Leadership Development for Emerging Leaders of Color

Why are leadership programs designed for people of color important? Leadership development programs have been around for decades. So, why is focusing on leadership programs, specifically for people of color important? How does dedicating your work ensure that emerging leaders of color have the opportunity to learn and grow professionally, build deep relationships with peers and become the next generation of leaders in the non-profit sector. Join us in this episode and let’s find out.

Cynthia Rojas 0:03
Hi, everyone. Leadership development programs have been around for decades, so why is focusing on leadership programs, specifically for people of color, important? Our guest is dedicating her work to ensure that emerging leaders of color have the opportunity to learn and grow professionally, build deep relationships with peers, and become the next generation of leaders in the non-profit sector.

CTMM Jingle 0:38

Cynthia Rojas 1:02
Hi, everyone. Welcome to Coffee Time with masterminds, a 30-minute conversation with mission-based organizations. I am Cynthia Rojas, and I want to welcome listeners in the U.S, and Australia, where were being podcasted, and all over the globe. While you’re here, introduce yourself and where you’re from in the comments. Our guest, Jackie Downing, director of grant-making and non-profit support at the Community Foundation of Greater New Haven, realized this gap in the leadership development program and has developed a program that is focused specifically on emerging leaders of color. Today, we will talk about why this is important, and what she is learning in the process. I would like to introduce my co-host, and guest, Pieta Blakely and Jackie Downing.

Pieta Blakely 2:03
Good morning.

Cynthia Rojas 2:04
Good morning, everyone. How are you, Jackie?

Jackie Downing 2:06
Doing well today. How about you, Cynthia?

Cynthia Rojas 2:10
I’m good. How are you, Pieta?

Pieta Blakely 2:12
Good, thanks. Good to see you.

Cynthia Rojas 2:13
Same here. I’m so excited, this is my favorite topic. I am specifically excited about this episode because Jackie and I, have worked together on this program. I have to tell you, it’s been a powerful experience, so sharing it with everybody is something I’ve been looking forward to. Leadership, today, all right. Jackie, in my intro, I talked about how leadership development programs have been around. As long as I think, we’ve recognized that there are traits and characteristics that are needed in leaders, and skills. There’s a gap, but you, have identified that gap, you, and the Community Foundation of Greater New Haven. I’m interested in hearing your journey on why you felt a leadership program, specifically, for emerging leaders of color was instrumental, especially this time in our history.

Jackie Downing 3:20
Thank you, Cynthia. At the Community Foundation, we started an initiative, just before the pandemic. An inclusive growth to make sure that there was an equitable growth in our economy, in the Greater New Haven Community. We wanted to create an opportunity for all. And then, the pandemic hit, so growth was not really in the plan, at that point in time. It was really sort of a let’s sustain this community and get through, but still keeping in mind that opportunity and equity for all.

And my interpretation of my role in that was to take a look at the non-profit itself, not necessarily the for-profit sector that we were encouraging growth in. But the non-profit sector, and how did that relate to opportunity for all. Now, there’s a lot of leadership programs, as you mentioned, but there are a lot of leadership programs. There is, how do I be a leader in the community. How do I be a community organizer. How do I get on boards and become influential, that way. Our program is specifically about, how do I become the CEO of a non-profit organization. And that’s where we saw the skill gap, and the training gap that might be missing. Do you have a follow-up?

Cynthia Rojas 4:45
No, I was going to say, I love that. This idea of a CEO of a non-profit. You’re right, I’ve not heard of leadership programs that claim that. So, I love it.

Jackie Downing 4:58
Ours is very specific. This is not to make you a better leader, or how to start your own non-profit. This is how to get the big chair of an established non-profit. All the baby boomers are retiring, and it is accelerated now. We’ve got a great resignation that we didn’t really anticipate, but here it is. We knew that there would be a leadership change, and we wanted to make sure there was an opportunity for people of color to be able to have the confidence, skills, and network to take over those big chairs.

Pieta Blakely 5:36
So, some people are going to ask, how did the white men learn how to be Executive Directors. Or, maybe more like, white women, how did white women learn to be Executive Directors. And why doesn’t that just work for leaders of color?

Jackie Downing 5:55
Perhaps, that could have been in some cases that families who were putting their white children through school had the opportunity to support them. So, they could take unpaid internships, and lower-paying jobs while they’re going through school, in order to volunteer places and gather the skills that they needed. Whereas, perhaps, some people of color may need to work more to put themselves through school. Who didn’t have those opportunities, didn’t have the family wealth to be able to support them to do that.

So, there may have been a gap that was created in that case. There may have also been the old network. You know, if I’m the Executive Director and a friend of mine that I went through school with, wants to bring their child to learn more, well, I’m going to give them a break. And there may not have been the network created for people to have those opportunities, where they had a foot in the door from a relationship with a parent, or themselves, being able to get it to a non-profit. So, I think, that’s maybe where some of the gap came in.

Cynthia Rojas 7:00
Yeah. I’ll tell you a really interesting story. The very beginning of leadership theory, believed that leaders were born, and they were born out of great white men. It’s actually called, the Great Man Theory. So, leaders came to us like heroes. And then, we went into traits. There are specific traits and there are specific characteristics. It wasn’t until probably, 40 years, 50 years into the industry that somebody said, wait a minute, we can learn this. You’re not just born a leader. So now, we’re looking at leadership as a process versus a person. So, the industry has definitely evolved, but back in the day, Pieta, we didn’t need programs because they were born.

Jackie Downing 8:10
I’m going to push back, along that because I think, some of it is inherent; some of it is born in you. I think, people of color are born as leaders, in addition to white men. Women are born as leaders; in addition, it’s the opportunity for all. If you open the space and you allow a leader to be a leader, and give them the confidence to step up, then they are there. They’re going to use their inherent skills, and if you could supplement those with programs, like the one we do with all the leadership opportunities that are out there. And it gives them all that much more advantage.

Cynthia Rojas 8:49
Yeah. What makes this program focus more on people of color. What is it about the program that makes it unique?

Jackie Downing 9:04
I think it’s the opportunity. The benefit, I think, of making it uniquely for people of color is the safe space that it creates. It brings people in, who have lived, experienced the same basis of lived, experienced of what may have been the lens that they can look through life on. Gandhi said, “be the change you wish to see in the world.” This is giving them the opportunity, but it’s giving it to them through their own lens of their own experience.

Whereas, if you were in a group of mixed-races, somehow, it defaults to white culture. We didn’t want that to happen. We wanted that they’d be able to acknowledge that there is a difference in the way that people are treated, in the way that paths are taken. This allows them to have a safe space to talk through that, but it doesn’t compromise on the fact that we need to move forward, and acknowledge that. And gain the practical skills that you need to read, be in that big chair. So, it’s sort of taking in both worlds and seeing how you can create that bridge, and the reflection time that we built into the program, which Cynthia, I think was your brain child. The reflection time is critical for these folks to be able to process what they’re learning and what it means to them personally, professionally, and organizationally. They’re looking at it in three levels.

Cynthia Rojas 10:47
Yeah. So, there is, which is something I haven’t experienced in the past, but a very intentional reflection time, and we use that space to talk about what we’ve learned, either that day, or have learned. How can we apply it, or what have been the obstacles that we have faced in this space, as a result of being part of a marginalized group of individuals. So, that reflection has become a really powerful part of the program, and I think, for year two, we have expanded that part. So that, there’s actually more time for reflection because we also get to talk about, well, this is great, but what does this mean when you’re a person of color and you walk into a room and you automatically become invisible. Thank you for teaching me all of this, but the world makes me invisible. And we get to have that conversation in a great safe space.

Jackie Downing 11:56
Yeah, I think that is so important.

Pieta Blakely 12:00
What has been the appetite from organizations and employers in the not-for-profit space for attracting these leaders. I think, one of the other things that happened during the era of covid was a renewed interest in racial equity, and something about a crisis in diversity in the leadership of not-for-profits. So, do you have organizations calling you saying, we need help with our pipeline?

Jackie Downing 12:30
All the time. Organizations are hyper-aware that their leadership needs to reflect the constituency that they serve or that their leadership needs to reflect the general population of our community. Even if they’re not serving a primarily, black and brown community. They understand that there are folks within this community that are people of color, and their leadership needs to reflect that. So, I’m hearing it constantly, as far as board members go. Many are looking for board members.

We do a lot of research into that, and many of our boards are quite diverse. Looking at our last round of grant-making, there were, I believe, 60 percent of our organizations had more than 30 percent people of color on their board, already. There were people of color who were leading the board, so we were pleased to see that some work has been done; and most are on their journey. We ask specific questions about what work they’re doing in diversity equity inclusion, and belonging on the application. Most of them are doing, I would say, all but one, of the organizations. It was a black-led, and black-run organization is doing a specific work in that realm with their board and with their staff, and with how they deal with the community.

Cynthia Rojas 14:00
That’s awesome. I have a question that I left on my mind. That’s been my mantra, I keep forgetting because I stopped writing down my questions. Another unique thing about this program, which I love is that the presenters, almost all of them, are people of color, themselves. What I have seen, I could not have predicted this like, people’s eyes open in a very different way because they can now see themselves in the front of the room, one day.

So, we have a list of amazing presenters and because there are people of color that also dealt with barriers, they come in, already with having that lens. So, we’ve had many of them come in and say, you know what, we don’t have a PowerPoint. We don’t have the eight steps to success; why don’t we have a conversation. And that just becomes powerful; it becomes powerful. So, that worked really well, and that is unique to this program because it’s very intentional.

Jackie Downing 15:17
Yeah. Cynthia, I’d like to explain that a little bit because you gave me credit at the beginning of this, for creating this program. Certainly, I was part of the leadership, and the foundation was the driving force behind saying, let’s do a program, figure it out. But I had a colleague, on-staff here at the foundation, Kara Strawn. Who was a woman of color, a black woman who helped develop a program. Then, we turned to nine different Executive Directors, who are people of color from our community. And said, if you had a program when you were coming up, what would it have done for you.

How would it be structured. How would it work. So, they helped us create what the program would look like. They were also the selection panel of choosing the candidate who would participate in the program. And then, as you’ve said, the presenters are primarily people of color. So that we can show that there are experts in the community, and again, create a network. So now, these people have the opportunity to call an expert, or email an expert, and reach out because they already have a relationship with them.

Cynthia Rojas 16:27
Yeah, you’re right. We have to mention, UConn is a partner in this effort, and has developed the curriculum, which is amazing. What are your learnings, Jackie, on this journey. I mean, you’ve been down this road. You set up a lot of programming for the foundation. What are your learnings, specifically about this journey?

Jackie Downing 17:00
Thank you for that, because I’ve had to think a little bit. It gives me time to reflect on this. Learning that you need to provide that space for reflection because there are times that folks need that time to process and to digest and be able to follow-up with others to get their personal feelings out, even though, this is a professional development opportunity. There’s so much personal anxiety, almost built-in to this that gives them that safe space to be able to do that.

I’ve learned that, as I just said, we had other people help us create this. I learned that I don’t have all the answers, that I learn every day from people in the community. You know, you need to go to the people who’ve walked the walk, in order to move forward. You can’t create your own path. You have to find other people that have already been there, and learn from them. I think that’s critical to the success of any program.

Cynthia Rojas 18:14
Yeah, I would agree. I am learning a lot. I am reminded of the multiple barriers. You know, when you’re in it, and when you’re on the journey to own leadership, pathway, sometimes it’s really hard to see. You question yourself first. I don’t have enough. I don’t have an MBA; this is why I got passed up, and you go on and on. Now, as an outsider, looking in, it’s like, wow, there are a lot of barriers, and we’ve heard that in reflection time, right. People have said, I could not believe that my organization has never taken the time to talk to me about this, or teach me about how to design a budget. But they make decisions about budgets every day, right.

And so, I also learned that when you have people show up that look like you, it creates an amazing space; a very powerful space. One thing I’ve learned because I’m a product of five leadership development programs. I’m almost addicted to them, and now, I’m leading them. Trust me, if I could do that all day, I would just help people rise to the best part of themselves. Jackie, tell me if you’ve seen or heard anything. I wonder, if the fact that these individuals are applying for the program, if it changes in the positive way. The relationship between them and their Executive Director.

Jackie Downing 19:58
We’re just about to get feedback on that, but I think it does. I think we’ve heard from cohort members, themselves that there was an awakening. That they suddenly learned things, and understood how an organization should run, and saw where the gaps were, and saw where the problems were, and where the opportunities were within their organization. And I know for at least some of them that allows these new leaders to actually take on a leadership role and make changes within the organization.

I don’t know, but I hope that’s true for all of them. Because they’ve picked up some amazing skills and they have great perspective and insight. And, they’re sort of straddling that they’re part of the community, and they’re part of the infrastructure. This gives them the opportunity to do both and make some real substantive change. I love that opportunity for them, and it looks like they’re being allowed the space to do that.

Pieta Blakely 21:06
What is the involvement of their employers in the participant’s process. Do they apply through them. Do they get nominated by them, or they just go on their own and say, “hey, I want to do this thing.”

Jackie Downing 21:22
We specifically did not have organizations nominate people. The decisions were made based solely on the qualifications and the aspirations of the individual candidates, not the organization they come from. If they were able to make a compelling case that they really do want to have a commitment to Greater New Haven, the commitment to non-profit service, and the commitment to advancing their career. That’s what we were looking for.

We weren’t sure where they’re coming from, so we were flexible on that. Their organization in the first year has really no other role than to allow them the space and time to be able to participate in all of the sessions fully. So, they have to be able to release them for the time to do that. At the end of the first year, each of the organizations is obligated to do an organizational assessment. We use the C-CAT, the Core Capacity Assessment tool from the TCC group. Board staff, key volunteers take that survey, and then, the cohort member becomes the organization lead on that. Works with staff and board to help interpret the report that they get, and create an action plan to implement change. And then, part of the grant that we make to them is the budgeted for them to actually have the resources to do something within the organization. So, if it’s buying equipment, and training staff, bringing in a consultant. The organization has to give then the resources to do that from the grants that we make, and allow them the time and the access to the board and staff to be able to make those changes.

Pieta Blakely 23:14
So, the organizations themselves, it sounds like they’re going to really learn a lot about themselves through this process.

Jackie Downing 23:20
We hope so. Every organization has a lot to learn from itself. The C-CAT is not a report card. It’s really just a snapshot, and it’s a perception. So, the people who take the survey, they’re sort of into intuitive questions about how strong your mission is shared by important staff, things like that. So, once those perceptions come through, most Executive Directors will find it as an affirmation of what they already know. But it’s a great document to be able to turn back to the board and say, see, I’ve been telling you this, for years. It’s something you need to do.

In this case, it gives our cohort member an opportunity to be seen as a leader. To be able to develop that action plan, to develop the budget they need in order to do that, to make the contacts they need, to make it work within the staff, and externally. So, it really gives them an opportunity to step up and be seen by their senior leadership and their board, as a person who can affect change within the organization, and move it forward.

Pieta Blakely 24:25
And probably, to see themselves, right. Using the skills that they might have been developing in the program, and to see themselves as capable of affecting change in the organization.

Jackie Downing 24:36
Yeah, we’re hoping that this gives them an opportunity to use what they’ve learned.

Cynthia Rojas 24:45
Another thing it does is, it starts to build a network, and this is instrumental in leadership programs. I’ve mentioned that I’ve been to a bunch of them. All of them, I build strong relationships that surpass like, years and years, after the program. And we’re still partners, and we consider ourselves colleagues. There are people I can call on, even 12 years later.

If I needed them, I knew that they would be there, and that’s really powerful. Why this program is doing this is because every participant is a person of color. Jackie, what you’re doing, in essence, is building a strong network of colleagues who are going to be the next generation of non-profit leaders in the city of Greater New Haven. That’s worth every bit of this process. Another interesting thing I want to mention because at first, I was like, shocked, and I went to Jackie. I was like, Jackie, we have people who are thinking about leaving their jobs, and going in to other roles. Don’t they have a commitment, and what does that do to the organization. Jackie, what was your answer because I was freaking out.

Jackie Downing 26:10
That’s exactly why we created this program. It was about mobility. It’s not about being a better employee where you are. It’s about mobility and taking over leadership, and being the change, you want to see. Going to an organization, where you can influence its board, staff, and it’s work in the community, in a way that challenges where you want it to go. So, that what exactly why we created this program, and the network creation is absolutely, intentional.

So, every presenter that came in, and everyone who’s been on the selection panel and who helped us create the program has offered to be a mentor for our cohort members. We have a few of those relationships already set up and running. So, they are going to make those phone calls and have that check-in time. Hopefully, for the first year is complete. The first cohort will continue to meet on a monthly basis. The second cohort is starting soon, and they’ll start in September. At some point, at least, once or twice during the year, we’re going to bring the two cohorts together. So that, now, that’s not a network of 10, but a network of 20 plus the presenters. So now, we’ve got a network of maybe 40 people who have each other to rely on.

Pieta Blakely 27:34
Your question Cynthia, is so interesting. It sort of goes to what I see is, well, this is the foundation of the region. They work for the region, not the individual employers, and we’re talking about changing the landscape in this area, right. I think, the point that Jackie was making was, well’ we don’t particularly care which organization they’re in. We’re changing all of the leadership in this area, for the benefit of this area. It is really interesting.

Cynthia Rojas 28:02
Yeah, and it shows how I’ve learned. Of course, I’m here thinking now, this is a leadership program to make you the CEO of your own organization. That’s exactly what Jackie says. She was like, oh, that’s exactly what I wanted to happen. And they didn’t like to leave New Haven. They left because they’re working their way up. They’re moving to non-profits, which now, makes a lot of sense. But at first, I thought, oh, everybody’s leaving, well, not everybody.

Pieta Blakely 28:36
So, organizations wanted to cultivate their own leadership of color. They would start internal programs, right.

Jackie Downing 29:52
We were just as excited about it, and, you know, we’ve learned from the first cohort about how to move forward, and we’re happy with it.

Cynthia Rojas 29:58
Yes. Any final words to emerging leaders, or to organizations. Jackie.

Jackie Downing 30:12
Be open to change. Believe in yourself, believe that you can do it. Find a network of people that will support you through that; both personally and professionally.

Cynthia Rojas 30:20
Awesome. Pieta, any learnings for you.

Pieta Blakely 30:25
You know, this has been really fascinating. I think I had some ideas of the points of resistance to the progress of leaders of color. But understanding how this program is designed specifically targeting that, and decentering whiteness, and centering the lived experience of people of color has been really eye-opening.

Cynthia Rojas 30:55
Yeah. Well, I love it. I am a part of it. I was honored, year one. I get the honor again, year two, to work with both of the cohorts. So, this would be an exciting year. And then, in a couple of weeks, we’re going to meet a couple of them, and they get to share their experiences. All right, have a good weekend, everyone, and we’ll see you next week. Bye.

Pieta Blakely

About Pieta Blakely

I help mission-based organizations measure their impact so that they can do what they do well. I started my nonprofit career as a teacher in workforce development and adult basic education. It was important work and I was worried that we didn’t really know if we were doing it well. In the process of trying to answer that question, I got a Masters in Education and a PhD in Social Policy, and became an evaluator.

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