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Are You Willing to Step Aside in Order to Fight Systemic Injustice?

By Vu Le, Executive Director, Rainier Valley Corps

Large businessman intimidating small businessman. Both are wearing boxing gloves.

With everything that has been going on in our country lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be a good leader who can foster greater social equity.

We tend to focus on positive traits that good leaders should have — traits such as humility, adaptiveness, a sense of curiosity, an ability to unite and inspire. We tend to overlook a particular trait in leadership that is difficult and often discomfiting: knowing when to not take opportunities of advancement, knowing how to step aside.

A few weeks ago, a piece I wrote, “The Best Leaders May Be Those Who ‘Give Up” ran in the Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR). SSIR is a magazine that, among many other things, features content written by leaders from around the world from all sectors of society. The purpose of SSIR’s work is to advance educate and inspire social innovation.

In that piece, I wrote about how the best leaders are the ones who give up their seats.

Both the nonprofit and corporate sectors suffer from a racial leadership gap. According to Nonprofit Quarterly, less than 20 percent of executive directors and CEOs are people of color. It’s been estimated that more than half of people served in the nonprofit sector are people of color. Additionally, there is a gender gap. While about three in four nonprofit staff members are women, only one in five are in a leadership role.

To begin closing this gap, leaders who reflect demographics that have historically benefited from institutionalized privilege must examine their roles and consider when to step out of the way. The leaders that we need are ones who are willing to give up things that make their existence comfortable. We need leaders who are willing to surrender their own privilege.

What might this look like?

As I wrote in my piece, it means that sometimes men do not apply for that perfect job, even if we think we are well qualified for it (and we are more likely to think we are qualified, even when we are not). It means white allies sometimes do not take the microphone, literally or figuratively, so that others can have a chance to speak and be heard. It means larger organizations sometimes do not pursue catalytic grants, even if they have a high chance of getting them, and instead support and recommend the smaller, grassroots organizations led by marginalized communities. It means foundations share decision-making power with nonprofits and communities who have lived through the inequity they are trying to address.

Here at Rainier Valley Corps, the forms this has taken is that there have been times we have deliberately not applied for grants we thought we were well suited for because we want to step back and support other organizations. We also have been trying to be thoughtful about which leadership opportunities we join so as to not take up the limelight that should go to another organization.

Notably, we launched our Community Connections Lunch this year, in an effort to be more community-centric in our fundraising approach. The Community Connections Lunch happens once a month and brings together one of our community-based organization (CBO) partners with a few of our donors. We create the space, set the time, make introductions, bring the food, and then we just sit back so our partners can talk about their important work.  

The outcomes of these lunches vary. Sometimes actual donations are made during lunch. Sometimes donors and our CBO partners make plans to collaborate together on projects. Sometimes donors offer to introduce our CBOs partners to even more people in their network.

It’s been really great and rewarding to see our CBO partners connect with our donors and expand their network, which in turn will help our partner organizations grow and do more of their critical work, which benefits all of us by building the kind of community we all want to live in. I think that in its most ideal form, this is the kind of result that stepping aside can yield.

If you’re a donor or funder and want to be notified of the next Community Connections lunch, please email [email protected].

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