stoke the fire

a photo of a sunset on the rocky shores of Cádiz, Spain. the still-bright yellow sun tints the sky golden. a building with a pointed roof lies in dark silhouette on the right side of the photo. sunsets in photos are great. is this a sunset, or a sunrise? is the sun leaving or did it just wake up? the answer is both.

I write my blog posts early in the week, but I publish them on Fridays. I’m writing this one before the election, but it will come out after election day. I had ambitions to hedge my bets by writing a double post call to action: “what if he wins?”, “what if he wins instead??” But no matter who wins, we will still have to fight. Nobody is going to hand us outright the world that we need. For that to happen, people in power will have to give up some or all of their power. We have to organize, work in collective, bring our strengths to the work, and leave no one behind.

No matter what happens or happened this week, our work isn’t over. So let’s get to it!

the traps we lay our future selves

I’ve spent 20 years working full time (or mostly-full-time in college). In that time, I’ve only reported to a handful of managers who were Black or a person of color. And now, here I am, in management myself. At my current job, almost all my direct reports, including managers, identify as BIPOC.

As a BIPOC manager of other BIPOC managers, it’s tempting to pass my survival skills onto them. It’s tempting to instill in them crash course lessons on how to navigate very white leadership structures. It’s easy (I’m guilty of this) to try teaching them how to be a manager in the way that I learned. It’s a trap! We shouldn’t do this.

The conditioning I’ve had is not worth passing down. I walk on eggshells sometimes. I temper my recommendations to fit the norms and comforts of white supremacist culture. There may be value in sharing those lessons with a young mentee. Someone who does not report to you might find it helpful to know where the landmines are buried. But as a leader? As someone’s boss? It’s my job to help my direct reports hack away at the vines that hold us all back. Teaching people to obscure their identity does a disservice to the fights I’ve had to get where I am.

don’t light the way…

What if we stopped teaching BIPOC staff early in their careers how to mold themselves to white culture? What if instead, we used our power as leaders to give them cover? What if we lent public support to their ideas, and persuaded our peers to do the same? This is obviously true guidance for anyone who has more radical ideas. (I emphasize BIPOC staff here on purpose. I can’t tell you how many times people above me in the hierarchy will private message me to say, “I agree!” but won’t support my ideas in public.)

In my career, I’ve shaped myself based on the advice and feedback I’ve received. I learned how to meet the expectations of my bosses. I taught myself strict business-culture professionalism. I code switch when I’m at work and it seeps into my personal life. It’s likely that I thrived in my career because of my own assimilation. White supremacist culture teaches its norms to people as a condition of survival. The lessons are explicit: observing which ideas received praise, and which did not. Losing a job for not adhering enough. The lessons are implicit: in the form of culture fit, unspoken organizational norms, in-groups and out-groups.

When I talk with other BIPOC leaders, we sometimes talk about the ways we have minimized ourselves. Some of us have succeeded through a process of assimilation. But for those of us who have climbed the ladder, it’s our job to build an elevator. The metaphor here is precise. It’s not enough to make advancement and survival easier for our BIPOC successors. We should also reject the ableism that may have been critical to our success. We have to make conditions easier and more inclusive. It’s what we owe our future colleagues.

Undoing my own learned habits will take time. For now, I must support people below me on the institutional hierarchy. I must look for their talents and help them grow. When I teach my managers how to manage, my goal is not to teach them how I manage. They watch me do that every day. Instead, I teach them how I approach a problem, then let them find their own path to the solution. I listen. I ask questions that I don’t already know the answers to. I talk with them about the challenges they may face as a leader of color. Not to say that those challenges don’t exist, or that they’re not important. I explain why someone above us might say no to them⏤not to discourage their ideas but to sharpen them.

…illuminate the possibilities

I get paid to be a leader. I am responsible for helping to lead my organization into the future. I can’t do that through strict adherence to outdated rules and norms. People entrenched in power get used to saying, “no.” Savvy people in power are able to say, “no, and here’s why,” but the answer is still no. We must create a different world. We must use our hard-won power and influence to finally say, “yes.”

If our staff is more radical than we are, it’s our job to give them legitimacy. It’s our job to shape the next generation better than we had to shape ourselves. Our goal is not to install dim automatons that will succeed us. It’s to help create great leaders with their fires still intact.