As We Grow, We Grow Collectively
“What if, after all, social transformation wasn’t about waiting for a designated [male, straight, cis, nondisabled] hero to come along and rescue us? What if regular people had the tools at our disposal to work collectively toward justice?”
As Leadership Investment Program Officer at Field Foundation, I am quite often asked to speak about, comment on, even more precariously, define leadership. I can tell you that after almost two years overseeing the Leaders for a New Chicago Award, I can talk about leadership, but I cannot define it. As Field Foundation President Angelique Power coyly tells me, I have been known to keep repeating, “defining leadership is like catching lightning in a bottle.”
This June we were thrilled to announce the second cohort of the Leaders for a New Chicago award. This unique award, created and presented in deep partnership with the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, seeks to build a more inclusive Chicago by tapping into power inside of communities with a no-strings-attached $50,000 award ($25,000 for the individual and, if eligible, $25,000 for their affiliated not-for-profit corporation). For this year’s selection committee, we wanted last year’s awardees to lead the process and so this committee was composed of eight of the Leaders from the 2019 cohort. They navigated the process of identifying the 2020 awardees and also voiced and grappled with the tensions between individual and collective leadership. In the public decision making rubric we use to guide these decisions we clearly state: Leadership is not about hierarchical positions; it’s about the impact a voice can have on Chicago.
The selection committee looked for nominations that uplifted models of shared decision making, co-executive directors who guide growth together, non-hierarchical models pushing against traditional non-profit structures, how people are leading organizations to do internally what they are committed to externally to, name a few. If there isn’t a radical community inside an organization will there be radical change happening in the work outside? If the practice doesn’t change then the work, the messaging, all of it — it doesn’t work. These models aren’t cosmetic. They are rooted in practice, in how the work is done, and how relationships are core to movement building. And they come from the work of Black, Indigenous, Latinx, feminist, queer and BIPOC practices and communities.
Cathy Cohen, the David and Mary Winton Green Professor of Political Science and chair of political science at the University of Chicago and Field Foundation Board Member, said in an interview with Sarah J. Jackson in 2015: “There’s some important feminist work that tells us that there are different forms of leadership that we should be paying attention to. Whether it is Belinda Robnett’s work on the civil rights movement and bridge leaders or the exceptional work that Barbara Ransby has done thinking about Ella Baker and more democratic forms of radical leadership, I think many of the young leaders in the Black Lives Matter movement recognize that the male charismatic leader, or the singular charismatic leader, is not the form of leadership that they adhere to or they going to put forth.”
In announcing these awards, our hope is that the story each cohort tells isn’t just about celebrating leadership, it is about redefining leadership in the city of Chicago. Like our 2019 group, these 11 individuals represent a broad array of Chicago residents and include a diversity of religion, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, age and expertise, and those from different geographies and income levels. Some are Executive Directors, some are co-founders, some are organizers and some, importantly, are part of collective or shared leadership models.
When we notified this year’s leaders of their recognition, we heard a common theme from so many of them: “I am one of many…I am but one of a larger group…In recognizing me you are recognizing all of us…There are so many people with me.” I heard much of the same during the weeks I spent talking to community members, colleagues and friends of the then nominees in preparation for the notification. Here are some quotes I heard that tell the story of what leadership in motion looks like:
She lets Black women in this field know we are ALL the leaders.
She is the community and the community is her.
She weaves us all together and steps back to be part of the quilt.
She always works to decenter herself.
He always says WE.
She doesn’t do any of this to be recognized.
We all become leaders because of her and our strengths are pulled out of us.
She only stands in front once we all agree.
We trust them and in case you haven’t noticed trust in our world is hard won.
He leads collectively.
She’ll be the first to say “when you recognize me you recognize all of us ” because this work is done as a group. It’s messy and difficult but it’s mission aligned when we do it together.
With this award we are recognizing individuals who understand how vital it is to share power, distribute or give up resources, and see themselves in unique positions to effect change in numerous ways.
On a personal note, I feel so fortunate to have gotten to know the 2019 Leaders and to now get to know the 2020 cohort. They can be and often are the people who stand firm in the path of uncertainty especially when the system fails, who whisper while everyone else is screaming, and scream when they are asked to be quiet, who use queer as a verb and civic as a question, who see themselves as one of many but who will put themselves in the front of storms to protect those behind them, who refuse to turn away from conflict, who hold up mirrors to ourselves and our institutions, who use questioning as sharp tools, who grow one step at a time and who know when to stand up from the table and walk away and when to ask for help. Most if not all of this doesn’t happen alone. They don’t operate under the mythic umbrella of individual leadership.
Over the next few weeks I will be having conversations with many of our Leaders, with our grantees and partners about collective models, sharing power, reallocating resources, and distributed leadership. I will be sharing these ongoing dialogues through our website and social media.
I won’t attempt to define leadership but one thing I have learned to be true is that good effective leadership is never about one person. I find myself going back to what Mariame Kaba said in the interview with Eve Ewing that “everything worthwhile is done with other people” and watching, even for a brief second, lightning flickering in a bottle.
Leadership Investment Program Officer
August is Black Philanthropy Month, an annual observance and campaign to inform, inspire & invest in Black philanthropic leadership. Originally launched in 2011 and then scaled up to a full celebration in 2013, Black Philanthropy Month now reaches about 17 million with the goal of awareness of and investment in Black philanthropic leadership and giving.
Why does Black philanthropy matter? The upheaval of 2020 has, so far, led to an increased commitment to diversity and funding to Black organizations within philanthropic spaces, but representation still lags. A 2012 report by the Association of Black Foundation Executives found that only three percent of chief executives and only seven percent of trustees at philanthropic organizations were Black.
Despite those low numbers, the landscape in Chicago is promising. At least a handful of that three percent of chief executives nationwide lead Chicago-based organizations, including Chicago Community Trust, Grand Victoria Fund, Crossroads Fund and our own Field Foundation, where Angelique Power has been at the helm since 2016 and is the third Black president. We are proud to support Black Philanthropy Month, not just in August but also the year-round effort to raise awareness and facilitate opportunities for Black leadership and giving.
Voices from the Field
Kandace Thomas, MPP, PhD. Executive Director, First Eight Memphis
2003 Field Fellow
“At the Field Foundation, I learned how a philanthropic organization can strategically use its dollars to work to reverse inequitable practices that have shaped our communities for generations. At Field is where I learned how to engage in a racial equity impact analysis, and how to have a relationship with a supervisor who gave me space to grow and who held me accountable. I have carried these values and practices I learned at Field in my work since.”