Black women have always been at the vanguard of movement work in the United States. And they have done it despite limited resources and endless challenges.
The uprising and shifts in justice reform in the last few years have been no exception. Black women are leading the reinvention of our nation’s justice system, abandoning tinkering to focus on the tireless work of creating a system that’s actually just.
Black women are the leaders we have been waiting for, but they have seldom been acknowledged or sufficiently supported by society for their leadership contributions. As increasing numbers of Black women hold leadership positions and work to usher in transformation across all sectors, we must dissect and advance leadership lessons that honor our unique leadership and perspectives.
After over two decades of working for criminal justice reform in philanthropy and government, I’ve recognized four fundamental insights for avoiding distraction and achieving goals. While my perspective may not prove helpful for every Black female leader, I hope it starts to offer a perspective currently missing from the leadership discourse.
I. Prepare to be underestimated — and use it to your advantage.
I have been underestimated in every role I have held. The ability to overlook the hard work and leadership contributions of Black women is a vestige of racism, like so many that plague American society. I do not minimize that truth, but I do acknowledge the reality, and where possible, I use it.
When I joined the U.S. Department of Education as a prestigious fellow, a colleague I was assigned to work with suggested I use the fellowship to write a report that would look good on my resume. I was more interested in writing policy to restore access to educational opportunities than seeing my name in print. Rather than being discouraged by his dismissal of my potential contributions, I saw the appointment as an opportunity to effect change that would improve lives. The report would have sat on a shelf collecting dust. Instead, I seized the opportunity and created the framework to restore Pell grants to thousands of incarcerated adults and youth in custody.
Later, as the Director of the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice, I was overlooked by a wave of enthusiastic but largely inexperienced professionals that came with a new administration. While they were paying attention to other matters, I positioned the Administration to close a juvenile prison in a rural jurisdiction that provided inadequate services to Black and Brown kids from Chicago. I accomplished what I set out to do before anyone realized they should have been paying attention to me. Being underestimated is wrong, but it can create the space to work unimpeded. A lot can be accomplished under the radar.
II. Understand the thing you want to change.
You can’t dismantle what you don’t understand. Having reverence for the thing being changed allows you to approach the transformation process thoughtfully. When we don’t understand what we dismantle, we end up destroying it to the point there’s nothing left to rebuild a transformative replacement.
Be a student of the system you’ve inherited – both its impact and its function. I had to become an expert on the operation of a state prison system, learning each administrative rule and detail of the state’s union bargaining agreement to advance the work of system transformation. And it resulted in a closed youth prison.
Studying what you want to change will allow you to target the dismantling and frame a way forward for those you hope to serve.
III. Understand the assignment.
Too often, we get the job, relish a new title, and forget why we’re there. Whenever you take on a new assignment, it is critical to center your goal. In my current philanthropic role, my goal is to drive funding, resources, and investment to people of color.
This focus transcends job title and is fundamentally tied to a goal to advance justice and equity over my lifetime. It’s why we’ve been able to shift our funding from primarily investing in national, white-led organizations to 72 percent of our funding going to proximate, people-of-color-led organizations in just a few years’ time.
Stay on assignment. Don’t get distracted and forget your goals.
IV. Work with people, not titles.
This is imperative. I’ve briefed mayors, governors, a U.S. President, and a legion of high-level officials. My job sometimes involved telling these people things they didn’t want to hear. I did four things consistently:
— I was the same person in each space.
— I walked into the room knowing my expertise.
— I was consistently professional.
— I came armed with solutions.
We get paid to problem-solve. Rather than focusing on what’s broken, offer scenarios that more effectively achieve the end goal. When you’re seen as a consistent partner willing to do what it takes to get the job done, you gain trust and respect.
You’re serving people, not titles. Remember that.
Make no mistake; there will be challenges as you lead in your purpose. This work is not for the faint of heart. But the reality is that we can make things happen, and when we do, it transforms the trajectory of where we are going.