3 Keys to Thriving for Women of Color Leaders

  • February 16, 2021

On January 20, 2021, U.S. Vice-President Elect Kamala Harris was sworn into office by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. Jennifer Lopez sang "this land was made for you and me" in English and quoted the pledge of allegiance in Spanish. National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman cast starlight upon the inaugural stage while reciting her poetic masterpiece. She reminded viewers, “history has its eyes on us.” 

This scene at the presidential inauguration offers a peek into the future, where Black, Latina, and all women of color are not only leading but thriving in their leadership. I believe that women of color can exponentially increase our impact on the world when we are thriving in the fight, not merely surviving. When we are thriving, we show up as our most brilliant and creative selves, we feel joyful and operate in a state of flow. Have you experienced that feeling? When we thrive, we are unstoppable. In my upcoming book Thriving in the Fight: A Survival Manual for Latinas on the Front Lines of Change, I lay out three keys for Latinas and women of color more broadly to thrive in the fight for social, racial, economic, and political change. The three keys to thriving in the fight are: leading into your vision, living into the fullest version of you, and loving past the negatives that hold you back.

If you are an organizational leader that doesn’t identify as a woman of color but is seeking ways to invest in our leadership development, consider ways you can create space for women of color to lead into our vision, live into the fullest version of ourselves, and love past the negatives that hold us back. If you are a leader who’s Black, Indigenous, or identify as a person of color, it is important for you to remember to set yourself and others up for thriving instead of recreating old patterns that haven’t served you well in the past.  

1. Leading into your vision

Business management expert Peter Drucker says, "whenever anything is being accomplished, it is being done, I have learned, by a monomaniac with a mission." As a manager, executive, or organizational leader, when you spot one of these visionaries, encourage them to lead into their vision. Don't force them into your program. Use your power, authority, and privilege to create space for them to lead into that future vision of the world that they (and you) cannot yet see. Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor wanted to be a judge from a very early age. Jennifer López dreamed of dancing and singing when she was very young. Through grit and determination, Vice President Harris has broken one of the most stubborn glass ceilings in the world, the Vice Presidency of the United States.

Alternatively, when you are a woman of color and are the organizational leader, consider how you are giving yourself permission to lead fully into creating that future version of reality towards which you are driving. For many years before appearing on the inaugural stage, these innovative women were leading into a future vision they had not yet seen. Some people likely stood in their way, yet others encouraged them to follow their dreams. In your organization, work to be that person who encourages emerging women of color to go for it!

2. Living into your fullest self

The second key to thriving in the fight for women of color in the workplace is living into our fullest self. In the corporate and nonprofit world, we pay a great deal of attention to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Yet, very few leaders are challenging themselves to create conditions in which women of color are not just included but are set up to thrive. Instead, most organizations focus on how to get more people of color to conform to the dominant culture. Conformity mutes the many different experiences that we can bring to the table to improve the organizational culture, leading to a greater diversity of thought and significant impact.  

As women of color, when we show up as our fullest selves, that authenticity is irresistible. If Amanda Gorman had shown up to work in your organization with her red Prada headband, bright yellow coat, jeweled cornrows, and majestic air, would her uniqueness have been celebrated? Would she have been told to 'tone it down?' Gorman showed up as the fullest version of herself while the whole world watched. In contrast to Gorman's supernova performance, often Black and brown women show up as smaller versions of ourselves in spaces that were not designed for us. Corporate board rooms, cold, echoing public buildings, and universities can feel like uninviting places.

Like Gorman, I attended Harvard University starting at age 17. It was clear that Harvard was not made for me. I attended public school, not an elite private boarding school. When fellow students would use phrases like 'paradigm shifts,' I wondered what in the world they were talking about. My experiences at Harvard laid bare the vast chasm between the 'haves' and the 'have nots.' Since graduation, I have committed to fighting for social justice with people like my abuelas and my tias. Along the way, I experienced many victories. Yet, I also came upon roadblocks to success. That is one of the main reasons I am squarely focused on encouraging fellow women of color to lead into their fullest selves regardless of the setting. There are too few Latinas and Black women in leadership. When we do have the mic, we need to say what we need to say clearly and loudly so that our voices are heard. For every Latina in formal leadership positions, innumerable others practice our deeply ingrained cultural norms of serving humbly from behind the scenes without any expectation of being noticed.

3. Love past negatives that hold you back

The third key to thriving for women of color is to love past the negatives that hold you back. Maya Angelou says, "You can only become truly accomplished at something you love. Don't make money your goal. Instead, pursue the things you love doing and then do them so well that people can't take their eyes off of you." Everyone faces challenges that we're called to overcome. We experience negative situations, negative voices, and the voice inside our heads saying 'can't,' when we desperately want 'can.' Part of the reason that Poet Laureate Gorman focused on poetry in the first place is because, as a child, she had a spoken communication challenge. Her teachers encouraged her to write, and she became a master of poetry. Until not long ago, she had trouble pronouncing the "r" sound. Nevertheless, she persisted. She practiced and practiced, even using the song Aaron Burr, Sir from Lin Manuel Miranda’s smash Broadway hit Hamilton.

As a result of the twin epidemics of the COVID-19 global pandemic and a worldwide racial reckoning fueled by emerging Black Lives Matter activists, organizational leaders are confronting how each of us is complicit in upholding the status quo patterns of white supremacy. Imagine how our organizations would change if everyone felt free to bring their full creativity and brilliance to solving the problems we face. I invite us all to consider ways to go beyond diversity, equity, and inclusion to create the kind of spaces where women can not only survive but truly thrive. Because when we create systems and structures where women of color thrive, everyone thrives!

Denise Padín Collazo is a leader in social justice, a mentor to fellow women of color, and a family work integrator. She is Senior Advisor for External Affairs at Faith in Action national network, the country’s largest progressive faith network engaging 3,000 faith institutions and 2 million members. Her book entitled Thriving in the Fight: A Survival Manual for Latinas on the Front Lines of Change is available for pre-order and will launch on Tuesday, February 25, 2021. You can learn more about her by visiting her website DeniseCollazo.com

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