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Markita Morris-Louis’ success strategy for women in leadership

Markita Morris-Louis. February 27, 2018 Category: FeatureFeaturedLongPeople
As we take a look at women in leadership and the challenges they face to get there — and how those barriers to leadership disproportionately affect women of color — it’s important to note examples of women who surpassed those limitations.

Markita Morris-Louis is one of those leaders with a strategy she’s willing to share.

The North Philly native made the switch from real estate law to her current work in supporting affordable housing efforts five years ago. She’s now the SVP of community affairs and general counsel at Clarifi, which provides financial counseling and financial literacy support.

Beyond her position at Clarifi, Morris-Louis is a board member and former board president at Regional Housing Legal Services; she’s on the board of directors of the Homeless Assistance Fund, Inc., which works to help homeless folk transition into sustainable housing situations; and she was recently elected vice chair of the Affordable Housing Advisory Council of FHLBank Pittsburgh, which supports affordable housing in Pennsylvania, Delaware and Ohio.

And in June, she graduated as a member of the inaugural Philadelphia African American Leadership Development Forum, a five-month professional development program for Black nonprofit leaders.

Here’s Morris-Louis’ advice for other women seeking leadership positions.

Expect — and celebrate — the unexpected.

Because of her diverse professional experiences, Morris-Lewis now frequently finds herself breaking down organizational silos while representing Clarifi in a number of partnerships, including one recently forged to work on preventing eviction and homelessness in Philadelphia that includes coalition members such as Community Legal Services and the City of Philadelphia.

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While Morris-Louis’ career path from real estate law to financial nonprofit work, which includes affordable housing, may seem clear to some, she said, “I wish I could say ‘Yes! Twenty years ago I had this vision, I would be in this space!’ But it’s a blessing, and it’s kind of more of the luck and where my career led me.”

She noted that she’s not alone in having career surprises and change in routes: “[Career paths for women] are often non-linear. And you have to be comfortable with that.”

When lending your time, choose wisely.

Morris-Louis has offered her mentorship to women navigating the nonprofit workforce.

“I’m often a referral for women who are looking to get out of big law and move into something different, since that was a major significant transition for me five years ago,” she said.

While she admits she wishes she could do more, she makes sure to know her limits: “I also have to be honest about my time limitations, but I certainly do try to help women think about their professional trajectory.”

Have a personal and professional “board of directors.”

Morris-Louis recommends women surround themselves with supportive folks they can call on for guidance, feedback or just a sympathetic ear.

“I have my go-to folks who keep me sane and focused and help me think strategically and creatively about professional decisions I’m making in my life,” she said. “I have a professional board of directors, but I also have a personal village.

“You need folks who will give it to you straight, no chaser. And also just sometimes be your sounding board! And they know the difference. They know when I’m seeking advice and they know when I’m seeking a listening ear. And that’s the beauty of my personal board of directors.”

When you find them, keep them.

Your personal and professional boards can be people from any period in your life, Morris-Louis said, so long as they have the ability to give clear advice.

“It can be someone you’ve known forever, who’s known you in a different space, and someone who’s only known you in your current space, who can offer interesting insights in where you want to be, where you think you might be headed,” she said.

What’s most important is retaining them — and seeing their value.

“I truly believe that in friendships and also in professional life, you’re not going to get everything you need from one person,” she said, “and thankfully I have enough introspection to acknowledge them as such, and see the value they bring in my life for that thing or those things.”

Consider the effects of intersectional discrimination.

When asked to recount a time when she experienced gender discrimination as a barrier in the workplace, Morris-Louis pointed directly back to her time in real estate law — but, she added, “for me, my gender and race are so closely intertwined I’m unable to say that one was gender-related and one was race-related because I carry my identity as a Black woman very intentionally. I can’t hide it, these are not identities that I can obscure or can choose to obscure.”

“It can be difficult sometimes to tell which is at play, and sometimes it’s just the natural interplay between them,” she went on. “I’ve heard, ‘Which one do you choose first?’ Is somebody being racist or sexist to me? I don’t know. And again, the identities are so intertwined, it’s like asking me to choose between my children. It’s my existence. It’s how I present to the world. And I don’t know if the world is making the decision between [the two].”

Next steps? Acknowledging pay gaps — among women.

Following that, Morris-Louis said she hopes that the Time’s Up movement has made the conversation about equal pay, and its barriers for women of color in particular, more salient.

“I think the Time’s Up movement has hopefully crystallized that for folks who were unaware,” she said — then added with a laugh, “the conversation between Octavia Spencer and Jessica Chastain if nothing else!”

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