Recently, the entire Seattle-based ACT Theatre Board of Directors stepped down. There was no scandal. There was no financial malfeasance. The board simply recognized that to provide the kind of leadership the community needs, they had to start from scratch. They were influenced by another theater board in Massachusetts which describes boards as “broken” and must be rebuilt to address inequalities and hierarchical structures. This act is so rare that the article has been circling nonprofit inboxes across the country.
Last spring, the FRIDA|Young Feminist Fund announced that they received $10 million from MacKenzie Scott. Their Resource Mobilization Ethics Policy required them to acknowledge that Scott’s donation came from one of the most exploitive companies in the world. In their article, “Money is Political”, the FRIDA|Young Feminist Fund is “interrogating the question of how to absorb philanthropic dollars from violent systems of capitalism as a means of reparations” to exploited communities.
These actions are in stark contrast to the traditional and patriarchal governance/leadership approach most of us in nonprofits use. The irony is that these internal patriarchal systems are going unquestioned in most organizations that promote anti-racism, gender justice, environmental justice, and decolonization. I think most of us in social justice work have recognized this irony and see these leadership models being passively accepted, usually not even justified. The question surfacing for many of us is, how can we create a just world outside of our organizations if we are not creating practical and alternative power dynamics internally? How can we realize a vision that we are not enacting to govern ourselves? And the ultimate excuse we give: How can we challenge privilege and power in our organizations while functioning in a patriarchal society with all its traditional assumptions?
In both Seattle ACT Theatre and FRIDA/Young Feminist Fund, they have committed to struggling with these questions, the time and listening it requires, and the iterative experiments and processes to turn power on its head – internally and externally. It’s not a dream, organizations are doing this! This path is one that some call liberatory governance for boards or liberatory leadership for whole organizations. Organizations that are pursuing this course are taking a holistic stance that rebuilds frameworks and governance starting with the question, “What would need to be true, in order to build the world we all deserve?”1
A great description of how to move towards liberatory governance is from the Resonance Network/#WeGovern initiative. When they were working on the tools for how to govern themselves, they started by envisioning “the future we believe is possible, and created a set of principles that could sustain it.”1
The incongruity we find in our organizations can be overwhelming and change is difficult. To determine if liberatory leadership is a relevant model for your organization, you have to take ownership of your current systems. At The Hive Collective, we start by looking at actual examples from the past to help us look to the future:
- When have our leadership frameworks perpetuated scarcity and power?
- When has our board and governance system perpetuated the same centuries-old systems that value our organization’s sustainability above the dignity and humanity of those it is purported to serve?
- When have we guarded the truth about power inherent in philanthropy?
- When have we made decisions that benefit donors over the people we purportedly serve?
- When have we protected our power as organizations above connection and humbly partnering with other people and organizations?
When beginning these conversations, the impulse is to let the conversation drift towards justifications and blame. Be courageous and stay the course: question the justifications, reject blame. Liberatory leadership is grounded in mutual care and breaks down power in systems, practices, and frameworks.
To create change in the sector, we must engage deeper in our collective beliefs and disaggregate the internal systems of power that are accepted without question – board governance, leadership hierarchies, and philanthropy. We must set our fear aside and move this conversation from the theoretical to boardrooms. Liberatory leadership is an opportunity to conduct ourselves personally and organizationally in a way that reflects and embodies our missions and visions. Adopting values and defining behaviors that bring the future we envision to everyday practices in our work.
We, as changemakers, must change the way we work too.
*Beth Ellen is conducting research for a future podcast on organizations that are questioning and reforming their power structures: board governance, philanthropy, and leadership. Please contact Beth Ellen at firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to share your story.
Why the Entire Seattle ACT Board Stepped Down: https://www.kuow.org/stories/
FRIDA/Young Feminist Fund: Money is Political: https://youngfeministfund.org/