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Investing in the Women of Color Leading Chicago’s Justice Movements

Nonprofit ED roles held by people of color: <20%. Cultivate: Women of Color Leadership aims to help break that pattern Tweet This

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“Racial inequity harms the lives and prosperity of everyone, not just people of color. Curbing inequities is more than the right thing to do—it’s an imperative for achieving the social outcomes grant makers wish to see.”

That’s the thesis of a recent article in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, outlining six steps foundations can take to heal racial divides. Authors Lori Bartczak and Starsky Wilson encourage funders not to be satisfied with collecting data about the disparities within their own communities, but to go further by using grant dollars to help close those gaps.

As an example from the field, Bartczak and Wilson cite the Cultivate: Women of Color Leadership program, a collaborative effort here in Chicago to support women of color engaged in social, economic and racial justice movements. Over the last five years, this program has worked to build leadership skills among participants, which in turn strengthens the organizations they lead, and the community justice ecosystem as a whole.

 

Building an infrastructure for women of color leaders

Cultivate was developed as a joint project among the Woods Fund of Chicago, the Chicago Foundation for Women, Crossroads Fund and The Chicago Community Trust. At each partner organization, the staff members overseeing the project are women of color themselves, modeling the collaborative nonprofit leadership that Cultivate is designed to advance.

The program has five goals:

  • Support the personal and professional development of women of color
  • Develop a framework that intentionally incorporates race and gender in the participants’ leadership and professional development
  • Build a safe and healthy space for women of color to discuss and learn about alternative models of leadership, organization building, community organizing and movement building
  • Advance the sustainability and longevity of individual women’s leadership, while enabling a pipeline for new leaders to emerge within grassroots organizations
  • Nurture relationships to create a learning community across organizations and fields of work

To date, more than 80 women of color have participated in Cultivate. Over the course of a year, each participant attends bimonthly working sessions focused on leadership development, organizational development and movement building skills, in addition to working one-on-one with an executive coach to hone their personal practice.

The percentage of nonprofit executive director roles held by people of color has remained below 20% for the past decade.

By bringing together women who lead distinct but intersecting struggles—for gender equity, racial equity, labor rights, LGBTQ rights and immigrant rights, among others—the program aims to advance a shared vision of equity and justice for all.

 

Changing the face of community leadership

The percentage of nonprofit executive director roles held by people of color has remained below 20% for the past decade, according to the Building Movement Project’s recent “Race to Lead” report.

Breaking this pattern, the report asserts, depends in part on providing people of color the tools and supports to navigate these challenges and broaden their networks. While Chicago has long offered a breadth of leadership development opportunities, few have been dedicated to women of color and their unique experiences as leaders.

Cultivate fills this gap, enabling women of color to share and learn from each other’s challenges and successes, work together and unearth and test innovative approaches to some of our region’s most persistent problems.

Women of color nonprofit leaders have been on the vanguard of preserving reproductive choice, organizing communities to speak out against police and state violence, fighting for living wages for all workers and organizing against mass deportations of immigrants—in Chicago and nationally.

While the program’s participants are the most direct beneficiaries, their development also benefits the organizations they lead and serve. In a survey, every member of the current cohort
indicated that the program has increased their effectiveness as leaders, while 92% said that it had increased their knowledge in key leadership and organizational management skills.

More effective leaders not only benefit organizations, but also benefit the communities those organizations serve—predominantly low-income people of color. And more broadly still, the Chicago region as a whole feels the benefit of these organizations’ success. Women of color nonprofit leaders have been on the vanguard of preserving reproductive choice, organizing communities to speak out against police and state violence, fighting for living wages for all workers and organizing against mass deportations of immigrants, in Chicago and nationally.

 

What’s next

After five years of successful cohorts, Cultivate is now embarking on a deeper evaluation of the key lessons learned, successes and challenges. Thanks to a grant from the MacArthur Foundation, the program’s leaders will create an alumna network so that previous members can benefit from additional coaching and sustained connection.

In addition, they will use lessons from the evaluation to resdesign a curriculum that resonates with a new kind of leadership that is intersectional and community-focused, and recognizes the strength of leading from lived experiences.