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How Can Leadership Development Programs Make a Difference in the Challenges of Tackling Racism?

There was no business as usual at our first staff meeting since the Trayvon Martin verdict.  We all needed to talk about the issue that had weighed heavily on us through the week and process our sense of grief and outrage. We asked ourselves the question, “How can the work we do (leadership development) make a difference in something as persistent and ugly as racism? The staff had lots of thoughts about what we could do as individuals or even within LLC as a team and we decided to channel our despair into a call to action, a call to ourselves and our community. We will be reaching out to folks who do leadership development in the Bay Area to help us host a conversation about our roles as leadership development practitioners and funders in undoing racism. Please stay tuned for details of the meeting and additional blog posts from LLC team members who will be sharing perspectives on this important topic.



The Trayvon Martin verdict is a painful reminder of how little progress we have made in the 50 years since the historic March On Washington in 1963. At our national meeting in May, Creating Space X, we had a panel on Equity. What followed was an emotional and messy conversation. We received feedback from folks who felt glad that this conversation was happening and that people were talking openly about race, power and privilege. We also got tough feedback about needing to do a more skillful job and, since we are going to continue to talk about race and class, we hope that we will learn with the community about how to do it better. However, we also heard from people who asked, “Why do we need to keep talking about this?” with regard to race, and that’s what I want to talk about.  We probably said it in a nicer way in our earlier publication, Leadership and Race, but essentially we believe that unless you bring a race conscious lens to leadership development, you are probably unwittingly helping to reinforce structural racism.  


We can’t afford not to make racial justice part of all leadership work. There are people who want to suggest that we are beyond all of that with the election of our first African American president. The conservative Supreme Court justices even went so far as to say we no longer need the Voting Rights Act. Some folks in the non-profit sector make the case that there are groups that do racial equity work and that we cannot all work on issues of race and equity. If you are supporting leadership around health or education, race and class (and other forms of oppression) will further compromise  the health outcomes and education success of students. Leadership that is blind to these issues will likely not address racial disparities in their work on issues like education, health, environment, or food. Many leadership programs introduce frameworks to help participants understand how systems are producing global warming or compromising the quality of education. Leadership programs can be a place where participants begin to understand how systems are also producing opportunity structures that are racialized and reinforce the racial biases that are part and parcel of a criminal justice system that led to this week’s verdict.


Bringing an understanding of how structural racism works to leadership programs is a great start, but it won’t be enough. We need new skills, tools and competencies to equip leadership for the challenges of tackling racism.  The Applied Research Center had developed racial impact analysis tools that are being used by leadership in health and city government to better understand the differential impact that policies or budgets will have on people of color.  As we know from our personal experience we have to talk about race and it's hard. It requires skills and practice. And it will require that white people learn to talk about privilege and discuss and understand the difference between guilt and responsibility. We have the responsibility to accept the idea that as products of a system that benefits dominant white culture, we are bound to be on a constant learning curve about our own racial biases. Leadership programs can be the containers for this important hard work, and people like Sally Leiderman (visit and and Shakti Butler (visit and have developed tools that leadership programs can access.


We have talked in earlier blog posts about wicked problems that will require our best collective thinking and our collective resources to make progress. We are not good at understanding how our issues are connected in the system or how to work together. This is a collective leadership muscle that we need to develop to tackle racism. Our old models of individual heroic leadership,  which are informed by the dominant white culture, are promoting the idea that any individual who applies themselves will be able to access opportunity and success. These models of leadership that are at the heart of many leadership programs deny the realities of racial inequalities that give some folks, usually white folks, a big leg up. These leadership models not only reinforce structural racism with a narrative about merit (as opposed to privilege) they discount the collective action of people sitting in the courthouse in Florida, or in the streets of NY as a powerful expression of leadership. We need to support, lift up and learn from these strong expressions of collective leadership.


What can we do?

  • The Leadership Learning Community will continue to share resources that we hope leadership development programs will use to bolster an explicit commitment to racial justice. We encourage you to share your ideas and resources with our learning community through blog comments and social media posts, or to email us at

  • We plan to convene for a conversation with folks in the leadership development field over the next two weeks to explore how to equip leadership for the challenges of tackling racism. Our notes and reflections will be made available at

  • LLC Staff has scheduled an Anti-Oppression training with an independent consultant to continue our racial justice learning, and has begun the Racial Equity Learning Modules that accompany Shakti Butler’s film, Cracking the Codes.


Read the LLC Staff response articles: