From Facebook posts to last Sunday’s sermon, the influence and effectiveness of Black women’s leadership is indisputable. The mid-session Alabama senate race spotlighted the critical power of the leadership of Black Women. While this leadership has been long present, many other white-skinned people are just noticing it … and are deeply grateful.
However, it wasn’t news to me. I’ve been working in a network that was started by a Black woman, Lillie Pearl Allen, and whose foundation was built by Black women and girls. All aspects of our work for the past four years have been held within Be Present, Inc.’s Black Women’s Leadership Initiative, aimed to “raise the visibility of Black women’s leadership as key to social justice movement-building in the United States … highlighting the process and achievements of using a collective leadership approach.”
What is a wealthy, white woman like me doing in an organization highlighting Black women’s leadership? And why am I on the leadership team of next June’s Black & Female Leadership Conference?
This seeming contradiction is, in fact, not incongruent because Be Present, Inc. understands true leadership. This Initiative “specifically demonstrates the leadership of Black women in partnering with diverse people [like me] to create sustainable change that serves everyone in our communities.”
Black women as a powerful force building sustainable leadership for social justice didn’t start in Alabama with this election. Likewise, the crisis in American leadership—leadership for social justice as well as corporate and institutional leadership—didn’t start with the Alabama election or the current administration in Washington. These two things merely highlight what has long been true: Black women have always played a powerful role in leadership (even though largely overlooked), and patriarchy’s way of leadership (even when tweaked and updated) is tattered and full of holes.
2017 was the year I faced the ways I have internalized and acted out of “traditional,” patriarchal leadership. Some of my actions flowed from how I was schooled (often without words) to be in leadership as a woman: watchful and suspicious of my own power and wisdom, silent instead of asking for more information or addressing things that felt off, and truncating my sharing of insights if it appeared that others didn’t agree or understand. This was despite my self-image as a liberated woman. Others of my behaviors were solidly set in patriarchy: over attachment to my plan or idea of how something should be done, and my belief that work is best served when everything is organized and planned out ahead of time—unconscious of the fact that both of these flowed from a white, masculine framework.
I was supported and mentored in stepping into leadership aligned with my values and Spirit by an organization birthed and supported by Black women’s leadership. In this network, I’ve grown to understand the self-responsibility required for me to fully bring my sight and wisdom into a collective where everyone also brings the fullness of their sight and wisdom.
It’s been a very demanding process. I’ve stumbled in public and been unable to step into my leadership in a few places where I cared deeply about the work. But I was held as I opened up what happened, and I was able to catch a glimpse of what within me blocked my full participation and thereby shift my behavior.
A recent innovation in leadership theory is to “posit race analysis as central to effective leadership that can exercise power in social justice movement building.” Be Present has been doing that for almost 35 years. But the old ways cling tightly as “leadership within the social justice movement or more broadly, continues to be defined within a framework that assumes white males are the default leaders and a ‘leader and follower’ dichotomy is the natural order.”
For the last few decades I’ve understood the importance of keeping sight of the Big Topics—race, gender, power and class—and the benefits of collective leadership, but something shifted this past year. Leadership is only partly the theory, style or skills we use. Without addressing what is within me—old habits and assumptions—in a difficult moment, I far too often have defaulted to either going silent or trying to control, and reacted by getting angry or deeply disappointed.
Effective and sustainable leadership that moves from the heart and Spirit must begin with me, then move out to respect and honor my relationship with others and finally flow into the work that we do together.
*Quotes from Be Present, Inc. website.