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Leading as a Woman of Color

Updated: Dec 2, 2020

I remember the first time someone asked me to be a leader. I was with Best Buddies, the first volunteer-driven organization I ever joined. I remember sitting in a park in the busy center of Bogota, Colombia for an activity with our chapter. Andrea, the president of the organization, sitting across from me, announced she intended to leave Best Buddies and suggested that I step up as President of our chapter! She explained that I had been in the organization longer than other members, and had the historical knowledge and know-how to take the chapter forward.

I remember the initial sinking feeling in my stomach. I wanted the leaves and grass scattered on the ground to rise up and consume me, so I would not have to answer Andrea. I focused intently on her reasoning. It all made sense to me, but the thought of coming out of my ‘happy place’ of low stress and less visibility to assuming such a great responsibility within the organization made me feel a bit uneasy. After all, what could I possibly offer this position? Many of the other members seemed older, more experienced, and more prepared than I was. The sound of it all was so terrifying that I let out a quick, yet polite “no thank you.”  Eventually, another qualified and capable candidate was offered the job.

And while I eventually found other gratifying roles within Best Buddies, I always wondered why I was so quick to shy away from this amazing opportunity. When talking to one of my close friends who works in education, she mentioned how she recently had a similar experience. Her supervisor, a fellow woman of color and seasoned in her field, had asked my friend to lead and facilitate a series of meetings with high-level stakeholders. My friend’s immediate thought was “really…me??” We both chuckled at that familiar and uncomfortable feeling of surprise and suspense when being asked to step up. I’m proud to say she actually did rise to that particular occasion and did a great job!

I know we’re not alone, and there are countless other women, people of color, and/or people from other marginalized groups who hesitate when asked to lead. We are not groomed for leadership in the same way people born with more privilege are. And it begins at a very early age - in schools and in our social groups. Certainly, American culture presents far more models of mostly white, male dominated leadership than the alternative. The fears of women and women of color in particular of not being good enough, or of letting other people down can sometimes outweigh the desire to effect change.

This is an unfortunate outcome because our opinions, passions, and the things that matter to us would benefit our teams, organizations, and society. A significant paradigm shift is both needed and of great benefit to a world in the midst of change. The old transactional models and rules are shifting before our eyes. The fact that we, as women and women of color have an acute sensitivity to power and privilege or a lack thereof means that when we are trusted to lead, we’re bringing in this broader perspective to our work. We’re also more likely to favor highly participatory processes in decision-making and policy-making, and to create safe spaces for people of different backgrounds to engage with us and shape change.

Finally, I’ve grown more comfortable in different leadership roles because I’ve realized that being a leader gives me a platform to make lasting positive change. Seth Godin, New York Times best-selling author explains how being a leader doesn’t necessarily come with a title though, but a mindset to defend an idea and bring a dream to fruition to benefit the greater good.

Sometimes leading change can also mean shifting our own personal parameters. Am I ready for this? Do I deserve this? How can I bring my own values to this position? How will I help our team/organization/community move forward and face new challenges?

Sometimes change also means being unpopular, shedding light on unspoken truths, and fighting for greater equity and justice within our system. This can mean an uneasy period of transition for our teams and for our organizations, but what’s the alternative? For now, I’ll choose to embrace the discomfort of today if it means influencing my society for a better tomorrow.

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