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For more information about the synthesis please contact Deborah Meehan.

Does Current Leadership Thinking and Practice Contribute to Structural Racism?

We live in a multi-racial world where the ability to accumulate wealth, find a job, attend a good school, or live in a healthy neighborhood is largely determined by race. This publication explores the ways in which our current thinking about leadership may actually be contributing to these growing disparities. We believe that we need to change our leadership development thinking and approaches in order to become part of the solution to significant racial inequalities.

Our current thinking about leadership focuses on individualism, meritocracy and equal opportunity, as the Aspen Institute (Structural Racism and Youth Development: Issues, Challenges, and Implications) describes:
  • Personal responsibility and individualism: The belief that people control their fates regardless of social position, and that individual behaviors and choices determine material outcomes.
  • Meritocracy: The belief that resources and opportunities are distributed according to talent and effort and that social components of “merit”—such as access to inside information of powerful social networks, do not matter.
  • Equal opportunity: The belief that employment, education and wealth accumulation are “level playing fields” and that race is no longer a barrier to progress in these areas.
What is structural racism? Issues of advantage and disadvantage are largely influenced by race; however, our current focus on individualism and equal opportunity fails to recognize that link. The Applied Research Center (Catalytic Change: Lessons Learned from the Racial Justice Grantmaking Assessment) offers a widely accepted explanation of structural racism as the accumulative impact of racism encompassing: 1. History that provides the foundation of white racial advantage; 2. Culture which serves to normalize and replicate racist images and ideas and; 3. Interconnected institutions and policies that perpetuate and reinforce racial power disparities.

What are the problems with current thinking about leadership?

Current leadership thinking and practice is strongly influenced by values and beliefs that are part of the dominant culture of individualism in the United States. There are several ways of understanding this:
  1. Mainstream ideas about leadership assume that people have attained leadership positions based primarily on their talent, natural ability or achievements. This thinking overlooks the many ways in which structural racism has created economic structures that create advantage and disadvantage based on race, e.g. the GI bill disproportionately enabled white people to buy homes and create wealth (Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity). These structures have historically created advantages for white people who earn more, and are more likely to have had access to educational opportunity and networks that provide them entry into leadership positions. An analysis of structural racism helps explain why people of color are significantly missing from leadership positions in the private and nonprofit sectors, and challenges racist stereotypes that people of color have less ability or have failed to demonstrate merit.
  1. Our focus on the role of individuals in creating and solving problems does not look at the impact that systems have on the ways in which people behave, e.g. people tend to attribute racism to ignorance or hateful behaviors. Based on this logic, it would follow that we could eliminate racism by changing people’s attitudes. However, this is not entirely true - The Applied Research Center reports that while intra personal racism and bias are declining, incidents of structural racism are on the rise.
  1. Leadership is often characterized as directive, heroic, high profile, authoritative, and positional. This is, however, only one model of leadership. Leadership is not inherently individualistic e.g. Native American leadership expresses values rooted in a deep understanding of the individual as part of a collective. Social and racial identity formed around shared experiences gives rise to collective grievances and aspirations from which collective leadership action often emerges. We often reward people who express leadership that is aligned with the dominant culture, but not those who engage in more collective forms of leadership, such as many women and people of different races/ethnicities invisible.
How do our leadership models influence our work on racial justice?

Many leader development programs assume that if you select an individual who has demonstrated his or her leadership potential or ability, and provide him or her with additional knowledge and skills, he or she will then strengthen their organizations’ performance and ability to serve the community. But this approach does not take into account structural issues that inhibit individual power, and, also fails to understand what it takes to create change.

Leader Development Model for Stronger Organizations & Community Results:

Individual Development [leads to] Strong organization [leads to] Better Community Results

While it is true that individuals benefit from these programs, it is critical to understand the limitations of this approach. Even when a focus on individuals may support important personal work dealing with issues of race, it is imperative to discuss why a focus on individual behaviors will not be sufficient for dismantling structural racism.

How can we work with individual leaders to contribute to diversity and inclusion?

Increasing Opportunity and Diversity: Providing individuals with access to networks, financial resources, positions of influence, recognition, desirable skill sets, credentials, peer support groups, friends in high places and other advantages cannot reverse years of historical disadvantage, but it can provide targeted support to help reduce its impact. The training should focus on specific skills, such as advocacy, that can support increased racial diversity at policy tables.

Individual Work
: Support individuals to become more aware of how racism plays out in their own life and in their relationships with others. This can include understanding the impact of internalized oppression or privilege and power..An explicit framework for understanding structural racism can help individuals identify systems, structures and policies that continue to perpetuate racial disadvantage. Also, white people can better understand how the system defers benefits to them.

Intergroup Work
: Many programs are successfully recruiting diverse leadership cohorts for training. This offers an opportunity for participants to discuss issues of race, and tolearn about each other’s cultures, values, and experiences of prejudice. This awareness can support behavioral changes and a commitment to deal with racism and prejudice within organizations and institutions. Still, many leadership programs that do not have an explicit focus on race do not build in a framework for dealing with issues of race.

Why is work with individual leaders not sufficient for undoing structural racism?

To support leadership that results in transformational changes, we need to focus on how individuals and groups are connecting, organizing, thinking systemically, bridging, and learning as a dynamic leadership process that mobilizes action on the scale needed to address the inequities and injustices we care deeply about.

Leadership as a collective process for transformational change:

(More information on the elements of the leadership process)

Changing the behavior of individuals is not enough and will not support a system intervention that address the root causes of racial disparities. The focus of leadership as a process is not who (which individuals to recruit into a program) but on how to strengthen the capacity of teams, organizations, networks and communities to engage in the leadership work of transforming systems, while inviting individuals to do the deep inner work that enables them to connect on behalf of large social justice goals.
To support racial justice we need to transform organizations and systems. Often, individuals who participate in a leadership program and gain a stronger understanding of how structural racism works, find themselves frustrated in applying their framework or analysis as they come up against barriers built into the system, e.g. their organization is not committed to a racial impact analysis of their work. Supporting leadership as a process within an organizational or community context, can help participants understand and target policy and institutional changes within their own organizations and the larger society.

What are racial justice leadership competencies?

Race and Ethnic Competency: Leadership scholars, Ospina and Su point out that “social identity is critical to shaping the emergent process of leadership among actors, not just because one’s race and ethnicity may create specific obstacles to be addressed or serve as a resource to be tapped, but because social identities create communities with collective grievances and aspirations that must be addressed from within.” (Weaving Color Lines: Race, Ethnicity, and the Work of Leadership in Social Change Organizations) PRE and mosaic (Changing the Rules of the Game: youth developments and structural racism) explain that making meaning of lived experiences in diverse groups through social movement building and racial justice work, builds leadership among young people, e.g. as they understand how their lives and opportunities are influenced by racism, they become a stronger collective voice that can advocate for themselves and their communities. Deep identity work lays the groundwork for group to ground themselves in values and a shared vision for a different future.

Organizing Competency: Those engaged in leadership for racial justice need to utilize communication pathways to increase their reach, and to experiment with different forms e.g. organizations, networks and coalitions that will help them to get big results. Organizing for racial justice requires an understanding of a historical perspective and a rapidly changing environment in order to deal with resistance and retrenchment.

Structural Racism Analysis and Systems Thinking Competency: The Kirwan Institute helps us understand that racial disadvantage is primarily a product of opportunity structures within society. “A systems perspective illustrates how racial disadvantages manifest, accumulate, and resist efforts to address them by allowing us to see the world in terms of wholes, rather than in single event snapshots and how parts of a system work together to produce systems outcomes.” (Systems Primer) For example, a leadership development program may select one problem to address, such as the quality of education, without looking at the factors that influence it, i.e. the role of housing stock. In the U.S., a school with a good reputation increases the value of housing. A leadership program that focuses on training a school’s principal will not be effective without understanding the complex context and system in which that school operates, e.g. the history of the neighborhood, the dynamics among potential stakeholders in the school's success (parents, realtors, mortgage lenders, churches, community groups, unions, school boards, teachers), the politics of the school system, and the demographics of the school.
  • Racial Impact Analysis: Racial justice leadership should apply a structural analysis to understanding inequality and the ways in which different approaches to services or proposed policy changes will affect their constituencies.
Bridging and Ally Building Competency: Understanding leadership as a process makes more visible the natural connections between many organizations and individuals in different parts of a system and encourages leadership strategies that connect multiple stakeholders around a shared problem analysis and vision for change. To achieve racial and social justice, we need to move beyond the emphasis on the power of individuals to a philosophy of interdependence and building connections.

Learning Competency: When leadership is supported as a process that builds relationships across a system there is increased opportunity for action learning that helps to identify leverage points in systems change and implement strategies that create a positive feedback loop. Part of developing this competency within organizations and communities is the ability to understand the use of data to diagnose an issue and track progress.
What are some of the questions that leadership programs should be asking?

Who are you targeting for recruitment and why
? Often programs focus on finding the “right” person based on some criteria of demonstrated capacity. But this approach does not take into account that opportunities for recognition and promotion have not been evenly distributed because of racialized systems of structural disadvantage. Often those who challenge systems of privilege are marginalized. Rewarding only those who have succeeded perpetuates the current way of dealing with structural racism.

What leadership strategies can do:
  • Increase opportunities for people of color: Leadership strategies should intentionally target people of color. This won’t undo structural racism, but can begin to diversify the sector. Leadership programs should also support grassroots leaders who are challenging the system by providing them with skills, resources and access to new networks.
  • Democratize leadership: Leadership strategies should recognize and support leadership ability in everyone who wants to get involved in addressing the problems of a given community.
Does your program talk about race and structural racism? It is important to keep in mind that leadership diversity is necessary, but not a sufficient goal. It is not just about bringing new people to the table, but about shifting the power dynamic. It is critical to bring a racial impact analysis to the work in order to change basic power structures. Often programs that do not have an explicit focus on racial justice do not integrate discussions of structural racism, white privilege and internalized racism – as if current systems, policies, and community change efforts are race-neutral.

What leadership strategies can do:
  • Strengthen analysis of structural racism: Leadership strategies should help individuals and groups to understand structural racism as a self perpetuating system. In a survey of more than 120 representatives of leadership training programs around the nation, the Center for Assessment and Policy Development (CAPD) determined that only slightly more than half (50.6%) include a discussion of structural racism in their planned activities (Flipping the Script: White Privilege in Community Building).
  • Talk about race: We need to talk openly about race. As RCLA has learned, “Those conversations that contain a potential for conflict or allow people to test uncharted waters can be opportunities for participants to learn something new and even transform their own thoughts and feelings”. (Taking Back the Work, A Cooperative Inquiry into the Work of Leaders of Color in Movement-Building Organizations)
  • Engage in healing and inner work: Create a safe environment for emotional exploration of racism, healing, and support in order to nurture racial justice leadership. For this work, it is important to set aside time for reflection, storytelling and meaning making.
How does your program decide what type of supports are needed? Many programs do not recognize that some participants enter with a “leg up” based on their education, economic background and access to networks, especially if they are white and middle class. Without paying attention to these differences, a typical program approach that assumes equal opportunity will not take the extra steps needed to address historical disadvantage, such asproviding additional resources, targeted training, access to networks and mentors, etc.
What leadership strategies can do:
  • Provide targeted resources: Provide resources to program participants based on need, e.g. help cover childcare, missed time from work, healthcare, educational opportunities. Leadership programs can move resources into a community outside of traditional organizational structures.
  • Develop skills: Provide equitable access to the types of skills that enable people of color to participate at policy tables where they can bring a racial impact analysis and a strong relationship of community accountability.
  • Nurture mentoring and intergenerational partnership: Mentoring models enable an exchange of wisdom across generations and also extend networks of access.

What leadership model are you promoting? Many programs promote the individual model of leadership, one that is associated with leadership “over” that creates relationships of dominance that have historically applied coercion, force or influence to reinforce privilege and power. This approach gets privileged over collective models that are often more aligned with the experiences and values of people from different races/ethnicities.
What leadership strategies can do:
  • Promote inclusive approaches: Programs should invite all who are engaged in leadership work to talk authentically about the ways in which they and their communities express leadership and the values that they bring to leadership.
Create rewards for and monitor collective behavior
What result is your leadership program trying to achieve? Few leader programs are designed to be accountable for community and systems level results. In their assessment of racial justice grant making, the Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity and the Applied Research Center, found that to be effective in promoting racial equity it is important to move beyond diversity and develop a shared framework on racism: to see racial justice as a core part of mission, goals and strategies.

What leadership strategies can do:
  • Make racial justice an explicit program goal: We are more likely to contribute to changes at a systems level by supporting leadership within organizations, communities, and fields. The leadership approach should include a clear analysis of structural racism, an ability to think systemically about how racial advantage is perpetuated, time to reflect and make sense of our own experiences of race, and a philosophy of interdependence that supports us to engage in collective action.

What Changes in Our Evaluation Work Strengthen Racial Justice Outcomes?

Holding ourselves accountable for transforming structural racism: Many leader development programs evaluate success by asking participants to report on increased personal mastery and/or behavioral changes. Benchmarks based on individual acquisition of skills and knowledge are not indicators of changes in structural racism. If we are going to hold ourselves accountable for transforming structural racism then according to Sally Leiderman, we need to track changes at organizational and community-level outcomes for different racial groups over the long-term (using such tools as report card), track the extent to which race becomes a less powerful predictor of how people fare, and track progress toward a community’s understanding of how privilege and oppression shape opportunities.

Resources for Evaluating Racial Justice Outcomes

The Evaluation Tools for Racial Equity: www.evaluationtoolsforracialequity.org
Institutional Change: Social Policy Research Associates (SPR), for example, has developed an institutional change model that focuses on the required organizational context for any individual leaders' efforts to address racial equity to succeed (Commissioning Multicultural Evaluation: A Foundation Resource Guide).

References for this Report

  1. Applied Research Center (ARC) and the Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity (PRE), Catalytic Change: Lessons Learned from the Racial Justice Grantmaking Assessment, May 2009.
  2. Aspen Institute Roundtable on Community Change (Karen Fulbright-Anderson, Keith Lawrence, Stacey Sutton, Gretchen Susi, and Anne Kubisch, authors), Structural Racism and Youth Development: Issues, Challenges, and Implications, Washington, D.C.: The Aspen Institute, 2005.
  3. The Denver Foundation, Inside Inclusiveness: Race, Ethnicity and Nonprofit Organizations, Prepared by Katherine Pease & Associates, July 2003.
  4. The Denver Foundation, A Report from the Pipeline, Reflections on the Nonprofit Sector from People of Color in Metro Denver, 2007.
  5. Diversity in Philanthropy Project, Diversity in Philanthropy Project Case Study, Evaluation with a Diversity Lens: Exploring its Functions and Utility to Inform Philanthropic Effectiveness, Millett, Ricardo, et al.
  6. Evaluation Tools for Racial Equity, website: http://www.evaluationtoolsforracialequity.org/
  7. GrantCraft: Grantmaking with a Racial Equity Lens, prepared in partnership with the Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity, 2007.
  8. The Greenlining Institute, Funding the New Majority: Philanthropic Investment in Minority-Led Nonprofits.
  9. Endo Inouye, Traci, Cao Yu, Hanh and Adefuin, Jo-Ann in partnership with Social Policy Research Associates with the support of The California Endowment’s Diversity in Health Evaluation Project, Commissioning Multicultural Evaluation: A Foundation Resource Guide.
  10. Leadership Learning Community, Developing a Racial Justice and Leadership Framework to Promote Racial Equity, Address Structural Racism, and Heal Racial and Ethnic Divisions in Communities, Meehan, Reinelt, Perry, Prepared for and Supported by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation & Center for Ethical Leadership, July 2009.
  11. Leadership Learning Community, Multiple Styles of Leadership: Increasing the Participation of People of Color in the Leadership of the Nonprofit Sector, Elissa Perry with Jamie Schenker supported by and prepared for Annie E. Casey Foundation, Fall 2005.
  12. Menendian, Stephen and Watt, Caitlin, Systems Primer, Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, December 2008.
  13. Ospina, Sonia M. and Foldy, Erica G., A Critical Review of Race and Ethnicity in the Leadership Literature: Surfacing Context, Power and the Collective Dimensions of Leadership, June 2009.
  14. Ospina, Sonia and Su, Celina, Weaving Color Lines: Race, Ethnicity, and the Work of Leadership in Social Change Organizations in Leadership 2009, Sage Publications, 2009.
  15. PolicyLink, Leadership for Policy Change, Strengthening Communities of Color through Leadership Development, 2003.
  16. Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity, and mosaic: Changing the Rules of the Game: youth developments and structural racism, 2004
  17. Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity, Critical Issues Forum, 2008
  18. Potapchuk, Maggie, Leiderman, Sally, with Donna Bivens and Barbara Major. Flipping the Script: White Privilege in Community Building, MP Associates and CAPD, 2005.
  19. Potapchuk, Maggie, Villarosa, Lori, Cultivating Interdependence, A Guide for Race Relations and Racial Justice Organizations, Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, 2004.
  20. powell, john a., Holding the Whole: Transformative Leadership, PowerPoint presentation at the 2nd Annual: A Gathering of Leaders, Academy for Leadership and Governance, Columbus State Community College, November 2008.
  21. Quiroz-Martinez, J., HoSang, D., & Villarosa, L., Changing the Rules of the Game: Youth Development & Structural Racism, Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity (PRE), 2004.
  22. Research Center for Leadership in Action, Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, Taking Back the Work, A Cooperative Inquiry into the Work of Leaders of Color in Movement-Building Organizations, 2009.
  23. Third Sector New England, Nonprofit Effectiveness – Inclusiveness Matters, The Case for Dialogues that Reach Across Difference (Executive Summary), The Diversity Initiative, Fall 2003.
  24. Yu, Hanh Cao and Traci Endo, “Learning Plan for the Integration of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s Capitalizing on Diversity Cross-Cutting Theme,” W.K. Kellogg Foundation, February 18, 2000.

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