Over the past decade, the Southern movement landscape has shifted dramatically. In 2014, the year Southern Vision Alliance (SVA) was founded, the global movement for Black lives was just taking off. We were only a few years removed from Occupy Wall Street, and still a few away from a major presidential candidate railing at the 1%. Since 2014, we’ve seen the rise of #MeToo, queer and trans defiance (particularly in response to NC’s anti-trans/anti-worker “bathroom bill”), indigenous-led resistance to oil pipelines and environmental destruction, and much more.
Our frontline organizing infrastructure has shifted as well. When SVA launched, there were only a handful of organizations hosting and resourcing statewide youth programs—nationally, let alone in the South—and even fewer that provided stipends to the youth who completed the programs. Now, there are hundreds of paid fellowships by and for young, BIPOC, and QTPOC organizers. Moreover, following the lead of SONG, BYP100, Mijente, and others, there is now a consensus among progressive national funders that projects must be feminist, pro-queer, pro-migrant, pro-Black, and concerned that capitalism is killing the planet.
For our sector, it is overdue that we all grapple with white supremacy. Over 80% of nonprofit EDs and CEOs are white. Legacy, tradition, lack of clear succession planning, structural racism, internalized biases, and many other factors all create conditions that keep the status quo. But one thing that I personally know to be true; unless the individuals in those positions make the conscious choice to step aside or to embrace genuine shared leadership models, these numbers won’t change anytime soon. If we’re serious about building a new and better world, it’s the only choice that those of us who occupy these positions can ultimately make.
On this note, I’m excited to share: After 4 years as the founder and director of two flagship Southern youth programs, then 4 years as Executive Director of SVA, and then another 2 years as the co-Executive Director of SVA, I’ll be stepping aside as ED in 2021.
This move has been a while in the making. In sharing how we got here, I want to invite partners, allies, and, especially, other white EDs—into a conversation about how we can make authentic leadership space. Even within the confines of the nonprofit and capitalist systems we currently live under, there is much more we can do.
On August 9, 2014, Mike Brown was shot and killed by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, setting off protests across the region and the world. That summer a group of us gathered at North Carolina’s Topsail Beach for what would become SVA’s founding retreat.
On the way to the beach, one of our founders, a cis Black man, was trailed for miles by a cop car along the coastal road. He showed up shaken. We proceeded to scrap our agenda and dedicate space for reflection and venting.
When we were creating SVA, we knew we needed to center our relationships with each other if we wanted to support multiracial, multigenerational movement building with multiple on-ramps for new people and new energy coming from many walks of life. We were all familiar with “intermediaries” that spent little time connecting with the frontline communities they purported to support. We also saw how this top-down orientation went hand-in-hand with top-down, typically white-led staffing structures. We also saw how often nonprofit organizations substituted their paid staff for their base, or for the movement, and at its worst, obstructed efforts for authentic structural change led by organized, directly-impacted communities. These were some of the primary reasons why in 2010, I walked away from decent paying jobs in the nonprofit sector – to try to do something different.
To guard against this, we started off flat. We were all part-time with no set titles. Every one of us did double and triple duty across operations and programs. It was only when funding partners required one of us to represent someone consistently as an “ED” that I stepped into my role. I am white, and had some years of non-profit experience, and at 33, I was a decade older than the half of the team. We thought we could leverage my whiteness and resume to have an advantage with potential funders—and we were right.
We built a culture of scrappiness. For our office, we used space at the YWCA in Southeast Raleigh, a 110-year old institution where Ella Baker once worked. Our 2011 budget was $13,000, which we hustled through house parties and crowdfunding. It took 7 years to grow to a point where I was able to match the salary that I left behind in 2010, still less than $50,000 per year.
We cared for each other. For two of SVA’s first 5 years, 2015 to 2016, I was in recovery from a series of debilitating surgeries related to a degenerative genetic condition. This included 1.5 years confined to a wheelchair. This required the team to fill gaps and grow their own leadership.
We also made sacrifices. When we launched SVA, we housed two youth programs that we had built from the ground up, Ignite NC and the Youth Organizing Institute (YOI). For the first year of YOI, I volunteered my time while on unemployment and maxxed out my credit cards to run the first “Freedom School.” In 2010, there was little dedicated funding out there for youth organizing. Most of what existed was tied up with youth voter engagement and went to national organizers parachuting in. So we decided to lean in. We crafted two flagship programs, the Election Protection Fellowship and the Millennial Voter Fund, in an attempt to draw funding to local organizers and sustain our work. We borrowed from YOI’s small budget to launch Ignite NC in the fall of 2013. It was a risk.
But we grew.
From 2015 to 2016, our budget grew by more than 50%. In 2017, we grew by another 73%, but our internal organization and capacity didn’t grow at the same pace. Our management and governance structures were still flat and loose, based in deep trust.
On the one hand, this allowed us to focus on the work itself. We could avoid getting bogged down in long strategic planning processes, endless staff meetings, and lots of bureaucratic red tape. It also allowed our staff, many of whom were younger and didn’t have much, if any, formal ngo/management training, to operate with a lot of autonomy. Sometimes this led to tension, confusion, and as we learned, siloing and divergent goals. Sometimes mistakes were made that opened up the broader organization to risk and had to be addressed.
Additionally, all our core programs had developed out of rapid response moments, from North Carolina’s monster voter suppression bill to the attempt to re-segregate the public schools to the anti-trans “bathroom bill.” Our experience with these moments was a double-edged sword: It pushed us to grow, but led to burnout.
How, then, can we grow in ways that do not make us choose between our values? How do we build and maintain a team that is constantly re-centering together in a shared vision for change? How can we treat structure, specialization, and, in select cases, unilateral decision-making as means to honor and support non-traditional leadership? How can we build an organization that integrates consensus in vision and strategy with nimbleness and agency in execution?
At the end of 2018, we re-rooted. In November, SVA transitioned to an intergenerational, interracial co-Executive Directorship with then 24-year-old Loan Tran stepping into the role. In February 2019, SVA moved to a four-person multi-racial, multi-gendered executive team, joined by our Finance Director and our Director of Operations and Organizational Culture. Together, the team brought years of experience as frontline organizers— for queer and trans liberation, farmworker justice, migrant justice, police abolition, and more.
Throughout 2019 the team met on a weekly (sometimes more) basis and made all large organizational decisions by consensus. This meant lots more time dedicated to discussion and debate. But when we moved, we moved together. By deliberating more, we were able to be more nimble: Slow is steady, steady is fast.
When we formed this team, we sought to honor our founding vision. If we wanted to continue growing an intersectional movement, we needed a more collaborative body. It wasn’t realistic to think that a sole ED, particularly a white female-assigned person, could bring the depth and variety of experiences needed to intuit the needs of our partners and challenges our varied communities face.
“Shared leadership” has become more structurally explicit within SVA and not just part of our values statement, now we can give some credit where it’s due.
“Pulling the Strings?”
There’s an historic racist trope that I’ve encountered, where its said that white people are “pulling the strings” whenever people of color, particularly for Black folks in the South, engage in collective resistance. It’s a trope that’s been used to delegitimize interracial organizing and Southern Black freedom organizers for decades. It also generally has anti-communist roots—harkening back to the 1920s and 1930s when members of the US Communist Party worked deeply to organize an integrated Sharecroppers Union in the South. As a white ED, working primarily with youth of color, I’ve been pigeonholed into this trope time and time again—often by opponents, but also by others “in the movement”—generally older folks, generally cis men, but certainly not exclusively.
The first few times this happened, it was shocking (as well as insulting and infantilizing to the people I worked with) to hear myself characterized as a “well-connected white puppeteer who was manipulating Black and brown youth into protesting.” I would often also get blamed when young people (particularly youth of color, women, queer, and non-binary) decided to work independently from established civil rights groups, opting instead to create their own spaces and organization.
It is true I have consistently encouraged young people to create their own spaces, and also that I consider this to be “What Ella taught us” as within the tradition of SNCC. SNCC was established 1960 in Raleigh NC, and serendipitously founded with the support of that same YWCA that supported our initial youth formation in 2010.
A very short bio
I stumbled into the movement in my early 20s from a fog of nihilistic angst and typical examples of self-destructive behavior you easily found in rural communities in the 1990s. I found “the movement” after 9-11 and the criminal invasions of Afghanistan, then Iraq. Coming from a conservative rural working class Southern family—religious, patriotic parents, the oldest of 6 kids, I had no political connections and mostly backwards frameworks.
Much of what I thought I knew had to be unlearned and reshaped (this is still and always a process). I was the first in my family to go away to a 4-year university (and still the only sibling with a B.A.); I dropped out of school several times along the way and accumulated debt that I continue to pay off 15 years later.
Following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, I was working for another Southern intermediary and through that work, met community organizers in Jackson, MS and New Orleans whose slogan I carried with me to SVA: Anything about us, without us, isn’t for us. People organizing in their own names, for and by their own community. From the Free the Land movement, I learned about community self-determination and the concept of the Black Belt.
The idea that I was master-minding these bold smart young people, upon reflection, seemed to me more like deflection from folks being unwilling to face some critical evaluation of their own side of the street.
And yet, as a white ED, I’ve learned that I also must acknowledge the power of my position —and what others perceive of that power. Even when white EDs aren’t micromanaging the youth programs, or “making the calls” on the ground, the perception that we are is often unavoidable, partially because nonprofit culture is often modeled on hierarchical bureaucratic corporate models. Even down to a “Board of Directors” conceived of as a higher governing body than rank-n-file members.
As an Executive Director, particularly a founding director, If we don’t look toward making transition plans, beginning from the very first day that we enter our roles, if we don’t create lanes for our very capable colleagues of color to take over, we are complicit in discrediting their work and reinforcing white supremacy.
As I transition roles, I reflect on the leaders in SVA’s ecosystem who give me hope in these times.
I think of our first ever Migrant Solidarity Fund, launched at the start of the COVID pandemic by my co-ED, Loan Trần, and our partners at Comité de Acción Popular.
I think of how our comrades in Robeson County added another chapter to their BIPOC legacy of rural social justice victories by recently beating back the East Coast Pipeline.
I think of the #NoCap2020 fellows who hailed from HBCUs across the state, and who heeded the call and helped to shift the tide in Georgia during the runoff.
I think of the exciting racial justice organizing happening in rural southern counties that we have the honor to support.
I think of the $450,000 that SVA’s Frontline Funds raised and regranted in 2020 through the Queer Mobilization Fund and through over 300 Covid Community response efforts across North and South Carolina.
I think of our majority Black and brown, majority women and nonbinary, majority queer staff of 22 people, and their many years of leadership ahead.
I think about how we need to cultivate bold, inventive, and intergenerational alliances in order to win and how that’s always been how the South does.
In the midst of all that has happened and all that will happen, leadership can’t remain stagnant. Those of us who’ve weathered these past decades, particularly white southern folks, need to actively pave the way for new, creative, frontline leadership—the kind of leadership at the center of Southern freedom struggles throughout history.
Over the next months and years, I will grapple with the question of how best to step away from executive leadership, but not to walk away from the hard work of movement building. To continue to hone collective leadership that centers the experiences and wisdom of Black, Indigenous, Queer, poor, migrant, and disabled and marginalized communities, and to deepen my solidarity through action and reflection. My aim is to more deeply embody one of SVA’s founding slogans:
“Less Ego, More Impact”
I would be remiss if I did not give a huge shout out to all the brilliant people who have been my comrades, collaborators, and co-conspirators over these years. My gratitude to Josh Vincent for taking the helm at a precarious historical moment is immense. I look forward to seeing where he steers things, and I know it will be toward better futures where all people can live to their fullest human potential.