Developing a Racial Justice and Leadership Framework to Promote Racial Equity, Address Structural Racism, and Heal Racial and Ethnic Divisions in Communities

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Developing a Racial Justice and Leadership Framework

to Promote Racial Equity, Address Structural Racism,
and Heal Racial and Ethnic Divisions in Communities

Prepared for and Supported by the

W.K. Kellogg Foundation & Center for Ethical Leadership

Produced by the Leadership Learning Community

Deborah Meehan, Executive Director

Claire Reinelt, Director of Research and Evaluation

Elissa Perry, Learning Partner

July 2009


The recent election of our first bi-racial president and the election process itself has dramatically shifted the current leadership landscape and opened new opportunities for work on racial equity in communities. The presidential elections have given us a glimpse of new possibilities for social movement building using social network platforms that unleash the self organizing motivation and abilities of regular folks who are compelled by passion and vision to step into leadership roles. Notions of leadership are being democratized as people are moved to act by the belief that they can make a difference. While the election of a bi racial president hardly signals a new chapter in race relations, it does create an opening for more inclusive leadership models.  When the Leadership Learning Community conducted research on leadership and race, many people of color explained that their leadership was not recognized or valued when they exercised leadership that was more aligned with their cultural values, and often more collective in nature.  The "Yes we can" motto of the Obama campaign signifies an important shift from the command and control model of leadership to one that is more collective and emergent. This shift creates new opportunities to expand and leverage social equity work.


The W.K. Kellogg Foundation has recently been engaged in a process of reflection and evaluation to find creative and innovative ways to use philanthropic resources to catalyze changes in life outcomes for children, families, and communities.  The Foundation understands the effects that structural racism and oppression have in making children and families of color more vulnerable to poverty, violence, and injustice. The Foundation is committed to racial equity and to use its grantmaking to achieve tangible results towards this cause.

If significant progress is going to be made to help poverty-stricken children, their families and their communities to make any amount of sustainable change, then we must face the reality that structural and institutional racism has undermined - and will continue to undermine if not dealt with - the effectiveness of our grantmaking. If racial equity is not achieved in our social and economic systems, we can never hope to give each child in our country the opportunity to reach his or her full potential.-- Joe Stewart, Chair of the Kellogg Foundation Board of Trustees

In early 2009, the Leadership Team at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation commissioned a scan to identify promising strategies for supporting and developing leadership that can make significant progress on undoing structural racism; and healing, repairing and reconciling communities. This public document shares some of the core insights from the scan and highlights a number of national programs that are doing leading edge work in these areas.


Over the past ten years, much experimentation and learning has occurred about how to catalyze and create just and equitable communities with improved outcomes for individuals, families, and neighborhoods.  In this scan we highlight lessons learned from community-based collective leadership efforts and racial equity work in order to provide a framework for investing in leadership that can bring about greater racial equity in communities.  

Racial Justice Strategies:  A Framework for Progress
Maggie Potapchuk describes three broad pathways for achieving goals related to race relations and racial justice:  individual, inter-group and institutional. (Maggie Potapchuk, Cultivating Interdependence: A Guide for Race Relations and Racial Justice Organizations, 2004.) 

  • Individual approaches focus on building the knowledge, awareness, and skills of individuals to increase cultural and racial awareness, confront prejudices and stereotypes, and address  power dynamics, racism, internalized white supremacy, and internalized racism. 

  • Intergroup approaches bring people of different racial and ethnic identity groups together to dismantle stereotypes, build relationships of trust and work together to solve problems and conflicts together. 

  • Institutional approaches focus on strengthening the capacity of organizations and institutions to communicate about race, organize and mobilize for change, and advocate for more inclusive policies and institutional practices that reduce disparities and promote racial equity.

All three approaches address important aspects of the change process that are required to make progress on racial equity. Although each strategy has value by itself in the appropriate context; when they are combined together aligning efforts at multiple levels (e.g., individual, intergroup and institutional) breakthrough changes become more likely. 

Leadership for a New Era: A New Leadership Landscape for Addressing of Structural Racism

The Leadership Learning Community (LLC) believes that it is important to ask ourselves what in our current leadership thinking and practice needs to change if we are to tackle deep social inequities. For the past eight years the LLC has engaged hundreds of leadership development funders, program staff and researchers in learning about how to cultivate leadership that is inclusive, rooted in community values, action-oriented and focused on results.  In the process of our work together, we have identified the need for a much broader and more culturally inclusive approach to cultivating and sustaining leadership that focuses on nurturing and supporting teams, networks, and communities; and prepares individuals to lead collectively with others whose leadership cultures and practices differ from their own.

As we experience a declining economy it is ever more critical that we look at how we can extend the reach and impact of leadership action for racial equity. As the economic and social divides widen, many anchor organizations serving poor communities will not survive the current crisis without developing new collaborative approaches. Many of these organizations are building the leadership capacity of people of color who have been excluded from leadership positions; and transforming the conditions that sustain dominant approaches to leadership that are inadequate for addressing serious social inequities. PolicyLink has documented that supporting people of color to take on advocacy and leadership roles within their communities is a prerequisite for reducing poverty and disparities.[1]  In a study on why people of color are not moving into leadership positions within the nonprofit sector, LLC found that leadership culture and organizational practices devalue the contributions of people of color.[2]


There are several opportunities and urgent demands for radically changing the leadership status quo.

  •  The anticipated transfer of leadership[3] creates an opportunity to diversify the sector; however, without a more inclusive leadership culture the under-representation of people of color could worsen. 

  • The election of Barack Obama demonstrated a new leadership landscape with a massive mobilization using decentralized self-organizing strategies, unprecedented levels of civic engagement and the election of our first bi-racial president.
  • The development of new social technologies presents unique opportunities to connect leaders to reach new scales of influence; however, realizing this potential requires a much deeper understanding about how leadership emerges within networks and communities of learning and practice.[4]

  • The burden of the economic recession will fall most heavily on low wealth and vulnerable communities without strong leadership with a racial equity framework.

In order to respond to these changes, and reach the scale and scope required to support systemic change, we now have to take full advantage of a changing leadership landscape to transform how we develop and support leaders with a new consciousness about leadership. The dominant thinking about leadership places a very strong emphasis on the individual’s role in change. Often an individual’s contribution takes on heroic proportions causing us to lose sight of leadership as a dynamic interconnected process that relies on many individuals. We focus on this question because we believe that if we continue to operate from the current heroic, individual model of leadership we will not be able to eliminate the inequities that persist.


Support the Leadership of People of Color: People of color will continue to be under-recognized for their leadership contributions and will be under-represented in leadership positions without more culturally inclusive leadership models.  Many people of color interviewed by LLC explained that their leadership is rendered invisible when they do not conform to the dominant leadership norms that privilege a directive style of leadership even when they are actually accomplishing more through a facilitative style that unleashes team capacity.[5]  The leadership values of love, equity, justice, and community, which are critical to leadership success for people of color, are often not supported within the dominant leadership models. The privileging of a model aligned with the dominant culture perpetuates internalized oppression, discrimination and white privilege. As a result, people of color will not have influence at policy tables, in designing community based solutions, and in addressing disparities along a number of political and socio-economic dimensions.


Strengthen Collective Leadership Capacity: James MacGregor Burns, often considered the father of the leadership development field and author of the seminal leadership book Leadership[6], was asked in a recent interview about the next frontier for the field of leadership.  Without hesitation he answered, “We need to better understand leadership as a collective process.” There is a growing recognition that individual leaders need to be trained to work more effectively to unleash the collective leadership capacity of a group; and to better understand how diverse groups, especially those representing multiple organizations and stakeholders, identify shared purpose and vision and create capacity for coordinated action.   Some programs have expressed concern that the selection and recognition of individuals may actually undermine the collective process and diminish the work of many who share responsibility for achievements.  Models that support and develop collective action are critical for a community's voice and ability to organize to address social and economic disparities.


Build and Sustain Leadership Work Across a Wide Spectrum of Differences: Many foundations have responded to the concerns that racial divides will degrade the quality of life and social equity in our communities by investing in leadership programs that build the capacity  of individuals to connect across racial and ethnic differences. Solving community problems requires an integrated cross-sector leadership approach focused on systems-wide change rather than individual leadership that tackles problems as isolated special interests.[7]  Focusing on the individual leader does not support an integrated, community problem-solving approach.  The fragmentation of the non-profit sector persists with most leadership programs focused on organizational improvements that are not able to address sector-wide problems with systemic thinking and solutions.


Leverage Current Network Trends:  Current technological developments and organizing trends are rapidly increasing the potential of ad hoc groups and networks to lead change work.  If the current assumptions about the power of the individual to exert influence (usually in an organizational context) persists, we will continue to maintain the leadership status quo and undermine the change processes that are needed to solve complex problems in the current environment.  


Enhance Leadership within Communities:  Leadership is deeply embedded in relationships and communities. Developing the skills and capacities to work effectively with others in communities is not accomplished by pulling people out of place and away from their community connections. Place-based leadership development strategies have demonstrated success in more effectively addressing and solving community problems because they engage a broad cross-section of leaders and are more responsive to the community’s needs.[8] The work of KLCC has been pioneering in this regard.


Create Social Equality:  Most leadership programs work at the scale of individual and organizational change.  We are seeking fundamental systemic structural changes in the conditions that have created a tremendous wealth gap and disparities in access to education, health, employment, housing, quality of life and safety and well being.  Until our leadership thinking and practices are connected by a strategic perspective on the systemic change we need, we will not be able to create the political will or muscle to create social equity.

As leadership programs recognize and support the emergence of a new leadership paradigm, they will significantly contribute to the achievement of racial equity goals such as changing the public discourse around race, validating more collective leadership approaches of people of color leading community-based organizations, facilitating community healing by supporting leadership approaches the build relationships across differences, and building networks that connect community organizations and policy advocates.

Building Momentum for a New Leadership Paradigm

LLC's collaborative Learning Initiative was formed to push forward new models of leadership work that validate leadership approaches that are more inclusive of people of color. We are highlighting strategies for supporting leadership work across difference, strengthening collective leadership action, leveraging leadership networks, supporting unrecognized community leadership, and systemically addressing social and economic disparities.  Foundations, thought leaders and cutting edge leadership programs are coming together as partners united around the need to challenge the dominant leadership culture. 

One of LLC's partners in the Learning Initiative is the Center for Ethical Leadership. CEL has partnered with Kellogg since 2002 on the KLCC initiative experimenting with new approaches to developing and supporting place-based collective leadership. Key principles of their leadership approach include:

  • honoring the authentic leadership styles of people of color

  • strengthening collective leadership by developing shared values, vision, and joint actions

  • developing leadership within a place-based community context rooted in deep relationships and concrete knowledge

  • expanding the focus from individual development to community development by using a community coaching model

  • creating an environment and relationship norms that encourage honest connections across difference

  • engaging in conversations about power and how to negotiate power relationships

Leadership for Racial Equity Paradigm Requires a Different Philosophy

The dominant paradigm often focuses on providing individuals with knowledge and skills to increase their capacity to move into leadership roles.  Leadership programs that take a deficit approach to leadership, supplying the missing skills or tools, often run the risk of reinforcing power dynamics that privilege external expertise and solutions that fail to address the structural ways in which power and privilege are perpetuated.  It is important that leadership approaches build on community based power with a framework for understanding and tackling the institutionalized causes of economic disparities that show up along lines of race.  Based on LLC's considerable research on community-focused leadership development efforts, we have identified four core elements of a leadership philosophy that we believe are essential to addressing inequities that persist because of race, power, and privilege.  They are community determination, asset-based, experience-driven, and relational.

Community Determination
Community determination refers to the ability and opportunity for the community to give voice to their vision through a participatory and collective process.  When all stakeholders are able to participate in or at least see themselves in the development and implementation of strategies for change, success is more likely.  It has been clearly documented that those closest to a problem are most likely to develop effective solutions.  That said, it is not uncommon for external researchers to study and develop strategies without engaging those most affected in the process.  Leadership development can serve to facilitate community engagement in collective problem solving and help  bring people together across lines of difference to reveal shared concerns and opportunities for collaborative responses. As Mario Gutierrez of Poder Popular noted, having all voices involved changes the point of view of everyone involved. When, for instance, farm workers were engaged in an initiative, others in the community stopped seeing them as “victims of industry or perpetrators of wrong-doing" and instead viewed them as "community assets who were an integral part of the solution and partners  in creating healthy communities and a healthy workforce.” [9]


Focusing on assets instead of deficits is critical when working with previously neglected or underserved populations who have been labeled and placed into a range of deficit categories by social service agencies not representative of their communities.  Identifying and building upon assets builds confidence and a sense of self-efficacy that may have been missing from years of internalized oppression.  Leadership enhancement efforts can provide safe and nurturing spaces for people in communities to begin appreciating their individual and collective talents, skills and strengths.  The KLCC program created an ethos of "brining one's gifts" as an acknowledgement that everyone had strengths to contribute to community change.  Cultivating this base of strength and power builds the capacity of communities to tackle structural racism.

Leadership development efforts are more successful when they tap into personal commitment, passion for change and lived experiences. People learn more when they can draw on their own experiences and that of others in their community. Often leadership programs build in projects that enable participants to apply their learning in their own contexts. When individuals are taken out of context or place for leadership development they often end up feeling isolated from their community and frustrated when trying to implement new strategies alone. What is often missing from leadership programs are leadership enhancement strategies that are deeply embedded within organizations, communities, and campaigns that develop leadership in the context of joint work and collective action.

Leadership is relational.  Oftentimes attempts to acknowledge the contributions of a single leader undermine the communal effort that is required for any change to occur. Collective power in marginalized communities is strongest when it is deeply relational across the boundaries that divide people from one another socially and economically.  Facilitating opportunities for leaders to get to know one another personally builds trust that once established continues to grow over time. To strengthen an organic network of relationships in a community requires “rethinking” who should be the beneficiary of leadership and how people in communities move in and out of leadership over time.
Specific Leadership Strategies that Enhance Leadership for Racial Equity

In reviewing scans and evaluation research on place-based leadership development and leadership development among people of color from low-income communities, we identified some key components of successful programs that align with the racial equity strategy and framework. 

Approaches that build the capacity of individuals and communities to deal with the impact of internalized oppression and prejudice, and a history of racial trauma

Listening is the beginning of any meaningful relationship.  Cassandra Shaylor of Justice Now in Oakland gave this description of listening in the report, A Dance That Creates Equals: Unpacking Leadership Development, “listening [is when] each person makes sense of his or her actions and searches for common space without denying the validity of [the] other's point of view.”  When people are heard and take the time to hear one another, the work has already begun.

Through sharing stories communities build their identities, pass on traditions, and construct their reality.  Poder Popular uses storytelling to open the pathways for people with different cultures and traditions to find common ground.  By sharing stories, an Oaxacan community and a Hmong Ocean community living in the same region discovered their commonalities and shared traditions in weaving, dance and other community traditions.  After this discovery, the communities invited one another to take part in each other's celebrations and traditions.  Finding a shared appreciation in each other's cultures made working together much more collective, committed, and interdependent. Storytelling is also a way for people to speak about their experiences with injustice. Stories touch people in ways that other forms of speaking do not, and often open up new opportunities for healing that create new realities.  As Meg Wheatley notes, "you don't fear people whose story you know."


Often in communities there are long-standing sources of pain and suffering that have created deep divisions within the community.  When these are unattended, progress becomes difficult.  Successful leadership programs use healing practices like dialogue, story circles, rituals, and spiritual practices to surface deep feelings and create the space for healing to begin.  While much of this work occurs in faith-based programs, or those with an explicit spiritual dimension, its power is often overlooked in other contexts.  In one community leadership program working on violence prevention, participants threw out a proposed curriculum on media work and advocacy because they felt that the most important work they needed to undertake to be strong leaders in their communities was healing.  They organized their own healing process using the skills of one of the Native American participants to lead this work.

Inner work

Healing at the community level often requires deep personal inner work to heal internalized oppression at the individual level. A participant from one leadership program for people whose lives had been touched by violence talked about how angry he was at everyone when he first came into the program. When others in the group began to share their stories in a safe space, he was surprised to see the similarities in their experiences. Together they began to see more clearly how they were all victims of a larger system which gave them a place to focus their internalized anger. Programs and strategies that pay attention to this deep inner work often utilize retreat like spaces where participants can engage in reflection away from the stress and trauma of their lives. The reflection process can be enhanced by values exercises, journaling, meditation, feedback processes, and storytelling. To encourage open exploration it is important to also create a safe environment with ground rules created by the group that includes things like confidentiality, respect, and listening.

Facilitation and Convening Skills

The ability to bring people together to build relationships across differences, find common ground, and act together collectively depends on having the skills to listen deeply, create gracious or safe space for people to talk from their heart and be heard by others, and to use a variety of methodologies that get many different ideas and perspectives in the room and create the space for people to make connections and engage in peer learning.  Knowledge of, and the ability to use methodologies such as the art of hosting, Open Space, and World Cafe enhance collective leadership.

Community Coaching

Community coaching is a strategy for guiding and supporting communities to go deeper in their ability to understand one another and work through conflict, and break through barriers or ruts in thinking that prevent community progress.  Community coaches create places for safe dialogue about divisive issues and assist teams to develop consensus and commitment.  They ask questions that help groups identify the barriers that keep them from making progress. They provide a clear focus on where the group wants to go, who needs to be present to get there, and what possibilities exist.  Community coaching is "an extremely effective tool for helping groups reframe their operating systems, unleash new ideas, and transition to new leadership and negotiate partnerships...[all of which] are critical competencies for successful community-building." (Coaching for Community and Organizational Change)


Approaches that build the capacity of individuals and communities to address structural racism
A Social Justice Framework

Programs that effectively address structural racism have explicit frameworks that support individuals and communities to identify oppression and reveal the power dynamics that create inequities. One program in the San Francisco mission district had an oppression framework that engaged young people through drama and art projects in understanding their experiences through the lens of institutionalized racism.  These workshops helped young people make meaning of their experiences and moved them from internalizing their oppression in self destructive gang involvement to community activism.

Place Based Leadership Approaches

PolicyLink has identified the extent to which racial disparities are linked to place, even neighborhoods.  To deal with the concrete manifestations of structural racism as it exists within a specific community requires the mobilization of individuals and groups with an intimate knowledge of the history, politics, local institutions and economy.  Leadership approaches that are embedded within a community context build enhanced collective leadership capacity that is capable of addressing real time and relevant issues among individuals and groups who have sustainable relationships with one another and a shared understanding of disparities in their community.

Policy/Advocacy Skills
Emphasis on developing advocacy and policy skills is a growing focus of leadership programs that are seeking social justice and racial equity.  A recent PolicyLink report emphasized the importance of providing advocacy and policy training if people of color are to be effective in organizing for systemic solutions. Often this takes the form of collaborative policy projects through which leaders learn how to influence policy.

Organizing Skills

The mobilization of communities to address power inequities depends on effective organizing skills. These skills are often developed in the context of a community campaign.  Campaign based leadership development is especially effective working with youth because it offers them a way to understand their own experiences, and take action that changes what's possible for them and others.  When leadership development takes place in a campaign or community context there is also increased likelihood that participants will sustain collaborative relationships beyond the specific leadership development activity. 

Approaches that create access to resources and power for people of color from low-income communities

Mentoring is a strongly endorsed practice for helping people of color from low-income communities to gain increased access and success in leadership positions. This strategy is often underutilized in leadership programs. To use this strategy effectively, programs need to be intentional about focusing on mentoring as a two-way relationship, in which both partners need support to understand and engage effectively with each other.


Internships offer important opportunities for skill-building and relationship development that can open doors for job opportunities with potential for leadership development. The ability of people from low-income communities to access internships often depends on compensating their participation.   

Leadership Development Pathways

Leadership programs can provide pathways to leadership for those who have been denied access to education. Programs that offer opportunities to progress through a number of leadership stages are more responsive to developmental needs because they enable people to master leadership learning before moving to the next level.  For instance, one youth leadership development program begins with the “Activist as Learner “and progresses to “Activist as Trainer” and “Activist as Facilitator for Leadership Development.” 


Access to strengthened and expanded networks is particularly important to people who have been marginalized and cut off from mainstream networks that wield power and opportunity.  In addition to expanding personal and professional leadership networks, some programs nurture networks within communities.  An exemplary model of a networked approach to community-building is offered by Lawrence CommunityWorks.  They have identified core elements for successful networked approaches to community-building.

  • Have fun first. Community building does not start in meetings, it starts with eating and talking and creating opportunities for people to build relationships.

  • De-emphasize positional leadership. Groups form in informal, provisional and flexible ways and leaders often change.

  • Keep networks open and accessible to new people. People come and go so it is important to use facilitation techniques that enable the community to hold on to institutional memory while welcoming new voices.

  • Identify and support network weavers. Since the value of networks depends on connections, there is no more valuable role than helping others to form and find those connections.

  • Build a network environment that is information rich. Networks are most valuable when members have access to good, timely information, and see themselves as “transmission nodes”

  • Create environments that foster peer-to-peer connections. Build in informal time at meetings, design spaces that encourage intimacy and “comfortability”, and encourage people to have doorstep level connections.

  • Offer many choices about how to be engaged. Having many small, short-term activities that resonate with members that they can choose to get involved with increases participation.

  • Listen to the network. Find out what people in the network think is valuable, what they are doing with their time and energy.
  • Track network activity. Keep track of what people in the network are doing in order to “wield aggregate power” or leverage the collective impact of small actions.

Compensating Participation
Paying people from low-income communities to be at the table, join the conversation, and help shape the agenda in ways that are relevant to their communities is one approach that addresses the financial limitations that keep people of low income from participating in meetings.  Planned Parenthood has used this strategy to bring young women community activists together with clinic staff to develop programs and strategies that are informed by those working closest to the ground.  Another approach is providing scholarships to encourage participation. The Chicana/Latina Foundation provides scholarship recipients with an opportunity to become part of a fellowship program that seeks to provide them with insights into their strengths and promote new relationships.

Providing access to small amounts of money to support new ideas or prototypes that experiment with new ways of organizing or developing leadership is a way to incubate innovative solutions, and seed potential collaborative partnerships.  Encouraging collaborations and partnerships across boundaries accelerates the potential for mini-grant impact.

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