I was blessed to learn from one of the greatest women of color who taught me my first baby steps into organizing. But it didn’t stop there. This is the beginning of my own cultural shift in how I understood and thought about things. In this blog, I tell this story and progress to the now.
I first began organizing in Charleston, SC when I was living in a Black community which primarily consisted of low-income apartments and projects. At my bus stop, I was always the only white person, and kept complaining to other bus riders about the fact that the bus didn’t take us down to Broad Street where I worked. Many of the folks that I rode the bus with worked even farther away.
People would mostly just smile, chuckle, or shake their heads at this young, naive white girl and tell me, “That’s just how it is.” Some were more direct: “’They’ don’t want busses full of black people coming into their neighborhoods.” And so we continued to ride on the bus, then get off and walk several blocks into those white neighborhoods where we worked.
But several people told me that if I wanted to do something about it, I had to go talk to Mrs. Clark. I walked by her house several times before getting the courage to knock on the door. A young person answered the door and took me to Mrs. Clark, who I immediately fell in love with — an elderly, caring, strong, and wise woman. It was almost a year later before I learned she was a very famous leader, Septima Clark, often referred to the as the “Grandmother of the Civil Rights Movement.”
Mrs. Clark wanted to know my own story and then asked me to join them for dinner. After dinner she asked me why I was coming to visit her. When I explained what I thought was the unfairness of the bus system, she perked up and started telling me what I needed to do.
First, she told me to knock on all the doors of the community and to ask them how they felt about this injustice. Intially, this was difficult, but quickly became easier as I told people I was sent by Mrs. Clark.
Next, she helped me put together a proposal. She informed me that I would need to go to the NAACP to present it to them and see what they suggested.
This was in the 1970s, but I had no idea what the “NAACP” was. I grew up in the rural south and segregated schools. We never learned anything about civil rights. When I first went to the NAACP meeting, I was mostly ignored and felt too intimidated to ask anything or speak up. I went back to Mrs. Clark, whining, saying “I was the only white person there. They didn’t like me; they don’t trust me.” She quickly responded, “Well of course they don’t, what did you expect? Now, next time you go back….” I went back three times before a gentleman finally asked why I was there. When he heard Mrs. Clark had sent me, I immediately had the platform to present our proposal and eventually, a few years later after much hard work, we won – the busses began to run all the way past Broad Street and beyond.
It was one of my first steps in learning to be a white ally. I learned that I could not walk in immediately expecting people to trust me and waiting for them to show me that they liked me. And being a better white ally was essential to becoming a better leader.
Just as Mrs. Clark taught me, I have continued to learn a different way of working and of organizing from strong women of color leaders. It has been a wonderful, challenging, and joyful life-long journey.
After hiring a young, powerful woman of color leader to work as a program director at Spirit in Action, I continue to be challenged to go even deeper in my understanding. Taij Moteelall is an experienced leader and the founder of Standing In Our Power, a project of Spirit in Action. As a white Executive Director of organizations for thirty years, I still have privilege and power in my position and even while I try to “share power,” ultimately I have the final power in decision making. As I move into a time of transitioning into sharing leadership, Taij is stepping into a more powerful place of leadership within our organization. And while there have been moments of challenge, it has mostly been an amazing gift of love, learning and support.
The leaders emerging from Standing in Our Power are creating a new paradigm of leadership that is holistic, healing, and practical. It is more inclusive, loving, and powerful and will allow us all to move toward a truly inclusive, love filled and joyful movement.
As a white ally, I am called to act in a new way forty years after my lessons learned working with Mrs. Clark. As I stand in solidarity with the women of Standing in Our Power, I continue to be challenged in the way I think, to look at other ways of doing things that are outside of my “norm” only to learn a smarter, more effective, way. As a supervisor, my privilege and superiority sometimes let me say to myself “well, let them [a staff person] do it their way and when it doesn’t work, it will be a lesson learned”. My lesson is that instead of finding it doesn’t work, I find new ways of accomplishing the same goal – better than the way I might have done it. This helps me understand that the way I do things is not the “only way” or even the most successful way. It makes me begin to look at other approaches and understand new ways of doing things.
That is why I’m so proud that we can support women of color to come together and bring their amazing wisdom that has often been ignored or seen as “not the right way to do things” by white culture. I am standing with these powerful sisters and ask you to join me. I hope you will consider supporting this network as they get ready to kick-off a 10-month Transformative Leadership Institute.
Standing In Our Power will give us a new way of thinking that will help all of us: men, women, different cultures, ethnicities and colors. The way members of Standing In Our Power are recreating leadership is inclusive, healing and powerful. As we learn from this group of women new ways of leading, we will also be guided to build a movement based on peace, equity, and love that will allow all of us to move forward together.
I have been blessed to have many women of color in my life who are leaders and who sometimes harshly, but mostly lovingly, taught me what it means to listen and to follow. It has been the most valuable lessons I have learned and has taught me to be the kind of organizer and leader I am today.
This is the ultimate cultural shift we must make: learning to listen to those whose shoulders and backs we have often stood on to have the privilege and benefits as white leaders is a struggle that we need to embark on in order to be transformative leaders and true allies; learning to listen to the varied and often enlightened voices of women of color who can shed new insights and cast great light upon our vision for a more equitable and just future for all I will continue to share my journey of learning in future blogs. I hope you will join me in that journey.
If you are interested in supporting Standing in Our Power, please use the link below: