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May 18, 2020

Shared Leadership Lessons in a Pandemic

Co-Authored by Co-Directors Monica Dennis and Priscilla Hung

As a small and nimble team for all of its ten-year history, Move to End Violence has never had an elaborate hierarchical structure. But it was still a big shift when we decided to move to a co-directorship two years ago, especially one helmed by a cross-race co-directorship of women of color. With this shift came a commitment to shared leadership throughout the organization, an approach that applies frameworks that are feminist and liberatory. This means interrupting survival habits and focusing on transformative practices, interrogating how white supremacy shows up in our movements, and creating organizational cultures that center Black and Indigenous women and gender non-conforming folks.

These times of global pandemic have brought the value of this partnership into sharp relief. Executive Directors and other nonprofit leaders have come to us feeling overwhelmed and burdened by what Maura Bairley calls “the paradox of productivity in a pandemic”. Most of the leaders we work with are rooted in communities that are among the most vulnerable and marginalized. They are feeling immense pressure to perform while also needing greater flexibility and care for themselves and their teams. We at MEV are not immune from the same pressures and tensions, but our co-directorship has made it more possible for us to show up grounded in this crisis.

Co-Directorship isn’t a solution that every organization can implement, but shared leadership is. Here are some of the things we’re learning about its value in these times:

  • It provides space for people to step away. Many of us are dealing with suddenly homeschooling, family members losing income, health crises, and other instabilities. Even when there is agreement that family and health are more important than anything else, it can feel extremely difficult to step away to tend to them because of the risk of falling behind on work or the perception that we are not doing our jobs. Shared leadership allows people to take care of what is most important and trusts that stepping away is not a judgement of their ability to do the work or their commitment to it. Shared leadership means that if there is an essential task that must get done, the team can collectively craft a solution for how to attend to it and that things that are not essential can be let go.
  • It allows us to stay in it for the long haul. We mention above allowing people to step away to deal with extraordinary circumstances, but we also need to create room for people to get more rest and allow for more spaciousness. Let’s be clear – taking a day off to accompany your mom to the doctor is not the same thing as taking time off to restore and recharge. Our bodies are working double time to deal with stress, anxiety, loneliness, fear, anger, and all the other emotions we are experiencing due to the pandemic and our country’s response to it. Spaciousness is also directly linked to strategic and creative thinking. If we are to understand the strategic opportunities ahead of us and be ready to leverage them, spaciousness and rest are a requirement. Shared leadership creates conditions where vulnerability is welcomed and listened to and where people are authorized to name what they need, which might mean lighter workloads, shorter working hours, or time off.
  • It means we can better respond to what is needed. In times of uncertainty, it can be difficult to discern between what is urgent and what is important, and it’s easy to fall into the trap of mistakenly believing that everything is urgent. This can be especially seen in our habits when it comes to stress and anxiety. Monica tends to become overly responsible, checking in on all of her people to make sure they are okay and taking it upon herself to get them what they need. Priscilla tends toward tunnel vision and getting overly fixated on the things she can individually control regardless of their importance. Separately, this would lead Monica on a path to burn-out and Priscilla to miss what is most needed in this moment. Together, we have a better chance of identifying and disrupting these habits and can instead focus on setting a more sustainable pace and working on a shared set of priorities.
  • It deepens our understanding of differential impact. One key lesson from our racial equity work is that even though we are all harmed by imperial white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy, the impacts of that harm are disproportionately borne by women, girls, and femmes of color. Shared leadership supports us in sharing from our diverse lived experiences and in paying attention to how communities are being impacted differently. It allows us to take seriously the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes and the fact that African Americans and Native Americans are being infected and dying from coronavirus at outsize rates.  
  • It builds in critical affirmation and feedback loops. None of us have ever been in a global pandemic before. Many of the things we are trying are for the first time and it’s easy to second guess yourself when you’re making decisions that are untested in this context. How can we be more responsive to our community and reduce barriers to resources while also allowing for more spaciousness on our team? How do we quickly create rapid response tools while also being deeply thoughtful about language justice and disability justice, knowing that those things take time? How do we build beloved community when we cannot be together in-person? None of us have all the answers, but we do have shared leadership. That means work is more collaborative, people have the opportunity to weigh in on relevant decisions, and we have an intentional gratitude and feedback practice.

These are the ways we will survive this pandemic. By people being authorized and supported to care for ourselves, our families, and our communities. By allowing people to rest, heal, and be vulnerable. And by creating cultures of collaboration, storytelling, and solidarity. These are also the same ways that our organizations and movements will thrive.

Deep thanks to the many movement leaders that Move to End Violence has learned from and whose wisdom has informed our approach to leadership, especially Maura Bairley, Norma Wong, Rachael Ibrahim, Heidi Maria Lopez, Ana Perez, Trina Greene Brown, Viveka Chen, and Diana Marie Lee.

Resource List

Here are some of the resources we use to support us in practicing what we’ve shared:

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