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Leadership and Language: The Boundary Crossing Dilemma

LLC has been involved with The California Endowment in a project to convene leadership programs that share a focus on supporting “boundary crossing” leadership. This work and use of the term boundary crossing took shape in response to the civil unrest in Los Angeles and concerns about racial divides. Boundary Crossing Leadership in its early days was rooted in a social justice and oppression perspective with a focus on the need to build solidarity across racial divides and other ‘ism’s. Eventually ‘boundary crossing’ came to encompass a broader range of boundaries including boundaries that separate organizations, sectors, and disciplines. The language of boundary crossing has met with mixed reviews for a number of reasons worth trying to learn from.

On the one hand, the language has developed some popular support and was the theme of the recent Grant Makers in Health Conference. It seems to find some resonance with people, perhaps because it’s a broad enough term to hold many concerns. And perhaps that’s also part of the problem. The term is now being used to encompass social justice work, a systems change perspective, a remedy to non-profit fragmentation and isolation, collective leadership practices and spiritual work. There is often immediate suspicion toward new leadership terminology … it’s the next new thing, without also appreciating our efforts through language to be strategic in how we think about and invest in leadership. Its not surprising that people engaged in racial justice work are concerned about the lack of a power analysis in the boundary crossing framework. To simply talk about the need to cross racial boundaries without recognizing that institutionalized racism is expressed in oppressive relationships dilutes the issues of power involved in whose boundary is being crossed by whom and for what purpose. In a recent meeting of predominantly social justice leaders, there was strong reaction to the language of ‘boundary crossing’ on many levels, “boundary crossing” is charged language in many immigrant communities, its language that unlike “solidarity” leadership has the problem, ‘boundaries’ embedded in the language that describes the solution. A number of new suggestions have been offered, “solidarity leadership”, “changemakers”, “social justice leadership”, “multi-cultural leadership”, “unity leadership”, and “bridging leadership”. The confusion does not serve the strategic concerns of those who gravitated to the language as a call to overcome our fragmentation and develop multi-stakeholder partnerships that can leverage systems change. Sometimes the confusion makes me want to throw up my hands and avoid language as shorthand that fails to communicate adequately what we really mean. And then again, no one can deny the power of language and rallying words as we try to organize ourselves to support social justice and systems change. Personally, I can understand the arguments being made by folks working around racial divides who call this social and racial justice work. I also think that the language of Boundary Crossing can be an important way to highlight the need to work across organization and sector boundaries. How are you talking about your leadership work and what positive or negative impact does language have on your efforts?