“Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”
—Arundhati Roy, “The Pandemic is a Portal.” (Financial Times; April 3, 2020)
“As organizers, we have been contesting for power in a fundamentally rigged system. We need to build the power to tear the damn system down and recreate something fundamentally new—something liberating. Especially with COVID, now is the time to go big, not back down.”
—Lauren Jacobs, Executive Director at the Partnership for Working Families
The pandemics we face today—the murder of Black people by the police and COVID 19—further expose the illusion of who and what the US is as a nation. It amplifies the ugly truth, one that many, especially BIPOC, have always known: Our nation was built upon and continues to be fueled by structural racism, an extractive and exploitive economy and a broken democracy.
Our nonprofit sector is also captured by an illusion, one that keeps us separate from one another, props up a mythology around individual charismatic leaders, chases dollars, and encourages us to play safe and small.
These pandemics so starkly expose the costs of believing in illusions, that it can open us up to new possible futures for our nation, our work, and our leadership. It is time to actively make use of the disruptions and breakdowns as portals1 to a reimagined future.
Doing so asks us to embrace the complexity2 we are experiencing. On one hand, we must continue to work with and push the systems that exist as best we can to aid those suffering immediate harm. On the other, we must tear down and reconceive of those systems, how we work, and what our work is. For many of us, and perhaps all of us, this requires recognizing, releasing, and reimagining the fundamental structures, practices, and habits that have informed our work to this point.
It will not be easy to learn to thrive amidst all the upheaval and discomfort while transforming ourselves, our ways of working, and our vision of what could be possible. In fact, it can feel incredibly overwhelming. It may help to remember that we are taking actions all the time, and that much of what we need to do now is bring a different intentionality and mindfulness to each action. What has the action been informed by?
In each moment, we can notice where our attention and alignments have been focused and what in that needs to change. By pivoting, we can alternate between opening our field of vision and narrowing in on specific actions that over time realize our more transformative vision. Below are some places where your attention may be needed now:
1. Develop intentional action for supporting wholeness and collective spaces for maintaining grounding.3
Cultivating practices that allow leaders individually and collectively to come into their own center, to stay present, and to connect spirit, mind, body, intuition, and creative expression are more essential than ever. As Tara Brach explains in a March 18, 2020, Vox interview, “Our breath is often the most helpful home base for coming out of our circling worry thoughts and back into our senses…Coming back to the senses in our body helps us come back to the present moment.” These practices can help us connect with who we are and ensure, as Brach says, “our calm is contagious.”
To stay grounded in our best selves, leaders are also finding it useful to continually reconnect themselves and others to their deeply held organizational values. It is these values rather than our workplans that can provide a secure anchor to the present.
Wholeness for ourselves and our staff also requires coming to terms with the impossible circumstances we all find ourselves in. While we stay home and work remotely, we are also expected to educate our children, attend to our young and elders, care for the sick, grieve, face reduced household income, manage our stress, and more. This is unrealistic and unsustainable. Additional barriers, challenges, and layers of stress are created by the systemic oppression experienced by BIPOC and immigrants. Leaders are responding by reducing their organization’s work hours while paying full salaries, providing more flexibility, and focusing on the strengths their staff reveal. This comes just at the moment when our communities need us the most and our financial circumstances feel most uncertain. Holding this contradiction requires us to be adaptable and lean into human connection and interdependence.
If we do not address what staff need to be whole, find our own center, and create a culture that encourages others to do the same, we are more apt to trigger our trauma4 responses. When this happens, we act unconsciously from a place of fear, anxiety, and/or anger rather than a place of choice that draws from our best values and our full wisdom.
2. Imagine and begin to articulate a new vision of the future.
Narrowing our focus can be a natural response to the deluge of disruptions that have occurred. Yet this tendency to focus only on what is narrow, familiar, easiest, or safest can lead us to miss the biggest openings that this disruption sparks. When our failing systems are laid bare, now is the time to reimagine the systems. As Marielena Hincapie, Executive Director, National Immigration Law Center, recently reflected:
Even this thing that six months ago I thought was the organization’s top priority, I’m rethinking. It’s too small. One set of policy changes, even if we win, won’t get to the root. We’ll just have another racist policy thinly disguised as something else. We need a fundamentally different conversation in this country about what we value, who we welcome and how we care for all of us. If we aren’t changing that, what are we doing?
This requires leaders to co-create bolder visions for a new future with their communities and develop strategic thinking with their teams that explore big questions such as:
- What if we sought to liberate ourselves from all the ways our current systems fail us and the ways they reinforce structural racism and oppression?
- What are the new liberated futures, free from the constraints imposed by current systems of power, that we need to be envisioning for our people/community/ nation/issue/movement/world? What openings are being created by the COVID-19 pandemic or the uprisings? What possible pathways are emerging?
- How might we create aspects of these new futures as we move through moments of rapid response, recovery, and rebuilding?
- How do my actions/experiments today fuel disruption of the dysfunctional status quo while beginning to manifest a new envisioned future in concrete and meaningful ways?
- What gifts/capacities/strengths can we contribute, or might we begin to develop that would help us travel the emergent pathway toward that vision?
For example, consider the rising interest of unions in bargaining for the common good during the pandemic, which “uses collective bargaining to provide a means to ensure key structural improvement that are enforceable for members and the public/communities these unions serve.” Rather than fighting for a narrowly defined contract, the Chicago Teachers Union, spearheaded by their executive vice president Stacy Davis-Gates, and allies like the Grassroots Collaborative, led by their executive director Amisha Patel, worked together in deep partnership to broaden the demands and “fight for the schools Chicago’s children deserve.”5
Similarly, we can look to Family Values at Work, which has been at the forefront of advancing paid leave policies at the local, state, and national level for over a decade. When COVID-19 hit, Wendy Chun-Hoon and her network saw their biggest opening to advance federal policy. However, as they jumped into the fray, they did so with an expanded intersectional frame, which they continue to use to shape their work. Chun-Hoon explains, “As state and federal leaders debate the right way to ‘reopen the economy’ we call on those leaders to instead open the door to a new economy founded on an infrastructure of caring, equity, and respect.”
3. Release desire for control and predictability.
We are taught that successful leadership comes from knowing the best things to do now in order to succeed in the future. If we draw up detailed plans and execute them well, then our outcomes are assured. But they aren’t, and likely never were. This faulty thinking is entrenched in habits of white supremacy culture6 that keep us working harder and faster, linearly, toward perfection, disconnected from ourselves and one another, and undermine many vital expressions of leadership—especially those coming from people of color. These myths around leadership are particularly dangerous during disruptions that are having unprecedented impact.
Leadership now requires us to accept uncertainty, shed our rigid attachment to past approaches (no matter how successful they were), uncover hidden assumptions, and dismantle harmful expectations. We can truly move forward only when we begin to embrace our dis-ease, recognize the need to try new efforts (without guarantees of success), and practice different habits (more in number 6 below).
4. Recognize when you’re in chaos, and create stability.
David Snowden and Mary Boone7 explain that “wise executives tailor their approach to fit the complexity of the circumstances they face,” rather than unconsciously over-relying on what has worked for us in the past. In the midst of disruption, we find ourselves even more often thrust into chaos and complexity. They describe chaos as a time of “high turbulence” where there is “no clear cause and effective relationship, so no point in looking for the right answers” because there are too many “unknowables.”
While many unfamiliar situations can feel chaotic in the moment, it doesn’t mean the situation is entirely chaotic or will stay that way. Once you have identified what aspects of the system are truly in chaos, the task is to act quickly, and then ask ourselves, did that create more stability or clarity in the system? Continue monitoring the system’s response closely over time to see if order is being revealed or created through our actions. In other words, switch to experimental mode, thus “shifting the context from chaotic to complex.”
Angela Lang, executive director of Black Leaders Organizing for Communities (BLOC) in Wisconsin, described the following chaotic circumstances:
[Wisconsin] shut down on March 18th and the election was supposed to be held on April 7th and we are in this critical swing state. BLOC’s model has been to do deep organizing through in-person relationship building. Now we are wondering: Will the elections even happen? If so, how will it happen safely? What will this mean for our people? How do we encourage our folks to go the polls knowing they’re at higher risk and too many lack adequate health care? And how can we encourage them to stay home and suppress their vote and democratic voice? How do we even connect with our folks and expand to new voters when we can’t go door-to-door?
Angela and her team knew they needed to connect with their base fast. They experimented and expanded capacity for broadcast text, virtual phone banks, and social media. BLOC organized its people virtually to pressure the governor to postpone the election. They also had a pending lawsuit around voting access, whose outcome was relevant, but they were unsure how the courts would even operate in the pandemic. Then, the governor issued an executive order to stop the election, followed by the Republicans suing to put it back on. The case went to the State Supreme Court, and finally the US Supreme Court. All this happened in a matter of a few weeks.
“I was on calls with the governor’s office at 8:00 pm just trying to figure out what was going on,” recalls Angela. “It was disorienting literally having no idea what would happen and when. Moving from one thing to the next, taking one action, figuring out what happened and then deciding what to do next. It was non-stop for those weeks. Now it’s still really challenging but not everything is turned upside down.” Over time, these new mechanisms for reaching their members became more reliable and clear to everyone.
5. Make meaning of the current and ever-changing realities.
When systems are complex, no one human can make sense of all that is occurring. We need to work together to reach out to those within and beyond our organizational systems and understand how different folks are experiencing, seeing, and making sense of what is happening to and around them.
Many start by deepening relationships with staff, board, members/constituencies, and close partners. We can listen to all their nuanced perspectives, understand the constraints they are operating with, and identify ways to provide tangible support. These could include: making budget cuts to eliminate unneeded items like travel; increasing key line items to ensure equity, like covering the cost of tech solutions for working from home; determining what money is flowing in and estimating how long our reserves will hold; renegotiating with funders for more flexibility; and expanding fundraising in the new environment. These efforts allow us to get honest and see our true capacity. Most leaders I speak with are seeing a 75 percent cut overall in their staff capacity.
We also need to be intentional about understanding what is happening at the larger levels of the systems we are nested within. This involves: (1) being guided by those directly experiencing the greatest impacts who are the first to innovate and the best situated to identify meaningful solutions, (2) reaching out to those at the periphery of our work who can challenge our assumptions and bring in different perspectives, and (3) identifying the trusted sources of data that can inform us of what is happening in our locales, cities, states, nation, world. All this will help us build the key interconnections we need.
To function well in complexity, we can consciously create ongoing feedback loops and make meaning together. We need to create spaces (both in small pods and in larger contexts) where information can be consolidated, biases can be recognized and challenged, and collective meaning can be made with diverse teams. As Cyndi Suarez8 writes in “The Sensemaking Organization” for NPQ, “good managers may make meaning for people, great managers create collective meaning making platforms or conditions.” Without this it’s impossible to know how our actions are being shaped by and are shaping the larger ecosystems.
6. Create enabling conditions for operating in complexity.
As Snowden and Boone write, “Truly adept leaders know not only how to identify the context they’re working in but also how to change their behavior to match.” To this end, some leaders are reassessing pre-COVID-19 priorities to make more space for engaging with the most complex questions arising now. Some areas of work will stop or be indefinitely postponed, move forward less intensely with fewer resources, or remain relevant but be approached differently given the new circumstances. New areas of work are likely to arise that require more energy and attention in the current moment.
In complexity, Snowden and Boone explain there are “no right answers,” only “unknown unknowns” and “many competing ideas.” Cause and effect can only be understood retrospectively, but “hindsight does not lead to foresight because the external conditions and systems constantly change.” Complexity requires “a more experimental mode.” Rather than developing detailed plans that may collapse, given all the uncertainty, leaders set some simple rules or limit boundaries to encourage small scale experimental actions.9 Then, with each experiment, watch to see what resonates within the system. If positive patterns emerge, allow them to gain momentum and provide structure and coherence. If an experiment doesn’t work, stop, learn from how the system responded, and try something else.
For example, leaders who educate voters, engage them in key issues, and turn them out to the polls are especially challenged. Many, like BLOC, that have relied on door-knocking campaigns or deep canvass strategies to connect personally with voters find these strategies are no longer viable. Others have planned activities around the party conventions or candidate campaign stops that they aren’t sure will even take place. Others had been building momentum for state issue campaigns in hopes of shifting that energy toward the elections only to find state governments to overwhelmed to act. At the same time, many are letting go of these plans and trying small-scale initial experiments to see what might help form or deepen relationships with voters. From trying a virtual cocktail hour that taps into people’s social networks, to connecting people to vital human services while reminding them their voice and vote still matter, organizations and networks are coming together and embracing trial and error.
This type of small-scale experimentation requires taking risks, embracing failures, and making space for honest reflection. BIPOC, women, and trans or gender-nonconforming people face greater penalties when they step out to take risks and when they fail. Too often, our organizational cultures respond with blame and shame rather than using failure to examine what the experiment revealed about the system. If everything you try works, you may not have robust enough feedback loops, or you may be avoiding your learning edge. Therefore, it’s critical that we create a culture and a series of enabling conditions within our organization that consciously support rapid small-scale experimentation, reflection, learning, and iteration and celebrate “brilliant first flop[s]”10 and “the beautiful oops.”11
To experiment and learn well in complexity, we need a diversity of perspectives, experiences, skills, and knowledge that often appear in conflict. This requires us to interrupt the faulty messages about leadership that tell us conflict is a sign of weakness and something to avoid or quash. Instead, we can embrace contradictions and tensions, create safe containers for conflict to arise, and explore practices that use that conflict to be generative (like to polarity management).12 Leaders can shift their vantage point to take in more of the diverse perspectives and see more of the whole by “getting off the dance floor and going to the balcony,” as Heifitz and Lidsky suggest.13
7. Don’t go it alone.
As executive directors of nonprofits, we are told to “find your niche,” “build your brand,” and “make the case for why your organization should be funded rather than others.” These ideas, while having their merits, combine to create barriers that all too often get in the way of building with others toward shared goals at scale. Let’s be honest, no one leader, no matter how charismatic, and no one organization, no matter how well funded in its niche with excellent branding, could ever bring about the scale of change we need in this country. Now is the time to push the boundaries that block us from working together and reimagine who our “us” is. Look to the peripheries of your vision, to those living at the intersection of multiple identities, and to the interconnection of the issues. Seek to grow and share leadership.14 Be sure to develop networked approaches to change that aggregate power across organizations, geographies, issues, constituencies, and movements.15
Nothing I have written here is new per se. You can see these ideas in the work of black queer feminists like Audre Lorde, critical race theorists like Derrick Bell, complexity meaning-makers like Adrienne Marie Brown or Jennifer Garvey Burger, spiritual leaders from many traditions like Reverend Doctor William Barber, who was quoted recently saying, “We don’t want normal or a new normal. We want a revolution. We want a moral revival. We want a transformation.” And so many more. I wish it was all new. Then it might appear easier, and we might have less skepticism and anger. It’s not the newness of these ideas but rather the new opportunity to bring them together and use them in this moment that makes it different. It’s not the newness of these ideas but rather the powerful leadership of the women of color (especially all those quoted above) and the many more leading around the country that will continue to make it different.
Justice leaders have long known that the US is built upon an illusion that we live by shared values—fairness, liberty, opportunity—and that anyone can work hard and realize their dreams, if not for themselves then at least for the next generation. The pandemic helps to reveal how far our current reality is from the illusion. What if this pandemic and the uprisings tear holes in the veil of illusion, making new openings, and turning our imaginations toward bigger bolder new visions for our collective future? What if our values could shape a new reality, rather than disguise a fundamentally racist, inequitable and unjust present? What if that will require justice leaders in the nonprofit sector to meet the complexity of the moment and transform how we lead and work, so that a boldly reimaged future becomes our shared reality? After all, if I am going to be living in a nation holding on to an illusion, I’d rather it be a dream that drives us toward liberation, than a fantasy that asserts this reality is liberty and justice for all.
- Arundhati Roy writes, “Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.” Roy, Arundhati. “The Pandemic is a Portal.” (Financial Times, April 3, 2020)
- Neil Johnson adopts the definition of “complexity science” as “the study of the phenomena which emerge from a collection of interacting objects”. Johnson, Neil F. (2009). Simply Complexity: A Clear Guide to Complexity Theory.
- According to author Michael Daniels in his book, Shadow, Self, Spirit(2005), groundedness refers to “a sense of being fully embodied, whole, centered and balanced in ourselves and our relationships.”
- Beth Wheeler, LICSW, LCSW-C, LMT, at Edges Education offers a simple explanation around trauma and how it’s arising in COVID in this video.
- Jacobs, Lauren, Sneiderman, Marilyn, Davis-Faulkner, Sheri and Pumarol, Renata. (March 31, 2020) The Forge. “We Want Bread and Housing Too: Bargaining for the Common Good an Intersectional Feminist Strategy.”
- Jones, Kenneth and Okun, Tema (2001). Dismantling Racism: A Workbook for Social Change Groups. “White Supremacy Culture”
- Snowden, David J. and Boone, Mary E. (November 2007) Harvard Business Review. “A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making.”
- Suarez, Cyndi. (April 16, 2019) Nonprofit Quarterly. “The Sensemaking Organization: Designing for Complexity.”
- Experimental actions—I want to acknowledge that the word “experiment” can be problematic. For many, the term suggests trying unsafe interventions on the most vulnerable communities to see what might happen. For others, it suggests elite academic pursuits that are available only to a few. In this document, when we refer to experiments, we mean novel actions you might take safely and thoughtfully (and often quickly and at low cost) that can allow you to make sense of what is happening in the system and find approaches that help to create more positive conditions.
- Beatty, Andrea and illustrated by David Roberts (2013) Rosie Revere, Engineer. (a fantastic children’s book)
- Saltzberg, Barney (2010) The Beautiful Oops! (another fantastic children’s book)
- Johnson, Barry (2011) Polarity Management: Identifying and Managing Unsolvable Problems.
- Heifitz, Ronald and Linsky, Marty (June 2002) Harvard Business Review. “A Survival Guide for Leaders.”
- Allison, Michael, Misra, Susan and Perry, Elissa. (June 25, 2018) Nonprofit Quarterly. “Doing More with More: Putting Shared Leadership into Practice.”
- Katcher, Robin (March 21, 2010) Nonprofit Quarterly. “Unstill Waters: The Fluid Role of Networks in Social Movements.”
Robin Katcher is principal of Katcher Consulting. For over 20 years, Robin has provided thought partnership, consulting, and coaching services to hundreds of social change organizations, lea