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Photo: RJS: Rising to the Top panelists

Racial Justice Series: Rising to the Top – Resources & Guidance

by Larry McCammon

On Wednesday, April 14, 2021, we hosted a Racial Justice Series program entitled Rising to the Top: Diverse Executive Leadership for Non-Profits. The panel, consisting of black executive directors from non-profit organizations, shared the experiences that led them to leadership roles in their respective organizations. Panelists included Avis Buchanan, Director, the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia; Rochanda Hiligh-Thomas, Executive Director, Advocates for Justice and Education; and Glen O’Gilvie, Chief Executive Officer, Center for Non-Profit Advancement. Our conversation was moderated by Henry E. Floyd, Jr., Senior Associate Attorney, Koonz McKenney Johnson & DePaolis LLP, and Washington Council of Lawyers Board Member.

Initial Barriers and Challenges

Henry began the discussion at the beginning by asking each panelist about the personal challenges they faced as new black attorneys. All three spoke to their organizations’ sensitivity to the challenges of race equality in the workplace.  As members of public interest organizations whose clients included individuals of color, the panelists felt that the early years of their careers found them in work environments where these issues were being addressed. However, in some other positions they held, they experienced racial barriers in both obvious and subtle ways. For instance, one of our panelists related that as a supervisor and pro bono attorney mentor, there were clear moments where white lawyers would question her decisions while attorneys of color did not. And for another panelist, there were times when white colleagues were promoted ahead of them for reasons not based on merit or position qualifications. These early career experiences helped shape the types of positions our panelists would pursue later in their careers and demonstrated to them the types of leaders they aspired to be.

Mentors, Coaches, and Sponsors

Whether formal or informal, support relationships were key to our panelists’ development as leaders. Glen sees these relationships falling into three categories: mentor, coach, and sponsor. Mentors are there to answer questions and perhaps help with the day-to-day navigation in an organization or career. A coach not only shows you “how it’s done” but helps you set — and pushes you to reach — professional goals. A sponsor is a person willing to put themselves on the line for you by actively connecting you with opportunities to grow and succeed.  They will vouch for your work and go the extra mile to get you in front of decision-makers. Sponsors can be difficult to find for lawyers of color, and, as our panelists suggested, take some time to cultivate.

Our panelists agreed that developing and cultivating a support network is vital to success. Professional organizations like Black Female Executive Directors or our local voluntary bar associations are a great place to start. Supervisors are also a valuable resource, both for mentorship and coaching. Rochanda was fortunate to receive both from her first three supervisors. She spoke to them about her career plans and the skills she hoped to gain, and they gave her opportunities to develop these skills and gain experience. Avis sees mentors as encouragers as well. But you can’t simply wait for a co-worker or supervisor to encourage you. Young lawyers should seek out those who can expand their skillsets and experiences, or connect them with the next steps in their career progression.

All of our panelists candidly shared that they have faced “imposter syndrome”; at times, they have doubted their own abilities and readiness to take on larger leadership roles. All credit their mentors, coaches, and sponsors with helping them realize they were both ready for and worthy of their leadership roles. It is another reason that it is vital for lawyers of color to pursue these leadership opportunities in creating work environments in which racial equity can be realized.

Addressing Racism as a Non-Profit Executive Director

Representation matters. It is important for clients, employees, and stakeholders to benefit from a diverse leadership pool. The panelists agreed that the first step in addressing racial inequality at the top is for organizations to recognize and accept that racial inequality exists.  “Leaders must set expectations throughout the ranks; they can set up employee committees, and work with consultants” to ensure employment policies are equitable, suggested Avis. Her co-panelists echoed the message that leadership in this space requires hard and difficult work for both individuals and organizations. As Glen said, “Non-profits need to create policies that outlast the leaders and board members so that it’s baked into the culture to last the test of time.”

One key practice in addressing this issue is to challenge hiring and promotion practices. Question from where your organization is drawing candidates. What are the hiring criteria? Are they transparent? Are they related to the skills and abilities the candidate needs to accomplish the work? Then how are new employees onboarded? Is the culture of the organization clearly defined? And are the policies and practices designed to create an equitable workplace discussed? Everyone has a part to play in dismantling systemic racism wherever it manifests. By focusing our energies on doing what is in our capacity in our own corner of the world, we all can push change. As Rochanda put it, “Stand in your space.”

Where Do We Go From Here?

Rochanda answered this question with the question, “How do you find your path forward dealing with race as you try to move up in the world of legal non-profits?” Her advice is to stay grounded and use your networks. This will provide the support structure you need as you seek leadership roles.

Avis shared that she finds this to be a unique time with a distinctive feel and energy. While questions of racial equity have been in the public conscience for far too long, Avis thinks the difference now is that the answers are not pre-determined.  Up and coming non-white lawyers striving to one day lead a legal non-profit organization have examples that they can draw from. Rochanda spoke about the leadership guidance she received from co-workers and the professional support networks she’s developed.

Glen ended the discussion by stressing the importance of BIPOC leaders taking action. He talked about the need to be involved and to create a shared vocabulary that will help make other leaders understand the importance of racial equity. As he stated so poetically, “You have to lift while you climb . . . that’s how change is made.”

Larry McCammon is a graduate of Catholic University’s Columbus School of Law and a member of the Washington Council of Lawyers Advocacy Committee.

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