#BlackLivesMatter: Lessons From A Leader-ful Movement

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In the 15 years that I have been supporting social change leaders to become more powerful, effective and collaborative I have never been as hopeful as I am today. A new civil rights movement with bold new leadership is emerging, and there is already a lot to be learned from these efforts, and much to celebrate.

I was saddened but not surprised when Oprah Winfrey recently said she was looking for “some kind of leadership” from this movement. Saddened that she could not yet see the incredibly courageous, strategic, and talented leadership at the heart of this “leader-ful” movement. Not surprised given the generational gap between boomers and millennials and the tendency for traditional media to seek a single charismatic leader to deliver the message.

Oprah notwithstanding, I’m hopeful that as this movement grows, more and more people will recognize the bold, innovative and radical new leadership behind it. #BlackLivesMatter founders Opal Tometi, Alicia Garza and Patrisse Cullors-Brignac, two of whom are queer women and one who is a Nigerian-American, recently wrote:

 There are important implications for the possibilities that this new layer of leadership can offer the movement as a whole. We create much more room for collaboration, for expansion, for building power when we nurture movements that are full of leaders, and allow for all of our identities to inform our work and how we organize. This then allows for leadership to emerge from our intersecting identities, rather than to be organized around one notion of Blackness. Because of this, we resist the urge to consolidate our power and efforts behind one charismatic leader.

When we center the leadership of the many who exist at the margins, we learn new things about the ways in which state sanctioned violence impacts us all.

Dr. King once said, “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.” And what we have learned from Dr. King’s words and our current practice is that when a movement full of leaders from the margins gets underway, it makes the connections between social ills, it rejects the compromise and respectability politics of the past, and it opens up new political space for radical visions of what this nation can truly become.

It‘s been incredibly humbling and inspiring to witness the courageous youth of Ferguson, NYC and people across the country declare and demand that #BlackLivesMatter. Black organizers heard the call, saw the possibilities, stepped into capacity gaps, and are organizing their communities and allies to meet the moment.

It’s especially impressive that amidst the cascading events, violence and break-neck pace of the last six months a culture of respect, dignity and high performance is emerging.

As Purvi Shah, Bertha Justice Institute Director at the Center for Constitutional Rights, shared on Facebook:

I have met some of the most brilliant, humble and thoughtful folks through my work in Ferguson. What I appreciate most about this motley crew is the love that guides our work. I have never enjoyed working with people as much as I have enjoyed working with these folks. Although we may schedule conference calls at obscene hours, and disagree and get on each other’s damn nerves—what amazes me is that we consistently struggle with love, we encourage each other, and we acknowledge each other’s humanity. I see each and every one of you. I see you aiming for high impact, low ego. Our movements are in good hands with each of you in the mix. Thank you. Let’s take a collective deep breath this morning—this is just the beginning.

Shah herself is an example of this kind of collaborative leadership. She started the Ferguson Legal Defense Committee to bring lawyers from across the country together to address the civil and human rights abuses coming to light, and support those fighting for change.

Shah said in an email, “This moment and movement is producing high-impact, low ego leaders in many sectors, all focused on a facilitative style of leadership, where sustainability and outcomes are more important than shine or visibility.”

The notion of “low ego/high impact” is a distinguishing characteristic of this new civil rights movement. It stands out for me because it’s something we explicitly strive for in the field oftransformational leadership.

In conversation with Senaida Poole (a member of the Anti Police-Terror Project Media Team) after a clergy-led die-in following a recent screening of Selma in Oakland, Servant B.K. Woodson, Sr raised this theme in his reflections on the role of clergy in the new civil rights movement:

I think it’s important for African American pastors to be involved, but it’s also important for African American leaders to be involved as support and not as leaders. So we were talking to Alicia Garza and she described the movement as “low ego/high impact.” And that’s a different thing for African American pastors.

And I think also it’s very important that African American pastors can be seen to stand behind and support self-identified Black queer women. We love them. We support them. And we are proud that God has chosen them to lead another part of the movement.

And the pastors I speak for, we want to whole-heartedly support them financially, and with our people, and with our energy. And enter into that low ego/high impact movement.

Movement moments are emergent, but there are systemic ways to cultivate networks and collective capacity to strategize and act together in nimble and powerful ways when those moments arise. Specifically, leadership development is an important and strategic way to build relationships and trust while equipping leaders with the skills and practices to increase their impact and sustain themselves over the long haul.

For example, the founders of #BlackLivesMatter are part of a network called Black Organizing for Leadership and Dignity (BOLD). BOLD is led by visionary Denise Perry with a mission to increase infrastructure in Black-led base-building organizations. BOLD serves many important functions and is a place to experiment and cultivate low ego/high impact movement culture.

Organizations and programs like BOLD, Forward StanceGenerative SomaticsMove to End ViolenceInteraction Institute for Social Change, and Rockwood Leadership Institute emphasize the development of both the inner and outer aspects of the leaders they serve. They understand that our social movements need leaders who are emotionally resilient and connected to high-trust networks that can act quickly with efficacy and integrity.

It takes tremendous discipline and practice to be a low ego/high impact leader — to sustain high performance under challenging and sometimes traumatic conditions. A low ego/high impact leader must develop a comfort with their own strengths and limitations, compassion for themselves and others, love for their allies (and even adversaries) while simultaneously developing the hard skills necessary to succeed in a dynamic and complex socio-political landscape.

Those qualities, already present in the #BlackLivesMatter movement, are what we look for in the leaders we work with. We believe that those who can check their ego, work beyond their own organizational interests, and who are ready to work collaboratively outside their own sectors and silos are the leaders these times most desperately need.

At STP, we cultivate deep bonds of love and trust among leaders, as we simultaneously practice new ways of strategizing and working together. BOLD participants actually greet each other by saying, “Black love,” because love is at the center of their strategic approach to leadership and movement-building.

It is the bonds of love at the intersection of identities and across different movements that most often inspire visionary strategies, breakthrough collaborations, and pave the way to building powerful movements together.

Collectively we are building the human infrastructure of an increasingly aligned, coordinated, and effective progressive movement and most importantly the human infrastructure needed to meet the complex challenges of our times.

It is still early days for this new civil rights movement, and I can’t wait to see how it grows, evolves, and strengthens over time. Oprah couldn’t have been more wrong. Not only is this movement full of leaders, they are setting a powerful example of how we all need to work together to create a more just and sustainable world.

  • Jon

    Great article! This seems to be an affirmation of the principle of horizontalism, learned through Occupy, a brilliant step forward to protect leaders from being picked off by the forces of oppression on the one hand or coopted on the other. This lesson must extend to all of us, and the black resistance movement is showing us the way.

  • Edie Irons

    You left out the first paragraph of the article. Can you please update the post?

    “In the 15 years that I have been supporting social change leaders to become more powerful, effective and collaborative I have never been as hopeful as I am today. A new civil rights movement with bold new leadership is emerging, and there is already a lot to be learned from these efforts, and much to celebrate.”

    http://www.stproject.org/from-the-field/blacklivesmatter-lessons/

  • Margaret Flowers

    Thank you. It has been updated.

  • Edie Irons

    That was quick, thank you!