Possibility to Power: How Black Women Leaders Are Building New Futures
Image credit: Yermine Richardson / www.popcaribe.com

Editors’ note: This piece is from Nonprofit Quarterly Magazine’s spring 2024 issue, “‘Stop Drowning Us, and Stop Making Us Disappear’: A Critical Report on the State of Black Woman Leadership.”

In the aftermath of the racial justice uprisings of 2020, leaders across the nonprofit world, including the philanthropic sector, made commitments to shift power to community. This came in the form of ultimately unmet financial commitments to work led by people of color,1 promises to revisit and interrogate internal practices, and the long-overdue ascension of more women, trans folks, and people of color to leadership roles.

I am one of those leaders.

As a Black woman in nonprofit management, the terrain beneath me has often felt rough, uncharted. When the cards have forever been stacked against you and you’re visioning with expanse, it can feel like you’re experiencing things alone and anew. In reality, there are deep tracks to follow. Because while Black women holding formal leadership roles is a development of recent years, Black women have been organizing philanthropy for decades. And Black women have been organizing—period—for centuries.2 And what is the purest form of philanthropy, if not organizing for collective freedom and care?

The Future I Am Dreaming

Leading as a Black woman can also be a matter of life and death. In September 2023, two Black women presidents of higher education institutions died in office: Temple University President Joanne Epps and Volunteer State Community College President Dr. Orinthia Montague.

“Look closely at the present you are constructing,” said Alice Walker. “It should look like the future you are dreaming.”3

I come to this work as a queer Black woman, daughter of the South, community organizer, and spiritual truth-seeker. The world I am committed to building is one in which we all do meaningful work with respect and dignity—and get to do it as our full authentic selves. As a person with intersecting identities, this can feel like a challenge. Sometimes, it feels impossible.

Currently, I serve at the helm of Borealis Philanthropy, an intermediary that pools funding from across philanthropy and places it directly in the hands of grassroots organizers on the front lines of movements for liberation. Leading justice-oriented work has been a source of healing for me. And still, I recognize that to choose this path has meant opening the door to a certain risk and familiar grief. I have spent my career moving among the nonprofit, government, and philanthropic sectors—organizing for social change from the outside and reforming institutions from within.

The challenges of leading as a Black woman are well documented.4 To show up to work is to show up prepared to defend your brilliance and expertise. It is to draft budgets and strategic plans against the backdrop of unbounded violence against your people. It is to march with resolute determination toward a new future, through thick and tangled webs of White supremacist tradition. And it is to do so in the face of impossible standards, heightened critique, and profound misogynoir.

Leading as a Black woman can also be a matter of life and death. In September 2023, two Black women presidents of higher education institutions died in office: Temple University President Joanne Epps and Volunteer State Community College President Dr. Orinthia Montague.5

The health impacts of racism, including workplace discrimination, are well researched. The added strain of navigating structural racism with its micro- and macroagressions manifests in Black women’s bodies as elevated stress, chronic anxiety, depression, fibroids, alopecia, and a myriad of other symptoms. Society brushes these under the rug that they then ask the same Black women leaders to vacuum.

As a Black woman alum of Harvard University, I remember when Claudine Gay was announced as the new president. I should have been elated; instead, my first reaction was fear. I genuinely thought, “I hope she doesn’t die.” I wasn’t scared an assassin would fell her on Massachusetts Avenue; instead, I was afraid that the exhaustingly familiar disease of White supremacist patriarchy would be the silent killer it has always been. As we saw, it came for Dr. Gay in the form of her forced resignation from Harvard—another loss of brilliant Black female leadership.

For me, the blueprint for leadership work is authenticity. It is the continued practice of bringing our whole selves to our roles, ultimately transforming the ecosystems we touch. Because as Black women, our wisdom is unmatched. It is wisdom born of hope and rage, the discipline of joy, and a “why” rooted in love, resistance, and solidarity. It comes from a deeply intimate understanding of the power and harm of the sectors we lead. And, most important, it is filtered through the lens of radical Black feminisms, which dictate that any true movement for liberation must center those who have been pushed to the outermost edges of this country’s power structures.6

To stand in this work as a Black woman is undoubtedly to face immense pressure and expectation; but it is also to be granted the privilege to shape new paradigms that will serve as the building blocks for new futures.

So many of the movement partners I raise money for every day are risking their lives to do this freedom work—risking their lives to move through the world as their full and authentic trans, queer, and/or disabled Black selves. I can know that and not diminish the toll this work takes on those of us in philanthropy.

In the case of the philanthropic sector, paradigm-shifting work has just begun. The tireless efforts of Black women—and in particular, queer, trans, and disabled women of color—lead to new models for philanthropy that reimagine our practice as one of accompliceship, 7 power sharing,8 and reparations.9 This revised approach to philanthropy is actively shifting swaths of our sector toward a less extractive, more participatory and joy-centered model of funding.10

This moment presents a similar opportunity to transform the practice of leadership itself. When we center Black wisdom in our approach to management, we resist White supremacist notions of impact and success. A Black feminist lens moves our organizations and sectors toward radical human resources, evolutionary governance, and pro-Black power.11 We can move at the speed of trust instead of the pace of email, refrain from reacting and commit to responding.

Through this lens, leadership and management become the work of repair. And we can approach the task of social change—and one another—with a deep tenderness, begetting more tenderness until we’ve created a world that acknowledges our inherent worth, detached from the capitalist notions of profit and production.

As we vision these possibilities, it feels essential to acknowledge the inherent exhaustion of this work and the toll that it takes on our minds, bodies, and spirits.12 As Black women, we must lead while reimagining leadership and organize for tomorrow while dismantling the dehumanizing systems of today. It is, in some ways, impossible work. We will fail, many times, in many ways, over the course of our organizing lifetimes; but we will make life-saving progress, still. Wellness, for this reason, is critical to sustaining our movement for liberation.

* * *

Today, I am three years into my role as the president of Borealis. I can confidently say this is the hardest job I’ve ever had. I have led campaigns to close youth prisons and been charged with the task of coordinating interagency response to urban violence. I repeat: this is the hardest job I’ve ever had.

I am willing to say that while acknowledging the privileged position I occupy in philanthropy. So many of the movement partners I raise money for every day are risking their lives to do this freedom work—risking their lives to move through the world as their full and authentic trans, queer, and/or disabled Black selves. I can know that and not diminish the toll this work takes on those of us in philanthropy. This sector continues to be unforgiving toward Black women leaders. My commitment is to forgive myself—and to extend grace, compassion, and care to myself, my team, and my partners.

The people with whom we curate our lives—our friends, colleagues, and allies—are our key source of self-love, and thus our fuel in this work. My own professional triumvirate—my executive coach, my therapist, and my personal trainer—and chosen kin have made my existence in this field possible. These are the folks who ground me, fill my cup, and guide me forward toward a freedom I know will come. Because a line of trailblazers walked before me, brilliant peers walk alongside me, and a bold, brave generation will follow.



  1. Alex Daniels, Marc Gunther, and Sono Motoyama, “3 Years After George Floyd, Foundations Say They’ve Changed. Many Racial-Justice Nonprofits Disagree.,” Chronicle of Philanthropy 35, no. 8 (June 2023).
  2. See Black Women’s Organizing Archive, bwoaproject.org/.
  3. Attributed to Alice Walker; see Sisonke Msimang, “Racism often lands at your feet when you are unprepared. This column has allowed me to bring my best self to your questions,” The Guardian, December 1, 2023, www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2023/dec/02/racism-often-lands-at-your-feet-when-you-are-unprepared-this-column-has-allowed-me-to-bring-my-best-self-to-your-questions.
  4. See for example Cyndi Suarez, “The Perils of Black Leadership,” NPQ, May 15, 2023, nonprofitquarterly.org/the-perils-of-black-leadership/; Cyndi Suarez, “The State of Black Women Leadership Is In Danger,” NPQ, November 28, 2023, nonprofitquarterly.org/the-state-of-black-women-leadership-is-in-danger/; and Washington Area Women’s Foundation, “AskHer Series: Thrive As They Lead,” November 9, 2023, thewomensfoundation.org/2023/askher-series-thrive-as-they-lead/.
  5. Alexia Hudson-Ward, “Two Black Women University Presidents Have Died, Spurring Heartrending Accounts of Workplace Discrimination,” Choice, September 27, 2023, www.choice360.org/tie-post/two-black-women-university-presidents-have-died-spurring-heartrending-accounts-of-workplace-discrimination/.
  6. See for example bell hooks, Communion: The Female Search for Love (New York: William Morrow, 2002); Charlene A. Carruthers, Unapologetic: A Black, Queer, and Feminist Mandate for Radical Movements (Boston: Beacon Press, 2018); and The Combahee River Collective, “The Combahee River Collective Statement,” copyright ©1978 by Zillah Eisenstein, americanstudies.yale.edu/sites/default/files/files/Keyword%20Coalition_Readings.pdf.
  7. Tai Harden-Moore, “2020 Vision: The Importance of Focusing on Accompliceship in the New Decade,” Diverse, February 6, 2020, www.diverseeducation.com/opinion/article/15106233/2020-vision-the-importance-of-focusing-on-accompliceship-in-the-new-decade.
  8. Aldita Gallardo, “4 Ways Funders Can Build Authentic Partnerships With Trans and Nonbinary Communities,” Stanford Social Innovation Review, January 26, 2023, ssir.org/articles/entry/4_ways_funders_can_build_authentic_partnerships_with_trans_and_nonbinary_communities.
  9. Aria Florant et al., “A Reparations Roadmap for Philanthropy,” Stanford Social Innovation Review, September 27, 2023, ssir.org/articles/entry/a_reparations_roadmap_for_philanthropy.
  10. Jeree Thomas, Maria Alejandra Salazar, and Nakia Wallace, “The Communities Transforming Policing Fund Shares Five Lessons from Participatory Grantmaking,” Borealis Philanthropy, June 27, 2022, borealisphilanthropy.org/the-communities-transforming-policing-fund-shares-five-lessons-from-participatory-grantmaking/; and Disability Inclusion Fund, “Why Is Funding Disabled-Led Joy Important to Our Movement?,” Borealis Philanthropy, November 15, 2022, borealisphilanthropy.org/why-is-funding-disabled-led-joy-important-to-our-movement/.
  11. Mala Nagarajan and Richael Faithful, “Investing in Community: Why Radical Human Resources Is Critical for Movement Organizations,” Borealis Philanthropy, February 9, 2022, borealisphilanthropy.org/investing-in-community-why-radical-human-resources-is-critical-for-movement-organizations/; Vu Le, “The default nonprofit board model is archaic and toxic; let’s try some new models,” Nonprofit AF, July 6, 2020, nonprofitaf.com/2020/07/the-default-nonprofit-board-model-is-archaic-and-toxic-lets-try-some-new-models/; and Liz Derias and Kad Smith, “What It Looks Like to Build a Pro-Black Organization,” Nonprofit Quarterly Magazine 29, no. 1 (Spring 2022).
  12. Alison Lin, “Our Bodies, Ourselves, Our Liberation,” Change Elemental, February 4, 2021, changeelemental.org/resources/our-bodies-ourselves-our-liberation/.