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What Everyone Can Learn from People of Color

Not surprisingly, just as the systemic nature of racism infects society’s structures, institutions, and philanthropic giving, so, too, does it shape attitudes about the skills and assets leaders need to be effective.


When the Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR) studied the motivations, relationships and networks, and skill sets and behaviors of BIPOC leaders, they found strengths that are particularly well suited for social change. In some cases, these strengths are evident among good leaders of all identities, but may manifest differently in leaders of color. Other assets are uniquely based in identity and therefore are more common in the leadership approaches of people of color.



One of the most common things we heard from leaders of color was that they felt “called” to their work. While the value of proximate leadership has been embraced by many across the sector as a path to better solutions, less recognized is how motivation can be powerfully strengthened by that proximity.

This does not mean that leaders of color can only work on identity-related issues or lead identity-based organizations. Nor that they only want to do so. But the motivation of collective success and the accountability to community are strengths that these leaders can bring to any work they do. Likewise, those are assets that all leaders can learn from and develop.


Relationships and Networks

Given the demographics and power structures of the nation, people of color often learn out of necessity how to build connections across lines of differences, including with both white allies and other communities of color.

More important than simply having diverse networks is the ability to then recognize, value, and tap into what each person brings to the table. This can mean leaders of color are good at drawing lessons from nontraditional places that often subvert hierarchical limitations.


Skillsets and Behaviors

Part of the squishiness around the definition of a “good leader” is that there is no consensus regarding a universal set of characteristics one should have. The know-it-when-I-see-it approach often reinforces dominant culture norms and thus has narrowed the vision of what leaders can and should be.

With that said, there is some agreement that the qualities of good leaders show up in several dimensions, namely within themselves, with others, and with their vision: Self-Awareness, Comfort with Being Uncomfortable, Empathy, Observation and Active Listening, Collaborative Leadership, Asset-Based Lenses, and Radical Imagination.


Casting New Suns

Perhaps because so much of the social sector’s work has to do with society’s inequity—what is missing, the harm inflicted, problems to solve—there is a tendency to let the needs of life overshadow the gifts. Likewise, it is easy to think about a world in which the assets of BIPOC leadership are not recognized, potential is not reached, and impact is not achieved. We are all living in that world.

But what if, instead, we think about what is gained by BIPOC leadership—how might our organizations be different? How would social change be achieved?

The writer Octavia Butler once proclaimed: “There is nothing new under the sun, but there are new suns.” Fittingly, those words were from the final book she never finished writing in her Parable series. This idea of “new suns” is a powerful mantra for social change, since the world we would like to see hasn’t been built yet. Likewise, it makes sense that the leaders to get us there would “switch things up” a bit, too. Now is the time for “new suns.”



Public Allies is dedicated to disrupting systems that impact marginalized communities, while listening, learning, and working together across differences to build the common good. Join us.

Source: Stanford Social Innovation Review