Two Years In…Notes on Equity and Shared Leadership at MAG

By Elissa Sloan Perry and Susan Misra

In August of 2015 we became CoDirectors of MAG. This was a new experiment in shared leadership for MAG. We decided to share our reflections on this experiment as we go each year in hopes that it will contribute to our collective learning on shared leadership. (Here is our reflection from last year.)

In our second year as CoDirectors, the honeymoon is over and we have started the hard work necessary to build a strong partnership that is healthy for us as individuals, that can weather the inevitable bumps and curves in the road, and that ultimately enables MAG to grow and advance our vision of dignity, love, and justice for all. With awareness and belief that conflict and challenge are opportunities to surface what matters, to deepen alignment, and to build relationship and trust, we dove in.

We have started a process of questioning the very conditions within which our CoDirectorship exists, and exploring how these conditions impact everyone at MAG. We recognized that many elements of white supremacy culture exist within our very own organization and we have embarked on a process of dismantling these elements to shift the conditions in which we are working. These are not small tasks! We have persisted and we are grateful for all that we have learned – and we have much to be proud of! We hope our learning, shared below, will be of use to others experimenting with how we all lead toward love, dignity and justice.
 

The Honeymoon Is Over: Strengthening Our Partnership

A major issue we needed to navigate this year to strengthen our partnership was our individual responses to the U.S. (and global) climate outside of MAG.

The last year has been a rough one politically and emotionally for ourselves and those around us – and we each responded differently. Elissa needed more quiet, reflective and spacious time alone in order to be fully present with staff, partners, and clients. Meanwhile, Susan sprung into organizing action both inside and outside the office.

These responses, while both are understood as good and necessary and even reflective of the different responses in MAG, put stress on the healthy and usually complementary differences in our styles. Depending on who was in relationship with whom on projects in and around MAG, staff were also getting very different messages about what was okay and even what was expected in our new political time. The crunch on our time meant that we did not adhere to our guiding principle of having honest and constructive conversations when there was disagreement or lack of accountability. We are usually adept at these conversations and, for both of us, they became unintentionally low priority in the interest of doing what each of us needed to stay present.

As a result, and not too long into 2017, we realized that we were at the beginning of what could become some bad habits and patterns, and so we decided to hire a coach again. This has been awesome! Having this support has gotten us back into the practice of accountability, reminded us of how good we are together, and renewed our excitement about our partnership. It also allowed us to explore how we continue to deepen our own practice in the elements we believe are necessary for transformative change as we lead and hold space for others to deepen theirs.

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OUR CODIRECTOR GUIDING PRINCIPLES

*To continue to be honest and transparent with each other.

*Ask rather than make assumptions. 

*Listen and be willing to adjust.

*Maintain friendship.

*Honor strengths and growth potential in each other.

*It is okay to have a good closing if it isn’t working
for one or both of us - and to seek support along the way.

*Remain deeply committed to each other’s success.

*When we disagree or if there is lack of accountability,
pause and have constructive conversation with each other.
If needed, talk with board chair. If needed, bring in a coach to
facilitate or mediate.
 

Dismantling White Supremacy Culture at MAG

Another issue we needed to navigate to strengthen our partnership, and MAG as an organization, was deepening our own journey inside MAG to practice the five elements necessary for transformation toward justice and to embody our values.

As a part of our learning journey, we explored (with the brilliant facilitation of Monica Dennis) how the characteristics of white supremacy culture show up inside MAG and this was an awakening. Habits like perfectionism, creating a sense of urgency, and worship of the written word were deeply embedded. This required us to pretty quickly acknowledge that we’ve gotten to where we are in these leadership roles because we’ve actually gotten really good at those habits. At the same time, they are now impacting the whole team, including us, in negative ways.

Over the last year, our staff has been disentangling elements of white supremacy culture that are standing in the way of liberation. Rather than reinforcing perfectionism and hoarding power, we’re creating spaces for staff to come together to develop internal systems for mutual support and accountability. We’ve been practicing having courageous conversations about conflict and creating pathways to grow and change. We’re exploring multiple ways of knowing and inner work practices that can shift our assumptions and habits. We are starting to build in time for emotional labor and relationship building rather than succumbing to the urgency of the moment. We’re also trying not to assume that more is better, but to be more intentional about what is our significant collective contribution.

 

Much to Be Excited About

We are grateful and excited about our work in 2017, including….

  • Facilitating equity transformation projects  - We worked with a major regional foundation, a multinational intermediary organization, and other organizations and networks on the significant transformation of their systems, structures, people, processes, mindsets, practices, and culture to deepen racial equity within their operations, programming, and grantmaking.
     
  • Shifting conditions in the social sector - We experimented with different ways to lift up the five elements necessary for transformation towards love, dignity, and justice - through research and writing as well as experiential and experimental learning.
    • Confluence gathering - We wanted to see if we could co-design a gathering of folks from across sectors, disciplines, and identities to explore and experience the five elements. We tried it and it worked! We are looking for ways to continue to nurture confluence-like spaces that feed the mind, body, and spirit, and are thrilled that many people have also self-organized small partnerships to continue their exploration of the five elements.
    • Nonprofit Quarterly series on the 5 elements - We partnered with several people and organizations to showcase how changemakers are practicing the five elements and what questions are emerging to deepen the use and value of the five elements in our day-to-day work.
  • Leading complex systems change and power building projects - In partnership with GEO and the Packard Foundation, we facilitated a Systems Grantmaking Community of Practice. We had 45 participants from 27 philanthropic and intermediary groups participate in the six-month long experiment to deepen systems capacities. A small group is self-managing to continue this community. We also partnered with USC PERE to support the Ford Foundation’s new state investment strategy. Together, we created a coherent strategy for investing in U.S. states to build power and advance progressive governance.
     
  • Building and supporting movement networks - We worked in partnership with others including CompassPoint, Monica Dennis, Rachael Ibrahim, and the Nonprofit Finance Fund to strengthen movement networks that seek to build equity and power.  We've worked with networks in the arts and the movement to end violence such as FORCE: Upsetting Rape Culture, the Network Weaver Learning Lab, and Leveraging A Network for Equity.
     
  • Advancing shared leadership and equity at MAG  - As MAG continues on the path of cultivating a culture of shared leadership and one that practices equity, we have also shifted a number of structures, personnel policies, as well as our whole supervision and performance strategy.  Our guiding question is now “How might we support and grow each others superpowers in service of our shared vision?”
     
  • Strategizing with organizations and networks - As the largest facilitator of the Organizational Mapping Tool for the Ford Foundation’s BUILD initiative, we helped over twenty organizations across the social sector to collectively assess their organizational capacity and develop strategic priorities for organizational strengthening.  We also worked with a global economic justice network to create an adaptable and emergent strategy; they created a set of experiments and new structures for rapid feedback and iteration.
  • Growing our staff and budget in alignment with our business model plan - We have doubled in staff size and budget over the course of 2 years, dramatically increasing our work with partners and clients. Our intention is not to keep growing, but to achieve a point where we are stable and able to work collectively and intentionally to support and strengthen movements.  We’re successfully building an enduring foundation for this.

The bottom-line is that we have learned that It is hard work to tend to the internal alignment of values and practice. This is an ongoing journey with no end. We are making experimental shifts to learn and practice how we want to be together intentionally - and this is critical to our ability to make the most significant strides towards love, dignity, and justice. The strong foundation we have created, and the renewed vigor in our partnership, are supporting us and MAG to do a lot and be different in that doing!