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Why the South needs equity-centered leadership

We all benefit when diverse voices are heard.

Leadership is relationship.

It’s arguably the simplest and most poignant definition of leadership that we’ve got.

Here’s another way to say it that’s even more concise and beautiful: “Ubuntu,” the African philosophy embraced by the late, great anti-apartheid champion Archbishop Desmond Tutu. “I am because we are.”

There’s no real mandate nor power without that basic recognition. Before and after Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Tutu served as the conscience of a nation, always wielding wisdom beside and on behalf of the people he served.

This is what I, and many others, call “equity-centered leadership.” It’s a style of leadership that the South needs more than ever.

It is not about a single, charismatic person.

It’s about moving the group forward in a collective and dynamic way. Equity-centered leadership harnesses humility, grace, learning in real time and in public, being comfortable with collaboration and taking a learning stance.

We can look at the example of Ella Baker as another icon of equity-centered leadership. She embraced a leadership style different from Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., while pressing for a different vision of group-centered leadership out of the SCLC.

Baker once said, “The major job was getting people to understand that they had something within their power that they could use, and it could only be used if they understood what was happening and how group action could counter violence.” The ideas of centering individual agency and the importance of group action is central to equity-centered leadership.

In Durham, we’ve got the beautiful legacy of Pauli Murray, who worked fearlessly within the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s while also vociferously opposing the misogyny within the movement.

Murray continued to press against the edges of tolerance within various communities purported to be dedicated to uplifting oppressed groups. They went on to co-found the National Organization for Women (NOW) but later moved away from leadership because of a belief that NOW was not addressing issues faced by Black and working-class women.

In modern times, the Black Lives Matter Movement is yet another example of leaderful movements, which empower a broad array of leaders, rather than just one.

Part of equity-centered leadership involves, well, de-centering some leaders whose profiles seem to loom so large that they suck up all the oxygen in the room. Equity-centered leadership means democratizing who we even consider to be leaders and empowering them.

Despite all this rich history and current landscape full of equity-centered, collaborative leadership, one pressing question remains: How is the South’s current political and economic climate hindering more equity-centered leadership?

Contemporary examples can help us answer this critical question.

Equity-centered leadership today

The South is full of powerful, equity-centered leaders.

Take Amir Farokhi, for example. Amir is a city councilmember in Atlanta and an executive at CARE. His district includes the Old Fourth Ward, where Dr. King was born, raised and preached.

Looking to explore ways to deliver greater economic security for the most-vulnerable residents in his district, Farokhi convened the Old Fourth Ward Economic Security Task Force, which studied the issue. This task force convened scholars, nonprofits and community members so that all voices were heard.

This eventually led to the founding of the GRO Fund – a new, impact investment fund that is soon launching its first initiative, In Her Hands, a $13 million program to support Black women and other pioneering efforts across Georgia.

This program places Atlanta at the forefront of one of the most cutting edge and promising public policy innovations in U.S. history: guaranteed income.

Another example from Atlanta: Fabian Williams’ mural project to celebrate the unsung community heroes such as Oronike Odeleye and J. Carter, the founders of Atlanta’s ONE Musicfest. A music festival that annually brings joy and solidarity to the community is a fantastic example of those underappreciated elements of community leadership that help drive understanding between people through shared experiences.

What’s notable about equity-centered leadership right now is that the philanthropic community is catching on, often in striking new ways.

Just look at how the Coastal Community Foundation, under the leadership of Darrin Gross, audited their grantmaking and expanded their giving to BIPOC organizations in the nine-county region through a partnership with Facebook. This groundbreaking work provided tech support and advocacy, not just grant funds.

These real-world examples are guideposts for us all to better understand how equity centered leadership can be performed every day.

At MDC, we’re investing deeply in equity-centered leadership too.

Our new Senior Program Director for Equity Centered Leadership and Philanthropy, Kerri Forrest, offers a great summary of how we think about this work: “It’s the ability to … be vulnerable and to learn in public, but to also lead teams and organizations through that as well.”

Kerri shared a story of meeting years ago with the late James “Jim” Rozier, a former county supervisor for rural Berkeley County, S.C., who, although he was a hard-charging conservative, shared an important lesson on leadership.

Jim said, “Our job as leaders is to guide people through being comfortable, but not really where they are need to be, through the uncomfortable change and back out the other side to being comfortable.”

Such brave work builds structures to grow stronger leaders – and more of them. Equity-centered leadership means going beyond the typical organizations that receive the bulk of grant funding to reach the organizations that don’t usually get those much-needed funds.

The South is overdue for a shift in how we think about and practice leadership.

Present and future leaders of movements in the South would be wise to place equity at the core of their practice.


From Atlanta Journal and Constitution, December 21, 2022.

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