Colorful line-art painting of a Black woman with cropped hair looking over her shoulder and wearing a bright feather dress. She is on a black background with gray dots.
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.”


There is nothing uncomplicated about being a nonprofit leader—let alone a Black woman nonprofit leader, and a Black woman nonprofit leader of the largest Black abolitionist philanthropic organization ever to exist in the United States.

Historically and to this day, nonprofit organizations regularly reify the same systematized inequities they are founded to uproot. Employees often find themselves eligible for and reliant on public benefits to make ends meet. Nonprofit leaders are held to the implicit standard that cause-driven professionals take an “oath of poverty” while fighting to eradicate the pernicious social ills to which they themselves remain materially vulnerable.

NPQ is one of many leading publications documenting a growing crisis for Black women in leadership in the United States, both within and beyond the nonprofit sector. The through line of “a fundamental absence of trust”1 is no news to Black women leaders like me—whether we cut our teeth in corporate America, as entrepreneurs and business owners, in movement work, as part of the philanthropic sector, or as lifelong public servants. The phenomenon of the “glass cliff”2 is on full display in post-pandemic America—Black women frequently report experiences of being promoted into leadership positions and then given the near-impossible task of fixing a broken culture or turning around an insolvent organization, all while incurring the added labor and toll of acting as representatives for one or many systemically marginalized identities and populations.

This double bind is even more acute for those leading public-facing social justice organizations and movements. Today, the most high profile of these is, arguably, Black Lives Matter.


My name is Cicley Gay, and I am board chairwoman of the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation.

Black women leaders…are wrestling with the categorical challenges of driving change, living our values, raising families, responding to crises, and vivifying a vision of a better world for ourselves, our communities, and our families…at the functional fore of organizations and a society that we must fundamentally transform in order to succeed.

Since accepting my role with BLM, both my career and my life have come under new levels of public scrutiny. As a result, my character and my competency are under attack.

Intrusive? Yes. Anticipated? Also yes.

I have dedicated my career to community building, philanthropy, and social justice—and I will not allow the complexity of my experiences as a Black woman, or my individual circumstances, to be erased or maligned.

This article aims to contextualize my life and work—my choices, my failures, my learnings, my mistakes, and my successes—as I actively confront the same multiple, overlapping crises our society is facing today, and may face for the foreseeable future.

In doing so, I believe I can contribute to, elevate, and sharpen the accuracy, effectiveness, and rigor of a myriad of public conversations: conversations about fiscal responsibility, incentive alignment,3 living through an age of unprecedented moral complexity, the state of Black women in leadership, and more.

I chose the Nonprofit Quarterly as an initial platform for recontextualizing and unpacking my lived experiences because I believe it is a fit-for-purpose forum: one wherein I not only can address but also actively advance and reshape the critical, intersecting narratives around the movement for Black lives. I believe we can use this space to ensure that, like the arc of the moral universe, we collectively, individually, and organizationally truly bend toward justice.

And today I have the great fortune of joining hand, pen, and voice with other Black women leaders and co-contributors. Like me, they are wrestling with the categorical challenges of driving change, living our values, raising families, responding to crises, and vivifying a vision of a better world for ourselves, our

communities, and our families—under a media microscope and at the functional fore of organizations and a society that we must fundamentally transform in order to succeed.

My name is Cicley Gay, and this is my story.

To this day, my fellow board members and I are still dealing with personal and professional tolls—from accusations of financial impropriety to attacks on our character, our competency, and our commitment to the cause and work of the global movement for Black lives.


We’ve all seen them: news articles, blog posts, Instagram captions addressing challenges, complexity, and personal identity, led with the now-platitudinous Walt Whitman quote:

“I contain multitudes.”4

For this story, it’s far more fitting to quote a different renowned American poet—a fellow Black woman and a multihyphenate like me: activist-mother-teacher.

…most of all

I am blessed within my selves

who are come to make our shattered faces whole.

—Audre Lorde5

I understood what I was signing up for when I accepted the position of board chair with BLM. I was not daunted by the challenges, nuances, and risks involved.

While the job is defined by an immense set of responsibilities, I’ve spent my entire life building this role and learning the capabilities and conviction to manage it with excellence.

I am indisputably, specifically qualified to excel at making the types of decisions that drive our mission and vision forward—and I am uniquely qualified to speak to the areas where conditions for Black women in nonprofit leadership must change and improve.

When my chairship was announced, my career, family, finances, and personal life were all put on full display. News outlets latched onto my past—in particular, that I have filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy: once in 2005 and again in 2016.

This spotlighting of my credit history and personal debts was part of a wider campaign aimed at delegitimizing Black Lives Matter and anyone involved in its leadership.

We battled and ultimately won a lawsuit, even as we worked around the clock to develop infrastructure for an organization that, overnight, had received tens of millions of dollars of philanthropic donations from corporations, foundations, and individuals in the wake of our historic movement building throughout 2020.

To this day, my fellow board members and I are still dealing with personal and professional tolls—from accusations of financial impropriety to attacks on our character, our competency, and our commitment to the cause and work of the global movement for Black lives.

My online profile transformed overnight. Google searches that had previously showcased my 20-year career—much of it spent overseeing multimillion-dollar budgets and grantmaking processes—now saw it buried beneath pages and pages of clickbait questioning my ability to lead. Each story asked the same fundamental question: How can a (Black) woman who has filed for bankruptcy be fiscally responsible?


There are many stories that make up the fabric of my being. I am a Black woman who was born in the Midwest and raised in the South. My parents were both teachers. By many standards, this meant that our family was far from underresourced when I was growing up. Both of my parents had attended college, and I always expected and wanted to pursue a postsecondary education as well. I also realized the expansiveness of professional possibilities I had in front of me—so different from those of my mother’s generation, when women had less than a handful of available career and collegiate tracks to pursue. I was driven to identify career paths that would allow me to integrate my passions and my strengths, and I was acutely attentive to ideas, opportunities, and people that/who supported and uplifted that alignment.

I also, at sixteen years old, became a mother.

And while society immediately tried to put a cap on my potential, I doggedly sought out ways to apply the intelligence and inquisitiveness I knew truly defined me.

I first found a way to marry my personal and professional values through two years of national service as an AmeriCorps member. I recognized the unique benefits of national service for someone in my position, and applied the Corps service awards toward college tuition, ultimately receiving dual degrees in political science and communications.

As I strove to build a life I could take pride in for myself and my sons, I discovered that I had major hurdles to clear and lessons to learn when it came to my mindset about—and my relationship to—money. My parents, both of whom worked incredibly hard in their careers, inculcated me with a reverence for education. However, their relationship to money—and mine, as a result—was shaped by ideas of scarcity. When it came to building credit and understanding personal finances, I found myself learning by doing in a predatory system. I distinctly remember, as a young college student, being wooed by credit card companies tabling in the campus quad to sign up students. Unaware of the implications and thrilled at the offer of “free” T-shirts and water bottles, I signed up for every introductory offer.

In my early career, I continued pursuing opportunities to lift up underresourced Black communities, women, and youth. For years, I worked in programmatic and grantmaking positions across both local and national nonprofit and philanthropic organizations. I renegotiated job offers, often turning down pay increases to ensure the facility and flexibility I needed to focus on my most cherished, critical role: that of “Number-One Mom.”

Eventually, I was able to start parlaying the wealth of nonmonetary resources I had amassed throughout my life and professional experiences—my intellectual capital, relationships, and work ethic—into opportunities to support more like-minded leaders and organizations as an external advisor, consultant, and, eventually, small business owner. While I learned by doing, I took the types of risks that, at least on paper, entrepreneurs are not only permitted but indeed encouraged to take. Some of these risks came with great reward; others did not bear the fruit I expected or hoped for. When they didn’t, I followed the processes and rules of our financial system. Over time, I learned about myself, about monetary and nonmonetary value, and about how I could reshape my relationship to both.

Along the way, I hit hurdles. I, like more than 40 million other Americans, struggled with the burden of high-interest student loan debts that disproportionately affected my household solvency.6 (Half of my debt at the time was nondischargeable student loans.) And when this burden threatened to overwhelm my family—at one point in my young life, I played the role of “breadwinner” for seven family members—I chose to use a mechanism in our American financial system that was created to incentivize entrepreneurism, business building, and risk tolerance.

Am I ashamed?

At first, I was. When I initially confronted and endeavored to learn about the appropriateness and implications of filing for bankruptcy, I had no option but to move through both the educational and emotional journeys that go with the territory of making such a longitudinally and reputationally impactful choice. Nearly half of the debt I held in the 2016 filing was $55,000 of nondischargeable student loan debt, and I needed relief to ensure I had the means to care for my family. I felt fear, guilt, loss, and—yes—shame.

Today, however, my shame around this decision is gone. Today, I recognize that there is incredible value in speaking to my experience: to improve and increase financial literacy around the history of our nation’s economic development philosophies, around the tools that exist within our present-day monetary system, and around the complexity of our tax codes for both the average American as well as my close community members.

And as I built a career, family, and life of my own, I learned to redefine my relationship to money as one of abundance, not scarcity. I began growing my village and assembling resources that continue to sustain me and my family. I maintained the curiosity and thirst for knowledge that helped me to transcend my early-career circumstances, gained connections and mentorship, and grew my resources. I planted seeds that continue to contribute to my and my family’s ability to thrive. People who were not my blood relatives, who saw potential and promise in me, further invested in me and gave me opportunities that I, in turn, planted and nurtured and began to see grow. I met and maintained relationships with multiple people—and Black women in particular—who taught me to value myself and my work more, and better, and to not settle for less. Even today, I am growing, and season after season I am realizing a growing yield from the fruits of their care and generosity and kindness. And like Black women before and all around me, I use the surplus from these collective harvests to reinvest in those around me, in communities and individuals in need.


Over my career, I have managed the budgets of multimillion-dollar nonprofit organizations, impeccably. I have overseen grantmaking processes that distributed resources to hundreds of deserving community-based organizations that might have been overlooked by traditional philanthropy if I had not stood in the gap to make their critical work visible. My life’s work has been committed to demonstrating the true definition of philanthropy: the love of humankind.

I have also raised three incredible young Black men, each of whom is thriving in his young adulthood, differently prepared for an ever-changing society and workforce where their safety and value remain a concern that I fight for on and off the clock.

It is an honor to wake up every morning and devote my days to the important, values-aligned work that I am called to. It is a privilege to fight for Black communities and families, mothers and children. And while I cannot imagine living out my life any other way, I am not only imagining but also actively building toward a future where my work is uplifted and valued—more than ever before, more than many of my ancestors ever thought possible.

In my life up until now and in my leadership role within BLM, I return often to Audre Lorde. And while I acknowledge and appreciate how and why organizing communities and fellow movement builders field and pay attention to critiques of over-citation or misrepresentation of Lorde’s work, I find no fault in experiencing a deep resonance with her body of writing. The shape of this article, in particular, cleaves close to many of the essays, poems, and speeches she shared with us—works that keep us connected to her and our collective presence and power. As I look toward, and prepare myself for, the future, I recognize it as one to which I must commit myself, over again and anew, to maintaining an active orientation toward a conversation about my personal choices and my life that extends beyond and is greater than me—because I have accepted and chosen a life and work that are far greater than the sum of their parts. And while I lean into this calling, I hope and pray for the kind of personal and societal discernment Lorde once articulated as being fundamental to our success at both bringing about true social justice and living into the fullness of our lives: “The quality of light by which we scrutinize our lives has direct bearing upon the product which we live, and upon the changes which we hope to bring about through those lives.”7

There is so much more to unpack here: around the prevalence of predatory lending throughout the history of our nation, its persistence and compounded network effects in digitally driven twenty-first-century marketplaces, and the havoc it has wreaked (and continues to wreak) on historically marginalized and vulnerable communities—in particular, low-income communities of color.

There is so much more to say: about combating exploitative corporations and practices—even while prejudicial patterns are actively perpetuated, even while elected officials prioritize individual advancement and self-preservation over the passage of reparative policies and over the undoing of historic wrongs.

There is so much more to share: about the onus of agency, both individual and shared, for communities, elders, families, parents, and teachers who face barriers to educational access and equity. About how our circumstances—chosen or not, conscious or not—affect and create our foundational relationships to the cornerstones of legacy, life, and love: health and wealth.

But for now, for today: I hope these small details from my life story serve as a beginning. That they can be grounding. That they create or widen an opening for a necessarily larger scale, longer set of conversations. And that they represent a coming together around a shared vision of joy, power, victory, and love.8


  1. Cyndi Suarez, “The State of Black Women Leadership Is In Danger,” NPQ, November 28, 2023,
  2. L’Oreal Thompson Payton, “Black women and the glass cliff: ‘I was supposed to bring some kind of Black Girl Magic,’” Fortune, November 6, 2022,
  3. Vladislav Valentinov, “Toward an Incentive Alignment Theory of Nonprofit Organization,” Evolutionary and Institutional Economics Review 5, no. 1 (2008): 189–96.
  4. Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself,” in Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (Brooklyn, NY: self-pub., 1855).
  5. Audre Lorde, “Outside,” in The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde (New York, London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1997), 226.
  6. Jack Caporal, “Student Loan Debt Statistics in 2023,” The Motley Fool, last modified December 19, 2023,
  7. Audre Lorde, “Poetry Is Not a Luxury,” in Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (Berkeley, CA: Crossing Press, 1984), 36.
  8. Maurice Mitchell, “Building Resilient Organizations: Toward Joy and Durable Power in a Time of Crisis,” NPQ, The Forge, and Convergence, November 29, 2022,