Colorful line-art painting of a Black woman with a cropped hairstyle. Her eyes are closed and her face is facing upwards. She is against a black background with green stripes.
Image credit: Yermine Richardson /

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.”

I remember the first time I had to navigate a leadership challenge. I was a new, young, inexperienced executive director of a congregation-based community organization made up of faith communities working together for justice.

At 26 years old, I was 11 months into the job (and the life of the organization), and I had just organized the firstand most significant—civic event of my city at the time (2013) and in the annual cycle of the organization’s calendar. It was our public debut in the Topeka, Kansas, community; 1,100 community members were packed into a ballroom, where the superintendent of Topeka Public Schools would be invited to the stage.

After hearing too many stories about children and grandchildren not being able to read at grade level, our organization had launched a campaign to address the problem. We found that out of 14,000 students from K–12, a devastating third were considered “at risk” of failing. The public education system had a job to do—and it was failing. After countless meetings with the superintendent, district staff, and other stakeholders, the superintendent agreed that something needed to be done—and we had invited her to our assembly so that she could announce the expansion of a program to help at-risk students improve their grades, behavior, and attendance.

On the night of the event, the room was filled with an electric current of anticipation and hope—but then the superintendent turned the tables on us. She refused to make a commitment.

Our spokesperson refused to let her off the hook. After asking her for a third time to reconsider her decision, the official burst into tears. A deeply diverse room of mothers, grandparents, educators, and more who had been assembled around a common goal of wanting success for the students was quickly divided by this White woman’s tears. People—our own members—literally stood and walked out. The headline in a city newspaper the next morning read, “Group Bullies District Superintendent.”1 The account of the event in the local newspaper introduced the organization and the event from one—unfavorable—perspective.

I spent the rest of that night and the next morning on the phone with my mentors, who were supposed to support me as an organizer and as the executive director of this organization. My organization had been thrown into a crisis of identity: our culture, mission, vision, and purpose were being called into question. I can state two things for certain: (1) that organization survived and thrived; and (2) it was not because of the mentorship and direction I was supposed to have been given as a new, inexperienced ED with the benefit of “training” from a parent network.

During the height of my leadership journey…I thought it was a duty and an honor to work 60 hours a week, overextend myself to be a good partner and mother, and volunteer for my church. The systems that made up my world—church, work, and the media—convinced me to wear “superwoman” like a badge of honor.

To Black women leaders everywhere: society was built on—and society continues to stand on—our backs. This is both a mark of honor and a heavy burden. In meeting rooms, coffee corners, and water-cooler chats, Black women bring our brilliance and resilience. But let’s not shy away from acknowledging the elephant in the room: the unique hurdles that Black women often confront in the workplace. I’m not interested in a pity party; rather, I seek to celebrate our strength, our tenacity, and our power to rewrite the narrative.

I spend my days sitting with women of color in leadership who oscillate between the power of being able to wear many hats well and the burden of seemingly having no choice but to do so. Do we hate or love the so-called superwoman schema?2 Sometimes, our identity is at odds with it.

Being on the journey with these leaders as their executive coach has thrust me into deep reflection about my own leadership journey. I entered the workforce my sophomore year of high school. I played sports, participated in debate tournaments, and still worked part-time. My motivation: funding for activities, school functions, and college applications. When you come from a family of two working-class parents with five kids, you are grateful for lights, water, and dinner on the table. I was the eldest, and I did not want to be a burden. In fact, to that end, I also got my fictional “license” in babysitting services!

Shoot. I wasn’t even legal yet and already had my GED in the superwoman schema. 

In 2010, Professor Cheryl Giscombé published a paper titled “Superwoman Schema: African American Women’s Views on Stress, Strength, and Health.”3 In an interview, she describes the schema as a framework to better understand how to conceptualize stress and coping in African American women. She identifies five characteristics Black women tend to embody:

    1. “a perceived obligation to present an image of strength”
    2. “a perceived obligation to suppress emotions”
    3. “a perceived obligation to resist help or to resist being vulnerable to others”
    4. “[a] motivation to succeed despite limited resources”
    5. “[p]rioritization of caregiving over self-care”4

During the height of my leadership journey, I embodied all five of these characteristics. I thought it was a duty and an honor to work 60 hours a week, overextend myself to be a good partner and mother, and volunteer for my church. The systems that made up my world—church, work, and the media—convinced me to wear “superwoman” like a badge of honor. It seemed worth it when I looked at how resilient my organization had become. It seemed necessary when I saw my daughter showing exceptional development of leadership skills at the age of five. And then, during one particularly tough season seven years into my time as executive director, my emotional and mental stability crashed. I realized that this badge of honor only led to burnout. And then I was no good to nobody.

Around that time, I found myself in rooms with other women of color in leadership. Those rooms helped me to realize how isolated I had been for so long. Not being in community with anyone who looked like me both as an ED and as a community organizer had been a serious loss. Where were these opportunities when I had needed them most? Why wasn’t the institution responsible for my development helping me to connect with these spaces?

I discovered that we women of color leaders shared these common experiences that had brought us to a place of putting up our middle finger to the world. (I did not, but I wanted to—and I lived vicariously through the ones who did.) Being around my people helped me to surface a deeper meaning of my purpose. I thank God for putting me into those spaces designed specifically for women of color leaders.

Now, I design such spaces myself, so that young Black women can find community early in their leadership journey. I have transitioned from executive leadership to executive coaching. Together with my clients, we unravel the intricacies of navigating predominantly White workplaces, especially as/for Black women. We work together to dismantle the superwoman schema and replace it with liberation practices.

I remember the first time I felt disrespected and treated unfairly in the workplace. It was during my junior year of college, when I was promoted from server to shift manager at the Park Ave. Diner on the campus of Florida State University. Folks were clowning around between shifts. I was packing up, and the next shift manager had just walked in. Somehow, we got to talking about hourly rates, and I learned that my counterpart, a White male who had been promoted after me, was making more than me. My nose ran hot like the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob when the Israelites refused to turn from their wicked ways of oppressing the widow, the orphan, and the poor.

I had been there longer and could run circles around the man to keep the store running smoothly. The justification? “The man is engaged, so we figured he needed more money so he could start his family.” That would be the first of hundreds of biased things people have said or done to me in the workplace. I quit on Tuesday, picked up another job on Wednesday, and kept it moving.

Then, the second semester of senior year came. I was able to celebrate with my peers and my family that I had secured an internship before my graduation date. In those years, every college student dreamed about walking straight into a job after graduation rather than spending months—even years—looking for a job that put their degree to use. My opportunity was only an internship, at the end of which they could decide whether I was good enough to stay or not. But I counted it a blessing, anyhow. It was months of back-to-back meetings, long nights, and weekend commitments, but I was committed to being successful—a drive ingrained in me by my family to go 120 percent at all times for all things.

It was four months into the internship, and judgment day was soon to come. I had a check-in call scheduled with my trainer, during which I would share what I had set up and we would evaluate how close I was to meeting my goals. The person who was supposed to be training me and supporting my development told me that what I had done over the past several months was not good enough. They made it clear that they did not believe in me. It was one of the most soul-crushing moments of my life. But one of my spiritual gifts is faith—deep trust in my source; and it is my very own faith in the will of God that carried me emotionally through that moment and provided me with every resource I needed to meet my goals, regardless of the obstacles. In spite of the feedback from my trainer—a White male—I crushed it: I got the job. And then came the first day of the rest of my community-organizing career.

For many years, I put my head down, ignored the micro- and macroaggressions, and pursued my goals. I excelled in spite of the capitalism, patriarchy, and White supremacy that engulfed my community and professional environments. When I “put my head down,” I became completely desensitized to the judgments, comments, questions, and decisions that should have given me pause. I gained willpower, but I suffered from not having the type of mentorship that would have provided support to my entire being, not just my skill set. Perhaps becoming numb to bias was a defense mechanism; if so, that defense mechanism served me well—until it didn’t.

Dangerous questions and judgments fueled by bias are only two examples of the way White people—even when they believe they support us—contribute to unsafe spaces. Another is the box Black women are put in when we express ourselves with passion and/or assertion. Do not characterize me as “angry” or “aggressive.” Do not.

It was the “Summer of Racial Reckoning,” in which the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd led to a rallying cry that would bring me out of a fog I did not even know I was in.5 I remember the precise moment the fog lifted. In August 2020, my husband and I were standing at the edge of our yard. A construction crew had ripped up the street and curb of our small cul-de-sac. Our street was lined with the homes of mostly retired couples and widows. The street was spotted with a few single professionals and a few young families—two of us Black. My husband was fussing about the weeds that were growing between the sidewalk and the street—reflecting the poor job the city had done to replace our grass. As we inspected the weeds, a pickup truck with two middle-aged White men approached us. The driver was one of our neighbors, and a friend or relative of his was seated on the passenger side. My neighbor slowed down, seemingly trying to connect with us on the frustration of the terrible grade of grass seed that had been put down. Wheels still moving, the passenger yelled out, “What are you trying to do there, grow some watermelon?”

I had the most annoyingly delayed reaction to his bigoted comment you can imagine. My gut reaction was to smile. My husband looked at me and said, “Did you hear what he said?” Why the hell did I smile and chuckle at that racist comment? But the fog had lifted, and I refused to be complicit in the dumb things people say from that point on. Being desensitized, those comments used to bounce off me; now, my consciousness was forcing me to internalize the bias and bigotry. It is no coincidence that I began to have more anxious moments than I remember ever having had in the previous 32 years of my life. But it was also freeing and soul satisfying to be unapologetically Black.

That moment on the curb caused me to lament all of the times I had chosen not to stand up for myself. Like when I was sexually assaulted by a colleague and, after reporting it, discovered that questions about my past personal relationships and child out of wedlock had been raised between another colleague and my “superior” in the organization. In that moment, I chose to maintain the power of my spirit and not to address the questions with him or with my colleague—nor the disturbing fact that these questions had even been raised at all. Sometimes, when it serves us, we choose to command our own spirit and turn away from such aggressions. Today, I know that some people cannot understand my story and genuinely support me. Why? Because Black women’s bodies have been so oversexualized that people hold an implicit bias about positions Black women may put themselves in that can lead to harm.

Dangerous questions and judgments fueled by bias are only two examples of the way White people—even when they believe they support us—contribute to unsafe spaces. Another is the box Black women are put in when we express ourselves with passion and/or assertion. Do not characterize me as “angry” or “aggressive.” Do not.

Recently, a White male board member gave my White female peers his account of a conversation between the two of us. He described me as yelling at him. Thankfully, my peers quickly dismissed this account and even named bias as the lens through which he had experienced the conversation. “That is out of her character,” my peers said to each other. “While she may have been assertive, it is hard to believe she yelled at that board member in a room full of people.”

The best and most fulfilling jobs also tend to be stressful ones: ministry, community organizing, youth advocacy, education, community development, and so forth. That is why Dr. Giscombé’s study of how Black women cope with stress is so relevant. I am tired of seeing Black people cycle in and out of meaningful work—specifically, nonprofit, social justice movement work. While a small few may not be cut out for the job, my experience and my gut tell me that too many Black people are pushed out of this capitalist system in which one is a cog in the wheel of a machine that only cares about hitting its own production goals on its own timeline.

That system is unwilling to meet Black people where we are and to take time to support our development. Some of us built up the superwoman schema so that we can survive the abuse of capitalism. And now I am on a journey to break it back down. Because while there are some benefits to being a superwoman, like self-preservation and preservation of the Black community, there are serious drawbacks, like the degradation of our mental and physical health. So I want to break it down and replace it with a community of love and abundance.

I built a strong and resilient organization, and I want credit for that. I want the people who come after me on the ground in movement work to have a structure of relationships built around them that caters to every human need they have, so that they can be the healthiest and most effective community organizers they can be. I want the people who come after me on the ground in movement work to be given a chance to grow into their wildest dreams as changemakers and justice seekers, not pushed out before they even know what community organizing is.

It hasn’t all been bad. The relationships I built along the way have shaped the deepest parts of my identity. The wisdom I have witnessed from my board members and fellow justice seekers has been inspiring and life changing. But in the midst of stopping to admire the color purple,6 I am calling all Black Women Bosses to task.

It is time for us to rewrite the narrative. Resilient organizations are built on our backs and by the sweat of our brows. And we’ve been doing it with meager resources and credit. While I watch Black women executives create caviar on a tuna fish budget (as one colleague has put it), I think about how we must at the same time demand more financial and developmental support for ourselves and our teams. We must refuse to let White-led, soul-crushing organizations and spaces exhaust us to the point of retreat. Organizational culture must be set by executive leadership. If that is you, then research, study, and invest in transformative leadership practices that will foster real trust and unity even among the most diverse teams. If you are not an executive leader yet, invest in a support system: a leadership coach, a peer coaching group, a professional sister circle. Then, begin to challenge the hell out of the organizational structures that are oppressing you—one by one.

* * *

I am inspired by a quote by Albert Camus that I read in Emergent Strategy by adrienne maree brown: “The only way to deal with the unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.”7 We deserve mentors and coaches who look like us. We deserve at least six weeks of paid vacation a year. We deserve leadership development training and retreats offered and paid for by the best organizations in our industries. We deserve spaces designed specially for women of color. Let’s have this conversation in public—because change will not happen if the “ask” remains behind closed doors. Within every obstacle lies an opportunity for transformation. In the words of Maya Angelou, “And still, I rise.”8 Rise, Sisters; rise to something more transformative. The stage is ours.



  1. The online version had a different headline from the print version: “Editorial: JUMP makes wrong move,” Topeka Capital-Journal, May 3, 2014,
  2. See Cheryl L. Woods-Giscombé, “Superwoman Schema: African American Women’s Views on Stress, Strength, and Health,” Qualitative Health Research 20, no. 5 (May 2010): 668–83.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ana Sandoiu, “‘We must educate healthcare providers’ about Black women’s experience,” Medical News Today, July 31, 2020,
  5. Ailsa Chang, Rachel Martin, and Eric Marrapodi, “Summer of Racial Reckoning,” America Reckons With Racial Injustice, NPR, August 16, 2020,
  6. Alice Walker, The Color Purple (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing, 2006).
  7. See adrienne maree brown, Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds (Chico, CA: AK Press, 2017), 56.
  8. Maya Angelou, And Still I Rise: A Book of Poems (New York: Random House, 1978).