Are we honest in our expectations for leaders of color?

This article was written by MCN executive director Nonoko Sato and originally published in the Spring 2022 issue of Nonprofit News: Centering Equity. Read the full issue.

This isn’t another article (only) about racism. It’s an invitation to join me on this complicated journey, and I hope you accept. There is a reason to celebrate when nonprofit leaders of color are appointed to top positions. After all, according to Minnesota Compass, 93 percent of nonprofit CEOs identify as white. Increased representation of people of color should be a good step forward, and it is, so long as the organization is set up for leaders of color to succeed.

Stop and truly ask yourself, are we? 

Are we as nonprofits honest in our expectations for leaders of color, expectations that are often times unrealistic and unattainable for any leader?

How are we taking responsibility for putting these leaders on a precarious pedestal without an appropriate foundation in place to ensure their successes?

Many leaders of color, especially in predominately white institutions (PWI), myself included, have been on the receiving end of community expectations to be “different” than our white predecessors.

We are supposed to be bold, brave, and single-handedly solve all systemic inequities while we navigate systems that are already set up for us to fail.

And if we fail, we also fail the leaders who follow us with a stain perceived as ‘people of (fill in a marginalized identity here) are not able to do this work.’ Let me also say that this article cannot cover the fight to dismantle barriers to even be considered for top leadership roles. That’s a long article for another time.

Board members hiring new leaders need to be reminded that leaders of color do not have a magic wand to turn your institutionally racist organization, not racist anymore. We actually have a complicated and challenging job that’s not (just) about leading DEI trainings, talking about race, mentoring and speaking on behalf of other leaders of color, holding white folks accountable, making statements when another Black person is killed at the hands of police, or participating in an otherwise all-white panel. Not surprisingly, I have yet to see a job description that includes all this additional labor as a part of their actual responsibility we are paid to do.

We should stop equating the term ‘diverse’ with race and ethnicity alone, but rather question and define diversity in the context of the communities you want to see represented.

We should never assume how another person identifies, rather give them a chance to self-identify and respect their freedom to be who they are.

We want nonprofit leadership and staff to reflect the communities we serve. While I use the term ‘leaders of color’ often in this article, we can easily replace that title with ‘leader from another marginalized community’ because we need to remind ourselves that identities are broad and intersectional, and one person alone cannot represent everyone else with their shared identity. I can only speak from my own truth and experience being an Asian woman in a position of leadership.

If you are in a position of privilege in whatever form, use that privilege to uplift people who are being discriminated and do the work yourself before hiring a person underrepresented in your organization with unfair expectations. Lastly, give grace and room for people to make mistakes and learn from them; there are many ways to ensure accountability.

Just because I am a leader of color doesn’t mean I can speak to all of the challenges that different leaders of color face. I am certainly privileged to be supported by an incredible board comprised of MCN’s key stakeholders, and lead a staff who care deeply about our work toward equity, justice, and shared liberation. Many do not have the support, the grace, and a job with realistic expectations.

We simply cannot afford to lose more leaders of color, whether that be from nonprofit leadership roles or the sector as a whole.

We all have a role to play and I hope you join us in our collective journey and growth to ensure Minnesota nonprofits remain strong and resilient.