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A Paradigm-shifting Leadership Model: We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For

RVC’s Four Leadership Principles Prioritize Leadership that is Collective, Adaptive, Transformational, and Just

By Jondou Chen, Evaluator, Rainier Valley Corps

While, communities of color have always had strong leaders, they face tremendous systemic racism that continue to undermine and sap community energy, which often drives away our leaders of color.

In response to this, the dominant, mainstream, white-centric culture has characterized our communities as troubled and has swooped in, trying a number of methods to save or “fix” us.

Look around. At any given time, there are so many cultural critiques, charity campaigns, and service-learning opportunities that allow folks from the dominant culture to enter our communities with a predetermined narrative of us and to tell us what we should do to fix ourselves.

Tired of this, Rainier Valley Corps (RVC) has developed a model to enact what we have known all along: that we are the ones that we have been waiting for.

This doesn’t mean that we’re already perfect or have already perfected leadership. If anything, what we have learned is that good leadership — the leadership that our communities of color need — takes a long time to build in a community and that good leadership also is always building up the next generation of leadership. The good news is that often, powerful community leadership already exists. We just need to know where to look.

Paraphrasing the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu, “We are each the heirs of a thousand generations.”  

What does it mean to witness leadership? To learn, develop, and then put our values to practice? What does it mean to mentor others in our organizations and communities in developing their leadership?

A New Way

Over the past three years, we have worked on and refined a set of leadership principles that we have brought together from different communities as well as from past nonprofit experiences. We have asked ourselves and each other tough questions and have considered what it means for the next generation of community leaders to grow and develop the values needed for progressive leadership themselves.

We have identified RVC’s Four Leadership Principles. Effective leadership is:

  • Collective
  • Adaptive
  • Transformational
  • Just

Leadership that is Collective

The strongest communities don’t have a single strong leader but rather a network of leaders who come from, are part of, and affirm the community.

Leaders who live in the communities they serve are mindful of their place and the people who reside in the community. They ask, “What are the cultures present? Who are the leaders past and present?”

These questions not only solicit factual answers but also push people to engage relationally with others. We start to ask, to whom are we speaking with? Are we recognizing their strengths? Are we acknowledging their challenges? Who are we turning to identify community needs and goals?

Leading collectively rather than depending on one single leader may require more time and work sometimes. As is often said: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

Leadership that is Adaptive

A key reason leading together results in stronger leadership is because multiple perspectives are useful for recognizing the need to be adaptive. Adaptation requires the we be vulnerable enough to acknowledge that change is needed, not only around us, but within us. We need to evaluate ourselves, to seek and receive feedback from others. We have to ask ourselves what changing might cost us and hold this in balance with what is possible with change.

Being adaptive requires an intentional commitment to self-evaluation, both at the individual and organizational level, a process that will likely be ongoing, not one that occurs in one single shift. Being adaptive means we must be able to pivot in moments of unforeseen circumstances. And finally, being adaptive requires a commitment to being emotionally intelligent and authentic in our relationship with others — this might look like sharing in and being receptive of critical and constructive feedback with other adaptive change-agents that we trust.

Leadership that is Transformational

Adaptive leadership that is collectively driven will result in transformational change for communities of color. Transformation change are made up of outcomes that are observable, outcomes that matter to both the organization and community members.

Transformational change can occur at the leadership and organizational level as part of consciously adaptive leadership or it can occur rather naturally in the community. The two sides must marry in order to continue transformational change.

Leadership should not just be organization-based and it should not only involve data collection from a limited sampling of organizational leaders and members. Research on transformational change must be carried out in community spaces and with community members who are not paid organizational staff or key volunteers.

When we take care to learn about the mechanisms and players involved in transformational change, we will begin to understand  to what extent change happens within communities of color versus outside of communities of color in a way that serves communities of color. This is important information to know.

For instance, change that falls short of transformational might involve the way that dominant culture funders interact with communities of color or the way that communities of color are represented in city, county, and state government. Enacting change only within communities of color and without addressing systems of oppression that continue to marginalize communities of color will place the burden of fighting racial injustice wholly on people of color — this  extends injustice rather than eradicates it.

Leadership that is Just

What we need are dynamic leadership styles that center around what is just for communities of color. We need leadership that fosters wholeness, wellness, and  good relationships within communities and between different communities. Leader’s do this by articulating and then enacting practices that support this in their own lives, in their organization, and in their community.

Is what is said and practiced aligned? What leadership practices exist to support this alignment and the ability of others within the organization and community to self-determine what justice is for them? And to come full circle, in what ways can leaders be sure that their definition of justice is collectively driven, adaptive over time to change, and transformational in addressing the injustices that our communities of color face.

Just leadership then is necessarily dynamic for each leader, organization, and community and varied across leaders, organizations, and community. What is consistent, though, is the ongoing self-determination that communities of color have in defining, seeking, and realizing justice.

RVC’s Journey

Over the past three years of its existence, RVC has tried to embody these four leadership principles  just as much as we promotes them.

We have grown larger — and we’re not talking here about “scaling-up” in the traditional capitalist or colonizing ways. We’ve grown collectively and are continuing to grow the number of leaders who are part of and who partner with RVC. To do this, we have had to develop adaptive strength as well as the ability to be present with and respond to the needs of our communities with flexibility.

This in turn has transformed what RVC looks like. We started out as a nonprofit with aims of transforming leadership through work and leadership-development fellowships. We do so much more than that today.

As great as our RVC fellows program was in its first years, RVC has been made so much better because our community partners asked to codesign additional facets of our work, including operations support for CBOs, peer learning opportunities for leaders of color, and coalition building at the organizational and individual levels.

We continue to recognize, again and again, how different this model of leadership looks like from other models. This model of being collective, adaptive, and transformative stands in contrast to dominant narratives of leadership.

We are sharing RVC’s four leadership principles now in the spirit of thinking out loud and in the spirit of wanting to hear from folks about what they think effective community leadership looks like. Please feel free to leave a comment below!