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Mar 282013

I’ve always been an advocate for human rights and especially women’s rights. Yet, as a woman of color, it took me a while to embrace feminism, which felt like it was more for white women. I now recognize that feminism is fundamentally the freedom to make choices that honor our deepest values. This freedom empowers us to choose what is right for us and not fall prey to unrealistic expectations.

The recent release of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, brought up tons of questions for me. Before even reading her book, I joined the bandwagon critiquing her for being 10,000 feet above ground and disconnected from the reality of a critical majority of women, including working class women and women of color. Why wasn’t she focusing on systemic change and instead encouraging women to “fix” themselves? Was she advocating for women leaders to be more like men? To me, Sandberg was simply accepting the existing leadership paradigm rather than advocating for the creation of new paradigms. You name it and I was ready to throw a stone at it!

As I dove into Sandberg’s book, taking in her personal story, I began to lean into her position. I started reflecting on my own journey and viewpoint, and accepting that while we respectfully choose to work with different groups of women – Sandberg primarily with women in corporate America and me with women of color leaders in social justice movements – that we were still working toward a common goal of feminism: the right to choose and pave our own path.

Perhaps where I see the greatest connection is our respective commitments to supporting women to do our own inner work. Sandberg seeks to support women to overcome internal barriers by encouraging them to “lean in” and to provide circles of support for women to do so. My work with women of color* in part focuses on inner work to heal from the pangs of multiple oppressions that seeped through our skin and passed down ancestral lineages to now reside in our bodies, minds, hearts and spirits. Through circles of support at the local and national level, I envision women of color on the frontlines of social justice movements “standing in our power” to generate broad-based social transformation. This seismic shift requires us to engage in our own personal transformation simultaneously with social transformation, and in so doing reimagine and reinvent our culture and institutions while engaging in resistance and reform work. 

I choose to view Sandberg’s book as an invitation for me to step up and speak my own truth.  So, here is one part of my story that led me to the path I’m on today.

When I became an executive director of a national social justice philanthropy organization in my late-twenties, I had no idea how to balance work and life. Balance was never encouraged or modeled for me. Don’t get me wrong, I had fierce superwomen who surrounded me in both my personal life and professional life. These women were workaholics who shaped my beliefs about work and how my self worth was somehow linked to my success. I plunged in with my own ferocity and believed that the more I worked and the harder I worked, the more results I would see. I saw positive outcomes, and at the same time experienced the drawbacks of me giving my all to essential outer work at the expense of my inner work, including healing from internalized oppression. As a result, I was limited in my ability to build trust and authentic relationships across difference, which I now view as a core element of transformative leadership. I was at once very proud of the superwoman nickname given to me by one of my mentors and struggling to keep up with it.

As more women of color gain leadership positions, particularly in multi-racial, multi-gender and cross-class organizations, we are expected to continue to use leadership practices that are the “norm”– practices that have often been constructed by white males. Such models are based on individual power at the top, and utilize organizational measures of success that too often ignore the holistic development of constituents, staff and volunteers. As many women of color feminists have advocated, an intersectional approach that validates all identities and seeks to undo all forms of oppressions is required – and it is what works. However, there is a dearth of resources for women of color to take a step back, reflect, hone our vision and engage in transformative leadership development.

A year into my tenure I was burnt out and sick with almost every virus going around. I also alienated some potential allies. It took another six months before I was able to put in place a more balanced way of working for my entire staff, including me. I was blessed to have a staff that readily embraced the notion of self and community care.

I realize that my stint with burnout was not my fault and my way of being was the norm in the non-profit sector in which I chose to work. The desire to “have it all” is so pervasive within a dominant U.S. culture that breeds excessiveness, and leads to unnecessary waste, massive wealth disparity, environmental devastation and more. Even as a social justice activist, I was applying this same belief in excessiveness in my efforts to create a more just, equitable and sustainable world. I can now look back and laugh at a recommendation in one of my evaluations that said I needed to say “no” more often.

As I let go of “having it all,” I am simultaneously embracing the question of “what is enough?” This is more of a practice in how I want to be – content but not complacent – versus something else to do. I am actively working to transform my practice from trying to master or fix systems that simply do not work to co-creating new paradigms built on equality, justice and sustainability. Acknowledging that this cannot be done alone, I choose to do this work as part of a dynamic community of women of color.

Launched in 2011, Standing in Our Power (SiOP) now has both national and local programming. SiOP is an intergenerational network of women of color leaders that seeks to develop leadership models that can transform society as a whole. Inclusive and collective in nature, SiOP amplifies the voices and perspectives of women of color, and identifies the skills, strategies and solutions that women of color leaders utilize. By initiating and modeling social change from within the third sector, SiOP will inspire cultural and structural shifts to transform the rest of our country’s systems and institutions.

As I continue my journey with both my “to do” list and my “to be” list, I have a community to hold me accountable. SiOP is a network with several communities of practice, coaching, national retreats, local/regional gatherings, workshops/trainings and more. We recognize that one woman alone cannot change the structure. But she can change herself, and then organize other women to collectively change the structure. We are merging inner and outer work to foster personal and social transformation.

While our end goals may be different, Sandberg and I are both on a path to empowering women to create change from the inside out. I appreciate that she recognizes the need for systemic change, and respect that she has chosen to focus on personal change as a pathway to liberation. I hope Sandberg will keep in mind that no woman will be fully liberated until those who are most marginalized and oppressed in society are also liberated. As the movement she is building grows and more women “lean in,” and as my work grows and more women are “standing in our power,” I also hope to see cross class, cross gender and sexual orientation, cross sector, and cross race collaborations that allow us to collectively reinvent cultures, institutions and the world.

Sandberg’s book is opening doors for me to step in and share my own story and vision. Rather than throwing stones, as a proud woman of color feminist I choose to lean in and stand in my power.

Click here to support Standing in Our Power.

*SiOP aims to be inclusive of transgender and gender non-conforming folks. The term ‘of color’ is used as a measure of solidarity, and in no way an effort to homogenize a population that has different class privilege, histories, etc.

Mar 282013

As I took a seat in the circle of chairs, I entered a welcoming space to speak my heart, bear witness and make meaning of the hurdles in my life. Reflecting now on the many women’s circles I’ve participated in and led, I recognize that the practice of Circle has shaped my understanding of how to build a radically democratic, inclusive community. I believe that a missing link in today’s organizing is the gift that circle process offers–a form that supports the wisdom of the collective to arise, honoring all voices as equal.

With respect to women’s history month, I acknowledge feminist leaders of the 1960s and 1970s who employed consciousness-raising circles as a potent form of political action. Sharing individual stories enabled women to identify how sexism and misogyny impacted their lives while also providing a structure for support. Today’s feminist groups such as www.everydayfeminism.com offer invaluable online resources to understand the specificities and connections between all forms of oppression. But I’m hungry for some old-school consciousness raising…and perhaps you are too.  Check out Spirit in Action’s Circles of Change Guide to gain practical tools for cultivating social justice with people in your neighborhood, organization or community group!

Download Excerpt of SIA’s Circles of Change Guide

We selected 10 pages from Spirit in Action’s Circles of Change Guide that we are offering to you as part of  our community. This excerpt focuses on the power of circles and provides tools for creating these intentional spaces. The excerpt is rich with insights, stories and exercises that can support your community and movement building work. To download your excerpt click on the image to the right. Please do not hesitate to reach out to us at Spirit in Action if you have questions or would like a copy of the complete Circles of Change Guide.

Mar 282013

The Progressive Communicators Network (PCN) and Standing in Our Power (SiOP), two networks organized by Spirit in Action, are teaming up to bring a dynamic one-day skill-building event to women of color leaders in New York City on Saturday, April 27th at Hostos Community College in the Bronx.

We’ll bring women of color leaders who are on the frontlines working for racial justice, gender justice, and economic justice for a day of networking and communications skill-building.

Workshop sessions are in development. They include:

• How effective is your website?

• Creative social action — actions that get attention

• Building relationships with reporters

This is based on PCN’s Be the Media! mini-conferences that have been hosted in Boston for seven years. We’re eager to bring this successful model to New York City for our local social justice community.

To help get folks there, we’ll be offering childcare, Spanish-language translation and a low registration fee ($40 per person).

A committee of leaders from the Progressive Communicators Network and Standing in Our Power are setting the agenda and carrying out the event.

Spirit in Action