In “Building Resilient Organizations: Toward Joy and Durable Power in a Time of Crisis,” Maurice Mitchell unpacks the interrelated tasks facing our movements today. He identifies internal issues that have roiled and sometimes broken organizations over the last few years, while pointing to the “challenging terrain on which we struggle and grow.” The piece can contribute a lot to evaluating the ways we work—but it is not primarily a management guide. It is a call to clarify our ideology and strategy and use those to anchor all our decisions and practices. Nothing else will do if we are to move forward in this time of overlapping crises and distinct opportunities. Mitchell offers his article as a starting point. To feed and stimulate our collective reflection, Convergence and The Forge are presenting a series of responses. Citizen Action of New York’s Movement Politics Director Stan Fritz starts us off by looking at the obstacles facing new BIPOC, queer, women, and gender non-conforming leaders—and how to overcome them.
In “Building Resilient Organizations,” Maurice Mitchell articulates what many in the professional Left have felt but are afraid to say: the once-stable ground of our movement has turned into a space with rising tensions, organizational infighting, and proxy wars that have undermined our ability to be effective. One challenge Mitchell touches on that needs more space for discussion is the lack of support for BIPOC, queer, women, and gender non-conforming leaders.
After spending years working in organizations led by people who didn’t look like the communities they aimed to empower, I have found the promotion of Black, Brown, queer, and gender non-conforming people to be a positive shift. However, while these new leaders have been awarded titles, very few of them have been given the tools they need to succeed. Leadership without support, just like a vision with no strategy, is a bridge to nowhere. In this essay, I will lay out some common challenges I have seen across the spectrum of progressive organizations, as well as some steps we can take to address them.
Hired to be the savior of a toxic workspace
The people closest to the problems are also usually the ones who are closest to the solutions. It makes sense that so many organizations are building more equity into their leadership pipelines. However, that doesn’t mean we can or should ask these leaders to take on the most difficult assignments. Far too often new leaders are promoted or hired for roles in organizations with toxic cultures that were fostered or protected by their predecessors. More often than not, this leader is replacing someone who had to go, but the immediate effect is that they become responsible for leading an organization where trust and morale is low while expectations are high. A leader’s strongest tool is their ability to build trust with their staff teams. Putting someone into a role where that trust is already compromised is a recipe for failure.
New leaders as captains of a sinking ship
On other occasions, leaders are asked to run organizations with crumbling infrastructure. One of the clearest examples of this is what happened to David Dinkins, New York City’s first Black mayor. Dinkins inherited a city that was facing several challenges, including community instability, high poverty, and budget deficits that made it difficult to fund essential services. Unfortunately, because he was unable to solve problems created by decades of poor leadership, he lost his bid for re-election.
Too often, leaders are expected to make water out of wine. While many find ways to work around organizational obstacles, this usually comes at a deep cost, requiring unhealthy work habits that prioritize production and optics over process and vision. Compromising in this way also makes it harder to focus in real time on professional development for leaders and their teams. The end result is an organization that prioritizes splashy tactics, like direct actions or civil disobedience, and news headlines while ignoring strategy, capacity, and community buy-in. This may work in the short term, but no organization can be effective and healthy in the long run if they continue to operate in such a fashion.
Big titles, minuscule resources
No matter how strong a leader is, if they do not have the resources to hire and retain good staff, invest in professional development, and acquire tools to help them accomplish their goals, there will always be a limit to their effectiveness. Far too many Black and Brown leaders are asked to run organizations without the proper resources. This happens because BIPOC leaders rarely have the networks of their counterparts. As a result, 90% of their job becomes chasing after funders in the hopes that they can score the grant that will allow them to do the work. Instead of bringing a fresh approach to leadership, they end up running organizations that are more focused on finding projects that someone will fund rather than working on the most relevant or pressing issues.
Before asking someone to lead, make sure you know what the challenges are and create a plan to address them. The best way to do that is to assess and grow your own leadership. Good leaders build and sustain good organizations that can be handed over to new leaders to grow in. If you are asking someone to step into a difficult role, and there has not been a culture of strong leadership, you must create an environment that provides space to learn and grow into the role.
Promoting without a plan or support
Many people are promoted to leadership positions with vague job descriptions, few or no goals, and no training to help them develop. When you promote a new leader without proper development you set them up to fail, and as most BIPOC, trans, and gender non-conforming people will tell you, their window for success or failure is much smaller than that for white leaders. If they don’t succeed on their first opportunity, it may be their last.
If you think someone has the potential to lead, build out a plan with clear buckets of work, markers for development, and benchmarks for success. When creating that plan, make sure to be clear about the expectations, decision-making ability, and support systems. Additionally, ask yourself the following questions: How are you incorporating real opportunities for staff development into your new leader’s work plan? What kind of goals are you setting and what does success look like? What part of your leadership will you need to stretch in order to show up for them? Finally, what kind of support system can you build to invest in this person’s leadership? If you’re not sure who should be in this support system, ask yourself: What will this new leader need in order to be successful? Then begin to identify the people who can help develop that support.
Unrealistic goals and expectations
Part of doing advocacy or organizing work, especially work that leans left, is being willing to dream bigger than what society or the political landscape may say is possible. I would argue that some of our biggest wins have happened because someone was bold enough to make an ask that seemed ridiculous. However, goals and expectations for leaders should be aspirational but realistic and should, in turn, be backed up with a rigorous support plan. Asking BIPOC leaders for things we would not expect from white or male leaders sets them on a path to failure or burnout. Big goals and expectations are important, but we must be willing to provide leaders with the support and tools to achieve them and understand that some things may not be possible.
New leaders are not mythical creatures who can magically turn deficits into multi-million-dollar budgets with the sheer power of their identities. They need the same space to make mistakes as their counterparts and the ability to grow into their roles.
Putting it all together
The Left is facing substantial challenges from internal and external forces, but if we are committed to building a sustainable movement that shifts power from those who have it to those who don’t, we must be willing to do the work to make that happen. Part of that work is supporting new leaders through rigorous staff development, clear-eyed political education, realistic expectations, and a support system of people who will be invested in their leadership, and the organization’s success. There is a path to our collective liberation, but we have to be willing to walk it with intention.