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Taij Kumarie Moteelall

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

Aug 142013

nitika blog2
Some days I love to write. Most days writing loves me back. Some days I hate to write. I want to share with you my story, but it is a hard story to re-tell. I don’t want to repeat facts with a stone on my heart, because they are heavy words to disperse. But I also don’t want to hide the story, because it is not shame that holds me back, but my own powerful self that is rooted in the current moment, one that does not look back.

“It’s true”

At Resource Generation where I work with young people of color with wealth, we have a tradition: when someone gives you a compliment, you have to respond with “It’s true”. I find a lot of women, and a lot of women of color, often deflect praise. Truly absorbing and receiving what we hear is difficult.

When people in my life share their reflections of me, I often hear the words: fabulous, strong, inspiring, brave, bold, joyful, sexy, divine, and full of life. (I also hear stubborn, funny, fierce, wise and committed). It’s TRUE! One thing I want to ask of all women of color, of all people whose divine power has been systematically suppressed, is to join me in believing.

 #1 Have faith in your own radiance.

How we tell our stories matters

Each of us is living many stories – our own individual life, our ancestry, our history, and all the identities that result from having a body; age, gender, class, dis/ability, nationality, immigration status and so forth. Then there are significant life experiences that shape us – trauma, spirituality, abuse, illness… the variabilities of being alive in the world at this time.

How does one tell a story of overcoming trauma and squeezing through life’s many breaking points, without the portrayal of self as victim at some point(s)? To stand in my power, in each re-telling, I have no desire to keep deconstructing my experiences, to keep analyzing my family of origin, or to keep grieving losses.

In each telling, let it serve the need of your current moment – to heal, to connect, to break silence, to share, to share pride, to vent, to reflect, or to let go. You don’t have to tell your story to serve what other people want from you.

 #2 Tell your story for YOU.

Social Justice / Swimming Pool

Do you ever hear the words “social justice”, or “racial justice”, “economic justice”, or “the movement” and have absolutely no feelings? That happens to me quite often. These days my eyes glaze over, and I suddenly picture myself jumping into a swimming pool.

When I hear the word “trauma,” I get quiet and my heart feels heavy. The opposite of standing in our power must be stripping us of our power. When that terrible thing happens to a human being, or groups of human beings or entire nations, we call that trauma.

As women of color, we have been forced to de-emotionalize our traumas, so that we are not called “crazy”, irrational, or overly sensitive. For our own survival, women have been forced to quieten/not listen or respond to what’s happening in our bodies. For the many survivors of violence who are women, we have learned to escape, to separate body from spirit from mind, in order to live through the experiences to even have the option of healing.

From what I understand, social justice is about the world getting to a place where it’s truly just for all people. But to know that it’s unjust, you have to hear from the people to whom injustice is done. But if we only tell the “facts” and we cannot identify our needs because it is not safe to feel into our bodies, then how will we open ourselves to truths that fill out a more complete picture? We can’t. We must create spaces where we can both tell the facts and let out the emotions of our traumas and truths.

 #3 The truth-telling of women of color is an eternal fire. Eventually, it burns and cleanses all of us and those around us.

To validate our full selves, we must believe and support one another, and to use women of color spaces to amplify our voice and visibility.


This is a magical power. Our spirit is the center of hope, interconnection, and a source of creativity and bliss. These are the components of true power – the kind that builds connection through love and acceptance. It is similar to maternal love, that source of unconditional loving unique to one who has the divine honor of being a gateway to new life. We do not create life, we simply create space for it to pass through us to take visible form in the world.

#4 Women are goddesses.

Connecting to the spirit level requires prayer, an intentional tapping into that larger power. Pray in whatever way is right for you: pray in silence, pray to music, pray with your body, dance, do yoga, do what is accessible to you that moves your heart in sync with your spirit.


#5 Pray your way.

A spiritual community will hold you like no other. Elements of a spiritual community are: a) operating from a place of eternal love and non-judgment, b) caring about the whole person, not just about what they can do or what you are trying to do together, c) singing, dancing, meditation – practices that center and align our spirits, d) sharing good food! e) providing space to share delights as well as grief, f) reading and collective learning from a shared text – whatever has been powerful and grounding , from fiction novels to quotes to Audre Lorde.

We have to bring our whole selves to our social justice work, including our sacred ways of being and doing.

 #6 Build a spiritual community, be a part of a community of faith.

One version of my story

My parents were born in the mid-1950’s, in newly independent India post British colonization. Both were raised poor/working class; they had a traditional arranged marriage. Free local education led to upward class mobility, and joining the professional middle class. They migrated to Kuwait in the late 70’s where I was raised, and was sexually abused until the Gulf War, when our living situation changed. (The violence in my life ended, only to be replaced with the violence that happens in war – to people of all genders and ages). Fast-forward. In 2000 I moved to the U.S., studied computer science, found that the men in my department sexually harassed the few women (10%) in the program. I joined anti-violence work on campus. I went to get a masters in social work, then got married, realized I was queer, came out, and my family confronted the man who had abused me, my uncle. My parents in the meantime had started a business, gotten rich, paid for my undergraduate and graduate education. I got divorced, got a job, found out I have endometriosis, and have become eternally committed to working for equal dignity for all people. Now I live in New York, where I am happy and in love with God, and also with my life and all the people in it.

Another version of my story, on days when I don’t have the energy to tell it all, or days when I know it doesn’t matter anymore because it’s the past and it’s not Now.

All that happened was meant to be. I learned a lot from it, about how to stand in my truth first, and then to stand in my power. Now if only we can keep standing in love as we work for justice, it will all be okay. The path will not end in peace if the process is not gentle.

#7 To have a peaceful life, it really helps to make peace with your family of origin.

And healing takes time. To live is to heal, and to heal is to become a phoenix. We burn our old self and renew our life. Spiritual growth is being open to all the ways of loving and living, and letting go. If this is how we are living, we are leading lives centered in spirit and in integrity with the world.

#8 Healing is inevitable.

When i lived in You

When i lived in Beauty

i smiled easily and often

When i lived in Truth

i became bolder and kinder

When i lived in Love

it gave me pleasure to give

And so,

Beauty, Truth and Love came to live in me.

#9 To be a leader is to be your own true self.


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.

Jul 162013

 sweet livity2Growing up African American back and forth between the urban streets of Richmond, California and more rural Muskogee, Oklahoma (where the legacy of the Tulsa massacre lingers on), “social justice” was the water I drank and the air I breathed. There were three pillars on which my family’s faith and sacrifice stood: god, education, and family/community. My own poor health led me to spend a lot of isolated time with books as friends; stories of survival and hope, like Harriet Tubman’s story, especially called to me. Social justice to me is about the community of people affected by past oppression, the bonding with others to achieve equity and opportunity for the whole.

My fragile health and the care received from others made me want to feel less like an invalid and to take my turn at healing others. The first idea was nursing, but I soon learned that nurses reach people “too late” to truly impact their quality of life. As a young adult, it reached my consciousness that there are racial disparities in terms of who is healthy and who is not, who gets care and who does not. From Western medicine and its emphasis on treating those already sick, I moved toward holistic practices that emphasize life experiences that prevent illness and promote wellness. By age 25, these practices cured my asthma, without the drugs doctors had prescribed since childhood.

Up until college, I only had one teacher of color throughout my entire K-12 experience. At SF State, where I majored in community health education, my definition of leadership was influenced by professors of color who emphasized service to one’s own people. Quickly taking on “leadership” to tackle issues affecting children and adults living with sickle cell anemia – a disease most common amongst those of African descent – I became Coordinator of Northern California (Nocal) Regional Network of Sickle Cell Counseling Centers and Director of the Nocal Sickle Cell Summer Camp. Feedback from white supervisors (well-intentioned but with internalized racism) was that I was “taking too much initiative.” An African American woman wasn’t supposed to have too many ideas of her own, especially big bold ideas!

Under the mentorship of African-American leaders Omowale Satterwhite, Florene Poyadue and Norma Thigpen and others, next I co-founded and served as ED of the Sickle Cell Community Health Network as a way to move those affected with sickle cell anemia out of the shadows, and to advocate for justice regarding medical research, treatment and access to social and economic support. By 2003, I had begun doing consulting work for other organizations and joined the National Community Development Institute. For six years, I worked for justice within diverse vulnerable communities. All seemed to be going well.

But in 2009, the asthma came back. I was overweight and depressed. Overwork. Stress. Burnout! Decades of working for positive social change in unhealthy environments produced physical and emotional manifestations. I was again in need of healing! So I left a lucrative job and embarked on a personal healing journey. After a year, I had released 50 pounds through forgiveness and spiritual work, and childhood dreams of becoming a healer returned. Something made me go to Belize, where through a series of – was it destiny or a calling? – I learned and practiced Mayan traditions of holistic healing based on the use of the properties of plants and flowers combined with prayers and water to heal emotions. I began doing healing work with elders and youth in rural villages while continuing my own healing journey. My asthma went away.

Having reclaimed the sweetness of life, I wanted to help others using the same mind-body-spirit tools that had healed me. On my return to the US, I founded Sweet Livity in the fall of 2011 to bring those tools to my own community. “Livity” is a Rastafarian word, meaning “your entire way of life is your medicine.” Sweet Livity is a life practice of reclaiming ancestral ways of being that draws strength and energy from life’s joys and sorrows with a sense of balance, aliveness, and well-being. The practice of Sweet Livity is to continually relate in harmony and health with ourselves, our community, and the environments in which we live, work and play.

sweet livity

With a multicultural team of holistic practitioners and coaches, we teach healing strategies like chakra eating and dance, sound toning, meditation in nature, tension release exercises, clarity statements, and forgiveness of self and others to reduce stress, increase energy and inspire a renewed imagination and creativity. The aim is to help people transform the spaces where they live and work into supportive environments where they thrive and create better solutions to solve social problems without sacrificing their health and happiness.

While working mainly with individuals, I have a growing interest and clientele in social justice organizations and networks. Our communities need ways to deal with the stress and trauma that comes from the emotional burden of working with people every day who are living in oppressive situations. Both individuals and organizations need healing, which is the process of rebuilding and regenerating a healthy way of living, by strengthening physiological, mental, social, emotional, cultural, economic, ecological and spiritual well-being. I am bringing this view point to my current work with the Standing in Our Power network, where I am blessed to serve as a coach and a participant.

I am learning from SiOP and my other work that while everyone has a difficult time taking care of themselves and putting themselves first, women of color find it particularly hard to embrace holistic approaches that appear counter to ingrained values of “hard work” and “sacrifice for others”. Self-care is not their model of how to live life. Some of my first heroines, like Sojourner Truth and my own grandmothers Marie McInham Elliott and Bertie Mae Lee, spent their lives in the service of others. We don’t want to dishonor our ancestors by seeming to focus on self. But women need to build both their internal resources and external support systems so that they can constantly replenish their own “cup,” from which they can serve others. If the cup gets emptied, there is nothing to give. If the cup overflows with abundance resulting from self-love and self-care, then one day your abundance is so overflowing you can give from your saucer and your cup. You never have to be empty again!

One of the simple and lovely ways to re-fill our cups is to spend time close to nature. If you are deep in the concrete and asphalt, even a picture can help: pictures of water or sounds of birds or flowing water are particularly centering. We are over 90% water, and water calls you back to yourself. By being still, simply seeing and listening to nature, we can both escape our bodily boundaries and touch deeply our own inner healing.

For more ideas on how to have more Sweet Livity in your work and daily life, I invite you to visit our website at www.sweetlivity.com.

Sweet Livity: the way you live can heal you!

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.

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