A Black woman in a flowery field, flying a bright orange sheer fabric in the wind.
Image credit: Zac Wolff on Unsplash

The load of added labor is heavy.

I feel invisible. So much of the labor I am engaged in is unseen and undervalued. The expectation that Black women take care of the group and ensure that everyone’s needs are met is so deeply ingrained in society and organizational culture that I sometimes catch myself thinking that it’s all that I have to offer.

I feel tired. The load of added labor is heavy and telling us that we are “strong” doesn’t change the fact that it falls disproportionately on our shoulders. There’s the labor of providing care and support to coworkers and even supervisors, which includes emotional and psychological support, counseling, and coaching. Then, there is the labor of doing “equity” work on behalf of the team or organization. Whether it be managing specific DEI initiatives, holding others accountable for DEI benchmarks, or maintaining relationships with partners with marginalized identities, it is disproportionately expected of us.

I feel responsible. While White male colleagues can contribute by showing up and providing inputs based on their expertise and experience, we are responsible for holding the container (setting up the meeting, writing the agenda, facilitating, ensuring comfortable conditions for collaboration, documenting outcomes, overseeing follow-up). The work of running the house is usually the domain of women of color.

When we take up these roles, we put our mental wellbeing and our jobs at risk.

I feel insufficient. There’s also the labor of supporting and mentoring junior colleagues, particularly other people of color. It goes unacknowledged, yet it is often an important factor when it comes to staff retention. We are told we are harming or being rude to our junior colleagues if we don’t give them our time or prioritize their needs.  

I feel furious. When I am told that I am the “conscience” of a group, calling others in to live professed shared values around equity and inclusion, or that I am “so passionate about equity,” I want to scream. I have not received any specific training for this work, nor is this work any more a part of my job than it is anyone else’s. It is just that I feel the weight of my own humanity in question and diminished daily, and that brings an urgency for me.  

I feel stuck. When the only significant opportunity for internal leadership is leading equity efforts, it can be a poisoned chalice. When we take up these roles, we put our mental wellbeing and our jobs at risk because we become the face of proposed policy changes that make people uncomfortable—indeed, to such an extent that our mere presence reminds people of the unresolved work of racial and gender justice. Even after stepping down from these roles, the stain of DEI remains, and we are viewed with suspicion. In addition, we must be careful not to come across as too assertive, opinionated, or to express anger when leading such efforts. We know that our tone is policed and that complaints are leveled against us when we speak too directly, respond sharply, or express frustration, all of which gets interpreted as “aggressive” and “harmful.” While others are entitled to not show up or have a bad day or say “difficult” things, we know we are not.

These are labors that are both expected and taken for granted.

I feel taken for granted. Part of the difficulty is that this work is not viewed as leadership. Building robust collaborations, performing agile coordination, managing conflict, triaging resources to meet specific needs, facilitating learning, and strengthening capacity are the roles of nurses, teachers, secretaries, and office managers. They are downplayed as “housekeeping,” yet effectively executing these functions is what makes organizations tick. There’s a parallel in the ways that women’s labor, particularly women of color’s labor, is not valued. Just as women of color are disproportionately responsible for reproductive work (the uncompensated labor to maintain social and family structures in households to support a workforce), similarly, inside of the workplace itself, we are also responsible for that same reproductive labor. We are responsible for building community to provide support during times of stress, organizing social events, managing communal resources and spaces, raising up the next generation through coaching and mentoring junior colleagues, and the labor of mediating conflict. All of these are labors that are both expected and taken for granted.

I (often) feel alone. My professional development is completely my responsibility. I must be my own advocate with little support or mentorship. I have had to fight for opportunities and promotions while others are encouraged and put forward. I believe this is because the archetype of a strong Black woman does not allow for the care of said Black woman. This archetype does not allow us to be supported, mentored, or given grace for mistakes. But to learn and grow, we need to be able to be soft, to be lost, to need guidance or assistance, to be worthy of care. We need to be able to make mistakes and take risks.

I feel doubted. This pressure to not make mistakes—to be impeccable and beyond reproach—exists because there is always the chance that any opportunity we have received will be viewed as something “given” to us not because of our experience and qualifications but due to our identity. We feel we must prove our worthiness, and there is a need to have others as reference points by which to demonstrate that we are not the first or only one to embark on a strategy or receive an accommodation.

This is a form of feminist leadership.

I feel the weight of history. It can feel as if the change I represent as a Black woman and a child of immigrants is seen as dangerous when in such close proximity to power and resources. The labor of representing my race and my gender in elite spaces is still ever-present 20 years into my career. Several times a year, when I travel to global meetings, I sit in rooms where the walls are lined with depictions of leaders, and I am aware that I look like none of them.

I feel seen. Yet even with these challenges, as I become an elder in my family and community, I realize I am being called into leadership. I am able to trust my voice and offer wisdom through experience. This version of leadership draws on my experiences as a parent, a survivor, a caregiver, and the daughter of an immigrant as sources of knowledge and expertise honoring our strategies for survival. These are the strategies and skills that have helped us and our people to survive, to generate safety, and to build community. They also offer valuable insights and resources for our leadership. For instance, my own experiences within my family of navigating incarceration, addiction, mental illness, and violence give me both an understanding of the complexities of unjust systems and the fundamental humanity of those stuck inside them. As I draw on all the intersections that have formed my own experiences, I can hold those complexities and make the connections to lead broader social justice strategies. 

Where I see Black women thriving and staying in leadership roles is in spaces where principles of equity and support structures are baked in.

I feel hope. What I have found is that when leadership is seen as a facilitation of space, I can bring my full self to the table. I believe in the alchemy of harnessing, cultivating, and transforming energy within a group—as a part of movement tables or collaborative initiatives, for example, we build trust, collectively determine action, shift mindsets, develop common understandings, or navigate change together. This is a form of feminist leadership that honors the labor of cultivating community, being in deep relationship, and figuring out the work together. It means recognizing all the ways in which mutual aid, service delivery, cultural work, and healing and connection to land and nature are recasting our understanding of how to lead social change. This is the work of weavers, bakers, and gardeners.

I feel inspired. When adrienne maree brown asks, “How do we practice the art of holding others without losing ourselves,” it is a call to hold ourselves with love1—through BIPOC learning groups, embodied transformation, healing work, and coaching—as well as a recognition of how we are redefining leadership in social justice spaces that better align with what communities want. Where I see Black women thriving and staying in leadership roles is in spaces where principles of equity and support structures are baked in. These include networked leadership and feminist co-leadership models, which recognize that pressures from the broader capitalistic systems will push back against Black women’s leadership, and so set up shields, systems, and practices to account for or counteract the expected backlash.

These threads, ingredients, and seeds that we are learning about together are what will create the structures and spaces in which Black women can be protected, supported, and honored. As the Shirley Caesar song “This Joy” reminds us, our joy, strength, love, and peace were not given to us by the current structures and systems—they are the birthright of every human being, and they cannot be taken away.



  1. adrienne maree brown, Holding Change (Edinburgh, Scotland: AK Press, 2021), 4.