Dani Robbins

Posts Tagged ‘Equity’

Options and Opportunities for White Social Justice Leaders

In Advocacy, Community Strategy, Leadership, Lessons Learned, Non Profit Boards, Organizational Development on February 24, 2021 at 1:30 pm

I’m writing this piece as the first step in a conversation that’s been long in coming. I’d like to talk about what the role is or should be of white social justice leaders right now.

There have been calls for white leaders to step aside and internal (possibly unspoken) consideration that maybe we should. Many of my peers, clients, students, and friends are trying to figure out if they’re in the right spot or if the spots to which they aspire are no longer appropriate for them to ascend. Each leader must answer that for themselves.

What is the right way to honor the values that we’ve spent our entire careers advancing?

I would like to offer some food for thought while you’re still in the leadership chair as you contemplate your next move.

We can change both the systems we impact AND the ways we lead. We can change the opinions and minds of other white leaders. We can change ourselves!

If you have spent your whole career, as many of us have, trying to advance social justice and working towards racial equity, continuing on or continuing to apply or aspire to apply for the role of a leader of a social justice agency is complicated.

We have a role to play in changing the landscape of leadership by including new and diverse voices in our quest to achieve social justice.

I’ve heard the questions: “Should we step aside to create space for a person of color to ascend into leadership?” “Should we not apply at all to make space for a leader of color?”

While this sounds and is dramatically ma/paternalistic, is it in service to a larger mission? It may or may not be. Individuals have to determine for themselves what their personal sacrifice might be.

While we’re thinking about these large existential questions, our Boards may not be. The million-dollar question right now is “if we do step aside, will the board just hire a different white leader that may know less about justice, equity, the mission and leadership than we do?” If history is any guide, they likely will.

We know, and there’s certainly enough evidence to support, that white leaders get more resources, get hired more often, get paid more, stay longer, and get more grace when they make a mistake.

If we don’t want to be a part of perpetuating inequity, and we don’t, then we must consider our role. A not insignificant number of white leaders have a lot of experience, significant education, a huge network, and have earned respect across communities.

There are too few good leaders of all races anyway, and we can’t afford to say goodbye to the still majority of them that are white.

Which brings me back to my initial question: What is the role of a white social justice leader right now?

I offer the following ideas for your consideration; they all won’t apply to you, but some of them might. Special thanks to Tasha Booker from City Year Columbus, Tiffany Galvin Green from John Carroll University and John Miller from Boys & Girls Club of America for helping me articulate my thoughts around this issue. You each and all bring light to my life, appreciation to my heart, and depth to my leadership.

These are a starting place as I see it. I encourage you to share other options.

Representation matters

Make sure that you are bringing people into your organization who don’t look like you or look like each other.

Representation is built in a variety of ways; it includes where we recruit, how we hire and who we promote. It’s the Boards we build and the policies and practices we recommend. It’s the values we live, and the cultures of inclusion we craft.

It also means we create processes and outcome measures that can be assessed. Most of us don’t like quotas and also don’t like tokenism; find a way to measure without marginalizing. You will need different metrics to measure awareness, education and transparency. 

To be clear, meeting measurements may not mean you’ve changed the culture. It’s one thing to bring in people of color. It’s another to create a culture that allows them to bring their full selves to work, to be their best selves and do their best work. Retention is a good metric with which to start. 

Representation also means not allowing all white leadership or all white boards. If that happens to be where you find yourself, commit to change. Question the process that got you there. Introduce the need for diversity, educate the group on why diverse groups make better decisions, and why homogeneous groups aren’t representative of the community you (likely) serve. Plant and cultivate the seeds for change.

Talk about and improve systems regarding diversity, equity and inclusion every chance you get.

Celebrate successes and call people in as necessary; commit to creating space for alternative opinions and alternative voices. Commit to not only inviting people to the table but making sure they are embraced and made to feel as if they belong. Also commit to being uncomfortable and to holding others accountable when they’re out of line.

The goal is awareness, understanding and appreciation. You may need to create cultural competency even as you’re changing the cultural make up and landscape. Agencies can’t diversify without changing the cultural cues and raising the competency to understand what different looks like.

Commit to improve the policies and practices at your organization to embrace people from all groups and eliminate the ones that alienate, or worse, discriminate. Critique all with an eye toward potential harm and then (work with the Board to) change what does not meet your new standards.

Differentiate between feeling intimidated and being intimidated

You may feel intimidated in the new more inclusive culture you’ve established, but that may have nothing to do with the actions of other people. Learn to discern the difference between feeling intimated and being intimidated.

Impact your sphere

Take a look at everything in your sphere of influence where you can affect change.

  • How is your organization investing their resources?
  • What are your hiring practices?
  • Where are you advertising your open positions?
    • If only white people apply, what do you do next?  (hint: shoulder shrugging is not the right answer; changing where you’re advertising might be.)
  • Who are you grooming for leadership?
  • Who is in your succession?

If you don’t like what you see, change it.

Send the elevator back down

We are all standing on other people’s shoulders. Make sure there are people who don’t look like you standing on yours. Create opportunities for leaders and potential leaders of color to grow and to learn, to safely make mistakes, and to step into their power.

Normalize and invite feedback

If someone calls you out, consider your role in whatever you’ve been accused of and commit to do better. None of us are going to get this right all the time. We have to be gracious enough to realize that and to welcome opportunities to learn.

Create mechanisms and space for feedback- in whatever form it’s offered.  Everyone comes to the table from the personal perspective of their own safety. It’s the leader’s job to create a culture of safety.

Some mechanism will have to be built; we can create the polices, practice and history that demonstrate our ability to hear, accept and integrate feedback and create trust.

Amplify leaders of color whenever possible.

We can amplify others’ voice. Compliment leaders publicly and provide opportunities for them privately. We can reinforce their statements, while giving them credit for making them. We can be an ally and an accomplice to their success. This is true of our colleagues in the community, our peers in the organization and also our team members.

For our teams, I’m going to dip back to the ma/paternalistic for a minute, and we have to, because white leaders are still the majority of leaders.

We can advocate for leadership projects and provide real ongoing feedback. We can position our up-and-coming or current leaders of colors to be in a place to receive public compliments. We can identify them privately with other (hopefully not all white) leaders, provide opportunities for them to take on projects to create a profile for them to publicly represent the organization.

We can find a way to put people of color in situations where they can shine which also advances the mission, and the work of justice.

Avoid performative statements and insist on action

A commitment to diversity is great but only if it moves the action forward. Commitment must be supported by action. It can’t just be on paper and then we all go along the way we always have. If you want change, you have to change.

Consider your place and your role

The questions where we began are tough, and so are you.

Yes, you should probably apply. The hiring decision isn’t yours to make. If you get the job, know that you have an obligation.

You have an obligation to develop every person on your team to become their very best, to be prepared for whatever role they aspire to next, to step into their power and away from feeling like they’re not worthy. You should push and support them in considering roles you see they’re capable of, even if they don’t.

If you are stepping down and you’ve developed your team, encourage them to apply and cheerlead for them to be hired. Consider also keeping an eye out for jobs outside of your organization. Social justice is advanced when we work together as a community to affect change.

Change management requires change in leaders as well.

It’s not enough to change the organization. We have to change ourselves.

It’s much easier to defend our values than to live up to them.

Let’s live up to them. If all we have are words and war, let’s talk. Let’s hold up, mentor and create opportunities for the leaders our communities need. Let’s be the change and let’s develop it in others as well.

This is the way we honor the values that we’ve spent our entire careers advancing.

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