the voices from the rest of the organization, as well as lifting up the voices of people that are being served by the organization and bringing those voices to the forefront and allowing them to help direct
whatever change process you're planning to make, I think that that's the first step in healing.
Carol: So you also work in the food industry as a partner with a Comfort Kitchen. What type of type of change are you trying to make in that space?
Nyacko: First of all, background. Background on Comfort Kitchen - and I know they're going to read a little bit - my husband has been in the food industry for - I should say my spouse - has been in the industry for the last 15 years. He’s also an immigrant from Nepal and he had a terrible time of being someone that has an MBA who’s fully prepared to bring all of his skills to whatever business he was working for, and just being constantly demoralized and disrespected throughout the process. This is not a different story - this is the story. The industry is interested in exploiting people and chooses to target the most vulnerable individuals. So, 70% of restaurant workers are immigrants. and then a large portion of those are undocumented. So it's really vulnerable people that ended up working there. There's a lot of systems that will choose to exploit that. The whole design of the restaurant industry makes no sense. It's not actually a sustainable model, and that's why, when we saw the pandemic hit, most restaurants cannot go two weeks, let alone months, without generating any revenue. It just doesn't work. That's because the margins are small because it's almost impossible to get healthy food that comes from a sustainable source, and to pay your employees well, and actually sell your food at a fair price to your consumer. That's rare to see.
So, we would like to try and see if we can build something that is a little bit more sustainable on many levels. [Obviously,] the financial element, but also in how we engage with each other and how we engage with the community. So we're going into a community that I love called Upham’s Corner. It's right up the street from where I live and have lived for many years, and it's a community that has a lot of life. It has a lot of diversity. It's actually one of the most diverse neighborhoods in America.
So there's such a need to bring some love and be like, hey, we're here, we want to engage with you. Also with that comes the incredible cultures that are represented. So within my team: my partner is from Nepal, our head chef is from Ghana, his partner is from Portugal, and then we have a teammate from Ethiopia, and then second-generation Nigerian. So we're bringing a lot of different cultures to share within a neighborhood that's incredibly diverse as well. So a big focus for us is cross-cultural understanding. How do we start to see that actually all of these experiences are valuable, important, and also have similarities. One big similarity that we're finding is spices. Because of colonization and the spice trade, but you will find a lot of similar spice profiles across the world. So that feels unifying to us and really what is the forefront for us in terms of our menu and in terms of what we talk about. So what we're trying to do is we're trying to shift it off. Ultimately, because of the pandemic, huge shifts had to be made, and one major part of that is that we are developing a much smaller team, and that's so that we can be sustainable and do things differently.
Carol: Well, that sounds awesome. So, in each episode, I play a little game where I just ask one random icebreaker question. So I've got one for you here. What's the best compliment you've ever received?
Nyacko: Last night I had a friend over, and she said that I'm very smart and smart in a way that most people don't understand, but she gets it and she sees it. I have really struggled with my intelligence just because I have a learning difference. and so I've gotten messages throughout my life that [I’m] not as smart as other people are. Which are all stories, but when you're young, that can be very much embedded in the way that you think. I love to receive compliments around my intelligence, that feels really good. Thanks for asking.
Carol: Yes, absolutely! Without a doubt, you are incredibly insightful, smart, intelligent, and delightful.
Nyacko: Thank you very much!
Carol: So what are you excited about? What's coming up next? What's emerging in your work?
Nyacko: I mean, my consulting work is going well, especially because I think people are aware they need to tap into their emotions and address some of these past harms and make some transitions. So [I’m] definitely feeling busy in that regard, which feels really good.
Also we have a project coming up called All-In Consulting. I know you've probably mentioned it in other episodes and the other times that you've had people on, but I'm very excited about that. This idea of having a collaboration of people that are committed to doing specifically DEI differently - diversity, equity and inclusion - differently.
That to me feels like home. I feel like I'm at home in our network and our communities. So that is very, very exciting to me. Then Comfort Kitchen is coming, we have a ways to go, but 2021, probably around March-April is when we're thinking. So just plugging away on that as well and excited because I'm going to take my first vacation next week.
Carol: Awesome. That is part of personal organizational wellbeing that people take time off, prioritize that and really unplug. I'm a big believer - maybe ‘cause I grew up in Europe, I'm used to longer vacations and I think that's a way to go. Thi American idea that you can get away with as little time off as possible, it's just not living. It doesn't work. So how can people know more about you and get in touch?
Nyacko: Sure thing. You can check out my website at yinconsulting.com. That's Y-I-N consulting dot com. You can also learn about Comfort Kitchen, we’re firstname.lastname@example.org. Then if you are an Instagram person, comfortkitchenBOS is our name on Insta. So you can check us out there as well.
Carol: Alright, well, thank you so much. It was great having you on.
Nyacko: Of course. Thank you, it was awesome.
I am Carol Hamilton, nonprofit consultant and podcast host. My passion is helping organizations cultivate healthy, inclusive cultures that live their values, fostering learning, creativity and results. Find me at Grace Social Sector Consulting and download free resources.
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