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Power, Decolonized Leadership and Small Victories

By January 12, 2021Foundation Blog

Have you ever been waiting for news with such anticipation that you refreshed your email several times per minute? That was me waiting to hear if I had been selected as a 2020 PLACES Fellow. The PLACES Fellowship, hosted by The Funders Network, is a transformational leadership development program for professionals in philanthropy. Its aim is for fellows to better understand issues of race, equity and inclusiveness — and to then translate those skills and knowledge into their grantmaking practices. A handful of local peers who are fellowship alumni, described a renewed focus and sharpened skills in their own diversity, equity and inclusion work and leadership, thanks to PLACES. Bottom line, I was hooked.

A traditional year would entail four national site visits, paired with one on one coaching and group sessions. The prospect of visiting areas of the country I had never experienced before and building deep relationships with other racial justice minded individuals was something I was craving. The veiled tales of late night karaoke and the occasional dance off were an intriguing (and slightly terrifying) fringe benefit.

So, you can imagine my anticipation to hear if I would be part of this unique experience. Then the email came—“Congratulations. You have been selected as one of 16 others for the 2020 cohort.” *Screeches with excitement*

As incoming fellows, we started connecting virtually and making plans to meet at The Funders Network Annual Conference in San Diego, scheduled for March 15…but remember, it was 2020. And in March 2020 everything shut down—enter the novel coronavirus. To be honest, as I frantically packed up my office, bought groceries and prepared for a “shelter in place” order, the fellowship was the last thing on my mind. Getting in touch with our community partners to understand and respond to immediate needs became center stage.

When the dust settled, I realized my PLACES experience was going to be…different. And it was. But different isn’t bad. Am I disappointed we ultimately were not able to see each other in person, travel all over the country, sing the song I had been practicing for MONTHS (don’t judge)? Of course. But a global pandemic doesn’t suddenly put an end to racism or white supremacy culture within the halls of philanthropy. Our work must press on. Nonetheless, we kept it pretty “on-brand” for 2020 with Zoom calls galore (and a couple virtual happy hours mixed in). That said, the PLACES team – Bina M Patel, Dion Cartwright and Marci Ovadia – deserves the hugest shout out for keeping up the momentum in a less than ideal virtual setting and managing their own wellness while holding our angst through a challenging year.

As the fellowship comes to a close, I want to capture and share some of the take-aways–really paradigm shifting lessons– that will guide my work at The Jay and Rose Phillips Family Foundation of Minnesota and beyond.

There is no such thing as the “status quo.” How often do we talk about “disrupting the status quo” in our work? I know I have. Whether it’s lack of leadership buy-in for change or stagnating at the 5% minimum distribution. PLACES reframed this for me by calling out what is now the obvious truth, that the status quo is not a neutral state. We create it. We get to choose every day whether our status quo is actively challenging white supremacy culture within our intuitions and ourselves or not. It may not seem like a huge revelation, but the more I sat with this the more I realized how this reframing shifts the focus away from the nebulous “system” where actors are unnamed, and places it squarely on us. No excuses. No confusion. For me, it ultimately undercuts the demoralizing power we often give it.

Speaking of power…

What lies are you believing about power? Hopefully, if you’re engaged in racial equity work, you’re focused on shifting power. If not, you might want to rethink that. Of course, to do that we need to dig deep; identify it, dissect it, challenge it. Shift it. It sounds easy, but power is both simple and complex. It is not static, it’s a shapeshifter depending on context. One thing that may be constant are the lies we internalize about power, which gives it greater control over us, undermining wins for racial justice. Another way to think about this is, when that thing happens, or is said (you know what I’m talking about) what stops you from making a move? Are we frozen because that guy is speaking so confidently that he must know what he’s talking about…and I just got here, who am I to challenge that…although something in my gut is signaling something is off…paralyzing self-doubt.  Will challenging the anti-blackness in our institutions cost me my job? Will I be labeled a poor team player for “always pointing out what we’re doing wrong”? Ask the question—what would happen if? What would happen if I do say that Black Lives Matter in this board memo? It may create disruption, but might it also open up a forum for that discussion we’ve so desperately needed to have?

I ask myself these questions knowing that my whiteness shields me from a lot of (if not all) harm. There is a level of accountability I, along with my fellow white colleagues, must hold ourselves to. We should and can take “risks.”  If power is about control, then challenging it often entails breaking the rules and norms (btw, they’re all made up) that enable such control—over grantmaking decisions, strategy development, the “right way” to achieve our goals. If we do, we can get a better outcome that is rooted in justice and equity.  

Now, let’s be clear, I’m not saying every battle is worth fighting—if it were we’d run out of steam too quickly.  We’re talking about rewriting a social code that took centuries to cement. We need to be effective, strategic and intentional about our long-term goals, but this whole “being right v. being effective” can quickly slip into complacency if we aren’t vigilant.  This isn’t surprising since “being effective,” advancing a new policy or a bold funding decision, by intentional design requires those in power to give their stamp of approval. It makes you wonder if in the process of making something palatable, acceptable, are we watering down its integrity, its ultimate goal? These can be tough calls to make, and we probably do not always make the right ones. I don’t have all the answers. My self-administered test is thinking about the last time “we” as a collective experienced tension, conflict, divergence. If that’s not happening, it’s possible we’re slipping into comfort and complacency.

The practice of shifting power and of telling the difference between an “act now” or “plan for later” to make a move requires solid self-awareness and an understanding of one’s positionality in our socio-cultural context.  It also takes courage.

And since white supremacy culture is in the air we breathe, then we know it lives inside of us. To get a handle on how it manifests, PLACES led a session on “Decolonized Leadership.” Our coach Bina M Patel, asked us, “What part of your leadership is colonized? What would your decolonized leadership look like?” This was such an impactful reflection to move through individually, and as a group. It’s a hard thing to hold up that mirror. I mean, no one wants to fess up to that deep stuff that claws at you. Especially, us white people—we spend so much energy projecting a “woke” image instead of doing the work.

And in PLACES, you’re there to do the work.

As I understand it, “colonized leadership” refers to the acceptance and practice of roles the intersection of our identities would have us live in as assigned and imposed by a dominant group. So, I identified the role urgency, perfectionism and competition show up in my leadership, tenets of white supremacy culture. I reflected on how these deeply held values translated into practice can be (probably have been and are) harmful to advancing collective liberation. It shows up in how tightly I cling to my detailed timelines. It shows up in the image I project about always “being on my game.” It made me admit how these behaviors are rewarded and reinforced in the workplace— I want to be taken seriously; I want to be successful; I want to advance in my career. So, I need to produce. I, I, I. Shifting these engrained beliefs and behaviors requires daily decolonized leadership practices. I work daily on slowing down, making space for emergent work and holding myself and others with more grace. And perhaps the most difficult one for me, really believing that my productivity is not a measure of my worth. If I don’t internalize this, I will continue to wield this judgement onto others (and again, to be clear, white people—we’ve got work to do. This doesn’t mean kicking up our feet and washing our hands of our work). So, I challenge you as you are reading this, what part of your leadership is colonized?  Where did you learn “leadership” from, what is the broader context/inheritance? What steps can you take to change that? What are your daily decolonized leadership practices, where can you show up this week? 

Finally, the paradigm of internal versus external work is false, harmful and grounded in white supremacy culture. Again, how many times a day do we talk about internal v external work? I’ve been a huge pusher of this narrative—usually in the context of stressing the importance of getting your house in order before you throw a party, as it were. I’m not saying that it’s not important, but I learned that it creates this sense of existing separately and away from, not part of, what’s happening “out in the world.” And sadly, that’s exactly how the field of philanthropy acts.  How often do we pay tens of thousands of dollars for a national consultant to tell us the same thing our grantees on the ground have been saying for years? How often do we “parachute” into a community with all of the *obvious* solutions only to bulldoze through brilliant, effective and under-resourced community solutions, only to then pack up and leave five years later when a new strategic priority has emerged? We, as philanthropists, need to cut that out and redefine our role as part of the community, because believe me, we are. We’re just not necessarily always the good actors. We have the opportunity to fully embrace community-led grantmaking as a power shifting mechanism. We can take a leap to include non-family members on our board of trustees. We can dig deeper into the coffers and spend 10%, 20% or more of our endowment. We can.  

I’ll leave you with one last nugget that PLACES gifted me– Small victories matter. I don’t know about you, but after the dumpster fire 2020 was, I needed to hear this. Every. Single. Day. We navigated a global pandemic, an economic crisis, a civil uprising, a dangerous display of white supremacy and anti-democratic organizing, and a contentious presidential election together. Getting that grant approved, changing that HR policy, saying the thing that needed to be said; it all matters. I don’t mean to sound naïve—I am acutely aware that we’ve got work to do in philanthropy and it should have happened yesterday. But here we are, putting one foot in front of the other—in the end, as Bina would say, “the opposite of oppression is not freedom, it’s joy.” So, let’s be joyful and celebrate the small wins.

Image Caption– Left Top to Bottom Right: E. Coco, The Jay and Rose Phillips Family Foundation of Minnesota; Daniel Barrett, The Buhl Foundation / One Northside; Anna Cruz, The Kresge Foundation; Bilal Tajildeen, Connecticut Council for Philanthropy; Stephanie Ruiz, Hispanics in Philanthropy; Nancy Fasching, Southwest Initiative Foundation; Omar Carrillo Tinajero, Center for Community Investment at Lincoln Institute; Le Anne Alexander, Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors; Rayana Grace, Island Foundation; Roger Perez, Roy and Patricia Disney Family Foundation; Betsy Hands, High Meadows Fund; Everett Au, The San Diego Foundation; Mindy Kao, Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta; Alexis Bivens, Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation; Talib Horne, The Annie E. Casey Foundation; Mary Coleman, Voqal.

E. Coco

Author E. Coco

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