By Taij Kumarie Moteelall
I’ve always been an advocate for human rights and especially women’s rights. Yet, as a woman of color, it took me a while to embrace feminism, which felt like it was more for white women. I now recognize that feminism is fundamentally the freedom to make choices that honor our deepest values. This freedom empowers us to choose what is right for us and not fall prey to unrealistic expectations.
The recent release of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, brought up tons of questions for me. Before even reading her book, I joined the bandwagon critiquing her for being 10,000 feet above ground and disconnected from the reality of a critical majority of women, including working class women and women of color. Why wasn’t she focusing on systemic change and instead encouraging women to “fix” themselves? Was she advocating for women leaders to be more like men? To me, Sandberg was simply accepting the existing leadership paradigm rather than advocating for the creation of new paradigms. You name it and I was ready to throw a stone at it!
As I dove into Sandberg’s book, taking in her personal story, I began to lean into her position. I started reflecting on my own journey and viewpoint, and accepting that while we respectfully choose to work with different groups of women – Sandberg primarily with women in corporate America and me with women of color leaders in social justice movements – that we were still working toward a common goal of feminism: the right to choose and pave our own path.
Perhaps where I see the greatest connection is our respective commitments to supporting women to do our own inner work. Sandberg seeks to support women to overcome internal barriers by encouraging them to “lean in” and to provide circles of support for women to do so. My work with women of color* in part focuses on inner work to heal from the pangs of multiple oppressions that seeped through our skin and passed down ancestral lineages to now reside in our bodies, minds, hearts and spirits. Through circles of support at the local and national level, I envision women of color on the frontlines of social justice movements “standing in our power” to generate broad-based social transformation. This seismic shift requires us to engage in our own personal transformation simultaneously with social transformation, and in so doing reimagine and reinvent our culture and institutions while engaging in resistance and reform work.
I choose to view Sandberg’s book as an invitation for me to step up and speak my own truth. So, here is one part of my story that led me to the path I’m on today.
When I became an executive director of a national social justice philanthropy organization in my late-twenties, I had no idea how to balance work and life. Balance was never encouraged or modeled for me. Don’t get me wrong, I had fierce superwomen who surrounded me in both my personal life and professional life. These women were workaholics who shaped my beliefs about work and how my self worth was somehow linked to my success. I plunged in with my own ferocity and believed that the more I worked and the harder I worked, the more results I would see. I saw positive outcomes, and at the same time experienced the drawbacks of me giving my all to essential outer work at the expense of my inner work, including healing from internalized oppression. As a result, I was limited in my ability to build trust and authentic relationships across difference, which I now view as a core element of transformative leadership. I was at once very proud of the superwoman nickname given to me by one of my mentors and struggling to keep up with it.
As more women of color gain leadership positions particularly in multi-racial, multi-gender and cross-class organizations we are expected to continue to use leadership practices that are the “norm”– practices that have often been constructed by white males. Such models are based on individual power at the top, and utilize organizational measures of success that too often ignore the holistic development of constituents, staff and volunteers. As many women of color feminists have advocated, an intersectional approach that validates all identities and seeks to undo all forms of oppressions is required – and it is what works. However, there is a dearth of resources for women of color to take a step back, reflect, hone our vision and engage in transformative leadership development.
A year into my tenure I was burnt out and sick with almost every virus going around. I also alienated some potential allies. It took another six months before I was able to put in place a more balanced way of working for my entire staff, including me. I was blessed to have a staff that readily embraced the notion of self and community care.
I realize that my stint with burnout was not my fault and my way of being was the norm in the non-profit sector in which I chose to work. The desire to “have it all” is so pervasive within a dominant U.S. culture that breeds excessiveness, and leads to unnecessary waste, massive wealth disparity, environmental devastation and more. Even as a social justice activist, I was applying this same belief in excessiveness in my efforts to create a more just, equitable and sustainable world. I can now look back and laugh at a recommendation in one of my evaluations that said I needed to say “no” more often.
As I let go of “having it all,” I am simultaneously embracing the question of “what is enough?” This is more of a practice in how I want to be – content but not complacent – versus something else to do. I am actively working to transform my practice from trying to master or fix systems that simply do not work to co-creating new paradigms built on equality, justice and sustainability. Acknowledging that this cannot be done alone, I choose to do this work as part of a dynamic community of women of color.
Launched in 2011, Standing in Our Power (SiOP) now has both national and local programming. SiOP is an intergenerational network of women of color leaders that seeks to develop leadership models that can transform society as a whole. Inclusive and collective in nature, SiOP amplifies the voices and perspectives of women of color, and identifies the skills, strategies and solutions that women of color leaders utilize. By initiating and modeling social change from within the third sector, SiOP will inspire cultural and structural shifts to transform the rest of our country’s systems and institutions.
As I continue my journey with both my “to do” list and my “to be” list, I have a community to hold me accountable. SiOP is a network with several communities of practice, coaching, national retreats, local/regional gatherings, workshops/trainings and more. We recognize that one woman alone cannot change the structure. But she can change herself, and then organize other women to collectively change the structure. We are merging inner and outer work to foster personal and social transformation.
While our end goals may be different, Sandberg and I are both on a path to empowering women to create change from the inside out. I appreciate that she recognizes the need for systemic change, and respect that she has chosen to focus on personal change as a pathway to liberation. I hope Sandberg will keep in mind that no woman will be fully liberated until those who are most marginalized and oppressed in society are also liberated. As the movement she is building grows and more women “lean in,” and as my work grows and more women are “standing in our power,” I also hope to see cross class, cross gender and sexual orientation, cross sector, and cross race collaborations that allow us to collectively reinvent cultures, institutions and the world.
Sandberg’s book is opening doors for me to step in and share my own story and vision. Rather than throwing stones, as a proud woman of color feminist I choose to lean in and stand in my power.