Leaders of Color — Learn to Say “I’m Sorry…”


Lake McDonald, from pixaby open source photo, attributed to skeeze

Earlier today I was at a listening session with the head of a large public institution. The person speaking was a poc and as he went through his PowerPoint slide deck he made sure to mention they are working on race and social justice. He mentioned it and moved on. Later in the presentation, he talked about a story that had come out in the news a few weeks ago about how students of color were excluded from a program at a disproportionate rate than white children. As he talked about this he said: “We don’t see race…” As I heard this I got bitter and jaded. This is a large public institution that is supposed to be accountable to taxpayers, it is meant to serve all in the community, especially those without means to pay, and what I heard was “I don’t see you.”

As a person of color, I probably unfairly judge other leaders of color. I unfairly expect more because I know the stakes are higher for pocs. I want us all to succeed and to collectively use our voice to push for bigger systemic changes. I also know we are rare and unfairly are expected to be leaders for groups rather than of individuals.  Our representation matters and we should be using our access, influence, and power to push for change. To hear another leader of color say “we don’t see race” made me cringe.” As leaders of color, we have to see race. We must see it, because if we don’t, who will? This is where the unfairness comes in — we give passes to white people who are just learning about race, but as leaders of color we hold ourselves and each other to higher standards. This is also where I have to slow down and give this leader of color some grace and in some ways apologize and say I’m sorry for the public callout.

As leaders of color there are fewer of us out in the world. In the nonprofit sector the number of executive directors of color are small as compared to the larger field, and especially for a field dedicated to solving the world’s problems, many of which unjustly impact people of color more acutely. It isn’t enough to be a leader of color if we’re not using our words and actions to lead for racial equity and not just using them as buzzwords to win attention and grant money. Again some people get a pass, but we unjustly have a different set of rules to play by; because we are rarer if we mess up the criticism is harsher and we get hit by both sides — those who want the status quo to stay and those who feel we didn’t push hard enough.

During the question and answer portion of the program I challenged him on how the organization can say they have a racial equity focus but at the same time say they don’t see race. The answer wasn’t satisfying, as I knew it wouldn’t be. There was no win for anyone in that situation.

Leaders of Color – Learning and Being Humble

Tonight, I was with another leader of color of another very large public institution. The moderator asked her what she does for self-care. She said she grew up near a national park with very big mountains and enjoys being in nature. She also said when she stands below the mountains and waterfalls she is reminded how little she is and how insignificant we can be. I appreciated the humility and calmness she extended in her answer to lead. We can sometimes get hot and bothered by everyday problems, but if leading for equity requires a calm and stillness to be in the work for the long haul. We can be part of the problem or part of finding solutions and finding justice.

Humility and grounding in self and place are important. I think in many ways what I wanted to hear from the leader of color was “I’m sorry, we (our staff) messed up…” As leaders we have to say we’re sorry and our organizations messed up, it is human and there is a restorative justice element in admitting our faults. Admitting a mistake is better than saying “We don’t see race,” which invisibilizes a major part of the problem. In my judgment, this is a bigger sin. Saying I’m sorry means we see the problem and can acknowledge it and maybe with some grace and humility we can work on fixing it together.

A few months ago, I had my own moment of messing up. We had hosted a big event and due to a lot of factors, we didn’t offer childcare. In an act of kindness and bravery, one of my partners had the hard conversation with our team about it. As soon as he started talking, I started rationalizing it and explaining how it happened he stopped me and said “I’m hearing a lot of excuses…” what I should have done was said “You’re right we messed up and I’m sorry,” and then listened more. It was hard and my impulse was to power-play, rationalize, and deflect. Thankfully we could draw from our relationship to move forward on redesigning our events to be more inclusive of children, especially children of color.

Where to go and What to do

Leading for race as leaders of color and white allies means we say we’re sorry when we mess up. Say your sorry, listen, and calmly keep working. With some grace and kindness to ourselves and others, we can stand beneath a mountain and be humbled and strong at the same time.

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