Editors’ note: This article is from NPQ’s spring 2023 issue, “The Space Beyond: Building the Way.”

One of the most powerful things we can do as leaders is to cultivate our voice, especially now, as old narratives and structures give way to an as-yet-undefined future.

In Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power, Robert K. Greenleaf asserts that prophetic voice—the voice that articulates what has yet to be said but is necessary for progress—is the highest form of leadership. He writes,

I now embrace the theory of prophecy, which holds that prophetic voices of great clarity, and with a quality of insight equal to that of any age, are speaking cogently all of the time. Men and women of a stature equal to the greatest of the past are with us now addressing the problems of the day and pointing to a better way and to a personeity better able to live fully and serenely in these times.1

Social change leaders, in particular, have a duty to connect with and speak truth.

* * *

Recently, I went to New York City to film a video2 with Maurice (Moe) Mitchell that introduces his beautiful intervention article “Building Resilient Organizations: Toward Joy and Durable Power in a Time of Crisis.”3 When he said to me, “I stand behind this,” I responded, “Yes! Yes!” Leaders should speak words that they can stand behind.

Nowadays, leaders are not only afraid to lose their position if they speak but are also afraid that people will disagree with them on social media. However, the priority for social change leaders should be clarity with the Self and a commitment to speak for social change. It is not about making everyone happy. This is what Moe did. Of course, he protected himself. He did the work. He built a large network with whom he consulted for resonance, breadth, and depth. He met with over 60 people for about six months to fine-tune what he wrote. He did not shy away from the truth that needed to be spoken.

* * *

Subordinate realities, those driven underground and into the subconscious, are not linear. They are multiple, time traveling, dimension crossing—and bigger than the dominant narrative. Accessing and integrating these hidden dimensions makes us whole, and enables authentic voice.

Of course, it is no small feat to ground oneself in truth, especially when one is positioned as subordinate in society. In “Voice under Domination,” I write

Knowing one’s self is intimately tied to the ability to speak, to language one’s reality. But for those positioned as subordinate in a system, this is precisely what is subverted …. Becoming oneself, being authentic, when one is positioned as subordinate in a system is to challenge it at its core.4

* * *

Subordinated realities, those driven underground and into the subconscious, are not linear. They are multiple, time traveling, dimension crossing—and bigger than the dominant narrative. Accessing and integrating these hidden dimensions makes us whole, and enables authentic voice.

The second season of HBO’s Random Acts of Flyness, by Terence Nance, focuses on the metaphysics of Black life via vignettes strung together to give voice to the healing process of the protagonists, Terence and his creative, and former romantic, partner Najja.5 While Najja is wrapping up the development of a videogame comprising healing rituals, Terence is creating a reparations app. They are both seeking to recover something of value that was lost.

This is not an easy task and the approach is one of montages and overlapping, sometimes contradictory, voices. Richard Brody, writing for the New Yorker, notes, “Straightforward dialogue sequences of confrontations and arguments are expanded with echoing and overlapping voices, phantom presences; characters are multiplied and double-exposed and superimposed; faces are transformed, tinted, digitally masked.”6

In an interview in The Hollywood Reporter titled “Terence Nance on the Rituals Behind the Return of ‘Random Acts of Flyness,’” Nance speaks to the challenge of speaking in systems that are narrower than one’s realities.

Those protocols are not in service of the thing I’m in service of. I’m trying to make something that honors my ancestors and really shifts consciousness toward us reinitiating ourselves through ritual and inter-ritual and even progressing that . . . and that is not in the set of interests of the protocol [in terms of what] needs to be released. I just think that in a very existential way, resistance takes all kinds of forms. And that’s one external form it takes.

I think, particularly with the TV resistance, the fact that I work at a place that has protocols that I could find a way into, the lesson there is just to know that my ability to get Random Acts of Flyness: The Parable of the Pirate and the King on HBO, is a result of the rituals that I do. It’s not because of some strategy I have or a certain amount of power in the earth realm. It’s an ethereal and spiritual challenge that is being strategized upon and acted upon in a spiritual and ethereal place. It’s protected there, and that’s why it’s happening. And to have a level of faith to always turn to that methodology, when I face resistance, is a discipline.7

* * *

To speak truth for social change and human evolution, we need rituals, practices that allow us to go deep into our self and beyond to higher levels of consciousness and reality, where truth resides. Developing facility in these realms builds the trust and faith that allow us to access truth and withstand and overcome the risks of speaking.

In Fearless Speech, Western philosopher of power Michel Foucault notes that, historically, people have been concerned with identifying truth, or parrhesia. Foucault defines parrhesia as,

[A] kind of verbal activity where the speaker has a specific relation to truth through frankness, a certain relationship to his [sic] own life through danger, a certain type of relation to himself [sic] or other people through criticism . . . , and a specific relation to moral law through freedom and duty.8

Thus, the five core elements of parrhesia are:


Direct speech, where nothing is hidden, no rhetoric is used, and what is said perfectly aligns with the speaker’s beliefs


The speaker has the moral qualities needed to know the truth and the ability to convey it


There is a status difference between the speaker and those who are spoken to, so there is risk involved for the speaker, but the speaker is masterful at navigating it


The speaker criticizes self and others


The speaker is driven by a sense of duty to living in truth, juxtaposed with self-interest and moral apathy—truth telling is a way of being

Parrhesia developed in contrast to rhetoric, defined as “continuous long speech” that seeks to intensify emotions and influence the listener.9 Instead, the major technique of parrhesia is dialogue. Foucault observes that the term parrhesia first appears in the fourth century BCE, in the context of politics. He writes, “parrhesia was a guideline for democracy as well as an ethical and personal attitude characteristic of the good citizen.”10 It was “a requisite for public speech, [which] takes place between citizens as individuals, and also between citizens construed as an assembly.”11

A person who has the ability to use parrhesia is called a parrhesiastes. Originally, there were three qualifications for someone to be able to use parrhesia: they had to be a good citizen, well born, and have a respectful relationship to the city, law, and truth. However, as democracy began to take hold, parrhesia was problematized by an aristocracy that claimed that real parrhesia cannot exist in a democracy, where anyone can speak. The democratization of voice was problematized, as the qualifications for parrhesia no longer held.

Consequently, the concept of parrhesia was altered, and by the end of the fifth century, parrhesia has moved from the political sphere to the philosophical, and becomes concerned with what Foucault terms “care of oneself,” and connected to Socrates, who personified this new form.12 Foucault identifies three characteristics of this new parrhesia.

First, the new parrhesia is philosophical, rather than strictly political.

[T]he decisive criterion which identifies the parrhesiastes is not to be found in his [sic] birth, nor in his [sic] citizenship, nor in his [sic] intellectual competence, but in the harmony which exists between his [sic] logos and his [sic] bios.13

Thus, there is little to no gap between what we know and how we lead our life. This approach was most prominent in the Cynic tradition, which lasted centuries, “from the end of the First Century B.C. to the Fourth Century A.D.,” and spread its philosophies via stories of exemplary lives versus text or doctrine.14 The Cynics emphasized “philosophy as an art of life.”15

Second, the target of parrhesia is relationships between people, rather than between citizens and rulers.

[T]he target of this new parrhesia is not to persuade the Assembly, but to convince someone that he [sic] must take care of himself [sic] and of others; and this means that he [sic] must change his [sic] life.16

The goal moves beyond changing another’s mind to changing how they live their life, particularly how they relate to their self and others.

Third, the focus of parrhesia is the relationship between self and truth, rather than between self and one who has power over us.

[T]hese new parrhesiastic practices imply a complex set of connections between the self and truth. For not only are these practices supposed to endow the individual with self-knowledge, this self-knowledge in turn is supposed to grant access to truth and further knowledge.17

The goal, then, is to internalize the parrhesiastic struggle, to develop a relationship between self and truth. For Foucault, the “truth game . . . now consists in being courageous enough to disclose the truth about oneself.”18

As social change leaders creating the world we want to live in, let us understand and nurture voice—in ourselves and others.

With these shifts, the type of technique also shifted from a focus on dialogue to practices that promote self- knowledge. Foucault notes, “this art of living, demands practice and training.”19 This approach is akin to spiritual practice, which Foucault calls the “technique of techniques.”20 While there are many such practices, Foucault wraps up his exposition on truth telling with three core techniques of examination.

Solitary Self-examination

Harmonizing principles and actions

An evening examination in which one sifts through the whole day to identify “inefficient actions requiring adjustments between ends and means”21— praising and admonishing the self—so that one may “reactivate various rules and maxims in order to make them more vivid, permanent, and effective for future behavior”22


Harmonizing thoughts and chosen ethical structure

General self-scrutiny with the goal of “steadiness of mind,”23 described as “a state where the mind is independent of any kind of external event, and is free as well from any internal excitation or agitation that could induce an involuntary movement of mind”24; this state “denotes stability, self- sovereignty, and independence”25; the goal is “complete self-possession or self-mastery”26

Guiding questions include: “[W]hat are the things that are important to me, and what are the things to which I am indifferent?”27 and, Is the mind still involuntarily moved or aroused by that which is deemed unimportant?



Sovereignty of thoughts

The work is in determining the origin and value of one’s thoughts, which requires “a constant putting on trial of all our representations” in order “to distinguish those representations that [one] can control from those that [one] cannot control, that incite involuntary emotions, feelings, behavior[s]”28

The goal of all techniques of examination is self-sovereignty—having the agency to choose what one thinks, how one acts, who one chooses to be in relationship with, and the effect of others on one’s life.

There is a reason Foucault sees truth telling as a spiritual practice. When we are spiritually guided, we do not fear that people will crush us. We know our true power is unassailable.

As social change leaders creating the world we want to live in, let us understand and nurture voice—in ourselves and others.



  1. Robert Greenleaf, Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1977), 22.
  2. Working Families Party, Building Resilient Organizations, discussion between Maurice Mitchell and Cyndi Suarez, November 29, 2022, video, 4:59, youtube.com/watch?v=Z4lNICVkl_M.
  3. Maurice Mitchell, “Building Resilient Organizations: Toward Joy and Durable Power in a Time of Crisis,” NPQ, November 29, 2022, nonprofitquarterly.org/building-resilient-organizations-toward-joy-and-durable-power-in-a-time-of-crisis/.
  4. Cyndi Suarez, “Voice under Domination,” NPQ, September 3, 2019, nonprofitquarterly.org/ voice-under-domination/.
  5. Random Acts of Flyness, written and directed by Terence Nance, HBO, August 4, 2018–present, hbo.com/random-acts-of-flyness.
  6. Richard Brody, “The Radical, Exuberant Transformation of ‘Random Acts of Flyness,’” New Yorker, December 9, 2022, newyorker.com/culture/the-front-row/the-radical-exuberant-transformation-of-random-acts-of-flyness.
  7. Evan Nicole Brown, “Terence Nance on the Rituals Behind the Return of ‘Random Acts of Flyness,’” Hollywood Reporter, December 19, 2022, hollywoodreporter.com/tv/tv-features/ terence-nance-random-acts-of-flyness-interview-1235282848/.
  8. Michel Foucault, Fearless Speech, Joseph Pearson (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2001), 19.
  9. “The Meaning and Evolution of the Word ‘Parrhesia’: Discourse & Truth, Problematization of Parrhesia— Six lectures given by Michel Foucault at the University of California at Berkeley, Oct–Nov. 1983,” Explore Parrhesia, accessed February 21, 2023, info/parrhesia/foucault.DT1.wordParrhesia.en/.
  10. Foucault, Fearless Speech,
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid., 24.
  13. Ibid., 106.
  14. Ibid., 116.
  15. Ibid., 117.
  16. Ibid., 106.
  17. Ibid., 107.
  18. Ibid., 143.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Ibid., 112.
  21. Ibid., 149.
  22. Ibid., 150.
  23. Ibid.
  24. Ibid.
  25. Ibid.
  26. Ibid., 153.
  27. Ibid., 159.
  28. Ibid., 160.