I just wanted to share a thought regarding “worship of the written word” as a means of support for white supremacist culture. It is definitely true that there are many valuable and powerful ways to communicate other than in writing. Personally, I believe effective oration to be more a powerful form of leadership communication than writing, as a general rule. Even negative leaders know this, and use the spoken word to move people. Hitler, the iconic example of white supremacist leadership, comes to mind. He utilized the power of the spoken word as a means by which to stir and mobilize people.
As I mull over this particular topic, I am stumped as to how to address the value of documenting what has been agreed upon when people meet, talk, and arrive at consensus. I am a committed believer in the power of authentic dialogue. Unfortunately, if what has been agreed upon is not written down, we are all left to rely on our imperfect memories or scribbled notes. In mediation, for example, an important final step after dialogue results in an agreement is to write it down so that all the parties have the same version of what was said and agreed to. Documentation can prevent a great deal of confusion, frustration, conflict, and heartache.
I do believe that memos by themselves are an inadequate way to communicate important policy, changes, or other information that has significance to people. Having said that, I think important information needs to be shared both verbally as well as in documented form. The reason I say that is because dialogue provides opportunity for people to raise questions and express thoughts, and “the memo” provides clarification that can prevent confusion or unnecessary conflict.
The “White Supremacy Culture” article seems to be having internal conflict on this point, since the point “Either/Or Thinking” acknowledges the danger of good/bad, right/wrong thinking. To imply that there is something inherently suspect about memos or documentation is overly rigid and simplistic. I’d be much more comfortable with this particular topic if it were expanded to include a role for writing in a healthy and inclusive culture.
Thank you again for opening up an important topic!
Earlier this month, we had a great webinar with the women of The WISE Network. Kenya McKnight and ___ presented on how leadership development can dismantle systemic racism. Leadership that comes from and for community creates lasting changes that transverse generations of oppression and inequity.
Learn from them how we support leadership that is enduring and transformative?
See how taking an asset-based approach rather than deficit-based approach to leadership can transform the work of leadership development.
The WISE Network engages Black women in Minnesota to create lasting financial stability in their communities. Unlike other programs, they are not a typical nonprofit but rather a network working towards the economic stability of all of its members. Their program is a response to generations of redlining and disinvestments. The WISE Network is committed to dismantling systems of economic inequality and racism.
Come learn from the WISE Network's unique approach, and how leadership development programs can incorporate similar asset-based strategies to support the leadership of their communities and create lasting change and innovative solution to systemic problems.
LLC Webinar Series | WISE Network: An Innovative Approach to Supporting the Leadership of People of Color - Vimeo
Last November on the heels of our annual national convening, Creating Space, I felt compelled to sharpen the discussion about the ways in which leadership culture can work hand in hand with white supremacy to reinforce the status quo unless we are vigilant in our collective efforts of uncovering the blind spots in our thinking and behavior.
I was inspired by Elissa Perry and Susan Misra, from Management Assistance Group, who described this process (referenced in part 1 of the Blindspot Series, “White Supremacy Culture” by Tema Okun and Kenneth Jones) of understanding how the 13 characteristics of white supremacist culture show up in their work. This is the rigor we need to upend white supremacy and enact equity across communities. In my last blog post, I took on Individualism, Paternalism and Urgency. This month I address perfectionism, objectivity and the worship of the written word.
It’s interesting that in more than one presentation of the 13 characteristics of white supremacy, “perfectionism” was one of the first to receive pushback. Some described their commitment to perfectionism with pride and others as a mandate for people of color who feel the need to outperform white colleagues to counter bias. I understood these comments as an important affirmation of the desire to perform at one’s best.
These questions sent me back for a deeper dive into the article. I think that Okun and Jones are talking more about an all too familiar culture that siphons attention away from appreciation of good efforts and achievement with a laser focus on mistakes both in delivering and receiving feedback. Who hasn’t dwelled more on the minor critique than the positive acknowledgements, (yes I admit it, I have smarted over a constructive criticism more than makes sense). Why? The dominant culture, as Okun and Jone point out, confuses doing wrong with being wrong. It’s a culture where mistakes become personal and people feel shamed, blamed or are even punished in performance reviews.
We become good at what we do through practice and learning, and yet, the culture of perfectionism rewards knowing, not learning. I have heard jokes made about the “know and tell” phenomenon in leadership programs when participants feel the need to outshine each other, demonstrating their knowledge and know how. Leadership development should become the place where if we perfect anything, it’s our capacity for humility and learning. A learning stance will be one of the greatest antidotes for learning about different worldviews, and sitting with discomfort that is part of reckoning honestly with the characteristics of white supremacist culture.
Perfectionism is a perfect illustration of another characteristic of white supremacy culture: objectivity. The idea itself assumes an objective standard of ‘perfect’. There is no context for perfect. To what extent is the job I do on something, e.g. a newsletter, determined by the energy, time and funds available for a resource strapped organization? And then there is the matter of my own cultural bias (largely unconscious) about what a perfect newsletter would look like, which more likely comes down to what perfect looks like for someone of my race, class, age and gender (to name a few).
Most leadership programs promote norms and competencies with some confidence that there are objectively good practices. Perhaps it would be an interesting exercise to engage with participants in unpacking these standards: whose standards are they; in what context do they make sense; whose perspectives are not included; and who holds enough power to influence norms and standards?
Another way that objectivity plays out is the absolute elevation of deductive rational thinking. At Creating Space, Elissa provided a framework for acknowledging and working productively with emotions such as anger, fear, sadness and joy. (You can read more in MAG’s blog.) I was struck by the rareness and power of inviting emotion as an important resource for bringing more ways of knowing and fuller truth to our work. In privileging linear logic, emotion is often dismissed as irrational thinking. Some leadership programs that are part of major social justice change efforts like, the Move to End Violence and the Domestic Workers Alliance are using somatics programs like Forward Stance developed by Norma Wong to introduce multiple ways of knowing.
Worship of the Written Word
Using a ‘newsletter’ example in our newsletter awkwardly drew my attention to another characteristic of white supremacy culture: ‘worship of the written word’. The irony of writing about this is not lost on me, so this will be brief. We at LLC, have polished our writing and even reached a point 7-8 years ago of deciding that we needed to publish our work in glossy brochures if we wanted to be taken seriously. We ‘document’ like crazy and quite frankly, I am not sure that these efforts to capture wisdom have always proven effective in spreading learning. I can say from personal experience, I am more likely to look at images from a meeting that evoke something stronger about what happened than a report. Documenting, in the context of supervision, evokes anxiety and is a poor proxy for conversation and learning.
As we lift up leadership as a relational process, it is helpful to consider when the written word is serving connection, learning and action, and when we may benefit from multiple forms of sharing and traditions. I was completely rivetted by our last webinar, simply listening to two women tell their story. One leadership program, The Culture of Health Program, has supplemented their leadership application process with video submissions. Some leadership programs are making storytelling a part of their curriculum. I am in learning mode myself and eager for more of your stories.
I joined the Women’s March again this year in Oakland with 50,000 other women, children and men. I appreciated the call to action with a focus on midterm elections and... I think we need a much deeper conversation about leadership and democracy, who votes, who doesn’t and why (maybe next month). Being part of the march this year also caused me to reflect on an issue I have wanting to write about, #me too. It would probably be more accurate to say I have and haven’t wanted to write about it because it’s complex and emotionally triggering, as you can see from the machinations of my internal dialogue below.
Reasons not to write about #metoo
Reasons to write about #metoo
#metoo has been hijacked by Hollywood
Millions of women experience sexual harassment and violence
Tarana Burke started #metoo specifically to support women of color who survived sexual violence
Intersectionality and solidarity for the disproportional number of women of color experiencing sexual violence
It’s personal and triggering
Our daughters and the next generation
What’s it got to do with leadership?
It has everything to do with leadership
It’s hard for me to believe that most women my age do not have some #metoo stories that range from rude (and humiliating) comments to job repercussions and assault. Occasionally among friends stories are swapped, but I can honestly say that the #metoo conversation has caused me to pause and reckon with the full magnitude of the experience, personally and culturally. Days before I was supposed to graduate from college I learned that one of my professors had failed me. I had done all of the work (and quite well), but declined an invitation to his home for private tutoring (the invite was more overt than that). I went to my mentor who was chair of the department and his response... “oh, it has to be a misunderstanding, Ben and I are good friends. I am sure you can work it out.” It took me 10 years to work it out and get my record corrected and diploma issued. Of course, it was not an isolated incident, I also found myself warding off unpleasant overtures on jobs, in doctors offices, and public places.
I have been in more than one #metoo conversation when to my dismay I hear other women say things like, “I would never let any man get away with those kind of things” or “You have to think about what kind of situation you are putting yourself in.” I have to admit, I found myself uncharacteristically quiet and honestly, I felt a flush of shame wondering how my 18 year old self had been at fault or inept in my response. I am finding my voice and joining the #metoo dialogue because these conversations and the feelings that they trigger remind that we will not alter the culture of white male supremacy without talking about power, oppression and internalized oppression. So, let’s talk about the kinds of situations women are putting themselves into….going to school? to work? I will be the first to acknowledge that as a white middle class girl, not getting my degree or leaving an internship job (yes, a classic) when it got too uncomfortable did not keep me from putting food on the table.
For a lot of women, that is not the case. When I was a labor organizer, hotel and restaurant workers had horrific stories of sexual harassment and assault. Low income women workers have less job protections and less economic freedom to leave unsafe jobs. Women of color, transgender and queer women, and immigrant women are disproportionately affected by sexual violence and have good reason to fear the criminal justice system or mistrust that it will protect us. It’s not about just ‘speaking up’, it is about an abuse of power and silencing culture. I do worry that the Hollywood appropriation of #metoo will draw attention away from the work Tarana Burke has been doing for a decade to support women of color experiencing sexual violence. I hope that in the momentum created we can stand together to lift up the voices of those who are most vulnerable.
And, when I think now about what I put up with, I understand the external and internalized oppression that silenced me. People I tried to talk to at the time, both men and women, shrugged things off as “just the ways things are,” “reading into things,” “overblown and over reacting,” etc. As a young women, I internalized these messages and felt isolated in my experiences. I have talked with my daughters about how we as women should expect to be treated, enough to know that things are not all that different and, of course, the video tapes of our now president confirm this. Maybe if there is something different it is the conversation that Tarana started ten years ago to break our isolation and call out sexual harassment and assaults on women in all of its ugliness and magnitude.
What has this got to do with leadership? Lots of things. As I read about #metoo I was struck by Tarana Burke’s leadership in understanding that we heal together, and by overcoming isolation. Truth and healing are foundational to leadership. Authentic relationships are the substance of leadership. We can’t lead when women are objectified, and when the safety and dignity of women are not the concern of us all. At a meeting recently, Richard Woo, of the Russell Family Foundation told me he had been thinking a lot about #metoo and wanted to talk about what is was like for women in the workplace. I was moved by his question and concern. What a great starting place for understanding all that women are up against as they exercise leadership on the job, in schools, in neighborhoods. I hope these conversations occur in all of the spaces where we lead.
More than once I have heard the complaint that leadership program graduates, excited to apply what they are learning, often find themselves thwarted by others back at work. There are lots of reasons offered, bureaucracy, unsupportive supervisors, or lack of authority. There are also a number of remedies being tried...coaching, sessions on leading from the middle, and the recruitment of teams. These things may help, and yet until we address the most fundamental problem we are setting leadership graduates to fail, especially those from large institutions.
I found myself thinking about this when I was invited to facilitate a conversation about leadership with a department of 40 people in a large government agency of over 7,000 people. The group was dealing with an immediate crisis that was seriously impacting delivery of services. Adding to that, their division of over 400 had been without a director for many months. When invited, I was told that the biggest question plaguing the group was what to do when there is no leadership. My gut answer to what you do when there is no leadership, which of course sounds cliche without elaboration, was ‘lead!’.
I knew some of the people in the group and was scratching my head in wonder that so many people could feel stymied because one position was not filled, and I suspect they might feel the same way if the wrong person was in that position. I thought of leadership program graduates who express a similar sentiment. Why? It’s kind of a ‘catch 22’. Most leadership programs are still based on a ‘leader’ model, developing/training/preparing individuals with the skills to lead others. In the leader/follower model, if you are not the leader you are the follower and many leadership program participants return to professional contexts where others have more authority than they do. Granted most leadership programs acknowledge that leadership is not necessarily ‘positional’ at the same time they are promoting a model that is inherently hierarchical based on leadership ‘over’ others rather than ‘with’ others. LLC’s point of view, which I think bears repeating, is that we need a more expanded understanding of leadership as the process by which many people take action and learn together. I was curious to see what shifts if you reinforce an expanded view of leadership as a process rather than the lone actor.
I began the conversation with the group by sharing a couple of slides to reinforce the shifting leadership paradigm that recognizes the potential for leadership in everyone and the power of connected action. The deck included an example of what an informal network had been able to accomplish in the area of health innovation. Some of the slides are available here, although any reference to the agency has been removed. After a brief presentation, the group was moved into small groups to discuss the crisis and possible actions that they could take based on their connections with each other and with people outside of their division who could be tapped to help. The group was able to generate a lot of creative and actionable solutions that did not require a director or formal channels. What remains to be seen now is who among the group has the agency to step up and move the ideas forward after years of abdicating leadership to the formal positional leader. It is a leadership mindset shift that requires thinking differently about power and networks, and how things get done and about who can lead. These are questions rarely answered through organization charts in large institutions.
Without challenging the dominant individually centered model of leader, leadership programs are subtly preparing graduates to lead over or abdicate their leadership and be led. Instead, leadership programs can be helping individuals and groups understand network leadership to connect and lead with others across a variety of contexts, including bureaucracies.
This past Tuesday, Vigilant Love shared how they’ve built community in Los Angeles to build resilient community. Vigilant Love started as a response Islamophobia after terrorist attacks in the US and here are some key lessons from their final report.
Importance of Creating Healing Spaces by Bridging Communities
In addition to modeling this through their facilitation this week, Vigilant Love creates spaces where the leadership of people of color can take all forms. Vigilant Love holds spaces where everyone can be in a loving community to heal, and to activate their leadership from a place of strength and community. A key leadership competency to do this work is deep listening to create strong and authentic relationships.
Building A Community Consciousness
Vigilant Love began as a response to Islamophobia and to that effect, dismantling Islamaphobia and racism is the ultimate goal. VL works with multi-generations to continue on the arc of the work already done by elders in their community. Towards this, VL leaders remain in constant vigilance in what’s happening that affects communities. To dismantle inequity, leaders have to be aware of the systems and institutions that produce inequity.
Learn more from the Vigilant Love in the video below and join us to learn from the WISE Network this Thursday. The WISE Network works towards creating financial pathways for Black women and their families. Their collective helps Black women learn and practice how to build wealth and businesses within Black communities. Through virtual and in-person trainings, the WISE Network’s trainings dismantle systemic inequity for women in Minnesota and nationwide. Their goal is to address wealth gaps by creating access to opportunity and resources. Their work truly embodies leadership development as they continue to create access for leaders ready to take charge of their own lives and transform their communities for generations to come.
2018.01.16 LLC Webinar Series | Vigilant Love Final Report - Vimeo
Since Creating Space, I have been doing a lot thinking about the ways in which leadership programs often promote leadership models that reinforce the dominant culture. At Creating Space, Design Team Member, Elissa Sloan Perry, Co-Director of Management Assistance Group, shared a presentation on how white supremacist culture shows up in our organizations based on an article by Tema Okun and Kenneth Jones. We focused most of the discussion at Creating Space on organizational culture, which I later realized cannot be separated from leadership culture because after all, most leadership programs are preparing participants to lead in an organizational context.
I strongly recommend their article. They share thirteen characteristics of white supremacist culture, all of which resonated, and for the sake of this article and beginning this discussion, I chose three to share that I think are provocative and reveal leadership characteristics being cultivated in leadership programs that help to reinforce white supremacists culture. (In future articles I will share additional characteristics.)
Individualism: I don’t know how many times I have heard ‘its lonely at the top’ as a way of expressing the problems of being an Executive Director. It’s a telling sentiment. Individualism that is part of the dominant culture has made its way into normative thinking about leadership. People tend to believe (and are often taught) that being a leader means being the one with the vision (answers) who can make things happen. As a result, leaders do not delegate to others because they believe their ideas and abilities are superior. This bias about exceptional individuals causes us to look for the person to credit when something important is achieved and miss the fact that work is often accomplished by many people working together. Looking for credit and individual recognition drives competition and plays out in and across organizations. Leadership programs can bolster this distorted sense of individual importance that elevates the ideas and skills of the individual over the wisdom of the group. More leadership programs are countering this (though not enough programs) by emphasizing humility and listening, by developing team or collaborative programs, by making the individual work of leadership more about self-reflection and ego management rather than a toolkit for managing others.
Paternalism: Paternalism goes hand in hand with individualism. It’s part of the dominant leadership thinking that believes leaders know best and are leaders because of natural skill or even leadership development training, without of course considering access to opportunity afforded them and not others by systemic racism. I know this is a simplification but there are a number of leadership development programs (though far less than there used to be) that are developing leadership as a general skill set divorced from context. It’s something to consider as we professionalize the non-profit sector. In short, the key question becomes who has the best understanding of a problem, a non-profit focused on achievement gaps may be trying to address. The non-profit trained leaders or the kids, parents, teachers and neighbors in the school. Of course a ‘both/and’ response taps diverse resources but sadly, focus is usually on non profit leaders. Some leadership programs recognizing this problem are including processes for community engagement as part of their leadership development activities and encouraging values of listening and humility. A more systemic question though would be why are we trying to teach people to do a better job of listening to community instead of figuring out how to get leadership supports and resources directly to communities. Another example of this problem and the need to address this issue more systemically is that in a survey many years ago (lets hope it has changed) leadership programs serving mid career professionals in the non-profit sector were receiving and investing significantly more (often 10X more) than programs who were supporting grassroots leadership.
Urgency: Talk of ‘burn-out’ and ‘self- care’ are becoming conversation staples in the non-profit sector. Oken and Jones talk about the sense of urgency as a characteristic of white supremacist culture, and I found myself thinking about how urgency and burnout intersect. Leadership programs nurture the passion and commitments of people in the sector, and rightfully so, because we are all working on issues we feel deeply about. We often express this commitment by working long days and long weeks until we are utterly exhausted though we probably don’t use that word. Then the leadership intervention will probably teach us about the importance of self-care offering some frames that help for a time until they become another thing on the long ‘to-do’ lists of the already harried activists. In the industrial age the workforce was pressed into working faster and harder and when people ‘burnout’ there were others to take their place. It’s a mechanistic and oppressive view of people that serves production and has infiltrated the sector; and it’s hard for us to counter when the problems we are tackling, degradation of the planet and the massive incarceration of young people of color, are truly urgent. Still, there is little to suggest that if we just work harder and do more of what we are doing that we will make more progress. Leadership programs need to become the place where we can stop, reflect and build meaningful relationships with others who can help us asking the bigger questions about what is wrong with the system and how to change it.
I felt honored to be part of the Creating Space Design Team with an amazing group of leadership development funders, delivery partners, network and movement builders and racial justice champions. I was eager to learn from the team about how to create an event that would deepen our learning about the ways in which our approaches to supporting leadership for racial justice need to shift. I did not have to wait until me met in New Orleans to begin learning. I was struck by the fact that some of our conversations were filled with questions that people creating leadership development programs should also be asking, e.g. how would we honor the whole person and multiple ways of knowing; what does it mean to assume good intentions and look at impact; how do we hold space for courageous conversations; how are we thinking about power and whose knowledge is privileged; and how do we build authentic community? Hopefully, those of you who attended Creating Space experienced the benefits of the ways in which our inquiry shaped the design for our work together, e.g. storytelling, artistic expression, group commitments, reflection, physical movement, collective meaning making, honest conversation, music, poetry, analytical frameworks, practical lessons, design thinking, flexibility, dancing and ‘open space’ – a participant driven way of generating meeting content in real time. One of my important ‘take a ways’ was that maybe Creating Space was what it looked like to provide leadership support to people working on behalf of social and racial justice, simply put…maybe supporting leadership is really about marshaling our resources to create an equitable and inclusive space where people doing the work can come together and learn.
2017 is quickly coming to a close. In mid January, we first announced our network’s Action Learning Seed Fund to support the leadership of people of color. At the time, LLC hoped that eight of you would be able to join our selection committee to create eligibility criteria. To our humble surprise, 20 of you volunteered your time and went above and beyond, and in a matter of days we had a finalized application process, eligibility criteria, and even a selection and review process.
In the first week of February, the application launched via a webinar. However, word quickly spread, and in a matter of three weeks we had received 130 eligible applications. Overwhelmed by the numbers, we again reached out to you, our network, to help us review and select the final candidates. Our amazing selection committee, again came through and reviewed all the applications received. In addition, 109 of you reviewed the applications and the selection committee finalized the selections. In early April, we announced our finalists: Vigilant Love, the WISE Network, and Black Muslim Youth Rising. As a whole, this effort engaged over 500 people. With a staff of three, LLC could have only been able to do this in a networked way.
The work has continued through the year. We’ve had three of our four communities of practice. We hired Susan Misra from Management Assistance Group to co-host these sessions. Each of the sessions, has been focused on augmenting the leadership of people of color. In August, we shared some of what we learned together in one of our sessions. The grant projects will be completed in the coming days. As the funding comes to a close, and in our next community of practice, we will be reflecting on the next steps for these projects.
In the meantime, we wanted to cordially invite you to join us for final reports! This effort could not have happened without all of your time, support, energy, and your willingness to step up to do this work. From the beginning, LLC felt that we, the staff, were not truly the “funders” but rather that you, the network are truly the philanthropists. The way that you all contributed to these efforts represented that. As such, finals reports will be webinars. You are all invited to hear from each project, learn from their process, and of course, come ask questions. Please add the following dates to your calendars and learn with us about how to support the leadership of people of color on the ground.
Last month June Holley presented on the importance of Network Governance and Structures. We were introduced to a plethora of examples, but did not have much time to dig into some of the models. Join us on December 6th for 90 minutes of hands-on virtual practice where you will be able to talk and get ideas from other networks. June with be accompanied by Tracy Kunkler of Circle Forward Partners and Steve Waddell, who will share some resources about governance models and processes for networks.
As part of registration you will take a short survey so we can all see the range of network governance models in the room, the challenges you are facing and interest in new models. During the session we will break up into groups based on topics you generate where you will have a chance to share with others.
Please plug in your webcams and have earphones ready to roll up your sleeves and practice.
June Holley has been weaving economic and community networks for more than 25 years. In 1981 she discovered complexity science and became intrigued with the process of transformation. How could communities change in ways that would make them good places for everyone?
With others in Appalachian Ohio, she catalyzed cascades of experimentation, observing and documenting the dynamics that enabled many hundreds of people to start and then expand businesses. With these entrepreneurs, she mobilized dozens of area organizations to collaborate, self-organize and create an environment that would help these businesses innovate and work together.
Tracy Kunkler is a professional facilitator, consultant, and co-founder of Circle Forward, a nexus of frameworks and approaches to collaborative governance and decision-making. With years of community development experience, she is responding to her clients’ needs for more adaptive ways of governing how they work together, make decisions, create inclusion, empower leadership, and distribute power – to bring about more effective and equitable results in large scale systems change.
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