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Racial Equity: A Leadership Development Competency

Last week, LLC along with some of you, attended Race Forward’s Building Racial Equity- Foundations Training at the Oakland Peace Center. The training grounded us in language to describe racism on all the levels it thrives (internal, interpersonal, institutional, systemic). The work of racial equity then is to not only destroy racism as it exists, but to “bake in” racial equity to eradicate it completely.


Before the day was complete, however, it was our mission to identify the many ways that we, those present, continue to create systems of oppression. Soon Deborah and I were engaged in a deep conversation on how the leadership development field can also fall victim to this on a systemic level.

When we look at the field, we still see the value placed on individual leadership, a model where credit is given to those at the top. This in turn celebrates individuals rather than the “structures" that distribute advantage and opportunity to some while disadvantaging others, often people of color that supports their success. The collective process goes unseen and is typically taken for granted, as explained in this cartoon by The Wireless.


Some examples of how the leadership development field contributes to racial inequity:

  • Focusing on building the leadership of mid-level to senior-level professional leaders rather than on community-level, grassroots leadership, or even entry-level leaders that need support to reach their full potential.

    • This is also seen through the disproportionate allocation of resources where some senior leaders are given significantly more resources than those in other levels of their career.

  • Recruiting that requires academic qualifications, especially over critical lived experience,  rather than seeing who is doing the work and enhancing their capacity to do so.

    • We’ve all seen the job descriptions that require program managers to have a Bachelor’s degree, and at times even Master’s or Doctoral degrees. These degrees do not actually tell us whether someone can do this work, rather it is a way of weeding people out. Disproportionately, those being weeded out are people of color who do not have the same opportunities to attend college.

  • Recruiting through the same networks rather than constantly branching out to untapped community partners.

    • Recruiting through alumni and their friends and through the same partners of each cohort will remain the same and we lose sight of those in the margins who might be plugged into thriving grassroots leadership as well as leaders of color. Supporting their experiences would also enrich the leadership of the “traditional” cohort.

  • Pricing programs without providing scholarships recreates the same financial disparities we might be trying to break apart.

    • Who has access to leadership development? How can we increase access to those that need it the most?

    • Higher prices don’t typically allow access to those in emerging organizations, networks, or movements. It puts a strain on leaders that cannot afford attend, including those in strapped nonprofits.

  • Not having leaders of color in the room who are making decisions about curriculum, strategic planning, and process.

    • Who is making decisions? Who is being affected by those decisions?

    • Not only decisions about curriculum, but who sits in our boards, who are the gatekeepers?

    • Are those that implement decisions also in the conversations?

  • There is also a bias in heroic leadership models which favor the dominant culture of individualism rendering the work of people doing the work with others invisible.

The Leadership Learning Community also convened a debrief session with a few of you on Friday to discuss this and as a part of this work, together we will be creating a tool to help us all in the leadership development field assess points where we can make our programs even more equitable. Stay tuned.