Leading in the Time of Corona

On Super Tuesday 2020, the year already felt like too much. At the time, Elizabeth Warren was still a contender in the Democratic primary for President and Coronavirus was an abstract concept in a faraway land. Then shit quickly got real. Seattle became the U.S. epicenter for Coronavirus and Warren withdrew from the presidential race. The inevitability of the virus’ spread with Donald Trump steering the ship coincided to create a crisis that has long been brewing in our country. What is being unveiled in rapid motion is at once the failure of our systems — and how little control we as individual human beings have on the world around us.

As the virus has penetrated every nook and cranny of our society, conversations about our public health system and the economic fragility of many people’s lives are finally getting airtime, albeit not nearly enough. Short-term solutions abound and will help. Whether they will create the foundation for long-term systems change remains a question. While our federal government is feebly handling the Corona crisis, state and local leaders, philanthropists and social justice leaders have an opportunity to build and sustain the infrastructure to ensure that paid sick leave, universal healthcare, and a thriving wage, become a right rather than a privilege.

As the head of a social justice organization, I embrace that responsibility. And so do many of my colleagues. We are talking about it, grappling with it and strategizing. The emotional labor we’re exerting, coupled with concerns about and responsibility for our family members and friends, is going to add to the deep exhaustion that I talked about in this piece. But if there is going to be a new way to lead, to transform, to create, we women of color will be the ones to do so. Here’s where I’m starting.

Resisting the impulse to do something constantly. As leaders, women, people operating in a capitalist economy, we are addicted to being productive. We’re so conditioned to create, respond, act, and do, do, do. We’re filling up the extra time gained from not commuting, not traveling, not attending multi-day conferences, with virtual happy hours and endless Zoom calls. And given the crisis in our communities and in our country, the impulse to do something is further reinforced. But it’s okay not to, because we don’t deem it necessary, because it’s too much emotional labor, because it doesn’t seem as important as it did one month ago. Because we don’t have the playbook for being leaders in a global pandemic and we are all fumbling through.

If we’re going to come out of this moment with something more, bigger than what we had going in, it’s going to take a new approach. But we won’t get there overnight. Meanwhile, do whatever you need to get through, whether it’s an online Zumba class, making insta-worthy meals, napping, binge-watching TV, or just crying. For inspiration on how to be in this moment, I’m turning to this piece by adrienne maree browne. Doing less creates the space for moving inward, giving attention to ourselves and others whom we have neglected in the busy-ness of work.

Building community. After making tough decisions about cancelling our in-person programming and moving to remote work, everything else seemed a little unclear. How to support the team, how to engage our participants, how to move forward the work at a time when people are afraid and uncertain. In a matter of days, one thing became clear. And that was the need for community. In our case, it’s community among our own staff, among elected officials of immigrant background who are the trusted messengers in their communities and among first-time candidates who could no longer rely on door-knocking and community fundraisers to strengthen their campaigns. We’ve created opportunities for all these groups to connect online and will continue to do so. It’s the simplest and the highest form our work will take: remembering that our interconnectedness is at the heart of the transformation we want to see. In these spaces, we may be preaching to the converted, but it’s the converted that will lead the revolution, and I’m okay with that.

Operating from abundance rather than scarcity. For those of us running nonprofits, and especially so if we were doing this during other pivotal moments in recent history, such as 9/11 and the 2008 financial crisis, it’s easy to panic about our organization’s sustainability. Even without a chapter in the executive director training manual, called “leading through a pandemic,” we know that the economic impact of COVID-19 has been immediate and will have long-term consequences on the most marginalized amongst us. Unlike many small businesses who have already let go staff, we can double down on our commitment to maintaining operations and staff. The impulse to tighten our belts is not as strong among nonprofits, especially since we already know how to survive on very little. But what we don’t know how to do is bet big, and this is the time to do so. Bet big on our people, bet big on the fact that our communities need us, and bet big on the fact that we’re the institutions and the leaders who will help us get out of this mess with a strong foundation for a future.

That future centers people over profits and is grounded in interdependence rather than individualism.

That future is within our reach.

We’ll have a lot of pain before we get there, but we will. And we’ll do it together.

Restless citizen. Writer, keynote speaker, TED Alumna. Check out my book People Like Us — https://bit.ly/2Odt3SK