I have been waiting to speak on a personal experience I went through last year as I have wanted to take the time to process what happened. My first ever experience attending SPHINX Connect 2024 this past week gave me a moment to revisit this experience in a way in which I am now ready to share it with others.
Beginning in late 2022, a board member from a local music non-profit in Seattle, Washington approached me to inform me that they were beginning the search for their new Executive Director, and they encouraged me to apply for the position. Before this point, while I had completed various arts leadership and non-profit management and administration programs and had experience, I had never had an executive position. This was the path that I felt as if I was being called towards, but I did not imagine the opportunity would come this soon within my career. I told them I would consider it.
The first half of 2023 was one of the most challenging times of my life physically, mentally, and spiritually. Everything that I thought felt secure, I was now doubtful of. For months, I was going through the motions of life without being present and feeling directionless. With the help and support of the people in my life, I was able to regain my sense of self and begin to reimagine what my purpose was.
As I was taking the time to think on what I wanted my life to be, the board member from the non-profit encouraged me again to apply for the position of Executive Director. At that moment, nothing seemed sure, and I saw this as an opportunity that could lead me down the path that I wanted for myself. So, I applied for the position of Executive Director, and it was offered to me.
This was an organization with only a recent history of including artists of color within their programming and with a predominantly white staff and board. I immediately wanted to know why they were interested in me for the position of Executive Director after no history of hiring and retaining Black women within their organization. During the interview process, they mentioned that they were aware of my experience with Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) in the arts and this was the lens that they wanted to take on.
I was very aware of the trends of white-led institutions seeking to diversify their programming and staffing due to the nationwide call-out of systemic inequities in 2020 following the murder of George Floyd. Suddenly, organizations who were exclusively and intentionally programing straight, white men of mainly European descent with staff that were generally 90+% white staffed and governed had #BlackLivesMatter on every piece of marketing material they could find. And with that, leaders of color were being placed into executive positions that no other person of color has ever existed within.
Being a Black woman brings forth a unique perspective and existence within the world as I feel the weight of intersectionality of race and gender. Before 2020, sometimes I would see Black executives or women executives, but rarely did I see a Black woman executive. All of a sudden, Black women are being asked to lead organizations with no history of equitable hiring practices or resources to support staff and board members from diverse backgrounds and it is now many Black women’s jobs to fix a system that we ourselves have not broken but rather are feeling and living the injustices of.
I was in this exact situation with the non-profit in which I now found myself at the helm of. It was my job to lead the charge of change that would make this organization equitable, accessible, and inclusive for all members of our community. As with any position, I first took time to understand the current processes and procedures of the organization. In addition to an Executive Director change, the organization was also going through a rebranding from founder-led to board-driven which is substantial within itself. I was now not only learning what was but also what will be. I saw this as a wonderful opportunity to use this momentum to push forward with changes to make the organization as a whole more equitable and therefore sustainable.
I began the position on July 1st of 2023 and the transition process from the past Executive Director was prolonged due to the past Executive Director not wanting to fully let go of their control within the organization. This was something that the other staff and board members were aware of, yet I was the one who had to deal with the inefficiency this lengthy transition caused. Due to the organization’s lack of preparation of a full transition, I was constantly having to ask and wait for access and materials to do my job. This caused lots of stress for the organization as well as personally for me within my first position as an executive. I did not feel fully empowered to lead the organization in this state.
Finally, around September I felt as if I was gaining a sense of foundation within the organization where I could effectively lead us into the direction that we wanted to go. From my interview process, I was constantly assured that the organization was fully aware of the necessary changes that needed to be made for not only the good of the community but the survival of the organization. With the board, conversations were happening of where we needed to go and how we were planning to do this. With my staff, we were dreaming about ways in which we would be implementing these changes.
Also, within September of 2023, I was made aware of the urgent financial state of the organization that was due to the lack of transparency within the last leadership. So now, within the first 3 months of me taking on this position, I am dealing with a financial crisis that I was not told of before accepting the position. This is an unideal situation for anyone to be in, but to be a Black woman at the head of a predominantly white organization and having the responsibility to save it from financial ruin within my first few months of beginning was not what I was prepared to handle.
As I was now engaged in this role, I made the decision that while I could acknowledge that it was the past leaderships’ responsibility for not keeping the organization financially sustainable, I was now in the position to shift things in a positive direction. So, I chose to lean in and put my full effort into reshaping the organization in a way that would assure its survival.
Quickly, as the fear of financial ruin seemed more possible and even likely, there were members of the organization who began to overstep into my position to the point where I was being told how to lead the organization or rather how to not lead it. There was a particular board member who happened to be a straight white male who was constantly engaging with me as if I were under him. I made this known many times to our board president who I had been developing a rather effective relationship with and they had assured me that they would speak to this board member about the situation. Despite my efforts to make this situation known, this board member continued to overstep into my responsibilities as Executive Director to the point where others saw him as the authority figure, and he expected me to answer to him.
This urgent financial situation caused an imbalance of power and a more inequitable processing structure to arise to the point that I was no longer able to effectively do the work that needed to be done within the organization. Very quickly, my relationship with the board president deteriorated due to their own personal frustrations that they were taking out on me and lacking their own empowerment within their role. The situation began to grow very tense and, in some situations, quite hostile to the point where I decided to leave the organization formally on November 20th, 2023. Not only was my quality of work being questioned and doubted, but I was being openly challenged and berated by this board president within meetings to the point that other board members reached out to me privately to ask about what was going on and if I was ok.
There have been countless situations where Black women are brought into institutions that have no history of equitable structures and practices with the assurance that the organization is wanting to move in a more equitable direction but rather, they are met with resistance from all sides only to come to the realization that they were there to be seen but not heard or listened to. Black women have been leaving these positions with more trauma than they entered with and having to question themselves and their purpose. Black women have taken their own lives due to the trauma and pressures of being a Black woman leader in institutions that have no desire or knowledge of how to support them.
I am proud to be here, alive, and with a greater sense of understanding of what my purpose is and what communities I want to serve. Never again will I subject myself to the harmful and damaging systems and organizations that want to use me for their own gain with no intention of pouring into me. In a lot of ways, the situation helped me realign to what my greater purpose is, but the fact that this happened was the fault of this organization and their unwillingness to change.
As Malcom X said:
“The most disrespected person in America is the Black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the Black woman. The most neglected person in America is the Black woman.”
Black women, I feel you. I share with you the experiences that many of us have had to face, and I am proud that despite it all, we still rise.