My table and what to do with it (w/RS added)

My economic story

My inheritance

I have five sets of china stored away in my house right now.  Dishes, teacups, saucers, salad plates handed down as family members have passed.  I’ve never used them.  Some of them I couldn’t even describe.  More sets will come.  And yet I keep them.  After willingly parting with the furniture and trinkets I’ve inherited, I keep them.  After habitually purging all excess from my closet and drawers and cabinets, I keep them.  After acknowledging that I have never and do not desire to host a formal dinner party in my home, I keep them.    

I keep them as a sign of respect and remembrance.  I keep them to avoid uncomfortable conversations with family members who gave them to me.  I keep them because my ancestors ate off them, and shared meals are precious.  I keep them because, despite all that I say and do, there may be pieces of my concept of womanhood and domesticity I haven’t grappled with yet.  I keep them because deep down I like the idea of a tea party even though I’ve never hosted one.  I keep them because some of them are pretty, and all of them are old.

The china is a part of my inheritance that you can see – that takes up space in my home – but my five sets of china are just the tangible manifestation of the table of privilege and power I have also inherited.  A table I can set.  A table I can always enjoy, while others cannot, a place of harm and inequity disguised as respectability.

As a white, cis-gendered, woman in the southern United States, perhaps my greatest inheritance are these less tangible things that take up space in my mind and in the world around me.  Perhaps my greatest inheritance are tools and systems of privilege and oppression.  Tools and systems that perpetuate our current society and economy and keep me and those like me at the top, at the center, at the table.  

In addition to five sets of china, I am storing away narratives and norms that have been crafted and passed down over generations about whiteness, deservedness, dominance, and individualism. In addition to the china, I have accumulated money, land, resources extracted over centuries from black and indigenous people or color.   In addition to the china, I hold the cumulative effect of constructs and policies that have benefited my lineage over generations at the expense of others.  This inheritance is foundational to my economic life, my financial stability, and the wealth I will pass down to my children.

My working life

I take my inheritance with me into my current working life.  My work is in creating a better Arkansas, one where all Arkansans can thrive.  I struggle to navigate when and how, if ever, to use my inheritance towards the work or when to actively try to disinvest from it.  I struggle to navigate and grapple with how philanthropy – a dominant institution that exists because of accumulated wealth – can be a tool for liberation.  My working life happens in several forms.  It happens within myself, with the time and energy I spend on reflection, learning, care, and growth – a piece that I have not prioritized as much but am hoping to this month and beyond.  It happens with my children, watching them play, reading them a story, packing their lunches, caring for their scrapes and bruises, and trying to raise them as good citizens and good stewards.  My work also happens at my formal job at a statewide private foundation.  Together those consume most of my waking time and energy.


In reflecting on commons, I feel stuck and isolated.  I don’t have many examples that feel both common and communal.  I love nature and enjoy common parks, rivers, and lakes in Arkansas and beyond as well as shared natural resources such as air, soil, and water.  I enjoy shared infrastructure, such as utilities, public education, and roads, but unfortunately there is not much else I can think of that I would describe as common in my day-to-day life.  I would to identify those commons I don’t know and play a part in building ones that don’t exist.

The Future

I want a future where everyone feels whole and feels valued for who they are.  Where people, families, and communities are stable, hopeful, inclusive, and thriving.  Where basic needs are met and so much more.  I think of a place with democratized power, where we care for ourselves and one another financially, emotionally, and spiritually and make decisions together.  I think of a place where we are good stewards of resources and the natural world and regenerate rather than extract.  I think of a place where we are all free and liberated, and everyone’s humanity and labor is valued.

Social Ecology Framework

Social Movement Ecology

After reading the first page of the social movement ecology framework, I began sharing it with my co-workers.  I found it informative to conversations we had scheduled today and will continue later in the week (and into the future).

At the foundation where I work, we often describe and approach our work with three “pillars” – policy, place, and public will.  These pillars are similar to the buckets in the ecology framework, but I think the framework does a better job of describing how the three intersect and also naming pieces that are absent in our pillars.

For us, the sub-heading for policy is all about the “inside game” and structure organizing.  As the author suggests, support for mass protests is completely absent from our strategy.  The sub-heading for place is around building community-driven models for change that reflect the voices and perspectives of residents. The sub-heading for public will is about increasing public awareness to change knowledge and attitudes.

Of all three pillars, we are most heavily focused on the inside game and structure organizing.  The reflections from Chloe Cockburn were spot on.  I think my foundation often defines organizational conflicts strictly as personal conflicts when they may not be, and we sometimes judge the efficacy of organizations without understanding what they are (and are not) designed to do and what critical pieces may be missing from the ecological infrastructure.

When our foundation does want to support protests or other grassroots mobilization, we struggle with how.  The section of the framework that mentions that mass protests are less institutionalized and do not focus on building long-term organizations reiterated the challenge to me.  As philanthropy, our most common tool is grants to 501c3 nonprofits.  I am continuously exploring other ways we can be supportive – through contracts, sponsorships, shared services, investment, etc.

Social Change

It’s interesting to reflect on how protests are often overlooked as a critical piece of a movement ecology because when I think about social change, my mind first goes to protests.  The pictures in my head are of protestors or other demonstrators.  I often think of the Little Rock Nine, the nine black students that integrated my high school, Little Rock Central High, in the 1950s.  As the article mentions, mass protests are often symbolic and capture the attention of a wide audience.  I imagine many of us associate protests with change – and even tell ourselves we would have been active protestors in past movement while hypocritically not supporting protests now.  After reading, I feel more committed and clear on how to be intentional about this piece of movement building.

~Reflection Script~

In the days since I wrote my blog, I have reflected on my day to day life, my relationships with those I’m closest to, my feelings, and how they relate to my macro dreams.  I mentioned a feeling of a lack of commons in my every life.  I’ve thought a lot about trust, power, and control in my relationships with my co-workers, friends, and partner.  I’ve thought about vulnerability.

As Elizabeth suggested in her comment, when I reflect on small steps towards reaching my desired beautiful, I feel a push to begin with myself and those closest to me.  Some might describe that as a small step, as a babystep, but for me I think this might be the great missing leap.  At a macro and academic level, I am more vulnerable, open, brave, radical.  On a deep, interpersonal level, I am more stressed, closed off, and more prone to seeking control.

I appreciated Hélène words in her comment that our inability to name the “commons” might be indicative of an eroding of our sense of solidarity. Yes! While continuing to work at a more macro level, I need to also do the work to try to build greater solidarity within my closest circles.  I’m interested to seek out and reflect on ways to build trust and create shared leadership as first steps towards greater solidarity and as critical processes of learning and self-reflection as I move forward with this work externally.

8 thoughts on “My table and what to do with it (w/RS added)

  1. Sarah, Wow, I’m truly humbled by how you’ve shown up in this post. Thank you. Thank you.
    I feel like you swept me right into your world with your description of the five sets of china. And the wrestling with “womanhood and domesticity I haven’t grappled with yet”.

    Do you know how strong of a writer you are?
    Obviously we’re just meeting for the first time through… but I just wanted to take a moment to reflect back to you how riveted I was in reading and couldn’t skip a line as I was reading and how fluently it flowed. Thanks for doing the hard work of editing and re-writing to make this such an easy post to read.

    Thanks also for your sharing about how the Ayni Movement ecology (and specifically the piece from Chloe and role of mass protests) was helpful for you at work and with your colleagues.

    What small step might you be able to take to move that forward?

    What did you learn as you wrote this piece?

    What new insights came up for you?
    How might those insights be leveraged?

    Kudos on taking the leap to “ship” this post. So grateful you are here.


  2. Sarah – Truly well-written. I appreciated coming into your house that you have thoughtfully simplified, and your knowledge that remnants of the economy and assets of your legacy remain. And how you moved to the big questions of what to do with these assets in the posture you find yourself today.

    On the commons: I suspect you create commons spaces subconciously for people in your circles – your kids, your neighbors, your extended family. If I’m right, why did they not surface in your mind? What about them meets or does not meet your ideal of a communal commons? How do they include or exclude? What would a more robust commons mean for you and your work?

    On inside game versus mass protests: How can you steer resources to funding other parts of the ecosystem? Do our regular notions of “outcome based” projects apply to some of the ideas in the Social Movement Ecology? Do places like your foundation need to change or to find new partners?

    As a worker and parent: The little people and the people you serve at work leave little time for other. How is that connected to the challenges around the commons?

    Very glad to be part of this cohort with you. Thank you for doing the hard work and advancing this learning.


  3. Thank you Sarah. This is a beautiful read.
    I’m so excited to learn more about how the social movement ecology framework might translate into organizational culture and practice for you.
    I also wonder if you might reflect a bit on the means to reach the desired beautiful and that you articulate. So often I think we get caught up in dreaming about the end, rather than visioning around the means to the end. What might that look like in your personal life? In your work life?
    Thank you for this first post!


  4. As a theater director and insatiable reader, I have to say, you are a consummate storyteller! And that in itself is a way to make change – as we spoke about just now in our group. I think your post speaks to so many nested issues that I grapple with too, so I felt personally aligned with your acknowledgement of our privilege as white women in this country. And it was also such a beautiful narrative technique to save the fact that you went to Little Rock Central High till the end. It is breathtaking when details like that can bring national issues down to a personal scale.


    1. (Sorry – I hit return hoping to add more and it posted instead!) A few questions/reactions: I would love to spend some time with you imaging what the “commons” might be because I think the fact that we can’t name them is indicative of an eroding of our sense of solidarity as a society around shared inheritance and resources – how might we reclaim the idea of the commons? I’m curious also to explore how foundations can partner with others to get funding to initiatives that are not 501c3s, and have questions for you around the idea of fiscal sponsorship (both Model A and Model C) – has your foundation considered partnering with a “backbone” nonprofit org that can function as a service provider to stabilize and grow initiatives and movements through fiscal sponsorship – both acting as a conduit for your funds and as a way to ensure the movements get technical and other forms of support to thrive. Lastly, I can’t wait to read your next post!


      1. Hi Helene – thank you for your comments. In response to your question on fiscal sponsorship – yes, we do that a few different ways (and I think still so much of that to explore). Sometimes we run grants through one, fiscal agent 501c3 to another (smaller) 501c3. Sometimes we run grants through one, fiscal sponsor 501c3 to a group that does not have their c3 status. Sometimes we set up a fund for a specific purpose at a fiscal sponsor 501c3 to sub-grant to several different groups. We also sometimes contract directly with movement leaders to pay for their time and labor. And sometimes we pay for costs like food or meeting space directly. All good options but still sometimes cumbersome to pull off, especially for groups without c3 status so still so much to explore! Historically, most of the funds we have set up at fiscal sponsor intermediary orgs are still controlled by a small group of decision makers at that org. We are shifting to models where that decision-making and ownership of the fund and how it is used are more shared but a lot more room to grow.


  5. Good to meet you Sarah over the ZOOM call today and through your beautiful writing! The story of the china drew me right into your world. Objects anchor us to the past but also burden our present. Would be interesting to explore what is the “china” of our society? What do we need to keep of the system we are a part and what shall we leave behind? How much of how we are collectively is captured in the structures defining our lives? Or are the current structures a limitation to our imagining? A brainstorm on the commons might refresh our ancestral memory of how we used to relate as humans. Thank you for your compelling perspective.


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