Much of my work involves gathering insights from communities of color and reporting those insights to organizations who wish to partner with and/or serve them. During this process, I am often charged with engaging community leaders. The traditional image of a leader, and the competencies and confidence associated with that leadership, has expanded during the past decades, and perhaps nowhere more so than in communities of color. Contemporary practice has turned leadership on its head, bringing it out from behind closed board room doors and placing it in the hands of people who are affected by the programs and initiatives that serve them.
So why is this shift important?
According to a 2014 projection by the US Census Bureau, children under 18 born to people of color will make up over 50% of the population by the year 2020. By 2044 it is projected that 50.3% of all Americans will be people of color. Yet, the percentage of leaders of color across sectors does not represent this demographic shift. Communities that are under-engaged may be under-represented, and it is very hard to drive cultural change if you do not have a seat “at the table.” So, it is very important to build the ranks of leaders from racially diverse backgrounds.
These leaders use a leadership model that includes:
- Drawing from personal experience;
- Embracing an environment of shared leadership;
- Having a multi-generational viewpoint;
- Demonstrating pride in their cultural heritage;
- Seeing and recognizing the power and skills within others; and
- Valuing equality and having a commitment to justice
Engaging leaders from the community has an additional benefit: community members may not trust leaders who do not reflect the community. Interventions that are externally driven may be suspect. Though they may benefit the community, past experiences and fears of the unknown can make it difficult to get projects started. For example, I recently facilitated focus groups in local schools on the topic of safety. A group of Native American parents explained how police presence in the school was probably necessary, but police were often met with a lot of fear and distrust. Some of these parents recalled having Native American police officers visit their schools when they were children. These officers weren’t seen as scary because they were neighbors who knew the community. Leaders can be more easily accepted when you can see yourself reflected in that position.
So how can leadership efforts help foster more community engagement and prepare future leaders to step into the role?
Cultivating Leadership from Within
Being prepared to foster the next generation of diverse leaders requires that those currently in positions of governance practice good stewardship. They can provide meaningful opportunities for community members to get involved, sharing their needs and perspectives. New leaders who are asked to participate in community engagement efforts and experience a strong leader from their own community may continue that leadership role, thus expanding the leadership capacity in the broader community.
It also requires that people of color already in leadership positions take the opportunity to connect with other leaders and learn from their peers. Sharing some commonalities of experience can help these leaders feel less isolated and generate a renewed spirit of purpose.
Participating in Culturally Specific Training
On the web and in every sector and industry there is greater availability of culturally relevant trainings and events to hone skills of leaders from diverse backgrounds. When information and skills that reflect the values and approaches of specific communities are implemented, this can help guide our new leaders and prepare them to work effectively in their communities.
If your organization wishes to cultivate strong, representational leaders, whether internally or externally, please call me at 612.336.3755 or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.