What makes a strong leader? In my experience, leaders need to convey a clear and understandable vision. They must know how to make their vision a reality. They need the respect of their peers and the people who follow them. What makes an expert? Like leaders, they should have the respect of their peers. They need a history of knowledge and experience in their field. That understanding should be in depth and up to date.
Are most leaders today ready to be antiracist? Do most experts have enough expertise in equity? I don’t believe they do. We need antiracist, equity-informed change to reverse the systems we exist in. Pushing for these antiracist policies and practices in the workplace requires courageous leadership. Knowledge is important, but working experience with antiracism and equity is even better.
In a just world, an organization should look like the community that surrounds it. All things being equal, there would be no subtle biases in hiring. There would be no anti-Black racism that lifts some communities up and pushes others down. But in our world, people who are white run almost everything. Corporations are mostly white-led. It’s the same story in the non-profit sector. Same in academia. Politics? I have to laugh. Even the mechanisms of accountability, company boards, don’t see the crisis as a crisis. White men are 30% of the population but hold positions of power in almost every sector.
things are bad out here
It’s clear that the white-dominated approach to antiracism isn’t working. The Building Movement Project surveyed more than 5,000 BIPOC nonprofit staff in their 2019 Race to Lead: Revisited report. Three quarters of people surveyed work for a non-profit that conducts DEI activities. Among those activities, DEI training was the most common. We know that training alone unfortunately does not change systemic racism. Most of the respondents agree: training has not led to meaningful changes at their workplace. In fact, BIPOCs reported higher levels of exhaustion related to those DEI efforts. I don’t need a study to know this is true (here’s a good one). Many of us feel called to educate our white leaders and peers. Or experts invite us into spaces because of the color of our skin, then ignore or deny what we have to say.
There may be some benefit to these trainings, but that benefit is most often felt by white staff alone. People who spend a few hours learning about their own racism may be years away from knowing what to do about it. Most white staff learn about their complicity with racism and freeze. Antiracism limited to education omits the fact that we have to do something with the things we learn. Our leaders are no longer leaders. Our experts are no longer experts.
We have to find solutions beyond the leaders we have. They aren’t ready for antiracist leadership. Leading an organization towards antiracism is too sensitive to learn on the job. It’s too easy to make mistakes or refuse to act when things get tough. It’s too easy to prioritize the comfort of people in power. Instead, we need to rely on new approaches from new leaders.
In the short term, we must add community voices to the tables where leaders sit. In the medium term, we must phase out the sole authority of those leaders to make decisions. In the long term, we need community-led solutions to replace our own. We’ve endured thirty years of the cost-cutting centralization that ruled the 1990s. We are products of the system we’re trapped in. Our best practices will never be as effective as locally-funded, locally-created solutions.
I’ve wrestled with the dilemma of leadership before. Often, the CEO or leader of an organization is good at what the organization does. But it’s rare that the organization itself set out to be antiracist from the beginning. That makes it easy for white supremacy-affirming systems to be the default there. In turn, people who develop antiracist practice are at a programmatic disadvantage. They may not have the connections or experience that the CEO does.
If we want to transition to community control, we need to find leaders who can do that. Most antiracism experts are not CEOs, and most CEOs are not antiracism experts. I propose that we merge the best of both worlds with two CEOs.
The antiracism CEO focuses on parts of the organization that build culture. They need access to the levers that change the direction and growth of an organization. This includes being able to hire new staff, set a vision, and create accountability. They need to be able to communicate the reasons for these shifts. An antiracism CEO needs full decision-making authority in at least these areas. As they blend the organization into its community, they will find more hands to lighten the load.
There are some challenges with this plan. First, the organization still exists within a giant white supremacy machine. All the checks and balances of an organization defer to people in power. The board or governing body would need to approve this plan. The CEO would have to accept that they must plan their exit. The antiracism CEO needs community review. We’d have to inform the community and invite them into this process.
For both CEOs, this would be a learning opportunity and challenge unlike any other. As people get used to more than one CEO, decentralized leadership itself might be easier to grasp.
the courage of leaders
I have to believe that the direction we’re currently heading isn’t hopeless. Workplaces are getting more diverse across race and gender lines. A growing number of people are discovering class consciousness. I guarantee that a bold future will demand courageous leadership. For now, what takes courage is the willingness to step aside. We need to take the wheel ourselves.