Secret Community Leader #2

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Jun 11, 2020

The Secret Community Leader is an anonymous column sharing the highs and lows of community leadership. It provides an open and honest forum for community leaders to get nagging challenges and worries off their chests. It also aims to share some of the most rewarding moments of community leadership, in the hope of both relating to, and inspiring, other leaders and communities...

I have spent several decades rejecting the idea of being a leader.

Not because I have a blind spot about the role I have assumed in groups, communities, organisations, and even friendship groups, but because I have had an unconventional and nomadic lifestyle. I have lived in several places and never viewed myself as having a ‘career’. I have refused to climb a particular professional ‘ladder’. 

However, I increasingly recognise the skills, knowledge, and experience I offer as I move in and out of differing contexts and navigate the world. Furthermore, as I begin to embrace an eldership position in communities (and I am not sure how that happened!), I am more willing to accept that leadership is necessary and even desirable at times. We know that there are as many models and approaches, as there are opinions, about what constitutes good leadership. I would like to view myself as an aspiring ‘servant leader’, even though I recognise that I can also be rather autocratic at times. 

One of my biggest current leadership challenges is what I view as ‘representation’. As a woman of African descent, I have no desire to be embraced as a ‘Person of Colour’ (poc). Many of us 1980s womanists rejected this Americanism in preference of the term ‘politically Black’, which also acknowledges our collective experience of racism. I have begun to question why the term now seems to slip out of our mouths, with relative ease. 

I have consciously chosen at this life stage to help build processes and mechanisms for supporting and empowering people from the African Diaspora and other ethnic minority groups. This is being enacted through next generation leadership initiatives and creating sustainable community spaces. Strangely  enough, this often finds me in majority- white spaces (events, meetings, seminars,  conferences, even bars and restaurants),  knowing that I am expected to offer a ‘non- white’ or ‘minority’ perspective, when  invited. In such places I feel the burden of representation heavy on my shoulders. Sometimes I’m overly ‘welcomed’ (as a sign of relief that an authentic ‘Person of Colour’ has actually walked through their door, perhaps). I have been mistaken for a ‘beneficiary’ or ‘member of target group’ of one of the new social enterprise based services (increasingly as a Black ‘older person’); other times as a professional who must have expert knowledge on the issue under discussion. I am not sure why I should be expected to have that – do they? 

I experience feelings of tokenism, particularly when the Ieadership experience I bring is subtly questioned; paradoxically, I am expected to have views, opinions, and quick solutions to deep systemic urban issues. The projections are noticeable and the impact overwhelming. Sometimes I feel invisible, sometimes I feel like a curiosity, sometimes conversations are dropped mid-sentence as someone with more perceived ‘resourcing’ potential is spotted across a room.  

I also find myself increasingly perplexed by the lens through which I feel acquaintances, some of my colleagues and those in the communities I work with, view me. I am becoming known for having access to some of these worlds (despite the personal and professional costs) and the communities that I silently bring with me also hold views about what I should or could represent. I have been viewed as someone who gets the job done; is well connected; has the ‘Midas Touch’, ‘... has built a successful Black-led organisation pretty quickly...’

Leading from the front is not for the faint hearted.

Our individual and collective experience of racism and discrimination sometimes see us prematurely ‘calling people out’ as opposed to ‘in’. Over the past couple of years, I have experienced the sharp end of this and as I embed myself more deeply in local communities (whilst simultaneously trying to impact the wider system.) I, along with many others, know the benefits and challenges involved.

Brutally painful at times, a level of resilience which stems from the general knocks of life, support from family members and good colleagues and my fast approaching sixth decade, have helped me gain rich learning from these leadership encounters. 

There is no doubt we need to encourage and support more community leaders, and particularly those which work with and within communities which are under-represented in the corridors of power. But to do so we must also recognise those leaders are just that – leaders, rather than place the burden on them to represent a particular aspect of their lives or identity, or place the burden of ‘solving’ deep systemic issues at their door. I am so much more than a Black Woman. 

Indeed, my current vision includes creating a model of intergenerational leadership. It is a co-created and shared mission and one to which I will offer insights from my past, present, and future leadership journey.

This column was first published in STIR Magazine, Winter 2020. Support our journalism by purchasing this issue or an annual subscription. Featured illustration by Guillermo Ortego.

The Secret Community Leader is published in partnership with Practical Governance. If you have a story to share get in touch