Leading Against the Odds: Lessons Learned About Grassroots Nonprofit Leadership
This piece was first published in the January 2019 issue of Connections Magazine published by The Nonprofit Center of The Berkshires.
When asked about advice I would give to nonprofit leaders, my mind doesn’t go towards what it took to build BRIDGE or the 150th Du Bois Festival or any one project; it goes toward the practical ins and outs of organizing and what it takes to fully embody one’s leadership. These things will sustain you, whatever you aim to build.
You must know the “why” at the core of your work. Then it’s a matter of nurturing your “flock” of fellow leaders as adrienne maree brown writes in Emergent Strategy. Surround yourself with folks who are further along in the work, but who share a similar vision. Engage them as mentors. Connect with folks who are different from you in terms of socioeconomic, ethnic, and racial background, skill set, and capacities. This makes you stronger, which makes your organization stronger. Your flock may shift over the years and letting this be ok is part of the process. Shared values and diversity are essential.
To be a visionary leader, I have learned to be comfortable advancing ideas while accepting that new ideas present a challenge for people. Leadership requires courage with no attachment. Work for what you believe in and walk through doors that open ever so slightly. If you are building a team, prioritize the humanness of the organization. So much of the coaching I do comes back to the quality of relationships. Nonprofit or social justice work is grassroots and relational by nature, whether it is supervisor working alongside employee or volunteer, director working alongside board of director, or employee working alongside community member. Listening and authenticity are key.
Along these lines, I always say that we become visible only when we are visible to ourselves and to the world around us. If we can’t imagine change or being visible without pushing someone else aside, excusing or overstepping anyone’s humanity, or taking what wasn’t ours, our work will never be successful. We will never make the impact we want to make.
Then it is about staying motivated. I stay motivated now with the same grit it took to me to found BRIDGE 10 years ago as one of the only Black women nonprofit founders in the Berkshires at a time when people doubted the need for the organization. Marthe Bourdon and I co-founded BRIDGE because we wanted to make better connections between individuals and agencies. Our seed donor Bob Norris heard our initial pitch and described us as catalysts for change. He trusted our leadership. We found our flock! Over time we learned that the right funders, volunteers, board members, and backers were there. Berkshire leaders and founders like Bettina Montano (Berkshire Pulse), Al Bashevkin (Northern Berkshire Community Coalition), Sandy Newman (CATA), Jane Burke (Flying Cloud Institute), Kristen van Ginhoven (WAM Theatre) and Shirley Edgerton (Youth Alive and Rites of Passage) inspired me and inspire me still. In general, we have to let go of notions of systems and organizations needing to “fix” our communities and families and instead, honor relationships. I also stay motivated by remembering that a single activist’s work lives on in powerful ways. The ripples of one’s work feed into future movements in ways we can never predict. My mentor Dr. Homer “Skip” Meade reminds me that our efforts with The Du Bois Festival will assist future program planning statewide, nationwide, and internationally.
So, here are three places to focus your energy:
Cultural Humility: Examine and share your bias. Explore how it impacts your work and relationships. Be curious with yourself and curious about others. Learn to understand your actions as potential parts of the problem as you work towards a solution.
Organizational Health & Safety: A culture of health and safety helps a team or organization maintain its core values. This involves setting boundaries, freedom to express ideas and values (with no harm to others), and making sure people feel heard, seen, and valued. Human beings need safety or they fight, flee, or freeze. Safety also means taking care of the financial health of your project or organization, making a point to find all of the resources you need to be able to do so and asking for help. Staying committed to one’s own safety can sometimes mean taking a step forward in your own career or leaving one organization for another.
Positive Culture: Remain positive, persistent, and patient. Challenges don’t mean failure. Failure does not even mean failure! New work takes time and perseverance. Get fierce and stay connected in order to take care of people, planet, and generations to come. Prioritize those things over money. Stay flexible as you grow and remind yourself of your purpose.
My hope is that if you have a vision on how to improve our community, just throw your backpack over the wall and dive in. Otherwise you may always be wondering “what if”, which is no way to live when this country needs your leadership now more than ever. I am reminded of Audre Lorde’s wise words:
“What’s the worst that will happen?... Once you start to speak, people will yell at you. They will interrupt you, put you down and suggest it’s personal. And the world won’t end.
And the speaking will get easier and easier. And you will find you have fallen in love with your own vision, which you may never have realized you had. And you will lose some friends and lovers, and realize you don’t miss them. And new ones will find you and cherish you. And you will still flirt and paint your nails, dress up and party, because, as I think Emma Goldman said, ‘If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.’ And at last you’ll know with surpassing certainty that only one thing is more frightening than speaking your truth. And that is not speaking.”