Oct 30 | Zakiya Carr-Johnson

“It will start with movements like these…”

Feminist leadership requires the participation of new voices which challenge the structures we believe hold power and help us shape societies where people can be treated with dignity and respect. This is why my work and mission is in alignment with the FAIR SHARE movement and why I am determined to contribute to this effort. This commitment is not merely about representation in seats and slots, but what we do with the space we have and how we leverage that space to make lasting change.  I understand that we cannot have equity without dismantling structural racism, patriarchy and heterosexism. But how is this done?  It will start with movements like these that compel us to ask ourselves important but sometimes uncomfortable questions. What does inclusion mean for example, if white supremacy remains intact?  If the governing culture defines what is acceptable for women and upholds patriarchy?  If the status quo continues to value certain nations, or experiences and subjugates the experiences and contributions of others?

Even as a woman of African descent living in the United States, now leading two organizations focused on development and economic empowerment with women and historically marginalized groups, I continuously question my role in society and seek to hold myself accountable to open doors so that other sisters can contribute and add value to problem solving as well.  I understand that I cannot be free if the rest are not free. Therefore, it is my belief that despite the tension and discomfort that may come from questioning the way things have always been, we must critically explore privilege, power and process to chart new ways forward.

In every position I have held, from junior associate to Senior Advisor, there have been opportunities to challenge the forces that seek to silence women and those most vulnerable in society. In those board rooms, in the tight knit working group, in the advocacy and activist spaces and in grand bureaucracies, there are mechanisms and cultures which dispute the humanity and ability of people like me to be trusted to lead.  This happens, not because we are unprepared or unwilling, but because the rules created in our organizations and baked into their very foundations, are often riddled with racism, patriarchy and exclusion.  These are chinks in the armor of traditional leadership that refuse to reconcile with a colonizing past, or recognize that time has run out for experimentation and tweaking of a failed historic model.  This way of leading seeks to silence dissenting voices, forces people to adopt practices which may hurt others even when the end goal is humanitarian aid or sustainable development.  “It’s the way we have always done things” is no longer an acceptable excuse. We understand that a cultural shift is on the horizon and in order to save us all, we must be prepared to change.

My work in policy and development has always been rooted in human rights. Where new voices were discouraged, I brought unfamiliar experiences, skill sets and unique knowledge of the world to bear.  Whenever possible, I stand behind the practice of making power visible, legitimate and accountable, not just behind closed doors, but in public spaces too. I want to see leadership embrace participatory, horizontal and inclusive relationships between communities and generations. It is time we get it right for my children and the young people coming up behind us who are discovering what leadership is supposed to do and be in this world.  I hope you will join us in this endeavor. There is so much more we can do – together.