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To Build Community Leadership, Redefine the Meaning of Leadership

People’s Grocery, a nonprofit organization that I co-founded in 2002 and directed until 2010, is often recognized for its success in cultivating capable leaders who are from and reflect the community it serves: West Oakland, California. I credit this success to its dedication to the principle that social justice organizations working in historically marginalized communities of color must, ultimately, be led by the people who reflect and come from those communities. Over the years my co-founders and I worked hard to actualize this principle.Unfortunately, many organizations doing similar work as People’s Grocery in similar communities of color around the country haven’t succeeded at building up their leadership from within their communities. To the leaders of such organizations who may desire to build more local leadership I offer one simple suggestion: Redefine the skills and assets required for leadership and hire people who readily bring those skills and assets to the table.

Too often organizational leaders focus their staff recruitment on status quo managerial skills and professional experiences, which are typically technical and intellectual in nature, and fail to identify the kinds of skills that are needed to engage and lead in communities of color, which are often cultural and relational in nature. This focus can cause leaders to overlook the less conventional skills and assets actually offered by community residents.

For example, leadership may emphasize the ability to write a technical report or grant proposal, yet an equally important skill may be having the cultural competency to relate to and build trust among clients. Similarly, being able to gain access to inner social and familial circles in a community of color, and speaking their language, can be as valuable as the ability to gain access to the inner circles of philanthropic institutions.

The reality is that less conventional skills can often be key to successful leadership in historically disadvantaged communities of color. The cultural rift between the qualifications that professional managers seek out and those that community residents often have to offer is undermining the ability of many organizations to make meaningful and lasting systemic change in their communities.

By reassessing and redefining the necessary skills needed for leadership and organizational success in an under-served community of color, one can see that, while many community members may not have technical skills and organizational experience, they do bring significant creativity, perspectives, networks, and social capital that can be vital assets to advancing the organization’s mission. This opens up a much bigger pool of possible leaders to draw from who have a variety of capabilities that can be of equal value and importance to an organization’s effectiveness.

Redefining the required skill sets also results in more successful performance on the part of community members because  performance evaluations are aligned with an employee’s strengths and assets instead of focusing on skills they haven’t had the opportunity to learn and develop.

This shifts the dynamic from an organization helping people in a community to an organization being in partnership with people. And such partnership is an essential ingredient for creating meaningful change in places where people have been under-valued and marginalized for long time (even by the nonprofits that are there to serve them).

When an organization shifts to being in partnership with the community and embracing the resources, talents, and capacities that exist in the community, its potential for creating true and lasting social change becomes boundless.

This post originally appeared on the IATP Food and Community Fellows blog.

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