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The pain of leading while Black

May 25, 2021

Wright-GlobalProtestsGeorgeFloydIt's been a year since George Floyd was murdered by people who were supposed to protect and serve him.

I can spend time analyzing how the nonprofit sector has — or hasn't — changed since then; but there are plenty of others who will do that in the coming days. Instead, I have been reflecting on what it means to lead a national organization centering racial justice as a Black woman moving through a world in which my Black skin could get me killed for merely existing.

The reality is, I walk through the world scared for my life, my child, and my man. We are George. Ahmaud. Sandra. Tamir. Even Ma'Khia. The pain never ends. Today, the video of Ronald Greene's torture at the hands of police has been making the rounds. And even in those rare moments when supposed "justice" is served, I am forced to sit back and witness others continue to justify the murders of people who look like me.

The weight of this compounded trauma is crushing me, and other Black leaders, too.

There is no handbook on how to lead while reliving trauma. It's not even talked about much outside of "Black spaces." And while philanthropy has been talking more about anti-racism and anti-oppressive practices, I've seen very little to show me that the sector understands what leading through this pain looks like, feels like, and sounds like.

So much of the anti-racism work in our sector focuses on moving white-led organizations to center Black people and their voices. But then what? Are we actually changing the dynamics of the industry or simply putting a new face on the same problem? As the first Black executive director of re:power, I can assure you, we don't have this figured out yet.

I am trying to create a new reality for people like me — not only in our impact work but also within my organization, and so are many of my fellow executive directors of color across the country. We are all trying to answer an impossible question: How do we lead when faced with the never-ending and persistent trauma we are experiencing in America?

Truth moment: when George Floyd's murderer was convicted, I took the day off and spent most of it crying on my bedroom floor. I shared this truth with my staff and asked them to prioritize their own peace as well. We are all very busy, often stretched, but we were quiet that day. And I think we're better for it.

What has become increasingly clear for me is this: if I don't invest in my own self-care as a Black woman executive, I can't effectively lead my organization to do its important work. When I have ignored what I need to do to take care of myself, my pain is multiplied — and is also transferred onto the folks closest to me, including my staff.

Taking my time to protect my peace is not a selfish act. It is an act of self-preservation and resistance. 

The smartest thing any executive director of color can do right now is take the time necessary to give our organizations the leader they need. Philanthropy can and should help by acknowledging that Leading While Black presents unique challenges to those who do it and addressing those challenges in its funding priorities.

Ask leaders of color what they need to take care of themselves right now, not just what they need to continue the work. Seeing our humanity should be part of your work as an anti-racist philanthropic institution. Philanthropy is focused on creating big impact, changing the material conditions of people who look like me through large-scale policy reforms and power-building. But how do leaders like me, who identify as a member of one of the "marginalized groups" we serve, fit into the picture?

If the philanthropic community wants to see real change and support the centering of Black folks within our sector, we can't forget about those who are tasked with leading the way.

Heashot_karundi williamsKarundi Williams is the executive director of re:power, a national training and capacity-building organization focused on racial justice. re:power trains primarily Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) leaders and organizers who are reclaiming their power for radical change.

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