Spirit in Action logo

Taij Moteelall

Aug 072014

siop core leadership team

Standing in Our Power (SiOP), a network of women of color social justice leaders, is calling for greater integrity, accountability, interdependence and compassion among individuals and organizations working for transformative social change.

Many of us who serve as the core leaders and coaches of SiOP came to this network through our personal journeys to reclaim a sense of purpose, wholeness and well-being in our social justice work.  We have been inspired and influenced by the vision of the transformative social change movement over the last two decades to combine personal transformation with organizational efforts to catalyze socio-cultural, socio-economic, political and environmental revolution and social justice.

group holding hands in circle

We are living through tough social and economic times that forces us to connect or contract. Leaders and organizations lack enough energy, time and resources to get everything done. We are tired and stressed, and, ultimately, less effective.  For those of us working to express values of freedom and justice through our organizations, workplace strain, spending cuts, demand on social programs and burnout diminishes our well-being. We find ourselves working for positive social change in more toxic and unhealthier work environments.  Many of us turned to transformative social justice as an ideology and community of practice to find a better way forward and address the personal experiences and conditioning which hindered our ability to be more connected, effective and sustainable.

Yet, our social movements will only build momentum and win through healthy sustainable efforts when we – who are at the helm of transformative social change work – can fully embody integrity, accountability, interdependence and compassion.

Integrity is about how we show up in the world, the degree to which we bring our whole  selves to our work and daily lives. To live in integrity, we do what we say and say what we do. Not to sound too cliché, but on a very fundamental level, we are practicing what we preach.  Another dimension of integrity is adhering to one’s values or professional standards through one’s thoughts, words and actions.

Accountability is about taking full responsibility for our intentions, actions, decisions, and the impact those have in the world. To be accountable, we must also report, explain and be answerable for resulting consequences of what we say and do, as well as for what we fail to say and do.  Accountability ideally rests on mutual reciprocity and support which enables one to meet one’s goals successfully through trusting, creative, soulful and innovative collaborations.

Interdependence is about our relationship with others in our family, organizations, community and movements.  To be interdependent is to live in deep awareness that what impacts one impacts the other, and in fact impacts all.  Our actions and intentions have direct impact on others and the whole. We are not the rugged individuals that an American capitalist view of society will have us believe. All of our fates are intertwined. When we can connect, build relationships of trust and have each other’s backs, we are a thriving interdependent community capable of changing the world.

group hug

Compassion is about having conscious awareness of both your own distress and the distress of others which has built up over many years and having a deep desire to alleviate it with healthy, loving thoughts, words and actions. One’s willingness to heal oneself builds capacity to help others.  It’s about inter-connectedness and  love.

Sounds easy enough, right?  But these practices – ways of being – are among the most difficult things for all, including transformative leaders, to fully embody. Why? Perhaps we are so fixated on the structural realities that our work addresses and being present to the transformative development of our organizations and communities, all while trying to sustain our work, that we fail to personally hold ourselves to the same standards. Possibly because moving beyond self-reflection and awareness to full embodiment of the change we’ve dedicated our lives to, is not enough of a priority.  Maybe we believe that our rhetoric gives us a pass.  After all, we know this stuff.  Heck, we preach it in workshops, through our blogs, with funders, our constituents, etc.  But at the end of the day, can we practice what we preach? Are we living our values? Do we actually believe what we preach?

Ultimately, what keeps us from full embodiment is fear—fear that we are not good enough to make transformative practices a way of being; fear that if we acknowledge mistakes/errors/harm that we will be asked to leave communities, leave leadership positions; and fear that we will be publicly shamed by not living up to the values of integrity, accountability, interdependence and compassion. Too often our movements call for “perfect” leaders. Our fears emanate, in part, from our internalized oppression and trauma.

Standing in Our Power operates from the framework that undoing oppression in the world goes hand-in-hand with undoing the ways we’ve internalized oppression in our hearts, bodies, minds and spirits. This ultimately leads us to behave in ways which foster internal oppression within our organizations and social movements.  One of the main barriers SiOP has identified to the effectiveness of transformative social change efforts is the gender and sexual violence and oppression that is deeply embedded within the very transformative social change movement itself.

Over the past two years since our launch, we’ve seen and heard about sexual and gender violence and oppression in our social movements.  In recent months, it has been brought home with stories of this type of violence and oppression being present in our transformative justice movement.  The purpose of this and subsequent writings is to lift up the voices of women, men and non-genderconforming social justice activists who have been harmed physically, mentally, socially, spiritually and professionally by this dynamic.

As women of color working towards transformative justice, we feel called to raise awareness, amplify marginalized voices, create tools for safety and healing, address the root cause of this issue, and organize for structural and cultural shifts. Our calling comes from a reverence for sacred and safe spaces in our lives, organizations and movements, and the essential need for radical truth-telling, healing and truth-living that can catalyze deep and lasting change.

heart illustration

For too long, we’ve witnessed racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, ableism, and more in our social movements, and felt first-hand how this manifests as sexual and gender violence and oppression.  We know about the history of sexual and gender violence and oppression that has brought down some of our movements from the inside. We also bare witness to it in our present-day work. We’ve held spaces for people to heal, and we yearn to eradicate this from our lives, organizations, movements and world.  As women of color, we often experience multiple oppressions at the same time. These ‘isms’ and ‘phobias’ have fired us up, and at the same time they have silenced us.

If we do not undo the ways in which systemic oppression gets normalized, even in our transformative justice community, and in turn lives within us, we are going to continue playing a part in sabotaging or undermining our work towards socio-cultural, socio-economic, political and environmental revolution and social justice.  .

We are catching fire and breaking silence. In the coming months, we’ll be sharing personal stories, our analysis and tools to shed light on harmful ‘ways of being’ and to support those who are most impacted.  We want to foster deep and lasting change while helping survivors, victims, targets and perpetuators of sexual and gender violence and oppression to recognize when this is happening and how to get support.

Sep 252013

Next week, October 2-6, thirty-five leaders will convene in Ohio to kick off the Standing in Our Power (SiOP) 2013-14 Transformative Leadership Institute for women of color. This unique 10-month program consists of coaching, trainings and peer mentorship to strengthen and advance the leadership of women of color who are working for a more just, equitable and sustainable world.

Programs like SiOP are needed now more than ever as we prepare for a shift in our nation’s demographics. In July 2012 the Center for American Progress released an issue brief on “The State of Women of Color in the United States.” The issue brief takes an in-depth look at the status of women of color and makes clear that our voices are missing at a time when national demographic trends continue to shift toward women of color becoming the majority among all women.

Women of color today are largely underrepresented in the national debate on key issues, including reproductive health care, women’s rights, and the economy—despite the direct impact these issues have on us personally, as well as on our families and communities.

SiOP is building the leadership and capacity of women of color across generations who are at the helm of movements for racial, gender, economic, reproductive and environmental justice. Together, we are organizing, shaping policies, shifting culture and building new institutions that impact our lives.

Reviewing the applications and pre-interviews of the amazing leaders, ages 21 to 72, who will gather in Ohio, I find myself in between heartbreak and hope. We are convening women who are:

  • Community Organizers
  • Policy Advocates
  • Cultural Workers and Artists
  • Fundraisers and Communicators
  • Social Entrepreneurs

Together in Ohio next week, we’ll explore what it means to have an impact without sacrificing one’s well-being and sustainability. We’ll build a network and community that they can consistently lean on and support each other, and participants will develop roadmaps to foster personal and leadership transformation that increases their effectiveness.

Many of the women will return home ready to ignite a cultural shift within their organizations and communities that allows for radical inclusion of the vision and voices of women of color.

No small task, indeed. Especially considering that many of these women are running organizations with minimal support, and have very little access to resources, capital and networks of privilege. I am hopeful because of the indomitable spirit and passion of this year’s Institute participants. I feel heartbroken because of how many adversities they face as leaders and the trauma they’ve experienced – and we were only able to accept one-fourth of the 100+ applicants. Your partnership at this time will help heal the heartache and support us to live into all that is hopeful.

Will you stand with us by making a personally meaningful contribution today?

Support SiOP

 As women of color, we live and lead at the intersection of multiple oppressions. Often this is a lonely and isolating place and we’ve seen that through community building and holistic leadership development we can rise and succeed. Yet, there is a dearth of resources for critical capacity building programs like SiOP that focus on women of color.

Whether you’re a woman of color or an ally, there’s a place for you in this community.

By joining the SiOP community as a donor, you are supporting women of color leaders, and choosing to sustain this work with them over time. Please check out the short video above of highlights from our inaugural SiOP gathering in 2012 and consider investing in the personal and leadership transformation of women of color who are creating change that will benefit society as a whole.

I hope we can count on your support as we support a powerful group of leaders

Jul 292013

siop image-quote5

Now more than ever, we need women of color who are on the frontlines of social justice movements to build community and power to transforms ourselves, our communities and our world. In the midst of powerful voices reverberating across the country, many of who are women of color calling for Justice for Trayvon Martin, I feel honored and privileged to create a space for these sisters to reflect, heal, vision and transform.

The core leadership committee of SiOP invites women of color leaders, across generations, who are committed to creating a more just, equitable and sustainable world to apply to be part of the 2013-2014 SiOP Transformative Leadership Institute.  The 10-month program kicks off with a national gathering at Hope Springs Institute in Ohio, October 2-6, 2013, and is followed by coaching, trainings and peer mentorship. Take a look at the call for applications, where you’ll also find a link to the online application.  Please note that applications are due on August 12.

This unique leadership development program is focused on supporting women of color, who stand at the intersection of multiple oppressions, to address both internal and external oppression to shift the paradigm of leadership in social justice movements and beyond. The SiOP network seeks to collectively create and embody new practices for leading powerful and sustainable social movements that are working for racial justice, gender justice, economic justice and environmental justice.

In a recent article on World Pulse, SiOP core leader, Dayanara Marte, reflects on being a mother in this moment working for justice: “My son, more than any other day, today, I write you not as your mother but as a women who birthed a son into this unjust world without a road map. I am lost and I am scared for you and for me. They say that women birth justice…They say women are magical, made with the infinite ability to manifest and transform the world but today I am scared and I doubt my own ability to create another world for you.”  Read more from Dayanara.

Women indeed have the power to birth a new world. And, at this critical time, we are faced with many choices.  There are two paths before us, we can isolate ourselves and live in fear or we can stand in our power, build community and spark transformation. The SiOP Transformative Leadership Institute will support women of color to live into the latter and to work through our fears and a dominant narrative that tells us we must play small.  Our time is now, and we must start with developing our selves, our vision, our resilience and our power to take action for deep and lasting change.

I am reminded today of the collective vision we created at the inaugural SiOP gathering in October 2012:

We envision circular, synergistic, earth-based, heart-filled and spirit-centered leadership… In the future that we co-create together, our movements are inter-connected because our own connections to each other are strong and sustained. — Excerpt from the SiOP Emerging Collective Vision

From October 2013 to July 2014, thirty women will come together to living into this vision and strengthen our leadership to build the world we envision, a world that works for all of us. If you are a woman of color leader working to creating a just, equitable and sustainable world, and would like to further develop your leadership within a supportive community, please consider applying to be part of the Standing in Our Power (SiOP) 2013-2014 Transformative Leadership Institute.

Get the details and apply today and/or spread the word.

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.

Oct 152012

A year ago, I wrote my first Spirit in Action blog announcing the launch of Standing in Our Power (SiOP).  Now, in partnership with an amazing core leadership team, we are moving from research, listening, and planning to manifesting the reality of our first national gathering.

SiOP is an intergenerational network of women of color leaders that seeks to develop leadership models to transform society as a whole. Inclusive and collective in nature, SiOP will amplify the voices and perspectives of women of color, and establish leadership frameworks rooted in our vision, values, experience, and cultural assets.

I began my journey in social justice organizing as a volunteer among a community of artists/activists of color, and at that time I never imagined that I would need a women’s space for members of that community.  When I started my first paid, full-time job at a nonprofit youth organization, I never thought I would one day be organizing women of color to dismantle the unjust systems we faced daily while simultaneously building new models. As I prepared to transition out of my position as Executive Director of a national philanthropic organization, I began dreaming of one day galvanizing women of color to speak of the injustice we experienced as leaders in our own organizations as a way to address what is not working and create something different.

My journey has compelled me to reflect deeply, to dream, and to eventually create SiOP, with my Spirit in Action team and a founding core leadership committee, to transform leadership in the nonprofit sector, social movements and beyond. By changing how we conceptualize leadership, how we structure organizations and how we practice leading, SiOP will help to usher in a new era at a time when we prepare for several major demographic shifts in the United States.

I am delighted to share a recently completed SiOP Case Statement in which we present details about the network, including the need for SiOP, stories of women of color in leadership, our vision and building blocks, and opportunities for partnership.  I invite you to make a meaningful contribution to ensure that we have much-needed resources to go the long haul. The deep social change we aspire to create is long-term and will require an interdependent community committed to doing the work and to supporting the work.

Transformative social change work cannot happen in isolation.  Leadership from the top down is an isolating experience and has been failing us in our social justice movements. In order for women of color to begin establishing new leadership models we need a collective vision, a network through which we can share resources and ideas, and communities of practice coming together in solidarity. To achieve the mission of SiOP, we need a strong community to hold and support us.  As women of color we cannot do this work alone.

I am filled with excitement as I write this blog.  In less than two weeks, I’ll bear witness to the manifestation of a vision that I have held for several years now.  From October 25-29, thirty women of color will come together at Hope Springs Institute for the inaugural SiOP gathering. I hope you will join us as a founding donor or sponsor. 

Click here to donate.  Please note that your gift is for Standing in Our Power in the “Designation” box. For more information or to find out about sponsorship opportunities, please contact  me at taij(at)spiritinaction(dot)net.

Jul 262012

Speaking about a new issue brief on the status of Women of Color in the United States, released by the Center for American Progress (CAP), Tina Tchen, Executive Director of White House Council on Women and girls, explained that:  “Women of color’s voices are missing … [and] it’s a year in which the table is set in a way it has not been set before, the issues confronting women of color have never been more clear.”

Released on July 18, 2012, CAP’s Progress 2050 and FIRE Initiative issue brief on “The State of Women of Color in the United States”  takes an in-depth look at the status of women of color and makes clear that their voices are missing at a time when national demographic trends continue to shift toward women of color becoming the majority among all women. Women of color today are largely underrepresented in the national debate on key issues, including reproductive health care, women’s rights, and the economy—despite the direct impact these issues have on them personally, as well as on their families and communities.

This report affirms that we are on the right path as we continue to build one of our newest networks, Standing in Our Power (SiOP), which seeks to create a platform for the voices of Women of Color to be amplified and heard. SiOP’s ultimate goal is to create new leadership practices and paradigms that will transform society as a whole.

CAP reports: Women of color have made incredible strides in educational attainment and in the workplace, but their earnings and net wealth still pale in comparison to white women. They also lag behind in political leadership positions and still face unique health disparities. Their voices are critical to shaping the policies that affect their lives. Check out the entire brief.

The infographic below examines the state of women of color in four key areas: the workplace wage gap, health, educational attainment, and political leadership.


Jul 262012

Over the course of three days, we connected, shared, strategized and transformed in a beautiful home where streams of sunlight flooded the space, giving life to the multi-color décor. Our stories of love, trauma, struggle and resilience were as bright and rich as the colors in the curtains, etched into artwork from around the world and painted onto walls.

The first Standing in Our Power (SiOP) core leadership team retreat was held on June 6-9 at the blessed abode of core member, Shilpa Jain, in Berkeley, CA. One of my favorite memories was sitting around a large, round wooden table–that felt like it was made just for us—while we shared communally prepared food.

We began our core retreat with ritual, led by Dayanara Marte (Dee) and Omisade Burney-Scott. It was a beautiful, co-creative process that allowed each of us to honor something greater than ourselves. Shilpa led a ‘Snowball Inquiry” activity that surfaced questions that are real for us at this time. It was like sewing together a quilt with disparate yet strikingly interconnected patches.

From the discussions that ensued, a thread began to weave throughout the retreat in the form of an inquiry: How can we embody a new way of ‘being’ and release the constant pressure of ‘doing.’ Honoring that question, we were able to slow down, breathe and be present. We agreed that the inaugural SiOP retreat, scheduled to happen October 25-28 in Ohio, will focus, in large part, on who we want to be as Women of Color leaders. We will explore how to embody new ways of leadership and release the overwhelming sense of anxiety and inadequacy that comes with needing to do the next best thing.

We then took a deep dive into some much-needed healing work with Dee and Piper Anderson through a process called “Emotional Release,” which has been developed by Dee in her work with Women of Color in the New York City. It was an incredible individual journey inward and then back to the collective. I personally uncovered traumas that I had packed away so well that I forgot they even existed. Together, we laughed, cried and held space for each other as we explored how our hearts had been broken.

Meizhu Lui, our amazing elder on the core, then led us through a process to deepen our political analysis and framework. We examined historical and contemporary data that spoke profoundly of the social inequities experienced by Women of Color. This process definitely got us fired up. As Meizhu tells us: we need to know how we got here to then be able to transform our present and future. Cherine Badawi led us in a World Café process – as we walked in pairs throughout Shilpa’s neighborhood – which explored Women of Color leadership by tapping into our experiences and visions. As the retreat came to a close, we appreciated each other, shared gifts and celebrated with music and poetry.

The retreat yielded a powerful draft agenda that we plan to continue refining as we finalize our list of attendees for the first national SiOP gathering. As we continue our deep listening phase and begin building the next circle that will help to develop the larger network, the energy of our core retreat guides us. These next few months will be a time to continue focusing on how to be, while we also manage a series of tasks. I have no doubt that it will also unfold and flow in a truly magical way.

Nov 212011
In less than a week, the story of the launch of the Standing in Our Power (SiOP) network has reached thousands.  We created an online community on Facebook that already has engaged over 550 women of color.  The outpouring of interest and support affirms the need for this network, which is comprised of women of color leaders building community with each other to transform self and society.  We have heard from several women that they are ready to explore and live into new paradigms of leadership that are reflective of their vision and values.  Several women proclaimed that “SiOP is right on time” for them and their organizations.  One particular response that stands out is from Loretta Ross, Executive Director of Sister Song: Women of Color Reproductive Justice Center

Loretta tells us:

“I am honored to join this group. I first became an Executive Director at age 25, at the first rape crisis center in the country in Washington, DC. As the third director of the center I had many successes but also made many mistakes because I did not have the mentors I needed, did not know how to build trust, and did not seek to intentionally build a network like SiOP. The most we built then in the 1970s was a Women of Color Executive Directors’ monthly lunch at which we could talk about things we couldn’t share with our staffs. But our organizations came and went so quickly because of the lack of funding it was hard to keep that momentum up. So now 33 years later, thank you for your vision and clearly seeing the needs of both younger and older sisters of color in leadership positions.”A core committee of eight women is working in collaboration with our network weaver, Taij Kumarie Moteelall, to design and plan the inaugural SiOP gathering to be held in March 2012.  After an intentional research and development phase, followed by the launch of the network, we are beginning a Deep Listening phase. Over the next few months, women of color will share their stories through writing, video and social media, as well as through one-on-one and small group meetings.  These stories of struggle and triumph will lay the foundation for SiOP’s future work.  If you have a story to share or would like to be involved with SiOP, please contact us.
Oct 192011
As the Occupy Wall Street phenomenon grows in NYC, spreads throughout the United States and across the globe, I wonder what kind of a world will be rebuilt post-corruption, greed, and injustice that sparked this movement.  How will we lead new organizations? How will we govern cities, states and counties?  As we work to break down what is not working, we must simultaneously work to build new systems, institutions and practices.  I cannot think of a better time to launch a proactive initiative dedicated to developing new leadership paradigms by creating a community of practice.
Standing in Our Power (SiOP) is an intergenerational network of established and emerging Women of Color leaders who are committed to deep personal and social transformation.  The purpose of the network is to co-create and embody new leadership models and cultures for our organizations and movements. Women of Color experience a unique intersection of oppressions; we believe that by healing from and transforming these oppressions, we can then serve as portals of liberation for our selves, our communities and our world.

SiOP will work to build sisterhood and solidarity, create spaces for women to share our struggles and solutions, while intentionally cultivating a community of practice; this practice consists of exploring and piloting new forms of leadership that are rooted in our cultures, lived experiences and collective vision. Women of Color leaders will be supported to lead from a place of being centered and grounded, to honor our intuition, and to build trusting partnerships with allies. While working to end racial, gender and class disparities, SiOP will foster the leadership development of women of color and spark cultural shifts in organizations and essentially, a paradigm shift in our movement.

By 2050, it is projected that People of Color will be the majority in the United States.  I believe that becoming the majority should not just amount to an increase in numbers, but also mark a transformation of the very foundation of this country.  By intentionally working towards innovative leadership models that reflect the vision of the world in which we want to live, Women of Color are preparing to take our place as the new majority.  SiOP will be a space for introspection and retrospection, dialogue and exchange, experimentation and innovation, and building coalitions.

My personal and professional journey as an artist/activist and non-profit leader has paved the way for SiOP, and I truly believe that it has immense significance for movement building. As the network weaver for SiOP, I want to share a bit about my journey and why I believe that this work is critical.

I started working full-time at a social service organization in my early 20’s.  Upon completing graduate school at New York University, I was in search of a paid job that aligned with my values.  After an extensive job search, and several offers in corporate America, I underwent a great deal of soul-searching. I asked myself: Which job would truly align with my values and vision? Like many artists/activists, I landed in the nonprofit sector.  Much of my social justice organizing was done on a voluntary basis because a number of organizations I worked with did not have a budget for paid staff.  I began working full-time at a little storefront after school program in East Harlem that had become a national model for youth development.  And, I continued my social justice organizing as a volunteer. I was drawn to East Harlem Tutorial Program (EHTP) because the Executive Director at that time, Carmen Vega-Rivera, represented so much of what I envisioned myself being. She was a dynamic Latina who committed herself to working with her community in El Barrio to bring about deep social change.  She was a loving and compassionate artist/activist, and a phenomenal visionary.

Throughout my tenure at EHTP, I remained unsettled about how a majority-White board could wield so much power over a majority People of Color staff.  I saw Carmen bare the brunt of the burden, often sheltering the rest of the staff from the challenges she faced. After over six years, climbing the ranks from Development Associate to Director of Development and Communications, I left EHTP with a heavy heart and filled with confusion. In addition to the great work the organization was doing to provide needed services to young people in East Harlem, I witnessed firsthand the way power dynamics played out in unhealthy ways and how that led to maintaining the status quo versus transformative change. While I understand the need for social services as we organize for systemic change, the leadership paradigm at EHTP made it feel like we were working to uphold the very system that created the need for supplementary educational programs in a low-income neighborhood.

I was hurt and burnt out by the social service sector and tired of “band-aid” solutions funded by philanthropists who simply did not get it.  Holding the pain of Carmen close to my heart, I wanted to figure out how to resource the grassroots groups that I volunteered with so we could have the capacity to move a transformative change agenda at scale. I saw an amazing Woman of Color leader give relentlessly to an organization only to repeatedly suffer from the pangs of racism, sexism and classism.  The only space she had for healing was among our small management team, comprised primarily of Women of Color. I will never forget the day when I held her in my arms as she wept with feelings of powerlessness and despair.  It did not make sense, and it lit a fire under me.  After serving as an Interim Director for over six months when Carmen left, believing that I could potentially bring about change, I too exited EHTP with feelings of despair. At the same time my fire burnt brighter than ever: I was determined to transform leadership and the nonprofit sector.

During a key transition moment in my life, I came across an organization that organized young people with wealth who wanted to both fund and be part of progressive social change movements.  I was in awe that such an organization existed and was quite intrigued.  I saw that they were searching for a new Executive Director and decided to throw my hat in, even though the organization was based in Boston and I lived in New York City.  My job search had started with the obvious— seeking a higher paying and more challenging development position.  After several interviews and two very lucrative offers, I made an intentional decision to not climb the ranks as a development professional in the social service sector.

The interview process for the Executive Director position of Resource Generation (RG) revealed so much to me and opened me up to a whole new world. Social Justice Philanthropy was a brand new reality to me, though it was part of my vision for a just and sustainable world.  I was ecstatic when I received an offer to be the new director of RG.  I accepted the offer immediately although I would be earning significantly less than what I was making at EHTP. I negotiated working from home in NYC for 25% of my time, and immediately began making plans to live in two cities. I was newly engaged and my partner, who had just moved in with me, could not move to Boston since his work was primarily based in NY.  So, we decided to keep our place in NY and I would look for an apartment share in Boston. It was a lot to figure out in such a short time, but I was resolute on making it happen.

Becoming an Executive Director at such a young age was a life changing experience, especially the first Woman of Color director of an organization comprised of primarily White, wealthy young people.  While I do not identify as wealthy, RG prides itself on being lead by a cross-class team.  I honestly did not realize the immense learning curve ahead of me when I accepted the position, nor did I have the resources to invest in much needed leadership development.  Prior to starting at RG, I did not know that the organization was in a financial crisis.  During my second week on the job, I found out that the organization did not have any funds to operate and was borrowing money from our fiscal sponsor. This news came from a former RG staff member.  There was no time for vital learning needed on my part; I had to jump right into problem solving by hitting the ground running.  I think there was even an expectation, from others and myself, for me to sprout wings and fly.

That same week that I found out about RG’s deficit, which was unknown to the board and staff of the organization at the time, I was pulled into the office of another Executive Director who shared an office space with us.  She was a remarkable Woman of Color who quickly became a confidant.  She told me stories that elucidated how often people of color—and Women of Color in particular—were hired into organizations historically led by White people, and were set up to fail rather than supported to succeed. The stories had me shaking and revealed how the problem was much larger than what was going on at RG.  In fact, it was systemic. She also told me that it was not too late to leave, encouraging me to “do a deep gut check and get out” while I can. After speaking to several other Women of Color directors, and listening passionately to their stories, I started to understand how unique and difficult our situation was due to the multiple layers of oppression that we faced.  I also saw so many commonalities in our stories. I thought about leaving RG, but that simply was not an option for me at the time.

For me, RG was incredibly needed in social justice movements so I did not want to see the organization go under. I honestly believed that I could turn things around given my extensive fundraising experience and the fact that RG works with a constituency who identify as wealthy.  It took me some time to realize that the answer was not merely about working harder or applying more robust fundraising tactics.  That was part of it. The big learning curve was figuring out how to build authentic relationships with folks who shared my values and vision for a just and sustainable world, but who were different from me socio-economically and culturally.  It was a challenge, to say the least, to try and build compassionate and trusting relationships when I was filled with anger about being hired into an organization that could not afford to pay staff, and while simultaneously drowning in my own anxiety about failing or not being good enough.

I worked the day into night and constantly felt the toll on my body, mind and spirit.  I saw myself going down a similar path as Carmen. I lost touch with several of the volunteer organizations that I worked with and was removed from my community of support.  Folks at RG wondered why I was so angry and why the organization was no longer a fun place.  I took the financial situation extremely seriously and made that my top priority.  On retrospect, I should have made building trusting relationship an equally important priority.  However, it was hard to do that when I felt deceived and alone.  Several people who hired me left the organization in the midst of the crisis.  I began to see how, despite the best of intentions, if we do not do deep work at the personal, interpersonal and organizational level to transform culture and practice, than those of us committed to social justice were simply reinforcing the very systems we seek to undo.

At the end of the day, RG overcame its financial crisis when its constituency rose to the challenge and supported the organization in a major way.   New volunteer leaders stepped up with energy and fierceness.  I slowly hired a new staff and we began prioritizing personal work and team building alongside our programmatic and infrastructure building work. It took many sleepless nights on my part, and affirmed for me “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Yet, I still know that it should not be so hard.   My experience at RG tested me on many levels while transforming me in profound ways.  I left the organization with beautiful, trusting relationships with members of the RG community, and I remain awe-inspired with the work of the organization. I also witnessed that when we go deep, allow ourselves to be vulnerable and have hard conversations that we can begin to bridge social divides of race, class and gender.

What carried and sustained me throughout my RG journey was a powerful community of Women of Color leaders who became my underground network of support.  These women helped me to understand that I was not alone, and to develop a lens through which to make sense of our collective experiences. I see how the narrative about not being good enough is constantly reinforced daily by a White dominated world and a male dominated world.  For me, and many of my sisters, we are often caught up in mastering systems and paradigms that are counter-intuitive and do not fit us.  Because of the dearth of funding for leadership development and the lack of overall capacity in our sector, we don’t have the leeway and luxury to step back, reflect and build our own authentic leadership.  SiOP seeks to fill this void by creating a space for collectively visioning a new way forward and to affirm that being a Woman of Color leader means that we are able to bring our whole selves and create something new versus trying to become masters of systems and institutions that simply don’t fit.

As I stand now on the horizon, preparing to launch SiOP, I am more committed than ever to create spaces for Women of Color leaders and emerging leaders to do the deep personal, interpersonal and organizational work that is needed for social transformation. My EHTP and RG experiences planted the seeds for SiOP.  I believe that what has existed as an underground support system, has the potential to spark large-scale transformation, formalized into a national movement-building network with the goals of shifting the culture of organizations and our movement, and to build a new paradigm of leadership.

Standing in Our Power is also a proactive solution to addressing the predicted leadership crisis, or as some have framed it, a leadership opportunity, in the nonprofit sector.  In the book “Working Across Generations: Defining the Future of Nonprofit Leadership,” the authors make a case for new leadership models in order to retain and attract next generation leaders in the sector.  They also speak of the need to work inter-generationally. SiOP will address both of these issues by working to co-create new leadership models and by bringing women together across generations to be in a community of practice.

Key questions that we seek to explore through the network, include:

VISION: What would our institutions look like and how would they function if we built them from the ground up in a
way where our full selves can show up and is reflective of our indigenous cultures?

PROCESS/PRACTICE: How can a diverse community of women foster interdependency of different strengths to
build solidarity, leadership and practices that proactively works to undo structural racism, sexism and classism?

SUSTAINABILITY: How can we sustain the leadership of a new generation of women of color who are building inclusive
movements for racial, gender and economic justice?

I am excited to announce that Standing in Our Power is launching in October 2011 and our first gathering is being planned for March 2012.  Stay tuned for more information!

Spirit in Action