This represents arguably one of the most challenging times in our nation’s history to be a leader.
I wrote "Two Truths And A Lie: Leadership During A Pandemic" in the wee hours of night while major thoroughfares in my region burned to the ground and I sat peering out a window of my St. Paul home. As I was working to capture real-time lessons from one crisis, another one was unfolding.
The Twin Cities region quickly found itself at the epicenter of a national reckoning with systemic racism when George Floyd died at the hands of a police officer. This reckoning has been broadly experienced as the examination and protest of the status quo. To place a finer point on things, we are experiencing a challenge to the balance of power that undergirds the status quo.
Moment or Movement
In my role at Greater Twin Cities United Way, I am afforded a unique lens on this moment. Our organization provides operating grants to nearly 100 nonprofit organizations across our region. We are fortunate to partner closely with multiple corporations to develop and deploy philanthropic solutions in service to our neighbors in need.
Serving as a bridge across sectors of changemakers, I am afforded a close look at the underlying concerns of those leading our communities’ response to the times we face. The needs are great, emotions and tensions are high, the financial outlook is uncertain and at least once a week since the end of May, I hear a different colleague wonder out loud whether this time will be different. Will this be the time we really move the needle on systemic racism in a major way?
Ensuring this period lives beyond a moment to become a movement toward sustained change requires that activists and nonprofit, corporate and public leaders build the stamina to hold the tension of “yes, and” among three essential tactics.
For all the recent lamenting of “cancel culture,” calling an organization or leader out for harmful practices is not a new tactic. What is relatively new is virtually anyone’s capacity to access and broadly disseminate information related to a perceived violation of ever-evolving cultural norms. Due to Covid-19, we find ourselves cooped up at home with fewer distractions from the ugly truth: Racism is foundational to many of our systems. This increased focus intensifies the impact of a call out.
Pros: Grabs attention, halts harm, can provide valuable information regarding the alignment of intent vs. impact, the threat of a call out increases vigilance in decision making, may prevent sliding into old patterns
Cons: One-sided communication, often ignores nuance and details necessary for an accurate behavior assessment; can be adversarial, create defensive posture, have a far-reaching impact on credibility
Advice: In many cases, a call out is the result of an unclear feedback loop or perceived unwillingness of those in power to engage. Work to proactively test and clarify feedback channels and share examples of subsequent changes made. Consider timing, venue, language and likely impact/response before calling out.
A call in, much like a call out begins with an acknowledgment of problematic behavior. Instead of weaponizing awareness, however, calling in invites people on a journey. The practice requires patience, courage, empathy and parties willing to engage in radical listening. It is possible to diffuse a call out by responding with a call in.
Pros: Halts harm, preserves and builds relationships, fosters accountability and commitment, provides space for shared learning
Cons: May be perceived as placating/performing comfort for those in power, can be emotionally taxing for all involved (especially for those not in positions of authority, because power complicates the exchange)
Advice: Set your intentions and test openness prior to taking this approach to efficiently manage time and energy. What constitutes progress on the behavior in question? What is the impact of doing better? One way to test openness is to ask directly about the other’s intent. Consider starting with a phrase like “help me understand what your goal was with [behavior in question].” Share the impact of the statement/behavior in question as well as the approach you would have preferred and why.
Meaningful progress to reverse the effects of racism in our systems requires long-term, intentional action. According to FSG's The Water of Systems Change model, progress must occur at three different levels: structural (policies and practices), relational (power and connectedness) and transformational (mental models, or the way we understand how the world works).
Pros: Focused attention on the source of societal challenges versus managing symptoms (evidence of a justice frame over charity), can create shifts in narratives that hold problems in place
Cons: May be disruptive to existing plans, uncomfortable to confront well-meaning but harmful practices, hard, complicated work to move systems
Advice: Examine the following: What practices within your sphere of influence lead to predictable outcomes along racial lines? How are your dollars allocated? If you have identified racial justice or systems change as a priority for your organization but have not invested incrementally toward that end, you may be working at cross-purposes with your stated goal. Once a desired set of outcomes is identified, stick with it. Research suggests that five to 10 years of sustained effort is required to transform a system.
We are living in unprecedented times where equity, racism and systemic oppression are at the forefront of conversation and require sincere introspection. While difficult, this point in history also presents a rare and profound opportunity for leaders to chart a different path, toward our highest and best collective selves.
-- Acooa Lee Ellis
This article originally shared on Forbes Nonprofit Council.