The Exhausting and Worthwhile Process of Clarity and Kindness

 Photo by  Andre Hunter  on  Unsplash

Photo by Andre Hunter on Unsplash

We live in a time where many of our conversations are happening in type on screens, where no one can see our faces or hear our voices while we express what we express, and we can't quickly address misinterpretations or add clarifying information when something is misinterpreted or missed. Even offline, though, being a little painstakingly thorough in how we communicate with one another has been well worth it in my experience. After practicing this process with a recent Facebook post, I thought it might be worth talking a little bit about how this works for me.

"How will I frame what I have to say?"
Intro is always important. For mine, I wanted it to be clear that this process of responding had been painstaking, that I took it seriously, and that it was the result of an actual practice of patience. And I wanted to do that quickly so I could get to the points.

"How can I validate the point the person across from me is trying to make as I illuminate why that point is irrelevant/based in a falsehood? And how can I do that kindly?"
I navigate the world looking at how people are for the most part trying their best to do something or say something of value. They're not trying to be malicious, especially those we discuss things with online (unless they're literally trolling — in which case you need to just learn to discern that and leave the bait alone).

So, assuming I'm not engaging with someone who's trolling, I make it a point to reiterate and validate the point the person across from me is trying to make before turning to educate them on what I believe they should consider or learn more about.

"Is this as kind as it can be? Does this sound like it would be yelled or snapped? Does this sound sarcastic? Can I make it sound less frustrated and more calm and genuine?"
I try my best to make sure my words are coming across as genuinely spoken, and even-keeled. 

It's easy for me to type something and then when someone else reads it — it's suddenly escalated in tone or volume to them. And sarcasm just doesn't tend to go over well in most situations — when the goal is to make a solid connection over a point of contention — spoken or otherwise.

"Who am I speaking to? Is that clear?"
Sometimes the message you're communicating isn't actually for everyone who might be reading it. It's worthwhile to clarify at times who exactly you're intending the message for, so other folks don't get confused or hurt thinking you're talking to them, too.

"Am I talking about what I actually know about? Am I directing people to solid resources? What are the next steps I'm offering folks so this doesn't become a revolving door of feelings/opinions leading to no actual action or conclusions?"
I can share my experiences with full confidence. But when it comes to things outside of my specific area of education and expertise, I've got to be able to direct people to a reputable source, or at least suggest they go find them if I don't know them off the top of my head, if I'm going to expect them to take that info seriously.

"Do I sound like a real person? Do I sound like I know I'm talking to a real person?"
Again, this brings in the issue of tone and approach. As I read things I'm writing, I often ask myself, am I sounding like I'm talking down to someone or putting myself on their same level, or even humbling myself in the way that I'm communicating?

How do I balance my conviction and my humility? How do I make it clear to other folks that I'm not attacking them, I'm reaching out to them? I'm inviting them.

Because honestly at the end of the day — whether we like it or not, whether we feel like it or not — we're already at the same table. What are we going to do about it?

It is exhausting to do this. It means that when I'm doing this well, I'm not just venting and posting. It's not taking me a few minutes to share what's on my mind. It's taking an hour, or two even. But I deeply believe it's worthwhile. And I believe you see the difference in the types of responses that arrive below posts where I engage this practice — and the amount of responses that I get *off* of social media.

Do you have a process for when you're speaking to someone (whether in type or aloud) about a topic that can easily escalate or devolve into misinterpretation? What's worked well for you in balancing what you have to say and who you're speaking to?

How My Sliding Scale Taught Me Not to Fear Scarcity

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We carry deep money fears. It’s practical — I get it, I feel it, I’ve got it. For each of us there is a number, roughly, that we know we need to conjure up each month to keep on lights, to eat, to avoid scary letters in the mail from the IRS, and keep the bottom of our budget sheets nice and green so we can retire one day. Because of this, when we work, perhaps especially for ourselves, we start to think of all the aspects of our work in terms of money. Our time is money. Our speed is money. The quantity we can produce is money. The quality we can improve is money. The number of times or the length of time that someone can use our creations is money.

In our back pocket, we always carry this invisible, heavy money coin. On the first side of that coin, we think of all that we are potentially worth. On the other side, we hold our fear of scarcity. The risk of being undervalued, underpaid, and perhaps most terrifying… unsustainable.

Sliding scales don’t make sense when the fear of being undervalued is on and running. The concept depends on trust between the person setting the value and the person assessing their ability to match that value, to the highest possible degree. And everyone loves a discount. So if you give someone the option of no discount or a discount, they’re always going to go for the biggest discount, right?

Yesterday, I had a phone call with a potential client from a large organization. “How does your pricing work,” she asked. “Well,” I explained, “It depends a good deal on the context of the project. I give all of my clients a quote specifically for their scope of work. I have an hourly rate — but projects of certain sizes allow some flexibility.” I explained that pricing a one-page flyer is a little different than a 20-page annual report, which is a little different than creating 20 custom illustrations. “I also have a sliding scale,” I said.

“Oh,” this woman said, and now I’m paraphrasing, but her response was along the lines of, “Well we’re a nonprofit but we’re very well established — a sliding scale really wouldn’t be appropriate for us to take advantage of.”

I smiled on my end of the phone. It still surprises me a little bit when I get these kinds of replies. Because in my mind, yes, if you give someone the option of a discount or no discount, they're just going to take discount, right? But in my experience, that’s just not what happens.

My sliding scale goes from 70% to 100%. The little one-sheet that I rarely even send out these days articulates that 100% is the value I assign to the work I provide, and then it shows a line extending backwards to two notches at 85% and 70%. Underneath each potential price point, it offers a list of considerations for whether this level of discount might appropriately apply to this person or organization.

At the lowest rung of the sliding scale the list suggests that if you have no or limited expendable income, for example, this is an appropriate discount for you. In the middle, stressing about financial needs but being able to meet them regularly is an example that indicates less of a discount might fit you. And at the top, having access to savings or grant money is a clue that you may not really need a discount at all.

I round off my sliding scale document with notes about why I find it meaningful to work with folks on every stage of this scale. Full value payments match the value of the work I provide and help me to be able to work with folks who can’t pay full value at this time. That middle area of payment helps me to cover my costs and sustain my life as I work. And the heaviest discounted work I do is a way that my clients and myself show support for each other’s gifts and passions and missions.

But as I said, I rarely send this sheet out anymore. Altogether, I’ve probably only sent it out once or twice. When I’ve gotten on the phone, or spoken to someone face to face, I’ve encountered an inherent understanding. My clients and prospective clients seem to get where all of this is coming from, and honor it from their standpoint.

I had a doula client reach out to me once too, because she and her partners’ budget had shifted in the time between committing to work with me and having our second prenatal appointment. They had initially decided to pay full value, but now looking at the numbers, that investment felt unwise. On the phone, I acknowledged my sliding scale. “Let me know what your budget will allow now, let me know what you’d like in services, and we’re going to figure this out, through me and whatever other community resources if necessary.”

She got back to me with a number that was still not the lowest option of my sliding scale, and suggested I have less sessions with them — “I in no way want to undercut you,” she wrote in a text. With sincere appreciation for her consideration, I replied, “That number is perfectly fine and we’re still doing all the sessions!”

I’ve been in all of these categories as a consumer myself. I’ve paid all, I’ve paid some, I’ve paid a little. They’ve all been beautiful experiences in their own contexts.

I don’t know what I can say to fully express that value, to me, is not based in dollars. Value is the impact something has, its reach, its usefulness, how it makes someone feel or what it allows them to fully experience.

That said, my sliding scale decision is based on my context, on some of the privileges I have. I have some savings – not a lot, but some. That helps me to do this. I have some debt – but not a lot. And that helps me to do this. I also design largely for birth and nonprofit folks. It's an altruistic industry, filled with people and organizations who love collaborating with small business people like myself, and creating and building community with their business decisions. That’s not true of every industry. That helps me to do this.

So I get it. It’s not going to be the best fit for every entrepreneur, and not in every season of their working life. I’m sure I will continue to shift and evolve my model over time, too, but I'll never let go of the lessons I'm learning in this current season. And you'll never catch me making my decisions solely on the money.

The bottom line is, I don't want to operate my business and implement my pricing out of a scarcity mindset. That would get in the way of making real connections with the people I work with, and having honest conversations that dignify us all as members of a common community — however near or far we may be, however hands-on or intangible the work may be. If that appeals to you as well, consider applying a sliding scale. Sliding scale pricing is a beautiful way to literally put your money where your mouth is, and use that mouth to say, "This is way more about you and us and what we're working towards, than it is about the dollars."

Extra: I think it's worth noting that my clients self-select where they fall on the sliding scale. I do not choose for them. For my records, I also invoice all my work at 100% with whatever level of discount applied, so I can keep track of how much discounting I do in a year (just started this, so this will be the first year I have that info!).

This Month in Music: May Vibes

 Photo by  Robin Spielmann  on  Unsplash

I listen to music constantly. Work, eat, workout, play — these are some songs that have been traveling with me through May. What songs have been getting you through your month?

5 Pregnant People Illustrations and Why I Draw Them

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I spend hours illustrating. I deeply enjoy it. It's almost meditative for me, doing each line, undoing them, doing them again, creating the connections and smoothing the rough bits out, before settling in and turning to color them in. But it didn't begin out of joy. It didn't begin intentionally.

It began because I couldn't find something. I couldn't find illustrations of pregnant Black people. And I couldn't just let that go. I needed to fill the gap. I needed to do it myself, because who else would? And here's a little more of why I'm so glad now that I do...


The Simplicity

Reaching people doesn't always have to be so complicated. Make an illustration, and all of a sudden, you've built a bridge to someone. I love that.

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The Depth and Power

People have reached out to me to let me know how much it meant to them to see illustrations of Black and Brown people during pregnancy and birth and parenting. The lack of the availability of that sent a strong message. Finding it sent a new message, and that message had real impact. My clients have pointed it out before. It makes a difference to them.

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The Usefulness

Sometimes things are difficult to explain, or take longer to explain in words than they do to explain in images. Images live in another space in the mind, that's even more effective for some people. And images transcend language, too.

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The Eye-Opening

Sometimes seeing something visually leaves a different impression than hearing about it, or sparks a curiosity that hearing wouldn't spark. Sometimes it just sits differently with us when we see it. I like that, too.

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The Beauty

All else aside, I'm most happy if I look at an illustration and I think, "Well, that's just beautiful." And that's often the case. Pregnant people are powerful and beautiful. 

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The Three Midwives in the River: A Story of Diverse Solutions to the Same Problem... and the Problems with That

 Photo by  Jernej Graj  on  Unsplash

Photo by Jernej Graj on Unsplash

“There’s a river. In the river, babies are drowning, and three midwives passing by each see. The first midwife, devastated by the sight, jumps into the river and starts pulling babies out and putting them on the shore. The second midwife, devastated by the sight, jumps into the river and begins teaching the babies how to swim themselves to shore. The third midwife, devastated by the sight, runs up into the town to find out how the babies are getting into the river, and how to stop it.”

At a symposium this weekend, this story was shared. “Our community — our birth world community supports and invests in one of these midwives more than the others,” the storyteller said (in different words). “In this room, we have all of these midwives, and some of them are drowning in the river, too.”

As I reflect on my time at this symposium this weekend, rather than delve into the nitty-gritty of what happened on day one, day two, day three, etc., I’d like to delve more deeply into these three midwives, these three approaches – not just to infant and maternal mortality, but to many of our community issues. Why do our communities – namely Black/POC communities compared to White communities – engage in the same missions in such different ways?

The Hands-On Midwife in the River
When all you have is your hands and your heart

Why does the midwife who jumps into the river to pull out babies do that? Because all they have is their hands? That might be the case. There are many ways to act in a situation, and the way we choose to act often depends upon what we have in our toolbox... though not always.

Consider that Black and POC communities and individuals have less wealth – generationally and individually – today than White folks. Consider that we tend to have less “assets” in terms of economic, political, and social capital. Consider also that — what is the emotional impact of seeing someone in a helpless/voiceless situation when you have had your own personal experiences with feeling helpless/voiceless?

What do you know you have to offer, and what feels right? I speak for myself, but maybe it will resonate with others when I say that, when you look at someone struggling and you think, “That could have been me,” or “That was me,” your reflex – your gut reaction – your immediate solution – will draw you closer into their space. It will urgently pull you to pull them into the safe space you know they can experience, if only you fill the gap.

The Midwife Teaching in the River
When you trained for a moment such as this

Why does the midwife who wades into the river to teach babies to swim do that? Because they know how to swim. And why do they know how to swim? Because they saw someone drown before, and they said to themselves, “Not again. Not if I can help it. I will learn how to swim and I will use that knowledge when I get the chance.” Because they knew they’d get the chance.

Consider that Black women are amongst the most highly educated groups in the U.S. Consider that generations of families of color have taken tremendous risks and worked incredibly hard and sustained deep levels of racism and mistreatment in order for themselves or their children or grandchildren to achieve higher levels of education. Consider that many folks have left their communities for the sole purpose of being able to come back to serve it someday (even if they don’t always actually do that).

This is all over our communities. Many POC lawyers, doctors, athletes – we see them thread community service into their careers. Is that always the case? Is it always authentic? No, unfortunately not. But it is a commonly held shared value. Success is often perceived as communal in communities that have experienced a great deal of marginalization. Success for an individual is often seen as the result of communal investment (“I accomplished X because my auntie did Y, or my teachers said Z, or my school gave me A) and likewise success for the individual is an opportunity for many others to benefit from the fruit of their labors, in the hopes that this pattern would restore whole communities.

The Midwife Who Leaves the River to Help
When one answer is at the top, and you have a ladder, or know where one is

Why does the midwife who leaves the river, leave the river? They're going after the root to this problem and believe the root issue can be solved. Many of the problems in our society are systemic, some intentionally and maliciously. Many of the issues that Black folks and other people of color face are the result of plans and events set in motion generations and generations back, that still have consequences for present day lives.

But these consequences don’t touch all lives as directly. So when someone sees them who hasn’t experienced them, or didn't even know those consequences existed, they will naturally have a slightly different reaction. They may be shocked, they may be horrified, they may feel

emotions that someone who’s seen the consequences for a long time won’t feel – not because it’s less horrifying to them but because they don’t really have the freedom to respond to the situation that way. This is why one person might cry and another person might say, “Why are you crying? Crying won’t do anything.”

Consider that white folks (not all, but a higher percentage than Black and POC folks) have more generational wealth, more individual wealth, more assets like land and property ownership, and more political and social connections – are more likely to have family members or family friends who are in high political or social places or have a greater understanding of how those systems work and how to work well in them – as well as are more likely to be welcomed or trusted or championed within those circles.

So what makes sense to do when you see a horrible thing and you know someone who must know how to change it? Go find that person and work to get that change. This requires that you leave the scene of the problem. This requires that you invest time and materials in things outside of the problem area.

The Problem and the Questions

There are no inherent problems with any of the three above approaches. But there is a problem in that these three midwives can’t save all the drowning babies alone. They each need help.

Do they need equal amounts of help? Who is going to run out of energy first? Whose role allows them to have someone else swap in for them? Whose mission requires the most physical, mental, or emotional energy? Whose lived experiences, whose privileges and powers best equip them for their roles? Whose community is best able to invest in the work they’re doing? How are each of the midwives able to assist the other two? How are their communities able to? Whose work is most often and most regularly invested in? Who gets investors, who gets fundraisers, who gets grants, who gets change dropped in the bucket? Who goes into debt to do their work? Who profits from it? Who looks down and sees their own baby in the river some days? Or their sister’s baby? Or their child’s baby? Who can reasonably become a midwife in the first place — and who can stay one?

The Answers

There are resources out there. There is enough out there to sustain the midwife pulling babies from the river so they can eat and sleep and shower – swapping out with someone else until their next shift. There is enough out there to invest in the education of the second midwife, and to sustain them so they can also eat and sleep and shower until their next shift. There is enough out there to invest in the third midwife, so they can strategize, and lobby and serve some of the babies who may not be in the river at all, because those babies are still out there too, and of course they and their parents still need and deserve care also.

What I know is that all the midwives need to know each other. They all need to talk together, and eat together, and discuss how to act in complementary ways. They all need to be honored, respected and cared for – and right now in this day, particularly the ones in the water, who are treading water themselves and left out of the story. Whose work is sometimes even capitalized upon for the profit and notoriety of others.

We often see attempts at this in the form of one-off fundraising campaigns or documentaries or articles. But we need systems. We live in a country full of industries that have sustained themselves for decades — even to the detriment of others. We need a system that will sustain our life-giving work. It is more than possible.