This month at Generocity we are focusing attention on leaders of color. So we asked some leaders from across the nonprofit, social impact and civic sectors to tell us: what has the most significant impact on leadership of color?
We think you’ll agree that these extraordinary folks provided answers filled with hard truths and genuine insights.
And they namechecked other leaders of color who inspire them and have served as a role models in their own trajectories to becoming leaders.
So, in alphabetical order, check out all the excellence ….
“You use your leadership superpowers for good and continue the work.”
president and CEO
When you take your first steps into leadership you carry with you the clear and unequivocal understanding that no matter how much education you’ve attained or how much you’ve accomplished in your chosen field, you will always have to work twice as hard as your counterparts who are not leaders of color. This realization, intensified and supported today by a political atmosphere that encourages racism as a right, disproportionately impacts women, who despite many of the diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, continue to have a shorter tenure in the C-suite.
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This all can be daunting, exhausting and more than a little disheartening. But you use your leadership superpowers for good and continue the work, developing new strategies and coping techniques to rise above the fray. Keep close your stop-at-nothing work ethic, your commitment to excellence and, perhaps most importantly, your genuine desire to help other people of color challenge the status quo.
As my mentor and friend, Yolanda Gaskins, first African American female news anchor at CNN and principal at Gaskins Media Works reminds me, “As a woman of color in a leadership position you awake each morning to a minefield of challenges. If your purpose is clear and you move carefully toward each objective with humility and integrity, you will arrive safely at the end of the day a far better leader. Only then can you help other women of color walk the same leadership path and stay the course.”
“The biggest impact for me as a POC in a leadership position is … to no longer be invisible.”
Senior programs manager
The biggest impact for me as a POC in a leadership position, having come from a white-led organization, has been to be seen and validated.
To no longer be invisible but celebrated for my perspective on being an immigrant.
“Feeling inextricably linked to collective progress is an integral quality to leading as a person of color.”
vice president, charitable foundation program manager
I believe that leaders of color, particularly within the public sector, share a sense of collective responsibility to the communities in which we live, work, and play. Those who are motivated by that sense of responsibility last far longer and have much deeper impacts than those interested in acclaim or financial gain. Feeling inextricably linked to collective progress is an integral quality to leading as a person of color.
As such, I’d say I stand beside — not on the shoulders of — the following leaders of color in Philadelphia: Rev. Dr. Lorina Marshall Blake of the Independence Blue Cross Foundation, Jasmine Sessoms of the Community College of Philadelphia, and of course, my colleague, Dominique Goss of the TD Charitable Foundation.
“What has had the most significance as a queer Latinx in leadership roles … is an intentionally supportive community.”
For me, what has had the most significance as a queer Latinx in leadership roles within various nonprofit organizations in Philadelphia is an intentionally supportive community or individual. We need folks we can lean on, trust, seek advice, and just check in to make sure that what we are experiencing is, in fact, often times rooted in white dominance and patriarchy.
One of the most healing, powerful spaces I have been a part of is the Women of Equity group. This is a group that meets monthly between April-December for women of color working in nonprofits. We share stories and console one another. I have found it incredibly comforting to share various incidents and for others to validate my feelings and assure me that, in fact, I am not crazy. Investing in environments like this has a huge impact on leadership of color. Similarly, I have found that my role as a leader of color is to serve as a source of support for other people of color — those who are trying to get their foot in the door, or more seasoned folks who are grappling with conflict. We need to look around, hold the door open for others to emerge as leaders, and then support one another in our respective roles.
Towards that end, the leaders of color whom I admire are Kris Smith and Amadee Braxton — the two folks who facilitate the Women of Equity groups. They host us and help to create a space where true healing, transformation, and affirmations can occur. They give so much of themselves —all in the name of supporting women of color [helping us] survive and thrive in the nonprofit industrial complex. They help us be whole and I truly could not sustain in this work were it not for them.
“Badass advocates rooted me in the values of a collective vision and a community’s right to self determination.”
“Leadership of color means that our multiracial community movements have a powerful route to make change. To me, it’s essential for leaders of color to engage, broaden and strengthen our community movements and create models for collaborative decision-making.
Most of us are the first, or only, leaders of color within our respective professional spaces, and we face deeply entrenched systems of institutionalized racism, misogyny and gendered hate, and white supremacy. The counter to that is to build power with, and for, the communities and movements who were doing the work long before me and will continue it long after I am gone.
I feel blessed to have learned these lessons from a trio of amazing AAPI women leaders: Ellen Somekawa, Debbie Wei, and Mary Yee. Through their work with Asian Americans United, these badass advocates rooted me in the values of a collective vision and a community’s right to self determination. My work pays homage to their ethic of caring for community, for self, and for the movements to come.
“In some ways, my leadership might not be mine alone, but perceived as a collective triumph.”
president and CEO
For much of my career, I’ve had the great honor of leading some of the region’s most important and impactful nonprofits. Midway through my career, I had a most memorable exchange with a nonprofit leader of color.
She pointed out that very few of the most recognized nonprofits in Philadelphia are led by people of color and, worse, that our absence was most pronounced amongst nonprofits serving our City’s most vulnerable communities.
She cautioned me not to underestimate how important it would be to those we served and those who we employed, all largely people of color, to see someone like me in leadership. That, in some ways, my leadership might not be mine alone, but perceived as a collective triumph.
“I’ve seen far too many remarkably talented people of color tell themselves they are not worthy or ready for leveling up.”
Chief strategy officer
Imposter syndrome has a huge and deleterious effect on leaders of color and limits how we see and respond to opportunity. It’s a byproduct and tool of patriarchy and white supremacy and it requires us to reframe how we see our worth and to view external acknowledgements of our value as deservedly owed and earned.
I’ve seen far too many remarkably talented people of color tell themselves they are not worthy or ready for leveling up. My advice is to accept that we aren’t given opportunities for which we aren’t already overqualified. When we’re asked to move to a new level it’s because we’ve long been outperforming at that level.
“It’s important for me to keep the community I’m a part of at the center of what I try to do on a daily basis.”
Project editor, Broke in Philly
It’s important for me to keep the community I’m a part of at the center of what I try to do on a daily basis over any personal professional goals and aspirations.
It’s a privilege I don’t take lightly: the opportunity to serve as a resource and a mentor in addition to a check on how people of color are covered and represented.
I believe it’s something most leaders of color hold up as a guiding principle. Ed Bradley is one of my role models in this sense because it was understood that it was one of his [guiding principles].
“I struggled to find someone similar to me, someone I could relate to, to be my mentor.”
CEO and editor in chief, Indonesian Lantern
Microlending officer, FINANTA
More than 250 people attended The 2020 Social Innovations Awards event on Thursday, January 23, at Independence Blue Cross’s new Innovation Center in Center City, Philadelphia. Around 60 of them were finalists for the awards, including me. I didn’t see many Asians among the attendees. I felt a little lonely but I wasn’t surprised.
Nonprofit boards are 78.6 percent white, 7.5 percent African American, 4.2 percent Latino American, and 2.6 percent Asian American, according to The Impact of Diversity: Understanding How Nonprofit Board Diversity Affects Philanthropy, Leadership, and Board Engagement. It’s a study based on survey responses from 1,597 nonprofit CEOs and 409 board chairs conducted by the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy in partnership with Johnson, Grossnickle and Associates and BoardSource.
The U.S. population, by comparison is, 76.9 percent white, 13.3 percent African American, 17.8 percent Latino American, and 5.7 percent Asian American, per census data.
I remember when I started volunteering and then working at a nonprofit in Center City in 2004, I didn’t see many Asians among the employees or board members. I struggled to find someone similar to me, someone I could relate to, to be my mentor. Every time I went to a meeting or networking event, I tried to find Asian nonprofit professionals, someone I thought I could really learn from.
Then one day, while working with my supervisor who was an African American lady, I realized: she is truly someone I have been looking for. She doesn’t look like me, but she thinks like me, she could understand my struggles as an immigrant and a woman of color who tried to find her voice in the philanthropic world in Philadelphia.
After that eureka moment, I know where to look for leaders as great examples of people doing phenomenal work.
Sometimes I wonder why there are very few Asians who work in the nonprofit world. Sometimes I wish I could see more of them around. But I know many Asians who are making a real difference in our beloved community. I notice many Asians among the people of color who are giving back and advancing our communities whether they have formal titles or not.
Seeing more Asians, especially Asian women in leadership roles in the nonprofit world, is a dream I am working on every day. This is not only for me or for my daughter, but also for a better and more just America.
“I have a responsibility to those who came before me, and the 3,000 ancestors on whose shoulders I stand.”
director of income and financial stability (community impact)
As Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King stated “The time is always right to do what is right.” This statement continuously resonates with me. As a leader of color, one cannot afford to wait for access to opportunity — because it is often not freely given, and therefore, has the ability to threaten advancement. As a leader you must be willing to take risk, be a change agent and disruptor, understanding that the acquisition of education and experience will be key in the journey — even when being narrowly viewed by those seated at the table, even if never forgetting the expectations that must be exceeded to have a chance of being seated.
As a leader of color, having been academically trained at Howard University and Clark Atlanta University, I am grounded in the understanding I have a responsibility to those who came before me, and the 3,000 ancestors on whose shoulders I stand.
Even with the highest degree in the land, and part of the 1% who have them, it has often not been enough. But despite this reality — as a leader of color — when the opportunity is presented, you must seize it, and be obsessed with achieving greatness, and making impact for those who are counting on you.
“Leaders of color are more than the results of their struggles.”
Leaders of color are more than the results of their struggles — but there can be no denying that their personal experiences give them a unique perspective on systemic challenges and issues of inclusion. This is especially important in the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors.
I think the strongest leaders of color seek to open the doors for others, to the extent that they can. One local leader I admire in this regard is Helen Gym. She got to City Council and, in addition to advancing progressive legislation informed by the community, she worked to open the door for other women of color to follow. You saw her supporting a Latina candidate, Erika Almirón, and an African American candidate, Kendra Brooks.
That kind of making space and BIPOC solidarity is something I strive for in my own work.
“There must be an awareness of the diminishing value of focusing solely on performance.”
I believe that leaders of color would benefit from understanding the concept of PIE that author Harvey Coleman wrote about in the ’90s. PIE is an acronym for Performance, Image, and Exposure. To ascend from an individual contributor to a leader inside of an organization or externally as a civic leader, there must be an awareness of the diminishing value of focusing solely on performance. As you move up the proverbial leadership ladder, performance eventually becomes table stakes.
To excel as a leader, people of color must build their image, a.k.a. personal brand, and exposure to the right stakeholders. Doing so will keep you “on the top of minds and tip of tongues” when opportunities arise. It’s not “who you know” that counts; it’s who knows YOU, what they KNOW about you, and how they FEEL about you that counts!
“The most positively impactful leaders I’ve interacted with are authentic in their pursuits.”
president and CEO
The most positively impactful leaders I’ve interacted with are authentic in their pursuits, thorough in their preparation, generous with others, and tenacious about finishing things. They see problems and opportunities, imagine real solutions — big and small — and act.
They’re found everywhere and often not high profile.
For example, Charisse Lillie is one of the most impactful leaders I’ve known in business, law, and government. She’s been a role model since I was a young lawyer, and I was fortunate to have her as a professional mentor.
“Leadership requires a sense of urgency and the courage to do the right thing.”
Councilmember, District 7
Leadership requires a sense of urgency and the courage to do the right thing, especially for leaders of color who often represent historically marginalized communities, fighting back from generations of disinvestment.
As a young journalist, I covered some of Philadelphia’s most prominent African American leaders, and during one campaign I caught the eye of then-Councilmember Marian B. Tasco.
She liked my feistiness and advocacy for my community, and she hired me and became an important mentor who taught me the value of being courageous and trusting your instincts. When it came to fighting for equity, to getting more women and minorities elected, no one matched her relentless energy, and I work to live up to her example every day as I advocate for my district.
“At our best, leaders of color bring unique perspective, history, and experience to addressing critical issues.”
At our best, leaders of color bring unique perspective, history, and experience to addressing critical issues and steering the course of organizations. In some cases that means being more sensitive to vulnerable people and communities or it could be a willingness to tackle challenges, and especially unfairness, quickly and in a forthright manner.
With that said, being a leader of color does not necessarily mean you are a good leader so it is important to not only bring yourself to the top seat at the head table but ensure you are growing as a leader and delivering to high standard.
“Gaining power is only relative to how you wield its influence.”
vice president, community relations
The complexity of being a leader of color, especially when you are in spaces where you will be perpetually identified as such, is one that can only be untangled parallel to the system that affords its existence. The one dot I always go back to connecting is the conviction of self; specifically how I identify, honor my value and control my narrative.
The further you get in your career, the easier it is to lose who you are, cultivating a version of ‘self’ that fluctuates according to your title or audience. If you don’t find the discipline to honor your own value, you will let someone else determine your worth.
I am grateful for the leaders of color, my personal champions, who saw me exactly as I was and accepted me fully over so many years: Charisse R. Lillie, Aldustus (AJ) Jordan, Rev. Bonnie Camarda, Rev. Lorina Marshall-Blake, Sharmain Matlock-Turner and Nelson A. & Sara Díaz, to name a few. They exemplify how gaining power is only relative to how you wield its influence.
I choose self-conviction, over self-doubt, because no one can be me better than myself. I have earned the opportunity to be connected to people who value that as much as I do — and the sooner you get there, the sooner you can get to paying that forward.
Want to write a guest column about a local leader of color who has had an impact on your life? Tell us!-30-
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