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The Oppositional Consciousness Of Those At The Margin: How Equity Starts With The Power Of Ideas

by Zury Murphy, BOLD’s Evaluator

If we are going to talk about leadership equity, we must first discuss how inequity is established and maintained. Oppression and inequity are sustained and advanced by controlling economic and political systems, access to education, due process, and ideas. The powerful, those in charge, those with authority and money have always used ideological power to shape thought and define what is normal, unacceptable, right and wrong. 

Within a social order that is firmly rooted in the practices of white supremacy, nationalism, and patriarchy, it follows that the knowledge and leadership of the people who society considers marginal will be suppressed. Research has shown that leaders of color are qualified and eager to take on leadership roles in this country, yet as we approach 2020, less than 20% of nonprofit director positions are held by Blacks, Asians, and Hispanics combined. Equity has become a buzzword, and although some organizations and foundations have begun to turn their attention and resources to these underutilized leaders, shifting widespread practice within the field remains elusive. Does the rest of the field realize what we lose  when hundreds of men and women of color are sidelined in our fight for justice? Several anecdotes reveal not only what we lose but what we gain from pushing for equity within movement leadership. 

Erica Clemmons-Dean is the national organizing director at 9to5 with a long history of leadership in Georgia communities. She led a major effort to register black voters and support Stacey Abrams in her historic race for governor. The challenger, Secretary of State Brian Kemp, was in charge of elections and kept his position while running his own campaign. Widespread voter suppression led to his win by a miniscule margin. When Erica was offered $100,000 to do electoral work a few months later, she turned the money down, explaining that her community was devastated by the outcome of the previous elections. She explained to the funder that asking people to register more voters after what happened shifted the focus away from the systemic problems and onto the community. She proposed an alternative approach  and the funder agreed to support it. Erica’s leadership skills and perspective provided insight that saved the foundation money and ensured resources would be distributed in a strategic way. And most importantly, the community was not taken advantage of in the process.  

Clemmon-Dean’s story shows us that when marginalized people begin to gain and wield ideological power, they have the authority to produce knowledge and create meaning; to shape organizational decisions and views; and ultimately, to improve their communities. Organizations that practice equity create space for these leaders who exist at the intersection of race, gender and class oppression. Ultimately, this greatly benefits the work. 

Development of these individuals as leaders is crucial to creating comprehensive and equitable strategies. Yes, imagining solutions is the job of all of us but if those with a unique perspective on the experience of gendered, racialized, and economic oppression are centered in the process, our vision for change will be less partial. When we are developing social justice leaders, we must prioritize those who have been and remain closest to injustice. By doing this, we tap into the oppositional consciousness of these leaders, making outcomes like Erica’s the norm.

Oppositional consciousness is a way of thinking and being in which the individual possesses the ability to read the current situation of power and consciously creates strategies to navigate and reconfigure it while resisting its dysfunctions. 

A powerful example of this is the Black Mama’s Bail Out Campaign led by Southerners on New Ground (SONG) in partnership with several other organizations. SONG has been organizing in the U.S. South since 1993 and is known for its work across issues of race, class, gender, culture and sexuality with LGBTQ communities and their allies. But in 2017, under the leadership of  Co-director Mary Hooks, SONG pioneered  a new approach to interrupt the prison industrial complex. Why not raise money to bail out Black women on Mother’s Day? The cash bail system keeps ten of thousands of people locked away for minor offenses simply because they cannot afford to pay the fee. Mary’s strategy tapped into the collective conviction that mothers should be with their children. The campaign led to the formation of the National BailOut Collective, a Black-formed Blackled abolitionist coalition. The Black Mama’s work to free mothers in multiple jurisdictions provided organizers with a first-hand education on how oppression operates through the cash bail system across the U.S. And most importantly, it worked! Over 100 Black mothers were bailed out across the country.

Equity starts with the power of ideas. It’s not enough to have people of color on staff or to hold meetings with low income community members. Privileged people at all levels within movement have to start relinquishing their hold on shaping thought and determining strategy. They must begin to make room for the ideological power of marginalized people. Erica Clemmons Dean and Mary Hooks grew their influence by participating in  eadership development programs like Power 50 of Community Change  and The Lorde’s Werq, which Mary now co-facilitates for queer leaders within the southeast. It is critical that foundations continue to make investments in these. We must also take a look within our organizations and assess where we are stifling oppositional consciousness and knowledge creation by those who are too poor; who are dark-skinned, foreign, uneducated, pierced and tattooed, or unmanicured; who speak with a thick accent or otherwise fall outside of what we deem acceptably adjacent to whiteness and capitalistic values.

As we cede power and resources to those who are practicing oppositional ways of being and strategizing, we expand the likelihood for creating sustainable change. And we inch even closer to accomplishing  what we all want: to live in an equitable world.