Last year NPQ published an article by Dax-Devlon Ross titled “Generational Differences in Racial Equity Work” that really resonated with our readers. Increasingly, these differences are a dividing line in the work, especially in communities of color. We recently hosted a conversation with a few leaders of color working with this challenge, including Ross, to learn more about it and what we could be doing.



The context for these generational differences in racial justice work is a period of social justice movements, some say a transition between a dying worldview and an emerging one. It is a time when power is being challenged across the board in society. Political philosophers Hardt and Negri’s observe in Assembly that the main challenge to social change leaders now is organization, or more specifically, leadership and decision making. They write,

We need to take up the problem of leadership under current conditions and investigate two primary tasks: how to construct organization without hierarchy; and how to create institutions without centralization. (14)

They call this nonsovereign leadership and argue that it “marks a profound break from the political logics of modernity,” or from representative democracy to participatory democracy (14). Sovereignty, in contrast, is exclusive in the right to decision making. They propose that “for a multitude to take power a first requirement is this: to invent new, nonsovereign institutions” (39).

In particular, the Black Lives Matter movement moved many organizations to make promises to change practices that harm people of color, especially Black people. Nonprofit organizations, many with decades-long records of predominantly white leadership, who had resisted systemic change, are finally hiring leaders of color as a way to address long-term (often inaugural) organizational racial justice issues.

Now, leaders of color are being tasked with shifting dominant culture organization—but to what? A term used, one that I propose in my book The Power Manual, is “liberatory.” Leaders at the edge are exploring how to build liberatory organizations. But, many have not ever experienced it. And this is actually a field-level issue, as Hard and Negri point out, not simply a leadership issue.


Generational Conflict Is an Issue

Kad Smith, a millenial nonprofit consultant at CompassPoint says,

 This is exactly what I’ve been experiencing…as a leader in an organization, experiencing it as an intermediary partnering with organizations that are doing power building, everything from power building organizations to kind of more traditional big wig, white-led nonprofits, some elements of what Dax was speaking about was a direct reflection of my day to day.

Angela Romans, a Gen Xer and Founding Executive Director of Innovation for Equity, says,

Five years ago, I was co-leading an organization’s internal DEI work with a Latina millennial woman. Our working group actually had three generations: Baby Boomers, Gen X’s, and Millennials. And these conversations started showing up…. Our leadership team was majority people of color. And we felt a lot of challenge from our “younger” folks who are in less positional authority saying, why aren’t you doing better? And we were an organization that led racial equity work outside. Our external work was on point! But internally, our folks were like, “Y’all are not walking the talk.”…Now I work with leaders of color, mostly Black leaders. And I’m seeing these nuances continue to happen….What can we do about it? What’s my role in helping to be more liberatory in my behavior?

Sean Thomas-Breitfeld, a Gen Xer and Co-Executive Director of Building Movement Project, whose work explores generational and racial differences in leadership, says,

I teach a class on race and inclusion in nonprofit organizations, and it’s interesting and sometimes challenging talking about organizational change….It happens…in the workplace…these differing perspectives about what it takes to make change and what the standard should be around equity inside of organizations and as an instructor.

Ross, a Gen Xer, and an author and equity consultant, says,

We need to talk about these things, because if this is showing up here, here, and here, then there’s something going on. And so that was what inspired me to write, and I think why I’m in this conversation right now is because as I continue to talk to folks who feel like they can reveal themselves—especially the folks in sort of the elder side of the spectrum, and when I say that, I mean folks who are older Gen X, and even younger Baby Boomer—I find just a lot of internal conflict, a lot of it linked to the choices they made in order to become who they became in the world, and under the belief that that was the way to do it. And to have that be upended and questioned, I think it creates a lot of strong emotion. And there’s not a place for that to be articulated without it being perceived as if you’re just salty. And I think it’s more complicated than that. And I think it needs to be made more nuanced.

Mistinguette Smith, a baby boomer and nonprofit consultant, says,

I am someone who turns 60 this year. I am someone who started doing work helping organizations do their work around racial equity 30 years ago. And I am preparing to leave this space. And I am trying to discern what I need to ensure that I leave behind and not just take with me.


The Points of Tension

Thomas-Breitfeld observes that there are differences in what it means for an organizational workplace to be equitable. This is exacerbated by the fact that positional power often overlaps with age, so older people with more experience tend to be in leadership. And, he highlights, this is further complicated when the leader is a person of color.

For so many leaders of color, their path to having positional power was very fraught, and often extended, in comparison to what they’ve seen of their white peers. And there’s this sense, which was put perfectly in a focus group that I did in Memphis a few years ago, where someone said, “Look, I have all these young people who are trying to get me to give up my positional power without recognizing that I just got here.”

We’re seeing a lot of transitions, and a lot of people of color moving into those executive leader positions newly. And it happens to coincide with a time when we’re also contesting what executive leadership means, and what kind of power people should wield, and it’s hard, I think, for those of us as leaders of color to not somehow feel like our leadership is being contested in part because of our race.

Ross adds that people expect more from leaders of color and there is often lack of agreement about who’s vision leads the organization.

That contestation could also be from a place of, “But I do also expect more from you.” I think that that in and of itself could be a problem. It’s not just that I see you as someone I can challenge, but I see you as actually someone who I expect to hold accountable. I implicate boards in this as well, because I think what a lot of boards have done is used it as a cover: “Let’s go get a person of color in here, and let’s have that be the thing that we’re going to do to address our challenges around diversity, equity, and inclusion, and not really have a deeper conversation about what our politics are.

Thomas-Breitfeld agrees. He has seen this trend of boards hiring leaders of color to address organizational equity and justice issues without appropriate support and resources.

We did a set of interviews with organizations here in New York, where we talked to the outgoing white leader, the incoming leader of color, and someone who was on the board. And what Dax is describing absolutely was true of that small sample, that a lot of boards were trying to solve for DEI challenges that had been leveled against the white predecessor by replacing that person with a person of color.

And so then what happens is: that person of color comes in and still has to lead the organization, grow the organization, and we know that funders are not always as supportive of people of color as they claim they’re going to be. So they’re going to do that and also have to do all the cleanup from the DEI mess of their predecessor.

Oftentimes people complain about the executive director job not being sustainable anyway, but I think these are the sorts of situations that make it particularly burdensome and unsustainable for executive leaders of color.

Mistinguette Smith also agrees and adds that often leaders of color do not have the power to make the changes asked of them.

And what is implicit and often not safe for a person in that position to say is, “I just got here, and I don’t yet have the power to do the things you want. In fact, I’m not sure I have the power to protect you. Power is not positional, power is accrued over    time, and I just got here.” That is never explicitly on the table, but I take a lot of phone calls from people who want to talk about that privately.

And she adds a crucial element, Black people are often working outside their cultural values, especially in how they deal with conflict.

And there’s another piece that’s connected to that, for me, that is specific to Black people. We know that we often finally get hired for the thing that we were qualified for 15 years ago because they now need a brown person to come do the HazMat cleanup. And we’re doing that, and the hazardous material we’re trying to clean up is distrust. And all of us do trust-based work based in the cultures we come from. And one of the things that is hardest for me, having seen what is now the third wave of work toward racial justice happening in the nonprofit/social sector, is that this is the first time I’m seeing African American people trying to do that work based    not in African American cultural values, but in nonprofit cultural values.

In traditional African American culture, what challenge looks like and how challenge is responded to looks way different than what I’m seeing in meeting rooms where people say things to an elder who’s been holding it up for 20 years with no dollars and no public support such as, “Well, if you had done a better job, we wouldn’t have to be here at all.” Like that is not a thing that would have happened inside of African American culture but is actually vaunted in nonprofit culture.

This resonates with Kad Smith, who shares that being raised by his grandmother informs what he perceives as acceptable challenges and unacceptable ones. And, he adds that there is a polarity between younger people feeling there’s not enough time and older leaders feeling they just got here.

It can be particularly tough for folks to show up in those conversations with humility and with an open ear towards, “Well, what am I missing about your experience that would help me bridge the gap between what it is that we both think is getting in the way—but are coming to conclusions around why it’s getting in the way and how it’s getting in the way from very different places?”

Perhaps this and the next exchange captures the heart of the challenge.

Ross sees a conflation of organizing work and nonprofit work.

Such that people think that they’re working for social justice organizations when actually they’re working for sometimes really mainstream organizations that do some social service work. That’s not actually what they were set up to do. And you want it to now be social justice work, but that’s not actually what it is. So you need to find some place to do your movement work.

Kad Smith asks how these apparent polarities become more integrated.

I’m working with organizations that are using radical approaches to pedagogy, radical frameworks, in environments that I wouldn’t from first glance say are conducive to it….So if we’re going to be really trying to be bold and imaginative and radical in our approach, where does it also get paired with some pragmatism and some practicality of what that’ll look like when we get into the work?

To summarize, the generational conflicts these leaders are seeing are:

  1. Lack of agreement about what it means for an organization to be equitable
  2. People expecting more from leaders of color than from white leaders
  3. Lack of agreement about whose vision leads the organization
  4. Leaders of color not having the power or resources to make the changes asked of them
  5. Black people are often working outside their cultural values
  6. Polarity between younger people feeling there’s not enough time and older leaders feeling they just got here
  7. Disagreement about whether nonprofits and movements occupy different spaces, or whether they need to be somehow more integrated


What Can Be Done?

I recall one very powerful moment, a few years ago, at the Race Forward conference in Detroit. There was a panel of Native leaders on climate justice comprised of an elder and two young leaders. There was a point at which the elder stopped one of the younger people who was speaking, to correct him. And she did so so lovingly, and so gracefully. And the younger person stopped and thanked her, was very grateful for her correction. I remember being captivated by that interaction and thinking, “Well, that’s really different.”

Romans takes this up, calls it “the gentle correction,” and asks,

Culturally, where’s the space for gentle correction? And how is that taken on the side of folks who are managing up, saying, you know, I really need you to do this differently. And also the older folks who are in positions of authority who are trying to gently correct folks who are younger, and they’re not having it. It’s triggering on both sides.

How do we touch and connect with those cultural spaces, the cultural traditions that we have of correction, on both sides? Sort of up and down and across and all around? That’s not how, traditionally, nonprofits have operated. And how do we do this in the political social climate that we’re in right now where nothing is gentle?

Romans is also seeing more entrepreneurship at a younger age.

I’m seeing more folks at younger ages get in positions of leading an organization, being the highest leader of an organization. It’s the “I don’t want to stay in an organization for 20 years and not be recognized and not see progress. Therefore, I’m going to start my own.”

Also, I’m seeing some of those leaders advance through organizations more quickly now, because there is that push from boards, from other external places to put a leader into that position, put a person of color in a position of power to clean up the mess, all the things that folks have said, to do that damage control.

And that is, I think, raising a lot of questions for me. Will they do it better than we did, than the folks who toiled? How could they do it better? What could we learn from them? And how can we share some lessons learned with them in the spirit of being intentional about, as Dax was saying in his article, telling the story.

Kad Smith sympathizes with both sides, but notes there is a need for humility, empathy, and synchronicity.

I can’t imagine what it would feel like to be in an organization for 20 years, and only on my 18th and 19th year feel like we’re starting to make the progress that I thought was possible two decades ago. Comparably, can you imagine what it feels like to be someone who’s excited to come into a career and to be completely disillusioned to a sector that says it wants to do one thing with these very particular vehicles and seemingly is doing something entirely different. So I think it’s about the perspective piece and about the humility of willing to be empathetic. I mean really, truly be empathetic to where people are coming from and the totality of lived experiences that keep them in the work. How does that make us stronger as people who choose to be a part of organizations? So it is different than a family, it is different than the community. We’re choosing to be here. And that choice grants us   access to the membership that then means that there’s a certain level of accountability we have to one another when we start to talk about how differences are not actually helping us move in a synchronized way.

For him, having mentors who share and are adaptable is important.

The organizations I partner with don’t seem to have that practice really developed, especially when we’re talking about BIPOC leadership. But when you have access to mentors who can give you the game, who can tell you what it’s been like, and can also show that they can adapt and care for you, that is an invaluable resource for new leaders.

When we see folks modeling what it looks like to adapt as a leader, and that can take shape in many different ways and forms, paired with creating and prioritizing the space to connect and really be able to share what is it that makes us want to be a part of this organization. I think that goes a long way.

Finally, he’s committing to addressing ageism as well as racism.

Ageism is one of those things that I used to always think about it towards one end of the spectrum, for myself, being a young person told that grown folks are talking. It wasn’t until I got into adulthood that I realized that ageism is a very real phenomenon that our elders experience, and I can now see that so much more clearly. Conflict cannot be pathologized to the point where ageism continues to play out in ways that actually makes our efforts significantly weaker. Every organization that’s doing racial equity work should be thinking about how ageism intersects in their specific context.

Romans agrees that mentorship is important, and connects it to succession that builds liberatory organizations.

Doing that in a way that is intentional and thoughtful is important. We talked about the “I just got here,” but some of them really didn’t just get there. And so what does it mean for folks to be able to rest? Does that mean you need to trust me more? Does that mean I need to show some mastery that you’re not seeing from me? Does that mean there’s a retirement plan for you? What do you need?

She also wants to see more spaces for intergenerational conversations,

Some of that is desperation, out of pain, of not having their voices heard and not knowing where there are spaces for that to happen. So I think building on Mistinguette’s point about more intentional intergenerational spaces for conversation, for storytelling, for trust-building, and funding that. Because there’s a need for that.

Mistinguette Smith notes that community care goes both ways. For example, older leaders of color should be cared for financially as they leave the work.

Whereas, particularly for Black people, and also for other people of color, moving out of organizational leadership doesn’t mean moving out of community, doesn’t mean moving out of the movement. What it often means, though, is falling off of a financial cliff. And so the holding on is not about holding on to community and meaning the way it is for white leaders; it is literally holding on to the ability to pay the gas bill.

She shares an experience she had when she ran into Black feminist leader Barbara Smith at a conference.

She talked about how one of the things that was really meaningful, was having younger people who are discovering her life’s work anew also discovering that she is currently living with financial insecurity and doing something about that. So, thinking about community care as not just a thing for younger people but as an intergenerational obligation.

I help people experience what that looks like in small bits of practices. A small example of which is facilitating a conversation that was a Black Native dialogue about land, holding a ritual where we were helping young people learn that you don’t eat until your elders are all holding a plate, and having that cultural, spiritual ritual be really meaningful for those who serve, even though their noses were out of joint at first, and also those who were served, because they have been hungering for that literal and cultural food.

For Thomas-Breitfeld, it’s unpacking individualism.

I think some of that boils down to real deep conflict around individualism versus what is the kind of community that people are having in mind? It would be interesting to unpack that, because I do think that there’s a level of hyperindividualism that lets the critique of elders and critique of leaders of color run wild in ways that can potentially be undermining of the institutions that everyone is actually a part of.

Ross hopes that we can make space for Black leadership to express itself in multiple ways.

There is room for a variety of different kinds of Black leaders and Black leadership, and they don’t all have to only live in this specific orthodoxy. Let’s not expect them to show up in the particular kind of ways we say they must. Or we fall into the binary trap once again. And that binary trap which we recognize has always created problems.

So what can we do to begin to address intergenerational differences in racial justice work?

  1. Practicing humility and empathy when engaging across difference
  2. More entrepreneurship, starting new organizations
  3. Seeking synchronicity over agreement
  4. Being mentors who share and are adaptable
  5. Addressing racism and agism
  6. Supporting leadership transitions to build liberatory organizations
  7. Creating more spaces for intergenerational conversations
  8. Expanding beyond individualism and the organizational frame, to practicing community care
  9. Supporting multiplicity in Black leadership

The nonprofit sector faces a challenge: creating social change organizations that support multiple and synchronous types of leadership. Leaders of color are at the forefront of this challenge. But the sector is not supporting them. It’s time to take on the challenge, especially those who care about organizational development, leadership, and infrastructure. Let’s move beyond foundation-sponsored affinity groups for leaders of color. These are not simply leader-level issues. We need experimentation with higher-level organization that incorporates what exists into something bigger. The nature of growth and transformation is integration and complexification. This is an evolution in how we organize ourselves for social justice.