A year ago, the USC Center on Philanthropy and Public Policy (CPPP) asked if I would develop a discussion series focused on leadership and social change. What emerged is Leading Boldly, an interview series that highlights the struggles as well as accomplishments of innovative and fearless leaders of color advancing racial justice and systems change.
While bold leadership approaches have proven effective in addressing systemic inequities, creative ideas and new ways of organizing are often ignored. Emerging leaders struggle to find the resources needed to test their ideas and advance promising solutions. Bold leadership must be encouraged and supported at the scale necessary to advance equity and racial injustice.
Over the past year, I have had the honor to interview four remarkable social justice leaders, who shared their personal stories and reflected on their leadership journey:
Desmond Meade, the President of Florida Rights Coalition, overcame drug addiction, homelessness, and incarceration to lead one of the most inspiring and successful grassroots campaigns in history.
Greisa Martinez Rosas, Executive Director of United We Dream, the largest youth-led immigrant rights organization, drew inspiration from challenging life experiences to commit to a life of activism and organizing.
Phi Nguyen left a successful legal practice to focus on building a more equitable world and became the Executive Director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice shortly after the murder of eight women at three spas in metropolitan Atlanta.
Reverend Jennifer Bailey, the Founder and Executive Director of the Faith Matters Network, used her early life experiences with faith, loss, and race to propel her commitment to building and sustaining the capacity of social justice movements and leaders.
I divided the interviews into three parts:
Motivation and Commitment
Maybe I could take these things that led me to the railroad tracks and contemplating suicide, take these things and use them in such a way to help other people, and that’s been my journey ever since. (Desmond Meade)
The role of the leader is often lonely. It’s often really lonely…so if I could go back and talk to my 24-year-old girl self, I would probably say it’s ok to grow deep and wide, and not fast and long (Reverend Jennifer Bailey)
Advice for Philanthropy
One obvious way that philanthropy can support leaders like me is we need money to do our work; money that is not overly restrictive. Philanthropy needs to trust leaders to be the ones to make strategic decisions. They’re the ones who are invested in their communities and who know their communities. (Phi Nguyen)
These extraordinary individuals were motivated by something more significant than the work itself, as was reflected in their compelling personal stories and lived experiences. Most impressive was a commonly held belief in a discipline of radical hope, maybe best expressed by Greisa Martinez Rosas:
Crossing the Rio Grande River, I just remember feeling scared and hanging onto that rock for dear life and having to make a decision about what is the next pathway forward. I felt what guided me in that moment, what made me understand that I needed to take a deep breath and move forward was this deep, deep belief in the discipline of hope that there was gonna be something better on the other side of that river — that’s what grounds my work.
They talked candidly about the difficulty of the work while evidencing a willingness to persevere despite obstacles and setbacks. They also acknowledged the importance of expressing vulnerability, seeing this as a strength rather than a weakness. I initially found this extraordinary, given how relatively early they all are in their leadership journey. But as the interviews progressed, it also became clear that these four individuals were bringing refreshing new thinking and innovative approaches to advance social change.
Another common theme emerged: a collaborative, inclusive, intersectional leadership approach emerged. There was a willingness to use their voice and lean into their power while also empowering others.
Finally, there was no hesitation in talking directly to philanthropy about what they need: invest, trust, and get out of the way; embrace risk, give us space to fail, and the rewards will be greater; use your convening power to go beyond the grant to provide resources that will support our work and our leadership journey.
At the start of the series, I frequently used the term emerging leaders to describe the individuals I was interviewing. I now find myself concerned that people might mistake the term “emerging leader” for not yet ready to perform fully. I have watched philanthropy fall into that trap repeatedly, preferring to support traditionally prepared, established leaders. This series illustrates that these four social justice leaders, and so many others like them across this nation, have already emerged. They bring new skills, fresh ideas, and different approaches to advancing opportunity and justice.
The Leading Boldly series will begin virtual broadcasts on May 18 at 10:00 AM PDT and can be viewed on The USC Center on Philanthropy & Public Policy's website below.