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Yes, The Non-Profit Sector Needs More Women of Color Leaders. But It Has To Change.

Yes, The Non-Profit Sector Needs More Women of Color Leaders. But It Has To Change.

Ironically, in my post-Executive Director life, it seems that what I end up talking most about is being an Executive Director. Since I left my role as Executive Director of SAALT almost five months ago, I have been talking with women of color who are either transitioning out of their roles as directors or seeking to enter roles of leadership at non-profits. Not surprisingly, there are common themes that always come up in these conversations: anxiety about the level of burn-out associated with being an Executive Director of a small, under-resourced organization (read: budgets of less than a million dollars and less than six staff members); the worry about balancing a life that includes non-work responsibilities, ranging from parenting to caring for oneself or family members; and the ability to recognize when it’s time to move on.

We need women of color to aspire to leadership positions in community-based non-profit organizations, especially those that serve emerging and growing communities of color struggling with class and race inequities in our country. Yet, the culture, expectations, and benefits within the non-profit sector often do not make it possible for women of color leaders to sustain themselves. Our non-profit ecosystem – from board members to philanthropy to staff to volunteers – must identify and support different leadership models, support systems, and workplace culture to ensure that women of color leaders can meaningfully commit themselves to the social change values that brought them to their work in the first place. Here are three suggestions on how we can move the conversation forward (and while this piece is focused specifically on Executive Directors, it could also apply to all staff at non-profit organizations who are committed to long-term engagement in the movement).

Set Up Women of Color Non-Profit Leaders for Success

There seems to be a common understanding, a narrative we have silently agreed to, about leadership in the non-profit sector: the hours are demanding; the work is emotionally taxing; and you must give your blood, sweat and tears to the movement, to the issues, to the community.  As a result, Executive Directors are usually an organization’s thought leader, fundraiser, spokesperson, budget analyst, decision-maker, and human resources specialist, all in one. It’s not surprising then that there is as much turnover among Executive Directors today. In 2011, the Meyer Foundation and Compass Point released a report based on a survey of 3,000 executive directors. The report found that two-thirds of those surveyed planned to leave their jobs within five years. It’s a grueling role, and one that takes a toll on many, especially women of color.

But, what would happen if we changed the job description for Executive Directors? Most Executive Directors take on these roles because we feel passionately about issues, communities, and values. In time, those passions become eroded, especially with the responsibilities of staff supervision, budget reviews, board management, and funder proposals. In order to free up an Executive Director to be an idea generator and visionary, we need to ensure that they have the time and space to do so. Ask any Executive Director of a small community-based non-profit about her wish list and she will likely say: an administrative assistant, a resource development manager, a deputy director, and a leadership coach. The titles might be different based on the organization, but the roles that Executive Directors need support around are usually fundraising, staff management, scheduling, board support, and a mentor to help guide their leadership challenges. These are positions usually reserved for larger organizations, but smaller ones are locked into an endless cycle that prevents them from getting to scale, precisely because the Executive Director is playing too many roles. If we want women of color leaders to succeed in running community-based non-profits, then we need to set them up to do so with appropriate support systems.

Explore Different Leadership Structures and Opportunities

The non-profit sector provides a range of leadership training opportunities, especially for directors of color. How can these important experiences be strengthened with deeper investment in the leadership of women of color through sabbaticals, alternative work arrangements, and leadership models?

Is it possible to sustain a co-director model where both individuals have discrete roles and responsibilities? Or to provide Executive Directors and long-time staff the possibility of taking paid work sabbaticals? Many small community-based non-profits reject outright the prospect of different leadership structures and opportunities not because of a lack of desire to try them, but due to funding and resource constraints. Giving smaller non-profits the opportunity to experiment with these models, as the Asian Law Caucus did recently, and setting up more Windcall-type sabbatical models could make a meaningful difference for many organizations.

More than An Executive Director

While it seems that being an Executive Director is a 24-7 job, we all know that there are a range of other roles that people play in their personal lives. In my own case, becoming a mother five years into my Executive Director tenure brought a range of issues – from flexible work arrangements to parental leave policies – into clearer perspective. Even though SAALT had grown to a larger staff and budget at the time and had generous workplace policies, I was unsure as to how I would be able to sustain the same pace I had become accustomed to working (and soon realized that I couldn’t). For me, it was hard to keep up with conference calls at nine pm (especially with a little one who is insistent about “Lights on! No sleep!”), travel to conferences and conventions (“Mommy – put down your luggage”), or even attend informal networking events. Social change organizations can, and should, support staff through generous employment policies, flexible work arrangements, and models of self-care to maximize longer-term commitments to the work that they love.

Strong and healthy community-based organizations are at the heart of our social change movements. It’s time to create a different set of cultural expectations, workplace models,  and support systems for women of color who will lead the way.

Are the Indian Elections a Wake-Up Call for Indian Americans?

Are the Indian Elections a Wake-Up Call for Indian Americans?

This morning, I woke up to a range of reactions from friends about the news that the Indian people have elected Narendra Modi as Prime Minister of India and the Bharatiya Janati Party (BJP) to a majority of seats in the Indian Parliament. Should the Indian election results be a wake-up call for those of us of Indian descent living in the United States?

As the new government in India is formed and starts to govern, it will be important for Indian Americans to be vigilant and prepared as well. Historically, Indian Americans have focused their advocacy around India on issues of foreign policy, immigration, and trade. Slowly, this tide has been shifting with Indian Americans becoming more vocal and engaged on issues such as the treatment of religious minorities in India, migrant workers trafficked from India, domestic workers being hired by Indian government officials in the US, and rights of LGBT communities in India.

Now, the elections in India give us another opportunity to be ready to raise our voices – and with an eye towards values and issues of religious pluralism, social justice and equality. This is particularly important in light of concerns that the new Indian leadership could divide the country through a brand of governance that disregards equality along faith, gender, sex, caste and class lines. These concerns are rooted in the legacy of Modi’s own leadership in the state of Gujarat, specifically with regard to the 2002 riots there that targeted and displaced Muslims, and was a primary reason for being denied a visa to visit the U.S., as well as the BJP’s own principles, which many have criticized as advocating Hindutva, or Hindu nationalism at the expense of religious minorities. In fact, just last month, at a hearing by the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission on The Plight of Religious Minorities in India, leadership from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom testified that a BJP victory could “be detrimental to religious freedom” in India.

Given this context, and given our own experiences as immigrants and people of color in a post 9/11 environment in the United States, here are three ways in which Indian Americans and other South Asians can be a conscious voice around issues of justice and equality.

  • Monitor and call out xenophobic and divisive remarks and policies that alienate or demonize communities based on their faith, caste, or political affiliation.

South Asians in the U.S. have faced the impact of rhetoric and policies that seek to divide people based on their religious faith, immigration status, or national origin. Since 9/11, xenophobic and anti-Muslim rhetoric in the United States has helped to sanction racial and religious profiling, surveillance, strict immigration policies, and distrust between communities and law enforcement. Hate violence against Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims has also been on the rise in the United States since 9/11. Given our own experiences in the United States in the decade following the 9/11 attacks, Indian Americans have a unique role – and responsibility – to play in speaking out against rhetoric and policy that alienates people based on their faith, caste, or political affiliation here at home, and in our country of origin.

  • Engage around these issues in public forums, conversations with friends and family, campus discussions and media outlets, with an emphasis on values of pluralism, equality and justice. I know from personal experience that there are many differences of opinion within our own families around the rise of the BJP and the victory of Modi. Informing and educating ourselves, and sharing views and ideas will help us reinforce our values of pluralism and justice, and build stronger coalitions to withstand attacks on those ideals here in the US, or in India.

As we continue to process the impact of the Indian elections, here’s a poem by Rabindranath Tagore that has always resonated with me, first as a child growing up in India and then as an activist making my home here in the U.S.:

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

Please add your own ideas below on how Indian Americans can engage with the Indian elections and make our voices heard.

Disclaimer: This post reflects only my personal views, and not of any organizations with which I am affiliated.

The Next 50 Years: Time for Culture Change on Racial Justice

The Next 50 Years: Time for Culture Change on Racial Justice

This week, four U.S. presidents and thought leaders are convening at the Civil Rights Summit in Austin, Texas to mark the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by President Lyndon B. Johnson. The agenda includes discussions around immigration, criminal justice, voting rights and economic inequality from the standpoint of women, people of color, the disabled, and LGBTQ communities. While there has been much progress in addressing civil rights violations in employment and housing contexts over the past 50 years, there have also been regressions (for example, with voting rights) as well as new civil rights frontiers that have emerged. As we look ahead to the next 50 years, we need to develop a racial equity framework that reflects the dynamics taking shape in our country today.

Today’s America looks vastly different from the one that ushered in the 1964 Civil Rights Act. It’s evident that our schools, workforces and neighborhoods are becoming increasingly diverse as America transforms into becoming a majority-minority country by 2040. Yet these demographic changes may not mean much to uplift communities of color without updated anti-discrimination laws, honest public dialogues about the impact of both systemic racial disparities and individual implicit biases, and solidarity building between communities of color. Here are a few starting points to guide the development of a framework that reflects America’s new racial landscape:

From Legal Change to Culture Change. Anti-discrimination laws and policies, such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, fundamentally changed the legal responsibilities of employers, educational institutions, and governmental agencies. But a culture change in the way we treat and perceive one another also needs to happen in order to combat racism effectively. As our country’s demographics shift, the level of racial anxiety is also rising. We will likely hear false and divisive narratives such as “We are losing the true America” to “We no longer need to address racial inequity because we are truly post-racial and color-blind.” In order to shift these narratives, we need to change the ways in which communities of color are perceived in society. Our political leaders, including the four Presidents speaking at the Civil Rights Summit this week, can set the tone for such a culture change to occur. They can raise our level of civil and political discourse to one that respects communities of color, and sets expectations about how we treat each other.

Race-Plus, Not Just Race-Only. Traditional race-only approaches and solutions to racism do not reflect the complex ways in which communities of color experience inequity and discrimination. In the post 9/11 environment, for example, Sikhs and Muslims experience profiling because of their national origin and religious status – in addition to race. LGBT individuals of color face discrimination at the workplace because of their race and sexual orientation. Working class women of color encounter greater disadvantages due to their gender, class, and race. Our laws and policies must address the multidimensional ways in which discrimination occurs.

Beyond Diversity to Equity.  Cultural competency trainings and diversity plans have been staples in workplaces and schools for decades now. While these strategies help us better understand each other, they cannot by themselves address systemic racial disparities that exist. We must also confront the root causes of racial disparities, whether they occur at workplaces or whether they keep people of color from accessing health care, education, or jobs. Using racial equity assessments is one strategy to help prevent institutional racism and address disparities.

Solidarity Across Communities of Color. For decades, communities of color have been focused on building our own houses in order to confront the impact of systemic racism. But, we have more in common than we might believe. Successful multi-racial organizing efforts in the taxi driver, restaurant, and domestic worker industries have shown us that we must come together across racial lines in order to secure basic rights for all. In a majority-minority America, preserving racial privilege and constructing racial hierarchies will be detrimental to our ability to build power.

The Civil Rights Summit in Austin this week gives us an opportunity to learn from the past 50 years – and to imagine how racial justice in our country could look and feel, in the next 50 years to come.

Picture Credits: Picture 1, “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom,” August 1963,Photograph by Abbie Rowe, National Park Service Photograph. Picture 2, Taxi Fares in New York to Rise by 17%,




For nearly 15 years, I have worked with Asian American and South Asian American communities to address the breadth of issues that face us as immigrants and people of color in the United States. During that time, I’ve been fortunate to be part of community and advocacy campaigns related to the post 9/11 backlash, racial inequity, immigration reform, and linguistic and cultural access to basic benefits and services.

I recently left my position as Executive Director of South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT) after nearly ten years of working with committed people to strengthen South Asian communities in a post 9/11 world. Now, I find myself in a resting place where I hope to reflect and re-energize. I’m excited about working on a book that will be published by The New Press about the shifting American racial landscape, teaching at the University of Maryland through the Asian American Studies Program, and serving on the Board of Directors of Race Forward.

Here on this platform, I am interested in engaging three points of view in particular:  how to build understanding, solidarity and power as the American racial landscape shifts; how to support people working and leading in the non-profit sector; and how to be a Mom-Activist (I’m navigating life as mother to an almost four year old!). You’ll find commentary, thought pieces and articles related to these issues under the Blog tab.

Visit the Writing/Media tab to learn more about me, and the Consulting tab if you’d like to reach me for speaking, training and consulting opportunities. And, I’m most excited about the Bridge Building section of this platform where you’ll meet some amazing people who are building community in America’s transforming racial landscape.

Thank you for reading, and please visit often!


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