Home News Center Anti-Racism Resource: Why Supporting Leaders of Color is Necessary to Youth Justice Movement Building

Anti-Racism Resource: Why Supporting Leaders of Color is Necessary to Youth Justice Movement Building

November 29, 2022
Samantha Cohen and Courtney M. McSwain

Last month in NJJN’s Anti-Racism Resource series, we discussed the importance of power building for youth justice transformation. Power building involves ensuring communities directly impacted by the systems we seek to change are directly involved in the strategic direction of our movement. To build power, we must intentionally build leadership, especially within directly impacted communities, in order to create a sustainable movement that addresses the deep cultural shifts needed to address and dismantle the root causes of injustice within the youth legal system - namely structural racism and white supremacy. Doing this work requires our commitment to modeling the racial equity we seek, by investing in leaders of color to hold power within youth justice advocacy organizations, cultivating an environment where leaders of color feel comfortable, and investing in the resources necessary for leaders of color to excel. 

As patriarchy and racism strongly influence who is seen as being a good leader, Black, Brown, Indigenous and other leaders of color have been historically excluded from leadership roles and positions. Many people of color experience unique challenges within their leadership positions; they often struggle with imposter syndrome, microaggressions from white peers, and feelings of anxiety about their status. They are seen as ‘tokens’ and valued solely for their race as opposed to the assets they bring to their roles. Further, despite evidence showing the leadership of Black, Brown, Indigenous and other leaders of color creates authenticity and trust with communities impacted by racial injustice that makes advocacy organizations more effective in their work, this proximate leadership is not justly valued by workplaces operating under white dominant cultural norms. Ensuring leaders of color receive just investment and support to take the lead within the youth justice movement is one of the key reasons NJJN’s Youth Justice Leadership Institute was created, and why we - as a youth justice community - must double down on our commitment to empowering leaders of color throughout our advocacy efforts.  

Below, we outline a few resources to help our members, allies and national partners begin the critical work of analyzing internal power dynamics to ensure leaders of color are cultivated, promoted and supported to succeed.

Resources to Explore: 

What Everyone Can Learn From Leaders of Color,” by Darren Isom, Cora Daniels & Britt Savage. Stanford Social Innovation Review, June 28, 2022. Accessed on November 29, 2022.

This article highlights the different ways that leadership and personal identity are intertwined and how an individual's experience as a person of color shapes how they approach leadership. Misconceptions and misinformation have devalued the leadership potential of Black, Brown, Indigenous and other leaders of color; however, there are many areas that leaders of color excel at specifically due to their racial identity. The article follows Hector Ramon Salazar, a Bay Area native that has exhibited significant leadership skills while being involved in multiple different organizations across the country including YMCA, City Year and Boys & Girls Clubs of America. Salazar currently holds a leadership position at Reading Partners. As a first-generation Venezuelan American, he details the way that his heritage has shaped how he leads and his passion for helping underserved communities.  

Lessons on Leadership and Community from 25 Leaders of Color,” by Darren Isom, Cora Daniels, and Britt Savage. Harvard Business Review, September 15, 2022. Accessed November 8, 2022.

This review emphasizes the many lessons that leaders of color can teach about community and leadership. The authors spoke with twenty-five different leaders of color across the social sector who brought their own perspectives from their work in the field. They describe how familiarity bias can negatively impact an organization's ability to recognize the unique perspective that leaders of color have to offer. It stresses the importance of organizations valuing proximity by having leaders who come from the same culture and communities that they are serving. Leaders of color have skills that manifest differently due to their cultural background and experience and often learn early in life how to navigate within different communities which can be an asset they can bring with them into their leadership roles.

Leaders of Color at the Forefront of the Nonprofit Sectors Challenges,” by Cyndi Suarez. Nonprofit Quarterly, February 3, 2022. Accessed November 8, 2022. 

This article is a spin-off of another article written by Dax-Devlon Ross for NPQ titled, “Generational Differences in Racial Equity Work.” This article further explores the different challenges for leaders of color in the nonprofit sector. It discusses how it is generally more difficult and takes longer for people of color to be put in a leadership role. It also discusses how more is expected from people of color than their white colleagues solely due to their race, they are also expected to make certain changes that they often do not have the power to make. There is currently a trend of leaders of color being put in new positions in order to address equity and justice issues without providing them the resources they need to succeed in their positions. Positional power and age often overlap which can also present itself as an issue due to the fact that people of color have historically been overlooked for leadership positions. People of color are frequently placed in new positions of leadership where they are faced with the task of cleaning up messes within their organization that’s been left by their predecessors.

Leadership and Race: How to Develop and Support Leadership that Continues to Racial Justice.” Leadership Learning Community, July 2010. Accessed November 8, 2022.

This report is a part of a collaborative series on leadership by the Leadership Learning Community. This initiative promotes an approach to leadership that centers inclusivity and effective collaboration. It aims to make known the importance of racial justice training being incorporated into all leadership development strategies. Who is chosen for leadership roles within an organization often prevail patterns of racial inequity. This report explains how vital it is for organizations to examine and update their approach to leadership in a way that reflects the changes they are aiming to make. There is value in the directors and board members of an organization reflecting the general population of those being served. It is also important for leadership development programs to account for structural racism and teach prospective leaders of color different skills to excel in their roles and it is even more important to adequately fund these programs.  

Race to Lead: Confronting the Nonprofit Racial Leadership Gap. Building Movement Project, 2017. Accessed November 8, 2022.

This report features key data findings about the racial leadership gap. One major key finding was that while people of color and white people are both frustrated by their workloads, alarming rates of people of color reported being significantly more frustrated because they are seen as representing an entire community within their role. Another key finding shows that even though more white people are in leadership positions, there are more similarities than differences in educational backgrounds of people of color and white people within the nonprofit sector- they also have similar work experience as well. People of color also lack the funds and fundraising resources in comparison to their white counterparts. The lack of Black, Brown, Indigenous and other leaders of color in the nonprofit sector is a structural problem and in order for organizations to increase the number of leaders of color, the nonprofit sector needs to evaluate the practices and biases of their own leaders. 

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