In episode 25 of Mission: Impact, some of the topics that Carol and her guest, Kristin Bradley-Bull discussed include:
Kristin Bradley-Bull’s tagline says it all: “Illuminating your vision. Extending your vast roots and branches to get there.” She runs Roots to Canopy in Durham, NC. At Roots to Canopy, Kristin consults with non-profits to develop powerful strategies and plans – and to develop staff capacity to be wildly successful in making change in the world. She does the same in her coaching practice: supporting people to crystalize their vision and orient toward their North Star – as non-profit leaders and as humans. Kristin loves people, justice, organizations and movements, and transformation on all levels. Her background includes co-founding a training and leadership non-profit, being a full-time public health faculty member, and consulting (20 years+) with organizations ranging from multilaterals to grassroots social justice groups.
Important Guest Links: The book mentioned during the show is Forces for Good: The Six Practices of High-Impact Nonprofits by Leslie R. Crutchfield and Heather McLeod Grant
Information on the size of the nonprofit sector in the US:
Divorcing White Supremacy Culture website http://www.whitesupremacyculture.info/
Carol Hamilton: My guest today on Mission Impact is Kristin Bradley Bull. Kristin runs Roots to Canopy in Durham, North Carolina where she works with nonprofits to illuminate your vision, extending your vast roots and branches to get there She consults with non-profits to develop powerful strategies and plans – and to develop staff capacity to be wildly successful in making change in the world. Kristin and I talk about how strategic planning processes when done well can actually enliven everyone involved and help reconnect them with their “why” and their purpose in doing the work they do. We explore how the stories organizations tell about themselves are alive and evolving as new people come into the organization. How they can sometimes keep people out – even unintentionally. And how organizations – especially white led organizations – need to really listen deeply to the stories of the people and the communities they work in and focus on relationship building instead of just jumping to the next new initiative.
Welcome Kristin. Welcome to the podcast.
Kristin Bradley-Bull: Thank you. I'm so glad to be here, Carol. Thanks for the invite.
Carol: So just to get us started and, and to give some context for the conversation, what would you say drew you to the work that you do? What, what motivates you and what would you describe as your, why?
Kristin: I would say that my life is really wrapped up in being extremely curious about people and about non-profits and really. Trusting that there is a big why or big purpose for each of them. Right. And, finding that or reframing that is really important and is an ongoing process. So I know for me that my why has changed over time and it's important for those conversations to happen. And so I just love that I get to work as a consultant and a coach at those really juicy places for people and organizations. So yeah, I feel really honored and humbled to be. To be witness to that process and where possible to be a support in those processes.
Carol: For me, one of the favorite things about working with organizations for me is when I get to help people reconnect with the why of why they're in the organization, why they're doing the work. And because so often, the day-to-day the deadlines, the, the grant reports that everything that everyone has to work on, you can lose sight of that and be able to help everyone articulate why they do the work that they do and what connects them, what, what, why are they excited about it? Why are they passionate about it? It's just fun to see people read about the hard work that most organizations are tackling.
Kristin: Totally agree with you. And I know that you and I both do a lot of work in the strategy realm and. I think a lot of organizations go into those processes, really feeling like we have to do this. This is something we do every once in a while. We're going to come out with some big old report or hopefully they're not thinking about the report anymore, but anyway, whatever it is, some deliverable. And like you said, what a good process like that does actually is enliven. Right. Help people open their eyes to what's possible and get, get that zest and commitment back for the work. So, yeah, there's so much, there's so much there to cultivate and bring forward which is mostly done by the organization itself. And at least speaking for myself, I am mostly just a midwife or a doula in that process.
Carol: I like the phrase of a midwife or a doula. I've been thinking of it sometimes as I'm acting as a sheep dog, but that doesn't really put my clients in a good position in terms of being the sheep. So I don't really mean that, but it's more like I'm going to. Nudge over here and nudge over there and we're going to have to go in this direction, but we're all doing it together and we're going to get there and always trusting, like trust. It's okay. We're going to get there. It may feel messy right now, but we're going to get there.
Kristin: We all have to want it wilderness. Right. It's part of the process. And that's also prior to thinking of the storytelling, right. That there's nothing wrong with wandering in the wilderness. It's necessary for us. As people and as organizations to have those periods of time. So that's because they're really fruitful. They lead to huge discoveries.
Carol: Yeah. And, and thinking about that work that you and I both do, helping organizations and groups really surf at their, their visions, their aims, and then, and then come, work towards coming to agreement to a path forward, in a way that they're going to try to get there. One of the things that often happens in that process is sharing and reframing stories. it could be sharing the story of a founding of the organization and then. sharing that with newer participants, but then what meaning are they making of it? It might be, sharing stories of joy, triumph, wandering in the wilderness that you just talked about. It might be sharing stories of misunderstanding and hurt. I mean, lots of stories get told through these processes. And, and how have you seen this process of sharing and reframing show up in your work?
Kristin: That's a great question. I would say that there, first of all, that stories and history are alive, right? So they're constantly changing. And we need to allow them to change and acknowledge when they're changing. Right. And how they're changing, not making that some sort of magic trick and never to be mentioned. But the idea that the history of an organization or history in general is alive, I think is really important.
Because it allows us to evolve, right? And to see the same situation with fresh eyes. And of course that's what some of the newer folks coming into organizations often do. Right. Or, or people on the outside looking in to organizations do that. A new board member can say Okay, well, that's so interesting. Thank you for telling me that story. And it sounds like this is how you interpret that story. I interpret that story from my vantage point. I interpret that story a different way. Right? And someone like a new board member or a new executive director may be taking over for a founder, which of course is as a particularly important and challenging role that the.
There is a, there is the opportunity to really, as you said, reframe at that time and to say, like some of the stories of grand success, viewed from a current lens are not as successful. Right. And some of those pain points are, have actually been absolutely essential for the organization to get to where it is now, or for me to, as a new, a new ed to even get in the door, let's say I'm a person of color and there, and it's an organization serving primarily working primary, not serving on. So, I don't like that word, but working primarily in black and brown communities. That’s what has changed in the story, is partly what has allowed those, those leaps and bounds forward to happen. And so when we talk about. When we talk about stories to me, it's just really important that they be alive and that we constantly be examining, what is this? What's the, what is the, what is the juice in this story now? How does that tell us about our past and how can that inform our future? So I think there's a lot there that can be mined over time and that there are ways that stories invite people in. To the organization. And there are ways that stories keep people out. So for us all, to be really mindful about how that all works and what the opportunities are to extend the circle so that we have more and more perspectives and more and more stories that actually serve, serve us, moving into. Service in the present moment and moving toward the next present moment.
Carol: Back in college, I was a history major. And so one of the things that I really appreciated, maybe beginning at that time which is at this point is pretty much ancient history and, and but, but more and more so in, in the present is people's greater awareness of. I feel like history used to be in this could be, history at the big level, but then history at the organizational level too used to be seen as a fixed thing. And, there was an objective history and the understanding and appreciation now of how. There was someone telling that history and they had a particular point of view and a particular experience of it. And so then what are all the other stories that need to be told as well?
Kristin: Yeah. That whole idea that history is written by the so-called winner. Right? I think that's all wrapped up in what you're talking about. And one certainly of the primary opportunities for so many nonprofits is to, and especially ones that are white led is to really. Start listening a lot more, especially if they're working. Well, and not just white led organizations, but organizations generally also to listen more deeply to stories right. From the communities that they are a part of, or not as much a part of as they wish that they were because that's, that's where so much wisdom. Wisdom rests. And it is in storytelling that many learnings, many examples of resilience and creativity and perseverance live and live actively. And I think one of the things that is. Really important to think about for organizations, their leaders, and me and you, hopefully, all of us is to think about the fact that from, what we know from.
Let's say what, let's just say from science. Well, we know from science that neural pathways are really important and what we focus on grows, right? That's what we're learning about. The brain, what we focus on grows. And so. There's been super interesting science around that, like what fires together, wires together in terms of neurons and all of that thing. And I have no expertise in this arena. So I'm just saying that sort of as a general idea. And so when we hold on to stories that are particularly negative, that are no longer serving us as a learning, as an area of learning. Then those stories actually hold us back. Right. We develop a rut, we go around that same track and we develop a rut. And so it's really important to, for us to think as an organization, as individuals, what are the stories. That is, they can be really tough stories and they're still serving us, right. Because they're helping us, they're helping propel us into perhaps an uncomfortable, but important way forward. So there are those stories, but then there are the stories that have basically outlived their purpose and we really need to be examining how to, and, and practicing how to move away from those stories. So that we don't get stuck, so many organizations are stuck. And so I think there's a lot to think about relative to our own stories. And also, as you said, the stories that we have are absorbed from that, whoever the teller of the story was, and whether that teller is, is still relevant and important for us, our organizations, our communities now is it's an important question.
Carol: And I think people often think about that dynamic at the individual level. Like what do I need to let go of the stories about, that, that, or the maxims that maybe I've learned over time, or think that, I act in a certain way. And so I need to let go of this, that or the other, but I don't feel like Folks, never necessarily think about it. When it's a whole group of people working together towards, towards something. Can you, can you give me an example of what you're talking about?
Kristin: So I think a lot of what organizations, and especially within white supremacy culture think, well, this is how we've always done it. And there are reasons why we've done it. They have a whole narrative around why, right? Why do we do it this way and we don't do it that way? We tried it, it didn't work, all that thing. And especially when new people come in, either on the board or on staff or volunteers or other community members and they have, they have an idea and they're told, We already tried that it didn't work or, whatever, there are those, there are those stories. And so I think the opportunity is really to unpack all of that and say, why, why are, why are we thinking this? Why? Why do we stick to this particular, particular approach? And there are times when they're going to conclude that there are good reasons for that and they can, they should be in genuine conversation, authentic conversation with other folks about that. If they make those choices. But I think the trick is that especially in, white dominant culture kinds of circles, the trick is. That there's just such a big echo chamber. Right. And so it's really hard to get away from those stories. And so I think for organizations to become more violent, all right. Again, as you said, there's, there's a lot of work being done on the individual level, right. To Brene Brown and all of these folks who are, talking about research on vulnerability. And Brene Brown and those folks are also now talking about vulnerability within organizations too.
Right? So that's not it, it's not just on an individual level, but there are so many chances for us to think and open up to other possibilities and to be humble about what we don't know. Right. And what other. Other individuals, other communities, other organizations can potentially help us learn. Right. And so I think I have the chance to be in authentic dialogue with people with no particular. Prescribed outcome, right? That relationship building and the sharing of stories within an organization or within a community. But those kinds of things really open up a lot of possibilities for us that we were just not aware of. Most organizations really benefit from that porousness just like individuals do. Right. I might say all organizations do, but I'll say at least most. And we can, we can go far with, with those possibilities and we have to recognize that all of this takes time. Right? So part of this is just oftentimes slowing it down. We're not, we're not hearing one another stories with the intention that we are immediately going to shift that into our newest project that our organization is going to launch. We're actually developing relationships. So, and hearing stories and hearing old stories, freshly I'm hearing new stories so that we can begin to think about where we can Best show up as an organization which may be where we've shown up before, but it could also be other places and spaces. And so to really give time and space for that. And of course, one of the paradoxes of our time is that there's great urgency for change. We are in the midst of a huge era of change on multiple levels, I think. And there is the temptation of rushing and rushing tends to bypass. As we hear from many people of color, rushing tends to bypass a lot of what's really foundational to true change. And so if an organization really wants to invest in being part of, Broader change work then often slowing things down is an important and important way to be, as it is an important stance. In other words, an important posture, but it's, it's, it's, it's both and right there is urgency and there is the need for stillness and openness and listening and being very attentive to who we're listening to.
Carol: Yeah, there were a lot, a lot, a lot of things in that that I want to follow up on. Yeah, I think that, that temptation and I would say even it's, it's more than a temptation, it's like a cultural imperative in our society to always be running faster than you can possibly run. And the, and the scarcity that, that, that Has baked into the, the nonprofit sector.
It seems challenging even to slow down enough to do a pretty traditional strategic planning process or other planning process. And then to, and I think people get anxious and nervous if it's wow, you want me to talk to all these different people? And we're going to have all these voices. It's just going to be this cacophony of opinions. How on earth are we going to synthesize it and come to some agreement? And, and yet as you've said, I think, and you've talked about that, those ruts that, that organizations get in, and I can even think about that like we got to hurry up and do it yesterday. A sense of urgency. That we also are in this rut of, putting a bandaid on things versus really looking to how can we imagine a really different whatever it might be for whatever, whatever Mission the organization is focused on and then there's their mission within a broader system usually to even take the time, to think about, what could be different from what is right now, it's easy to not always easy. It's often that way, but it's easier. I think, to identify the challenges, the problems, all the ways in which the system is broken. But I think it's really challenging for folks to even imagine what might, what could be the more positive possibility.
Kristin: Okay. Yeah. I completely agree with you and yeah, and again, just like you said, what I said, I, there are many ways to many different threads there to pick up on. So I think the piece around urgency culture is essential to the conversation, right? So I have this, I have this piece of paper that I have written on geologic. It says geologic time, right? So what it says is the universe is 13.8 billion years old, Earth is 4.6 billion years old, and humans have been here for about 10,000 years. That's the equivalent of 12 seconds.
[Kristin clarified that the 10,000 years mention refers to the period of time during which humans began to produce food, form large communities, and make significant change to the planet itself. ]
Kristin: The reason why I think this is helpful is one, we're just a very young species, right. And we are. We're children, as a species, it's still children. And so we have a huge amount of responsibility and we can see that obviously, and sort of what our environmental situation is. We can see that in many different arenas. So there is urgency. And we don't have all the tools in the sense of everything already having been created. We're in a, we're in a period of great reckoning and, and great possibility. And there's precariousness in that, right? Because we aren't over the, at all. We are not at all over the crest of the hill to mix a metaphor. And so. We, I think the idea of. Especially for service oriented organizations that they've, that's where they've, that's where they've always put their emphasis. We know that there is a need on those levels. But the idea that there are many ways that we're not working ourselves at all out of the, out of the need for a service. A nonprofit service oriented sector, because we are not, as you said, addressing the systems level issues and how can one of those organizations slow down enough to have an opportunity to even, think beyond the fact that we, we have people, we have people sleeping on the doorstep, waiting for, waiting for shelter, food, et cetera.
And of course, all of these things, to me, bring us to bigger questions around how late stage capitalism and the patriarchy and white supremacy culture, or, sort of collude to keep things exactly like this, that serve a very small percentage of humanity. And I would say ultimately they don't serve any of humanity because there's so much. There's so much loss for everyone and separation for everyone. And perhaps it's mentioned here, there’s a new website called divorcing white supremacy culture that looks a lot at white supremacy, what white supremacy has done to white people, as well as to people of color, you know? So there are there's loss, there's so much loss, being so separate. And so I think that whole question around how to create space away from, how to shift from. Urgency enough to have space for being creative and thinking about the possibilities is essential, or we're just going to be on the same hamster wheel forever. Right. And I think that some of the movement building that's been happening for black lives matter, et cetera, where there's much more of a focus on sustainability. Like how does this work sustainable? How do we take care of ourselves? And one another on multiple levels gives, those kinds of, and there are many nonprofits that are shifting more and more in those ways. And I think there are black and brown nonprofits that have been like that forever. And some, some white nonprofits, white led nonprofits to black and brown lib nonprofits, maybe I think being in the lead, but where there is the sense that yes we are, we are. Handing out bags of groceries, et cetera. And we have to be thinking about what else is possible here.
We want to think in terms internally for our organization, we want to live in our organization in a way that we're what we're trying to manifest externally beyond the walls of our organization. We need to manifest internally because if we're whole, then that supports the wholeness of the broader community. Right. And so. I think even things, very basic things that seem impossible were made possible or suddenly possible during COVID. Right. So we have to take all those learnings forward with us and those stories of how we did things that we thought our organization could never do. And I don't mean the heroic things. I mean, the internal thing I had her OIC is also not a thing, but I mean, the internal things like.
We realized that our staff was totally burned out and we found ways to give people way more time off or to change our policies on how people work. people working from home, which works for some people doesn't work for other people. Right. like all of these kinds of things, like a lot is possible. And if we tell the stories of what we do in times of hardship, those are the stories of what is possible and what creativity and courage lent us to create new things. Then again, the end of COVID does not mean the end of those things. It just means, oh, we figured out that we're even stronger and there are more possibilities than we thought, and let's continue, continue to work in that direction. So as we think about not getting back on the hamster wheel, are we going to devote a certain percentage of our time to. Systems work, even if we are in a service arena, are we, if we're not going to do that, how can we at least support those efforts of our colleague activists and other organizations and how they're pursuing those things? How do we, how do we message around those systems questions with our funders, with our other stakeholders, so that. So that everyone is more engaged in the bigger picture because we have to build the, we have to build the demand, the demand for systems change, and that has to be ongoing. Right. And so the way that we tell those stories, the way that we innovate, the way we take care of one another. Are all parts of that system change process to me among others, right? Those are some of them.
Carol: A couple of different things come to mind. One, I hope it's late stage capitalism. I feel like some people are banking on that and we'll see. But it would be good. It'd be good. Well, we assume it would be good for whatever would come on the other side. But, you talked about what showed up in this last year, how organizations just shifted on a dime in a lot of different ways in ways that they never thought were possible or never had, never had thought about. So they demonstrated it to themselves, their capacity for very fast change. And I've lost my train of thought. There was something else you were talking about. And what were you or were you just saying at the end, but before that?
Kristin: I think we were talking about just this idea that what was possible in COVID is ongoingly possible, right? That people are creative. People are courageous. They're doing, they can, they can, we can take care of one another what we're trying to.
Carol: I feel like in the past there's been this very much an either or either you do systems work or you do direct service. And I even remember there was a book that came out. And I'll have to look it up. It's probably 10 or 15 years ago. That was a study of, what are the most effective non-profits and, and even then their findings were that the organizations that do both that do service that informs their advocacy are really super effective. And then of course, you go to the next level of those, the movement level, where people are approaching that very differently now in terms of it being a network and not so, caught up in individual organizations and being more fluid in how they organize that. And also yeah, just an appreciation for I don't know which generation, the next generation of activists who are really putting care for each other care for themselves care for each other front and center, to be able to to be able to be in it for the long haul.
Because I think part of what I'm thinking about is late stage capitalism, I think. Well, actually in the United States where we have the most extreme version of capitalism and we have the biggest nonprofit sector, I think, we have to check that. But to me, it's that sector was, it's just like a giant band-aid to the wound that capitalism is inflicted on us. So, and I'll stay in it because it's the best bandaid I can find for now.
Kristin: Yeah, it's a big, big, big thing. And you and I could have a whole separate conversation and you could have this conversation with someone way more intelligent and on it than I am, but those questions about the degree to which the nonprofit sector is serving as a band-aid. Right. And. It's the same questions that are really interesting questions in the mutual aid movement, right? So there's as much as possible in mutual aid, right. Sort of grassroots support and person to person, neighbor to neighbor, kinds of support, which really grew a lot during COVID in the United States and, and beyond, and there's a big debate in that community, as I understand it about is this really our job? shouldn't, shouldn't the government be taking care of this. So, and then other people who are this is, this is part of community sovereignty, right? Like community self-help, et cetera. So there are lots of questions around all of that. And certainly in the nonprofit sector, how are we, how are we supporting How are we supporting a system that how are we supporting the larger system that isn't serving a lot of our community members? So I think there are lots and lots of questions and all of that. And some of what I take hope from is that piece around, we have activists and movements who are pushing, right? And so when the more. Traditionally, shall I say, the nonprofit sector is in good dialogue with movement folks. There's lots of zest there, right? There are lots of, there are lots of aha moments.
And so I think we just have to continue again. It's that porousness, it's that sharing of stories that. That helps. And just, as you said earlier, when organizations are doing some, sort of some work in advocacy, they have one foot in the advocacy world and one foot in the direct service world than lots of things are possible because they have they have a more nuanced appreciation of, of of it all and they can make, they can make key choices around how they're using their resources and.
They can tell a lot of stories from multiple perspectives and hopefully as much as possible people speaking for themselves. Right. Rather than others speaking for them. But yeah, there's a lot, there's a lot we could talk about there.
Carol: Yeah. And, and I just want to well, since we're talking about reframing, I just want to put a caveat on my description of the whole sector as a bandaid. To me, that's more a reflection on our economic and other systems, just not working for folks. And so people have tried to step into that void. And, but, but it does come to the question of whose, whose job is it and, and what needs to shift to have less need for all, So that, so that organizations that are trying to end hunger and homelessness and all those things can actually get to those things. Yeah, so, so not denigrating anyone's work cause I'm really glad that there are folks doing it. And that's why I love to work with organizations and help them. Get clear about how they want to move forward. And stepping back, I'm appreciating the questions that the younger generations are asking about the role of the different sectors of our, if you only want to think about it as the economy, but our culture, our economy.
Kristin: absolutely. And we could throw in there, sort of. The power that billionaires have in this country, right. For setting an agenda. So, again, we could have a whole separate conversation about, about all of that, because there are, there are all those questions whose job is this? Do we actually want, who do we want to have this job? Even if it is technically their job, you know? So there are lots of things there, right?
Carol: So as we're starting to see the possible close of this chapter with the pandemic what are you hoping organizations will keep with them from this time as we move forward? And, what have you witnessed people learning? We talked a little bit about that before, but I'm curious about some other examples.
Kristin: The primary piece is that I'm hoping that people keep open to possibilities that they somehow managed to tap into during COVID, so the crisis provides opportunity. I don't say that lightly, because the suffering has been immense and disproportionate. So all of that being said there. That there was so much nimbleness. There was a lot of new collaboration. There was a lot of new thinking, a lot of busting through barriers. Right. And so all of those things I think are really important to keep momentum around and not go back to sleep. Right. be easy just to just let out a big sigh of relief and be okay, wow. Now we can get back to where we were. And, as many people are saying. That is not a, is not possible. And B is not advisable, right. Because what we actually want to do is keep catalyzing. Right. And keep an eye on the big picture. Why are we here? Like we were talking about earlier, why are we here? How, what is our unique, unique role at this time? And how can we make sure that we are. Part of the larger momentum for deeper, deeper solutions, greater sustainability, et cetera.
And so one thing that I think will be important too. And sure what happens in, and this is very specific is that there are a lot more there's a lot more recognition of, of the great possibility as and gift of black and brown executive directors and others and leadership positions. And I think as more of those positions transition out of white leadership, it's really, really important that those leaders get our support, our support, whether we're board members, whether we're other staff members. Whether we are donors, because we know that funding often decreases when black and brown people become executive directors. So anyways, there's lots of specifics like that.
Let us make sure that we give as much trust. And support and even more support because they're working in a racist system to these new, these new, but new, but not new, right? These folks who've been waiting in the wings forever who have been overlooked and bypassed a million times for these positions. So I think that's an example of something that's happening, but we need to, we need to usher it in, in a way that. Support success, like would be done with, with weight leaders and has always been done invisibly with Wade leaders. So I'd say that's an example. I think the work we've been talking about is about where there's more conversation between activists and sort of more. And others in the nonprofits sphere or grassroots activists and people who are nonprofit in the formal nonprofit sphere, as well as grassroots groups that are not 501C3.
There's a lot of, there's a lot of possibility and bringing all those folks into, into conversation, storytelling deep deep consideration of common. Common interests, which is not necessarily the first thing that people recognize, but we have common interests in what I would call, collective liberation. And so, and that looks different in different ways, people might not use that term, but I think that's where w. Where I hope we are heading. And so how can we have those conversations? So being bold, right? Like there are certain, many studies have shown, like even not, not like COVID related, but when, in times where there were political situations did not support did not support a lot of creativity and possibility for nonprofits, the nonprofits that still. Went for it. We're much more successful in getting done what they wanted to do. Then those who like who stepped back and just said, we're going to just, we're going to just shelter in place until the storm has passed. So let's do this thing, right?
Like this is, this is the time we are, we are in a period of momentum and let's just. Let's keep it going. And at the same time, take care of like you and I were talking about taking care of our people, our people being broadly defined, right? Like take care of all the people that are part of this and see this as a long-term this is the long game, right? So we need to do this in sustainable ways.
Carol: What do you feel like you've learned personally through this last year, year and a half?
Kristin: I've learned that I need more time in nature. I've learned that sometimes I need to really step back and make a lot more space for other people. And as a facilitator, that's great, there's a great dance in that, right? What is my role in this very moment? What's not my role? And can I just trust in that more? So I feel like there's been a lot for me this year or 15 months. That's about trusting, trusting in the group. I am. I've had a lot less time alone then I have in the past and because I'm in a pod. And so I have, I have loved that and I also.
I've recognized. I really need more alone time. Like that's really important for my well being. And so the way that I've been able to craft that in the past is it has not been so conscious for me and now I need to, I need it to be much more conscious so that I can make it happen. And It's renewed. My faith in possibility, I, at this time has removed, renewed my faith in possibility, which is very different from what some people would say. But, as we've been talking about, there have been so many things that have had light shined on them, which is absolutely essential for change. There have been amazing steps forward and I am eager to see that continue. And in my little way, be part of that.
Carol: So one of the things that I do at the end of each interview is pull out one of my icebreaker card questions. Since we've been talking about the long-term and the long game and movements and systems. The question I have for you is what are you most looking forward to in the next 10 years?
Kristin: Oh, my gracious. What a great question. I am most looking forward to - and this is really aspirational - I am most looking forward to greater and greater recognition among people and communities among and across people and communities and really the planet. Of deep interconnection and that the wellness of, of one, it relates to the wellness of all and the Wallace fall relates to the wellness of one. And so I feel like if we can continue to deepen our commitment to that, that unbelievable things are possible.
Carol: And then maybe more, a little bit more in the short term. What, what are you excited about? What's emerging in your work that 's coming up for you?
Kristin: Yeah. I'm really excited to be in conversation with a funder around ways that they can help that they can bring about greater equity in the ways that they operate. Those are the ways that they operate internally and the ways that they operate externally, the way that they relate to their funding partners, what their expectations are of their funding partners, what their expectations are of themselves, and what and how they relate to their community and communities and the ways that they will continue to try to influence the funder world. So that there are more possibilities because of course, this is another. Huge arena that you and I really didn't talk about today, but where funders are within the nonprofit world, funders are a really essential piece of the puzzle and, and they're part of systems change, right? So I love the possibilities and this particular funder is very. Very committed to the work. So I'm super excited about that. And I also really love the opportunity that I have right now to be doing some coaching with some executive directors and some other folks in these kinds of spaces and topics, but also really As we were talking about at the beginning, really diving into what, what is, what is my, why? Meaning there is not mine, but what is, what is my why for now? Like what, what is that? Where's the spark and what is my place in co-creating the world? And so I just always. Gained so much from my clients, both, both the individuals and the organizations and in those realms.
Carol: All right. Well, thank you so much for bringing your spark to this podcast. It's been great to talk to you. I've really enjoyed the conversation.
Kristin: Thank you so much, Carol. It's been a real pleasure and I really enjoyed listening to your podcasts and look forward to more of your conversations ahead.
Carol: All right. Thank you.
The past year and a half of the pandemic has brought so many reckonings. And I appreciate how it has brought working towards equity front and center in the sector – and how so often the sector has fallen short. It makes me think about the evolution of the sector over the course of my career. When I started working in nonprofit organizations in the 90s after the Reagan Revolution the whole country had shifted to the right and embraced a business mindset. Nonprofits were told to act more like businesses – embrace marketing and branding. There was a push to professionalize so many areas. Masters degrees in nonprofit management were designed and launched. The push to demonstrate impact, measuring success and proving it to funders. For associations it was all about diversification of revenue sources. And now a generation later the conversation has shifted to examining the nonprofit industrial complex and its implications.
So many things assumed to be ‘just how things are’ and part of the water we swim in are being questioned. I welcome this deep examination of the role of the sector in our economy. And I appreciate all the people who have stepped into the void and multiple wounds that our version of capitalism here in the US creates to try and make things better –at the immediate and direct service – helping people in need today as well as those working to imagine how to repair and move systems through policy change and movements. Thanks to everyone and your contributions.
Thank you for listening to this episode. I really appreciate the time you spend with me and my guests. You can find out how to connect with Kristin as well as any links and resources mentioned during the show in the show notes at missionimpactpodcast.com/shownotes. I want to thank Nora Strauss-Riggs for her support in editing and production as well as April Koester of 100 Ninjas for her production support. Please take a minute to rate and review Mission Impact on Apple podcasts. It helps other people find the podcast. We appreciate it!
Nonprofit Leadership with Keisha Sitney
There is a brief discussion of police brutality in this episode around 16 minutes in.
In episode 14 of Mission: Impact, some of the topics that Carol and her guest, Keisha Sitney, discussed include:
- Why leaders need to be role models for their staff and lead by example
- Why organizations need to start with individuals when working on equity
- How to build the leadership capacity of people who haven’t traditionally been promoted to leadership roles
- Why it is important to not just teach people of color to be like “traditional” white leaders but encourage them develop their own leadership style
- How professionals focusing on diversity, equity, and inclusion experience profound fatigue in continually educating people about racism and other forms of oppression.
Keisha Sitney is the Chief People Officer for The Y in Central Maryland and the founder of Golden Key Coaching. She works to ensure the people strategies and resources support and match the strategic priorities of the organization. Keisha is an executive leader who has been with the Y for 30 years, both at the national and regional levels. With in-depth experience in coaching, talent management, strategic visioning and planning, and facilitation, Keisha has served in operational roles at the YMCA of Metropolitan Washington, led the national multicultural leadership development movement as well as served as an internal consultant for C-Suite leaders from Ys across the United States. She holds a Master's Degree in Organization Development from American University and a Bachelor's Degree in Psychology from Howard University.
Carol Hamilton: Welcome Keisha, great to have you on the podcast.
Keisha Sitney: Thank you. Thanks for having me, I’m really honored to be here.
Carol: I want to start out by asking, just to give people some context, what drew you to the work that you do? What would you say motivates you and how would you describe your work?
Keisha: Well, I have worked for Y the organization for [30 years and I’m] celebrating my 30th year there. And being only 35, it's hard to fathom that I've been in that place 30 years. But in all seriousness, I really enjoy helping people to reach their potential. I think that I started off working with young people, and directing childcare centers, and doing team programs and things, and after decades of operations, I really found that my passion is for the people, the associates, the leaders that are doing the work and helping them make sure that they feel equipped, that they feel energized, that they have all the tools and resources, that they have the confidence to do the work that they're supposed to do. Nonprofit work can be grueling, and sometimes we may give and forget that we have to also pour in to ourselves. So that's a part of my why is making sure that people are able to pour into themselves?
Carol: Yeah. What are some ways that you help people do that?
Keisha: Well, I think that a lot of it is in coaching and reflecting and going through and finding ways to reflect on situations: ‘how did I respond to this, how am I going to do this differently in the future?’ I think that that emotional intelligence and self-awareness is really key. We can get so caught up in the doing of the work, and I find myself telling leaders all the time through our organization: the work is not just the work, it's not just the tactics and the processes. It's how we get things done. It's who we work with in order to move things forward. I think that a part of that is how we are aware of our own selves and how we impact that. So it's important, that critical part of leadership, in my opinion.
Carol: I don't know if leaders are always aware that the folks around them, their staff, are paying very close attention to everything that they're doing. And oftentimes, leaders are relying on what they're saying or what they're communicating in an email, but what they're doing, that is always more powerful, for people to watch behavior and, start to unpack, and doing that reflection so that you can think about, ‘okay, well, these are the things that happened.’ someone's telling me what they saw and that they made some interpretation and it maybe wasn’t what I intended, but that was the impact it had. So it's really key to always remember that, as a leader, you're in the spotlight
Keisha: Yeah, you're accountable, regardless of your intent. Maybe the impact is still being impacted. When you're mentioning leaders and people looking up to you or watching, how do we take off? How do we use it, how do we sharpen the saw? How do we develop ourselves? We tend to say, ‘Oh, we're going to send them to training or we're going to make sure you use your leave,’ but then, ‘Oh, well, no, I'm so important, I've got to work. I've got to be here’ or, ‘call me, I know I'm on vacation, but I'll still be a participant in that meeting.’ And it's risky to, to be the person that says ‘I'm scheduled for leave during that time. Can we reschedule that? I really want to be a part of the conversation, but I've scheduled this time and it's really important to my family.’ Not to say that as a leader, sometimes you don't need to just be there. If it's something that's come up, that's an emergency, but every emergency isn't an emergency. So I think that leading by example and taking care of ourselves and our families is really critical. And it's something that I constantly work on. I can't say I've got it down pat, but it's something that I strive to improve every year.
Carol: Yeah, those are hard boundaries to keep, even when we know that's in our belief, I know that's certainly what I believe and I try to do for myself and then to demonstrate to others. And I have the luxury of being an independent consultant. I used to give the explanation of why I'm on leave. Now I simply say that I'm not available. It's a little easier for me to do that without someone having access to my calendar, et cetera, but it's still hard to maintain those boundaries, and even if you're working, just keep some time for thinking and for analysis, for stepping back and not being in meeting after meeting after meeting as leaders are so often in. Especially now, in COVID, the day can never end sometimes. But I think being aware of what really is an emergency, when is it really critical, and when is it not so that you have those reserves when those emergencies come up.
Keisha: And one thing that I try to remember is, as women, and leaders, and moms, sometimes there's a thought you're supposed to be super-woman or super-mom, and I don't try to ascribe to that. I try to remember that, I'm juggling a lot of balls, but. Every ball is not a glass wall. So, there might be some things that I can let drop and they're going to bounce back and I'll just pick them up wherever they are. Or maybe I can pass it to someone on my team or something like that. But things like my children, or my husband, or my health, those are glass balls that I can't get back. If I drop them, they're shattered. That's been helpful for me to prioritize those things that'll be fine until next week, but this is the priority and takes precedent, so I need to calm myself.
Carol: I love that image because we so often hear ‘I'm juggling a lot of things,’ but remembering that all of those balls that you're juggling don't have the same impact and are not all precious in the same way. You don’t have to be the one juggling all of those things, and you can pull other people in, help them grow by giving them a stretch assignment that you may be in charge of, and maybe it can really help their development.
Keisha: Exactly and people want to help. They want to come through for you. So I think it isn't for us to share those opportunities with others and prioritize for ourselves.
Carol: So, part of your work has been working on building a more multicultural increasing equity within the Y. What would you say has been missing in past efforts to address equity in the nonprofit sector? I mean, there are a lot of organizations that are trying to address that in the outside of their organizations, but I'm talking about inside organizations.
Keisha: We have to start with ourselves internally. If it can't be just a process or a policy, or procedures, we have to start as individuals. We come to work with our own beliefs, the way that we are raised and how we see things. And we are all born with biases and it impacts how we show up and impact how we treat others at work. What we value, who we value. Knowing where people's ideals come from and why they make the decisions they make, or the way they behave. It's helpful in us being more empathetic to one another. I feel like the conversations that are being had nowadays, with the pandemic of coronavirus and COVID-19, and the epidemic of racism, people aren't able to ignore it. I think having these uncomfortable conversations, leaning into the discomfort, and committing to doing it again and again, is what's going to make the difference.
I've led multicultural leadership-development efforts at a national level for our organization. And there were some times where I felt like we were just teaching the diverse leader how to be within this larger structure that is not necessarily welcome. So, teach you - as a person of color - to straighten your hair, to get in, get the interview, say the right things, and do all those things. But how do we change the system so that it doesn't expect me to conform in order to be successful, that I can be valued for. However, if I choose to wear my hair this way, and I know that sometimes it seems like a small thing, but those small things, they just add up and there seem to be many ways where, as a woman of color, I felt like I haven't always been able to bring my whole self to work. So I do think that it's important that we allow folks to bring themselves, and their culture, and their beliefs, to work and not have to hide who they are.
Those conversations are key. And in that leadership development that you're talking about, it's essentially like we're refining code switching or refining, basically teaching whiteness. I feel like that's probably replicated across not only programs within organizations, but many, many programs that are offered as not capacity-building, but just different levels. So that's essentially what the program is about. How is that really helping us get to equity. We need to teach white people to be okay with people who are different. I know that there's a lot of books and things talking about being anti-racist. But we have to continue to just work on dismantling the systems. It's not just teaching one group how to be, or how to respond. It's educating ourselves on how things got to be the way they are. And they didn't just start with us here. Here's the impact of those things, here's how this group might've benefited from these laws and these systems. And then here's how this group may not have benefited or how they might've been kept back as a result of those. And then getting people to make change, how do we bring it to the forefront and then start to dismantle it. But it's in the long haul. It was built over time and it won't be dismantled overnight either.
Carol: Yeah. And it's interesting. I was listening to one of Brené Brown's podcasts, she now has two, and I'm not remembering who the person that she was talking to was, but the person she was interviewing was talking about how, when organizations try to start working on diversity, equity, and inclusion. They'll often go to the policies, the practices, and she described that, as the transactional part of the work. And that was interesting to me - because so often it ends up being posed as somewhat of an either/or of either you're doing transactional, or you're doing transformational and what she was saying, which I found so interesting was you have to have both. So you have to deal with all those practices and systems and how that's all embedded in the code of how we work. That's not enough, it's not sufficient. You also have to work at the relational level and then other work. We're trying to come at this from a conscious part of the brain that actually is not triggering a lot of this. That so much is about the unconscious bias that we've been taught over years. And how that's embedded in our limbic system.
Keisha: It is. We have to do something to consciously stop it and be aware that, ‘okay, this is what I'm thinking.’ This is what I'm hearing. This is what I'm saying, what I'm replicated. I found that one-on-one conversations have also been very, very helpful with - and I can't speak for every person who's like me - but I can tell you how this impacts me. I can tell you how this impacts my children. I can tell you how this impacts my family, and it's exhausting to share. There have been times when I'm like, ‘I'm tired of educating everyone else. I'm just going to do me.’ I've got to preserve myself.
Diversity fatigue is a real thing. I’ve found relationships that are important to me and I've really tried to develop those, whether it's professionally or personally, but by sharing, this is the impact of this. When I hear of another police killing a black person, I think about how that could be my son who is 17 now, who's 6’ 4” and it could be my daughter, who's 17 and just a black, young woman. It could be me, it could be my husband. And sharing conversations with folks. One of my colleagues said, that really hit me when you talked about your kids and my kids, because it's always, that's that family over there, but it's like, we have these things in common, but yet our kids can be doing the same exact thing and mine will be killed and Rose’s will not. So I think that that's one way that I've tried to personally make connections with folks and help them to see things in a different light.
Carol: Yeah. I appreciate that. And I appreciate what you're saying, that there are just sometimes when I'm not going to engage. I need to preserve myself.
Keisha: Yeah. I can't always engage in conversations, and it's not always fruitful. There are some folks who, it doesn't matter what you say, and I'm not willing to sacrifice myself for those types of conversations.
Carol: Yeah. And sometimes I find it can be helpful to identify some bright spots, or people who are operating under those same circumstances or constraints, within the same context, but somehow are having better results. In your work, have you encountered some of those bright spots because I think that that's a place to start working from.
Keisha: Yeah. I mean, I've encountered quite a few bright spots. We have a movement of leaders of color throughout the national Y and we call it our multicultural leadership development. It's mentors, coaches, and supports. And we've created safe spaces, similar to the employee resource group models where you have groups of people who may be able to come together and work on policies. You've got the affinity groups, those types of things, but ours is more of a mixture. Not just African-Americans with African-Americans. So you might see African-Americans, Hispanic, Latinos, and Asian Pacific Islanders. There you might have indigenous folks of which we need to improve our numbers versus nationally as an organization with regards to leadership, reflecting the communities we serve. But for those of us who are members of those communities, finding the commonalities and being able to support one another, educate one another, and to be with one another, and developing our own cultural competence, just because you're a person of color doesn't mean that you're going to be culturally competent as well.
The things that we're asking from other groups that we should be able to model those things as well. So it's definitely been a great support system. And we've seen a lot of folks who've been able to engage and advance their careers within our organization. In connecting the dots where they're not just at one small organization, that they can be connected to our larger network of organization. So really a lot of success there. We have seen some increases in our numbers nationally of leaders that are at the top level, in the C-suite CEO position that are of color. But then we've also had some challenges that go on the other side of it. We've done a lot more work on bias and undoing institutional racism. Anti-racism work, a lot more equity work and looking at the systems. And I don't think that that's something that, as national non-profits, a lot of us do. Recognizing that we are a part of those systems that we talk about, a part of this country. We have the same kind of history as we've evolved in these 175 years that our country has evolved. So, I think we're doing a lot and there are a lot of folks who are committed to it. There's much more to be done.
Carol: Sure. Sure. And for the Y particularly, you're a federated system and that can - I'm guessing - make it particularly challenging, but there are many other national organizations that are set up that same way. Can you just briefly say what a federated system is, and then maybe talk about how some of this work has either been able to move forward or, or been challenging.
Keisha: Sure. We're federated meaning each organization, each Y, is its own independent 501 c3. You're all members of the national YMCA, and there are some guidelines that we need to adhere to in order to be a member. But we each have our own boards of directors, our own financial leaders, those kinds of things. And we can make our own decisions. There are a lot of benefits to that because the work that's happening in each community is different. So we don't have to be bound by some national perspective or priorities that are not appropriate for our community. The benefits of being a larger, federated organization, our brand is something that's recognizable that we work hard to have some things that we say are in common and that when you go to a Y, no matter where you are, that there should be these types of things. For us, that healthy, living youth development and social responsibility are three of our big core areas that we do our work.
Carol: So there was a second part to that question. I'm just also wondering, with that federated system, there's also the autonomy of each organization. So, trying to move forward, something at the national level may take longer because you essentially have to persuade or pull in every organization within the system.
Keisha: We're a very diverse country. We have, in some ways, a lot of division and something that we all believe in. And then there are some areas where we're not all on the same side and our organization is not any different from that. so for us to all rally around the same thing, it is not always very easy. It can be painstaking, but I know that there are some things we do believe in equity and inclusion as a national organization. We believe in the safety of children and young people. And there's just certain things that are no-brainers for us. But how that gets implemented in each area is sometimes very different and can be difficult. I'm not speaking on behalf of our organization nationally. It is an area that I've seen that, when we’ve pulled together, it's very impactful.
Carol: You've actually developed your own leadership model. Can you tell us a little bit more about that and what you've found wanting and other models that spurred you to create your own?
Keisha: Sure! Thank you for asking about it. It's interesting because I've coached leaders for many, many years, and also had a lot of focus on learning and development. I feel like we tend to highlight leaders who seem as if they arrived; as if they just showed up and they were perfect, these flawless leaders and I've done presentations, and I've done a little riff on Beyonce’s flawless music. We don't really highlight leaders who mess things up or who are learning. When I see someone who's in a position that's at a high level I think, ‘man, how do I get there?’ I don't hear about the times that they failed four times, that they were rejected for six other positions that they've gone for, you just get to see where they've shown up. So I really try to encourage my colleagues to share some of their failures, some of their flaws so to speak. The model is that leaders are flawed and they are not perfect, but we do learn from things. So the [idea is that] we're failing forward. Everyone makes mistakes. And how do we utilize those to propel ourselves and our learning, or whatever it is that we learned from those failures. Then maybe we prevent some of the failures in the future, or maybe they'll be a little smaller. But recognizing that all of us will fail at some point and how we fail forward? the lesson for lifelong learners that we constantly have to sharpen that saw, we have to learn more. Part of it is reflecting and getting better, learning about what we do and how we can improve, learning about our field, our craft, just continuing to [learn]. There's no point where you've just arrived so we need to always be lifelong learners. The A is for authentic! I think authenticity in leadership is very important for us. If you want people to follow you, you want them to trust you. People don't want to follow someone who doesn't seem genuine. And a part of that authenticity is [admitting] that, you’re not always right. I may not be perfect, but sharing more of our why, our story, why we do things or what's motivating our decisions and things like that. Sharing a little bit of a vulnerability. So if we were to talk about Brenè Brown, vulnerability is just super important. So I think that that's all tied to authenticity. And then the W is for work. You can't be a leader without doing the work. You’ve gotta roll your sleeves up and get your hands dirty. I do believe in working smarter, not harder. I'm not going to try and take the hard way, but in leadership, you definitely have to put in the work wherever it's needed. That's my model: leaders of LAW.
Carol: I love it. I think it was one thing - I don't think much goes viral on LinkedIn - but this one probably did where someone actually wrote their failure resume. Yeah, so when you write your bio for when you're speaking or whatnot, you rarely include: “and right before I got that job, I was the runner-up for four of them.” [You don’t include] where you were laid off here, or where you got restructured out of that job at that. We're resilient. Those are the things that we need to reiterate that, especially with this generation coming up and I hate to sound like the old person in the room, but you want folks to know it's okay, you gotta be resilient. We don't know what's going to happen next, then COVID, and what this next iteration will be, but we will band together. We will be resilient. We'll make it through and figure it out.
Keisha: Yeah. And I think folks have a lot more resilience than they realize, and it's part of it. It's looking back and seeing, ‘that kind of sucked at that time, but I picked myself back up and got back on the horse’ or whatever and [you need to] try it again. And I think just the way our brains are wired, we learn so much more from those failures than we do from all those successes. So, we have such a negativity bias that those are definitely more memorable. But then not only keep it as our own private learning, but I think what you're saying is, for leaders to actually share those with the folks that they're working with so that folks really know that it is okay. We don't want to make a lot of mistakes. Nobody wants to make mistakes. But on the other hand, if there's a culture where making mistakes is punished, then it just has so much impact on folks willing to take risks. That has to be there for innovation [so it] can really have a chilling effect. So yeah, pretending that you're perfect, it's exhausting for the person who wants to work with that anyway. It's not realistic. It doesn't have to be perfect. We're not expecting it to be our final product, but you're going to put this bad boy out, see how it works, and we'll fix it. We'll continue to hone in on it.
Carol: So, you allow people to be okay with, like you said, innovating and we don't want to make huge mistakes, but we know that's a part of the process. Then we can build our confidence in knowing that it's a part of the process that I may stumble.
Keisha: Yeah. And I think, also for organizations to look at who's allowed to make those mistakes within the organization and who it has higher consequences for. And I'm sure in most cases there's probably already research that shows this, but the more male and white you are, probably the more you can get away with. Yup. Very much so. And I didn't necessarily see it myself. Being in HR, coming from operations in so many places that I'm really drawn to making sure that we're consistent with how we handle those situations. Like you said, are we doing the same thing if the person is white and male that we would have done if they were young and female, or a person of color, or something like that. It’s super important that we have that consistency.
Carol: Yeah, well I want to shift focus a little bit. At the end of every episode, I do a little game where I ask a random icebreaker question. So, what is one family tradition that you'd like to carry on in the future?
Keisha: I created a family tradition of cookie baking for the holidays, and I'm not a person who cooks nor bakes. So it was interesting for me to come up with that, but I just love the idea of my children coming together, and having other cousins over, and us getting flour all over the place and making cookies from scratch. It's just a great way to set the holiday season off. It's a big mess, and every year I say, ‘why am I doing this?’ but I'm really trying to figure out how to do it during COVID. I'm like, ‘okay, pass out flour and it could be making an idea, or you do something via zoom. It's definitely one of the traditions that I hope my children pass on and that they continue to do it.
Carol: All right. Well, thank you so much. I hope I get a box of cookies.
Keisha: You may not want them! They've gotten better over the years. Like I said, I'm not a baker but, fail forward! I've gotten much better, but I've been failing forward for some years.
Carol: All right. Well, thank you so much.
Keisha: Thank you. Appreciate you, Carol. Good to talk to you.
My passion is helping nonprofit organizations and associations have a greater mission impact.
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