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Leadership and Race Webinar: Key Challenges and Opportunities for Leadership Programs to Promote Racial Justice

Two weeks ago, the Leadership Learning Community hosted a webinar to explore their recently published report, How to Develop and Support Leadership that Contributes to Racial Justice. We were honored to have great panelists, which included three of the authors – john a. powell from Kirwan Institute, Sally Leiderman from Center for Assessment and Policy Development (CAPD), and Terry Keleher from the Applied Research Center. The panel also included Carmen Morgan from Leadership Development for Interethnic Relations (LDIR). LDIR has a strong focus on promoting more inclusive leadership models, and we wanted to include Carmen’s perspective. Over 150 participants joined the call, including individuals and groups working in leadership and/or racial justice across various sectors. Over the course of one hour, we invited participants to share their questions with the panelists and collectively explore some of the most critical concepts and questions from the report. Several interesting ideas came up:

  • Structural racism is fundamentally different from racism. Structural racism is different from individual racism because it doesn’t necessarily focus on individual attitude or motive – rather, it focuses on “the interaction of culture, systems and policies that produce racialized outcomes, intentionally or unintentionally.” (john a. powell)
  • Structures are powerful and interconnected. Structures are not neutral – they can create or deny access to life opportunities. Also, they are highly interconnected – “the structures that disadvantage a racial group may also disadvantage an age group, a gender group, or sexual orientation…When we can focus on structural racialization, from my perspective if we do it right, we get an understanding of structures and systems more broadly that we can apply to various groups. All of us have multiple identities, are situated differently within structures, both individually and collectively, so one of the exercises I do with groups is to map out structures of opportunity.” (john a. powell)
  • A significant number of leadership programs avoid dealing with structural racism during their training. According to a survey conducted by Sally Leiderman and Maggie Potapchuk, 70% of the people responding to the survey said that the programs they run, fund, design or assess use the term structural racism essentially as defined in the survey. Only 30% say they use the programs use that term a great deal. And, an equal percentage (30%), say the programs they run, fund, design or assess actually avoid using the term structural racism in their programs.  Also, “most programs (3/4) want people to act differently in their leadership as a result of what they learned about issues of racism, privilege and how these are related to create poor outcomes for people, but only 30-40% think that people do in fact act differently.” (Sally Leiderman)
  • Implementing inclusive leadership approaches. Two lessons learned from the LDIR program: 1) effective leaders must be anti-racist and have a commitment to ending structural racism, and 2) practitioners need to take steps to ensure that they are not perpetuating the systems that reinforce structural racism. For instance, when posting a job description, it should emphasize experience as opposed to a set of requirements and degrees that don’t necessarily have a rationale – sometimes those requirements may keep people of color from applying. (Carmen Morgan)
  • Developing and cultivating white allies is a top priority, but is a challenging process. Practitioners should work towards cultivating white allies that can help move the work forward. “We have learned that an important component to trying to address structural racism is sharing power and resources on a profound level, and we need white allies and institutions that are willing to share power.” (Carmen Morgan)
  • Dealing with resistance through networks and more. A great number of programs and leaders working to implement more inclusive leadership practices and promote racial justice will experience resistance from different groups, including people of color. Carmen Morgan and other panelists helped to identify strategies to deal with this challenge:
    • Expect the resistance and be prepared. Also, don’t assume that all people of color have progressive views towards race
    • If your partners and funders do not necessarily embrace a racial justice commitment, try to diversify your funding base (i.e. cultivate individual donors, social enterprises)
    • Form networks with like-minded organizations
  • Focus on behavior when assessing the impact of a training or program. Practitioners and evaluators should focus on behavior changes as opposed to attitude or knowledge changes. These changes may represent actions that are somehow contributing to changes in culture or systems that could lead towards the outcome. (Sally Leiderman)
  • Know when to use analytical and communication terms to describe structural racism. Most people involved in this work use terms such as ‘opportunity structures’ to talk about structural racialization. john powell reminds us that there is a difference between an analytical tool that helps us to understand how structural opportunities are created and perpetuated, and a communication strategy to describe these topics.
  • Examples of programs implementing inclusive leadership approaches: (Terry Keleher)
Description Approach
Citizen Action in New York Advocacy and organizing organization that works on health care reform, education equity and election reform All issue committees and chapters must use a racial equity framing tool when developing issues and strategies
Organizing the Apprenticeship Project in Minnesota Trains community organizers from around Minnesota Initially focused on diversity but the team realized that it wasn’t enough, so they revamped their entire training program to explicitly address race
“Catalytic Change” report Developed by the Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity and the Applied Research Center The report explores how two foundations, Barr Foundation and Consumer Health Foundation, examined ways to explicitly address racial equity


“Often people want to get at race implicitly by addressing class issues or economic inequality…but structural racism and racial inequality has its own distinct and compounding dynamics that need to be understood and addressed to really get at equity”(Terry Keleher). This point reinforces the importance of developing leadership strategies that explicitly focus on race across the board. This is just the beginning of the conversation – we need to join forces and collaborate across fields and sectors to continue exploring challenges and opportunities to promote racial justice through our leadership work.

We thank all of the panelists and participants for contributing to this exciting conversation. We also encourage you to continue to share your ideas and questions through the Leadership for a New Era website.