As I think of what makes a good leader of an organization, I return to the importance of a leader standing by what s/he believes in. If that is absent, what is the leadership of the organization? Leaders must have a clear vision of one’s beliefs for the organization to be the visionary who sees an organization through progress.
I committed to being an advocate, ally, and promoter of social justice when I saw differential treatment for my students in New York. Students’ ethnic identities were used divisively to explain behavioral issues and learning differences. The students were divided as well, creating alliances with others as a means to build an oppressive presence to those not in the selected ethnic identities. I heard it daily and began talking about this as a problem; I met some support, but a lot of opposition from my colleagues and supervisors.
I sought to develop my leadership for diversity at a national institute last week. Prior to attending, I envisioned a forum for rich discussion, examining institutional oppression and talking about how to create community that disrupts these stale institutional policies. It was connoted a safe space, drawing people from multiple identities and perspectives to join a conversation aimed at furthering social justice work. I was excited to meet these like minds and the person who spearheaded the entire organization dedicated to this work.
I quickly learned that the way this organization and its leader aimed to create this dialog was through provoking participants’ catharsis surrounding experiences with oppression. The idea was to learn about oppression and the way others view oppressive acts through one’s own experiences. Confidentiality was suggested by a show of hands of those who would not take others’ stories out of the confines of the institute. People cried, exposed raw and vulnerable parts of their personal histories, and directed the individual to say what they would have said in the moment of the oppression, often after someone “playing” the oppressor repeated the bigoted or oppressive statement the participant heard in the experience. This was meant to build coalition. I am still unable to understand this link.
Perhaps I am unable to understand because of the hypocrisy between the words and actions of the leader of this organization. After caucusing about what each identity group did not want others to say, do to, or think about each group, the groups shared these with the rest of the participants. In an one-on-one interaction with the director of this organization, I was silenced by her oppressive actions, doing exactly what the caucus had outlined as unacceptable twenty minutes prior to my interaction with her. When I brought this to her attention, her dismissive apology cemented my disbelief in her ability to lead, at least me, in doing social justice work and coalition building. For the next two days, I listened to how to facilitate this coalition building, hearing the ideal ways to handle a situation—all practices she failed to incorporate in her interactions with me.
I would have spoken out about the oppression I experienced at this “leadership institute,” but when I confronted a small group leader about it, the leader did not feel it was right to speak-out about the injustices imposed on me by the organization’s leader. It made me realize the dangerous nature of organizational leadership that relies on the idolatry of one leader and the inability to admit mistakes. A valued leader, to me, is one that will admit his/her wrongs and make it a teachable moment. I wish I could say I was witness to this at this acclaimed institute, but I left silenced and feeling a strong sense of oppression for the first time in months. This is what happens when a leader does not practice what s/he preaches. My father used to say, “Put your money where your mouth is.” I urge her to do the same.