In “Building Resilient Organizations,” Maurice Mitchell begins to lay out some of the challenges that organizations face today; he suggests that organizations reorient and focus on the broader struggle as a “north star.” Organizations are rife with tensions and riddled with contradictions as Mitchell points out. We believe that one way to address those contradictions and build truly liberatory organizations is to invest in transformative leadership development that offers remedies, tools, practices, and comradery. At Community Change, we intentionally focus on strengthening leaders in the movement –– by tackling some of the hardest parts –– the internal.
This year marks five years of Power 50, and as we gear up for our fifth cohort of women of color leaders from across the nation we’ve been reflecting on what it looks like to truly invest in the leadership of women of color as well as the power liberatory curriculum and programming has on changing not just individuals, but organizations and campaigns. As Trish Tchume, founder of Power 50 and current Senior Director of Leadership Research and Practice at the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, put it: “Spaces for movement leaders to step away, reflect, recharge, reground in their own wisdom, cultivate community, and try out new ideas are absolutely necessary for developing the shared analysis, rejection of limiting beliefs, creative strategies, and deep coalitions, that healthy movements require.
We’re excited to share below some ways Power 50 is doing that.
Transformative Organizing – our foundational approach
Organizing that makes space for transformations of self, organizations, and systems is necessary for us to defeat the fear, cynicism, and divide-and-conquer tactics of fascism. Transformative organizing teaches the same political education, mobilization, and strategic power-building as transactional organizing, but it emphasizes long-term vision, self-awareness, naming and addressing oppression that is replicated in our strategies, and the healing of personal suffering.
It’s an outgrowth of community organizers’ dissatisfaction with short-term wins, political setbacks, and organizers’ struggles to maintain balance and fruitful relationships in their personal and professional lives.
Here are five ways our women of color leadership development programs are transforming leadership in the movement.
1) Examining how our different identities and interlocking oppressions impact how we show up personally, interpersonally, organizationally, and as movement actors
Our movements cannot get to collective liberation if the people and the institutions who are leading them are not doing the work of dismantling systemic oppression, internally and externally. Organizations, leaders, and organizers are part of the same ecosystem of capitalism, white supremacy, and patriarchy that we are working to dismantle. Understanding that our internal liberation is inextricably connected to the external is critical to making long-lasting change.
In a previous Forge article, “How Not to Dismantle White Supremacy”, panelists discussed what we believe is one of the most formative resources for providing a framework and a lens through which we can understand harmful practices that stem from white supremacy culture: Tema Okun’s “White Supremacy Culture.” Though it is mainly a criticism of the framework, the Forge piece also provides a few clear points on why Okun’s article resonates. In Power 50, Okun’s article has been a key resource that has helped to provide language for the experiences that many women of color leaders face.
For many leaders of color navigating white supremacy culture in the movement and the Western world more broadly, it can be difficult to understand our environment and Okun’s article gives us an opportunity to name what’s actually happening to and around us. Okun’s article has been used as a great tool for reflection and analysis that leads us into expansive conversations around how to disrupt harmful practices and move away from characteristics that are not serving us to imagining what moving in a liberatory way looks and feels like.
Internalized racism and sexism disorganize movement leaders and organizations through conscious and unconscious routes. These take the form of habits and practices that we adopt from systemic racism and patriarchy. Examining how these habits show up in ourselves and our organizations helps us to see where we might need to shift our habits and practices away from ones that might be harmful toward building new liberatory ones. In our program, we do this by taking folks through a journey of acknowledging and naming how habits of white supremacy and patriarchy show up first in ourselves and then in our leadership.
Nayda Benitez, a fellow from the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition, has shared how the program helped her name and recognize practices of white supremacy such as a sense of urgency. “Since the program I’ve become an organizing and campaign manager, and I think a lot about my team. Something I’ve been taught, it’s that there is always a sense of urgency which is a symptom of white supremacy. I’m not saying that there aren’t matters that are not pressing or urgent, but this culture seeps into every aspect of our work –– like our meetings, agendas being packed, even last year, respecting people’s time, not everything needs to start right away and being flexible with one another. Recognizing how white supremacy can show up in our organizations is key to transforming social justice movements.”
Benitez also shared, “We’ve been trying to figure out a leadership structure that’s more horizontal and holistic. When it comes to decision-making – we try to arrive at a consensus. Some of these leadership models are actually rooted in indigenous teachings about what it really means to share power. Through our strategic planning we are trying to restructure our organizing and campaigns model.”
Our fellows often name struggles that they have lived with for longer than they have been in leadership that are sometimes tied to beliefs they adopted from childhood. This awareness helps us see how deeply rooted these practices are in ourselves and thus how challenging they can be to let go of.
The practice also invites a level of vulnerability with ourselves and one another as we see that we are all struggling with different challenges. Together, we begin the process of moving towards liberated practices. Beyond themselves, fellows are invited to reflect on how internalized racism and sexism show up in their work and campaigns.
One concept we use as a tool for examining this is called “creaming,” or, the practice of forcing our movements to fit into white supremacist structures and white dominant culture by excluding those most in need. The term was originally coined by the disability rights movement, where organizers began whitewashing campaigns by determining who could be front-facing, what kind of language could be used, and avoiding “radical demands” so they could be more palatable for white audiences. In our work, we are intentional about how we frame our campaigns to be mindful of the long-term impact of today’s choices on Black and brown communities.
2) Building deep relationships and practicing interdependence
We often hear organizers talking about the importance of building relationships in the movement. Traditionally, relationship building in organizing was a tool to grow one’s base and achieve the larger goals of campaigns. It is an issue-first model that focused only on commonalities and commitments to what we were organizing around, whether that was for affordable housing, or better maternal health practices.
This model is one that values quantity –– how many people are in our base –– over quality –– how deep those relationships are. Within organizations, the same approach is used where performance is measured by a similar model and little to no investment is made in relationship-building within institutions. This also plays into the notion that as organizers and leaders we should separate our personal identities and experiences from the work we are doing. But we know that the two are intrinsically linked and creating space for organizers to be their whole selves makes the movement stronger and purposeful. Without giving space to bring our full selves to the work, we risk excluding parts of people that are necessary to build truly transformative solutions to the challenges that movements are up against. This can lead to exploitation, tokenization, lack of trust, and folks burning out and leaving the movement.
Instead of this kind of issue-first relationship building, what would it mean to be in a “deep relationship” with one another?
As Maurice Mitchell said in his recent article on building resilient organizations: “When people do not feel like they’re in a transactional, extractive relationship, that also helps us get serious about staff retention.” He added, “if we value experience, emotional maturity, and diversity,” we have to develop “the systems, practices, and culture that create workplaces where people stay and thrive long term.”
Building deep relationships internally and with the organizations we work with is just as important as the organizing work we do around issues. We have to acknowledge that sometimes this is difficult when we are playing defense on the issues impacting our communities. However, it’s those deep relationships that sustain us as organizers and help us stay in the fight.
Some examples of how we do this in our programs include:
- Practicing vulnerability. Vulnerability is the foundation of deep relationships. If we understand that vulnerability breeds vulnerability, we create a chain reaction that starts with modeling as facilitators by sharing our own personal stories of self-awareness, growth, imperfection and joy –– showing our complexities in their beauty and splendor. We create the conditions for folks to lean into hard questions and reflection by setting the container through liberated zones or liberatory collective agreements that guide the space we share. We invite people to be themselves and to remove the masks of their titles –– roles they may hold whether assigned or not –– and just exist in the space. Moving beyond positional power and the constraints of these movement roles helps us get real with each other.
- Peer coaching and buddy systems. Peer coaching provides a space for continued learning and developing stronger problem solving skills with the support of your peers. This approach involves setting up a group of fellows who stick with each other through the 9-month cohort and come together through monthly sessions where they share challenges and reflections from their experience as women of color leaders and provide support to each other. Similarly, setting up a buddy system allows for an even more intimate setting where leaders can build deeper relationships with one person. The buddy system pairs up fellows to foster deep relationships and accountability throughout the cohort.
Being a woman of color leader can often feel isolating. Peer coaching and buddy systems can be sanctuaries where leaders can feel safe to talk about their experiences and seek clarity, receive affirmation, or challenge each other’s blind spots with love. This mixed approach also takes into account introverted leaders who tend to be more vulnerable in 1:1 settings. In our space we call this “homegirls.” We would like to think that it’s the issues alone that keep us in the fight, but in reality many of us stay in it because we have someone who reminds us that when times get hard we have to come back to our purpose. It’s also a space to celebrate all of our wins no matter how big or small they may seem.
- Practicing Interdependence. Interdependence is about acknowledging that we don’t have to do everything on our own. This practice counters traditional notions of white supremacy that tell us that we must find solutions to problems on our own, that we must be competitive, and that our value is based on how much we do or if we have the “best idea.” It bucks the notion that healing should be done on our own, in private. Interdependence invites us into a new way of thinking and being that practices community and peer reliance.
We want to create teams and organizations that are not structured in ways that depend on individuals to thrive, like issue-work does, but rather foster collective thriving. We do this by introducing this concept of interdependence to challenge traditional notions and build in models such as “homegirls” and peer coaching. Fellows also get to apply this idea when invited to co-hold teach back sessions at the end of the cohort program. Here they are encouraged to work as peers to develop and facilitate sessions on topics they learn in the program.
Interdependence is more than just the idea that we are holding hands, it’s about making sure that the same people are not holding all the work, that all ideas and perspectives are considered, that true democracy is being practiced. It’s bringing an equity lens and taking into account the needs of individuals and the group –– that some folks can step back and some folks can step up at different times –– creating harmony and balance in how we do the work. Supporting each other and asking for help when we need it. . In this collective effort, we can bolster our movements so they don’t live and die by a few individuals.
- Practicing deep accountability. Accountability is an important part of our movement and program. We are creating a culture of mutual accountability that moves away from only a punitive response and, instead, leans into a commitment of building deep relationships. For accountability to take place within trusted relationships –– we need to understand how to repair harm when it is done and when commitments fall short. We do this through the practice of radical candor and inviting folks into honest and real feedback with each other.
As part of this, we invite leaders to get curious about what’s showing up for us, assumptions we are holding, and how we or the work has been impacted by harmful actions or lack of commitment. An important piece of the process is to name what folks need to forgive/be forgiven for and shift behavior for the future. This practice is only possible when we are able to trust and rely on each other (i.e. interdependence). We notice this is the space that brings about the most anxiety for leaders and being in the practice of accountability throughout the programs reinforces the interdependence we speak about above. We found that building space for feedback into our time together transforms accountability.
3) Leaning into ancestral wisdom
Women of color leaders carry the wisdom of our ancestors in our bodies. White supremacy has worked to try and erase indigenous, Black, and brown history and practices that were the source of so much joy, resilience, and power. How do we reconnect with ourselves and our ancestors? In our program, practices such as ancestor stories invite fellows to reflect on resilience practices and ancestral teachings –– both familial and otherwise –– that folks either experienced or were influenced by and how they may use them in their organizing. This centering practice helps to ground women of color leaders in the knowledge that they have a legacy of wisdom, strength, creativity, resilience, and many other attributes from which they can recognize their own greatness. It recognizes that leadership is expansive and there are multiple ways of knowing how to lead.
It also helps us explore hard skills that we have learned through our families that live within us and that are not always considered or listed on our traditional resumes. The women in my family taught me how to build teams and how to trust my own judgment, by showing me how to make Puerto Rican Sofrito. Sofrito, a fragrant blend of herbs and spices, is used in cooking throughout the Caribbean especially in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. Sofrito is the foundation of any good Puerto Rican meal. The better the sofrito, the better the meal. The same for teams, campaigns, and projects.Sofrito is the foundation of any good Puerto Rican meal and teams are the sofrito of any good movement, workspace, or sport. Together they can make anything happen. In balance everything is good, but out of balance, when one ingredient or person takes up too much space, the meal and the work can be ruined.
The same goes for my leadership. I know trusting my judgment and gut is important. The practice of balancing the sofrito and adding what I thought was needed built my muscle to know when something is off or when something is missing and most important, to know when I am right. This ancestral practice is what I take with me every day and that I hope to pass on to my future generations.
There are things that we know that we can reclaim –– talents that have been left behind in history and discredited because of the world we live in. Ancestral wisdom reminds us leadership comes in many shapes and forms.
4) Reframing conflict as generative and part of principled struggle
Author and activist adrienne maree brown names how we create more possibilities for what we can do together in the world when we perceive conflict and difference as an opportunity, or a gift, to expand our capacity to be in solidarity. “When we put our attention on conflict and difference in this way, it allows us to grow our capacity to be in integrity and unity with each other,” brown writes. In our leadership development work with women of color, we lean into conflict because 1) we fully expect it to arise as we convene leaders engaged in complex, deeply personal work; and 2) we believe that whatever conflict harvests is more valuable than what currently exists.
Being open to conflict is necessary if leaders and organizations are to move in a way of “principled struggle,” or struggling for the sake of deepening our collective understanding and getting to greater unity. Principled struggle, an approach coined by Black Feminist leader N’Tanya Lee, is a key concept we talk about in our leadership development programs because we believe that this way of moving acknowledges the complexities of ourselves and the social and political landscape we operate in and it allows us to focus on building deep relationships and creating stronger movements that stand up to fascist ideologies.
The practice of principled struggle and generative conflict is easier said than done. Conflict can threaten relationships, team dynamics, programs, campaigns, and so much more. This can be disappointing and even feel personal for folks who are directly exposed to or are witnessing the conflict. But when we perceive struggle as an opportunity, we can take solace in knowing that conflict is not an indication of failure or delay in progress. In our programs we take participants through a journey of discovery around what it looks like to take a generative approach when conflict arises:
- Recognizing when conflict is present. How conflict shows up can be nuanced. In our leadership development programs we intentionally create a container for engaging constructively in learning and exchange that is held by self-aware facilitators who are trained to step in at critical moments when conflict arises to gently call people in. Conflict can be more obvious when people express emotions of anger, sadness, or discontent but can also be subtle through lack of engagement, being withdrawn, or feeling stuck in a situation.
Conflict can also be internal and not just between people. We offer exercises such as journaling that invite participants to recognize and observe feelings and what’s showing in our bodies for unspoken tensions might exist with ourselves. In conflict situations when emotions, agitation, and anxiety are high we tend to default to autopilot mode, where unconscious thoughts and behaviors take over. This also includes how we communicate with others.
- Understand that everyone handles conflict differently. If we believe in interdependence and principled struggle, then understanding and being aware of how we tend to show up in conflict allows for us to choose to lean into generative conflict so that something more becomes more possible. In our program we illustrate three examples (the Mental Escapist, the Radical Edge, and the Chaos Maker) as nonjudgmental illustrations of conflict styles that anyone can have at different moments when we feel out of place, out of our bodies, overwhelmed, or under-prepared among other feelings. We go through how each of these can look when they happen, try and understand how they impact a space, offer guidance around how facilitators and other folks present can call person (s) in and up – and what gift this offers.
5) Healing and somatics practices that connect us with our body as a tool of wisdom and information
Traditionally our movements have leaned on practical strategies and approaches to win. However, we know that some things simply can’t be solved alone with an electoral or campaign strategy. We must develop a deeper analysis that centers the humanity and experiences of the most impacted as they power through the movement every day. For women of color leaders who experience systemic racism and sexism, the physical and emotional toll is real. So real that researchers have studied the impact of racism on women of color, or “weathering,” and found that there are actual health impacts from racial stressors that lead to chronic conditions such as cardiovascular disease, poor immune system, and diabetes among others.
There are collective and individual traumas that exist in our movements. We need to take a holistic approach to winning that centers healing for our fragmented society. In our women of color leadership programs, we focus on creating opportunities for folks to connect with their bodies and recognize where trauma lies and how it manifests in and through us. We acknowledge that holding and experiencing trauma is not a stigma and does not make you a weak leader, and we help folks practice empathy and compassion for ourselves and each other. We do so so that we can continue to organize, continue to build power, and continue to build healthy movements that win.
Looking toward the future
After five years of Power 50, we’ve seen how impactful leadership building programs can be on leaders and organizations when we take a liberatory approach.
We know that doing the internal work of building healthy organizations can be hard, but we can’t deny that we are being called in and up more than ever and that ignoring the call is irresponsible. Organizers and leaders are asking for change and our leadership development programs offer ways that we can do this work without sacrificing our external strategies.
If we want to be in this long-term, we must find ways to take care of our people.
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