JustLead’s “WHY,” the transcendent universal value that grounds all of its work, is taken from Professor john a. powell’s articulation that “everyone belongs in the circle of human concern.” [1] JustLead’s Leadership Academy (Academy) and Race Equity & Justice Initiative (REJI) are key component parts of our state’s equity & justice community infrastructure.

JustLead’s Blog Space features learnings gained from the “living lab” of our pro-equity leadership and anti-oppression community-building efforts.

Why BIPOC Caucusing?

Using a Target/Agent Duality Model, Dr. Leticia Nieto[2] helps us decipher Social Rank/Social Identity categories, and the roles these play at the individual, interpersonal, organizational, and societal levels of our equity and justice community work. For BIPOC who are Targets based on race (and who often have other intersecting target social identities such as gender identity, disability, sexual orientation, religion, social class, and so on), a key task is to relentlessly seek affinity space with other BIPOC colleagues. Having “brave space” that is free from the continuous white gaze is essential for BIPOC to add skill sets beyond what she describes as “Survival,” then “Confusion,” growing into skill sets such as “Empowerment,” “Strategy” (being strategic about “choosing your battles”), and “Recentering.” White people have their own separate and different work to do to develop the necessary anti-racism skills sets to become effective accomplices to BIPOC in pursuit of transformative change. Note that you can learn more about the Target/Agent Model and skill sets in an earlier JustLead blog by Staff.

Lessons Learned:

Having engaged in dozens of BIPOC caucus spaces over the course of a decade, we share some of the challenges and opportunities we have faced in our attempts to facilitate “brave space” learning and community-building. We hope these observations may strengthen your ability to be effective.

Horizontal oppression dynamics:

In the case of race, horizontal oppression dynamics can arise when BIPOC individuals and groups believe, enforce and act on agent systems of discrimination, and apply these against other BIPOC groups. Here’s an example–when the BIPOC group is comprised of unequivocally black and brown members and also colleagues who identify as BIPOC (can be based on their family of origin and their cultural upbringing, can be due to mixed race heritage, etc.) but who can be perceived as “white passing”, the group as a collective needs to reckon with the issues of “self-identification as BIPOC” versus perceived difference. Note that perceived difference is not so much about perception per se, but rather, is about the degree of stigma that white supremacy-created systems have historically attached[3], and continue to attach to certain groups, especially Black and Indigenous people and others who are unequivocally non-white. Another example can be found in a film “The Last Castle” with Robert Redford and James Gandolfini in a scene called “Just One Ball.” The white warden of a military prison resents the reverence with which everyone at his facility treats a General who has asked for self-imposed punishment for action he believed was improper. To show the General who’s boss, he tells a guard “Just one ball.” There are two basketball courts. One used by the Black inmates, and the other by the Latinx inmates. There are usually two basketballs. A riot over the one ball predictably and by design breaks out, while the white warden and guards watch, laughing. When BIPOC folks expend energy engaging in horizontal oppression against one another, white supremacy wins. This is by design. BIPOC caucus is a place where these dynamics can be unpacked.

Internalized oppression dynamics:

Internalized oppression dynamics can arise when BIPOC individuals and groups accept the methods and incorporate the oppressive messages of white supremacy against their own interest. In BIPOC caucus space, we have seen pain arise for those who experience a high degree of cognitive dissonance in BIPOC space as they come to terms with the degree to which they are immersed in white culture and identity to a degree that involves a kind of race blindness. The self-reflection made possible through BIPOC caucus space often leads to awareness that the “benefits” of “proximity to whiteness” can operate as a form of complicity which allows white supremacy to be perpetuated unless we take express action to dismantle it.

Note that BIPOC exploitation through their tokenization can be a related form of internalized oppression unless the BIPOC has demanded what we call “empowered token status,” that is, a negotiated and enforceable commitment to the resources and organizational power necessary to ensure the token’s success.

Social Rank versus Positional Authority/Status:

In organizations large enough to have achieved critical mass of BIPOC staff members, staffers may reach a point where they request that BIPOC managers be excluded from the BIPOC caucus space. This request reflects a clash between Target Social Rank category (race), and Status (positional authority which is externally conferred by the organization).[4] This clash is often a source of real pain for both the staff members and the managers. While racial solidarity among BIPOC colleagues is an ideal, the consequences of differences in organizational status are real. When these interfere with participants’ ability to engage in collective building of brave space, we generally facilitate removal of the management folks while offering them affinity with other BIPOC managers (often cross-organizationally) where that is feasible.

Unexpected Dynamics & Ongoing Learning:

While every caucus is as unique as the individuals who make up the space, the above dynamics have consistently surfaced in the vast majority of BIPOC caucus spaces we have facilitated. Over the years emergent dynamics have surfaced in BIPOC spaces that have required nuanced conversation and facilitation techniques that we are still exploring and leaning into, we wanted to create space to highlight some of that learning here.


Adoptees face some of the most complex belongingness issues. They do not “belong” because of race, and they do not “belong” if they are placed in white families, or Black families that are culturally worlds apart (e.g., adoptee from Africa, adopted by a Detroit inner city Black family). To avoid feelings of further isolation in BIPOC space, we have found it helpful to name from the onset the unique lived experiences of everyone in the room and provide a few examples highlighting intersections of identity that folks might want to name as they are sharing their experiences.

“The Double Betrayal”:

BIPOC caucus groups have found it helpful to understand what they are experiencing as a kind of “double betrayal.” First, betrayal by a nation that fails to live up to its promise and proclaimed core values such as “Equal justice under law,” and second, betrayal by the very equity & justice organizations to which they are giving their all when the organizations fail to live up to their pro-equity/anti-racism commitments. The process of naming and validating this pain has provided us a vehicle to move people through it instead of being stuck in the overwhelm of the unnamed feeling, which can often stagnate the group overtime.

Generational Differences:

Creating space for BIPOC folks to come together across generations is meaningful and healing, but not without its challenges. While there is opportunity and need for generational specific BIPOC spaces, we sometimes find ourselves facilitating space with a generational sampling. Experience has shown us that generational differences can sometimes be experienced interpersonally as invalidation and discounting of experiences. We have found it helpful in times of seeming tension or disagreement to encourage specificity. To have folks speak directly to what they are talking to i.e., “white supremacy”, “institutional racism”, “sexism”, “capitalism”, “violence”, instead of directly to each other. Often through this facilitated practice it is revealed that folks are saying similar things to the system and its that their approaches may be different and yet they are not in direct disagreement with each other nor do they exist in opposition to the other.


Creating a “Body Politic”:

Where sufficient camaraderie and collective energy have been built up over time, the group will organically shift from finding common ground and alignment to frustration over resistance to change. You need critical mass (three or more) BIPOC for the next phase, which will be to determine whether they are ready to become a “Body Politic” whose first task as a collective will be to articulate in written form what it is like being BIPOC in the organization, and the things that must change. Then the group must plan and prepare for pushback and even backlash by those who are uncomfortable with changes to the status quo from which they benefit. Strategies for change constitute a marathon and not a sprint, so be prepared for a long-haul struggle. Remember that “cognitive dissonance is your best friend” because when properly used, it can be a powerful generator of energy for change. Leveraging cognitive dissonance means unrelentingly surfacing and naming the disconnect between the organization’s communicated strategic intent, e.g., sweeping statements and commitments like, “We condemn racism and all forms of structural oppression” and its delivery on that communicated strategic intent. A sustainable race equity plan will call for resources, compensated time, preventing tokenization of BIPOC and placing disproportionate burdens of equity change work onto the shoulders of BIPOC.

Overall perhaps the most meaningful take away for us as facilitators of BIPOC caucus space is the stated oxygenation that occurs for BIPOC folks in our community and organizations. Since, BIPOC Caucus spaces are generally uplifting, participants regularly share that they leave the space feeling lighter, unburdened, not alone and like they have been given a fresh supply of oxygen.

[1] Professor john a. powell’s “Othering & Belonging Institute” at UC Berkeley Law School,

[2] Dr. Leticia Nieto, “Beyond Inclusion, Beyond Empowerment: A Developmental Strategy to Liberate Everyone;” see “ADRESSING Model” for deciphering Target & Agent Social Rank (Age, Disability, Religion, Ethnicity & Race, Social Class, Sexual Orientation, Indigenous Group Membership, National Origin, Gender Identity).

[3] E.g., chattel slavery, Jim Crow, new or old, genocide against Indigenous nations and individuals, the taking of natural resources, land, culture, language, artifacts, and removal of children to “assimilation schools,” etc.

[4] In Dr. Nieto’s 3-level “Status, Rank & Power Bullseye”, the innermost circle represents “POWER” (i.e., the power that emanates from one’s moral groundedness), the middle ring represents “SOCIAL RANK”/social identity (see the so-called “ADRESSING” Model, footnote 3) and the outermost ring represents externally conferred “STATUS”, a request to exclude BIPOC managers from BIPOC caucus space represents a difficult clash between Social Rank (middle ring) and Status (outer ring).

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