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Posts Tagged ‘Leadership’

*This was first published on the blog for the Stanford Social Innovation Review*

In my experiences over the last dozen years working to transform the abortion conflict, I’ve encountered some hard truths about why we humans have so much trouble getting ourselves out of the sticky problems we create for ourselves. My organization Exhale has sought to influence mainstream culture, unearth hidden stories, and demonstrate that it’s possible to nurture human connection and empathy despite increasing hostility and polarization—but it’s been no easy task. Like most leaders, I’ve needed to adapt so that I can face each new challenge with openness and optimism.

Early on in the job, I asked a prominent feminist leader how she kept going against so many odds, and her answer—that sacrificing for the cause was worth it—didn’t help me at all. Over the last decade, I’ve witnessed how sacrifices like hers can eventually lead to personal resentment, bitterness, and despair. Feelings of hopelessness are a real threat to our ability as leaders to imagine creative new possibilities. Many just give up.

Take Paul Kingsworth, an environmental activist, who is so disheartened by a lack of action on climate change that he’s moved his family to a rural area to begin preparing for the worst. “Whenever I hear the word ‘hope’ these days, I reach for my whiskey bottle,” he has said. “Surely we only hope when we are powerless?”

Not true, says Raven Brooks, executive director of a progressive activist network that influences politics and public policy called Netroots Nation. Brooks has seen bitterness about the state of the world manifest as cynicism and believes it’s something activists “must guard against.” “It’s one thing to be pragmatic,” he acknowledges, but it’s another to “get to the point that you are so cynical that you can’t throw a Hail Mary or think about what’s needed to change the game. You will talk yourself out of everything.”

So, how do leaders do it? How do they wake up everyday, step outside, and face a world full of injustice, hardship, and difficult decisions with no easy answers?

I recently interviewed a number of social entrepreneurs, including Brooks, to find out what it really takes—beyond time and money—to make lasting change. Their answers were inspiring but definitely not simple. People who take leadership seriously develop a host of strategies to wade through the rough waters of social change while also taking care of themselves. Their answers are about discipline and focus.

Here are some of my top takeaways from these conversations:

  • Strong leaders know how to make change. Every single leader I interviewed knows how to make change happen (even one person who said she didn’t went on to describe how she does it—regularly and successfully). Change is a lived experience for them. They might not have known how at first. It took time to get there. They had to overcome obstacles, navigate failures, and make mistakes, but they persevered, adapted, and came out the other side with knowledge and insight. That means that whatever the political or social challenge of the day, leaders have confidence in their own abilities to figure it out. They are ready for more.
  • They use dilemmas to innovate. Whether the cause is prison abolition, contraceptive safety, or climate change, leaders seek to avoid black-and-white thinking and use gray areas to imagine new possibilities. Over and over, the people I interviewed acknowledged the difficult social, political, and cultural terrain in which they operated, and expressed how valuable it was to communicate these challenges clearly, directly, and publicly. Highly ethical, they were most concerned with being truthful, credible, and real—not convincing, persuasive, or right.
  • They don’t sacrifice themselves for the cause. As I mentioned above: Burnout, cynicism, bitterness, and despair get in the way of change, and while the leaders I interviewed said they had moments when they felt all of these things, they have developed methods to not stay stuck there. Each strongly resisted the idea that sacrifice was fundamental to leadership or social change, and noted that creative, joyful, generous people are best suited to social change work. It was also interesting to note that for some changemakers, rejecting upwardly mobile, middle-class aspirations isn’t a sacrifice (despite how others perceive their choices), but a lived reflection of deeply held ethics and values that give their life meaning.
  • They know political risks have more to do with friends than enemies. Here’s the challenge with acknowledging gray areas publicly: The primary risk that leaders I interviewed faced when it came to speaking openly about challenges inherent in issues like abortion or prison abolition is that it can piss off your friends. Friends (the people and organizations that share goals, and the foundations that fund them) sometimes perceive talking about dilemmas as a sign of weakness, believing it signals a lack of conviction or provides enemies with something to exploit. Peer pressure, conflict, and the desire to hold onto relationships for future funding or coalition-building are obstacles leaders face when they use dilemmas to think creatively and spur innovation.

The message I took away was clear. Leaders make mistakes, but they don’t let that stop them. Innovative leaders regroup. They adapt. They go back at it again. They find new ways forward, and they take important risks that can jeopardize future funding or collaboration with allies if it means doing what’s best. That’s how they make change, and how they’re ready to do it time and time again.

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*This first appeared under Inspiring Voices on The Women Take Over*

There are few things I enjoy more than the discomfort and ambiguity that comes with discovering a new dilemma. When I find a one, I know that opportunity, invention and change are right around the corner.

I first learned about the power of dilemma after I had my abortion and was surprised to find that the only places that provided emotional support came from those who advocated against abortion. There was nothing available from the other side. That dilemma showcased a previously unmet need and I saw the opportunity in the obstacle: to build a place of nonjudgmental support. I co-founded Exhale, the nation’s first organization designed by and for women who have had abortions, with a mission to change the social climate from one of judgment and shame to one of support and respect.

Fourteen years later, because of Exhale’s services and the broader social impact of our mission, thousands of women and men have found the comfort and connection they need after abortion, and more advocates and organizations across the entire political spectrum are doing their part to promote emotional well being after abortion. (more…)

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* This was first published on Huffington Post Impact *

Michelle Goldberg’s cover article for The Nation, “Feminism’s Toxic Twitter Wars,” details what many of us have already seen — or personally experienced — online: judging, shaming, marginalizing attacks couched as credible “feminist critique.”

The consequences of such behavior have been so debilitating to the cause of feminist power and influence that even some of the entrepreneurs of “online feminism” have looked for new ways to make a difference. Anna Holmes, founder of Jezebel, notes in the article that the blogosphere “feels like a much more insular, protective, brittle environment than it did before. It’s really depressing,” she adds. “It makes me think I got out at the right time.”

While the pain and hurt that many feminists have experienced as a result of our online interactions with each other is quite real, I hope it is not the end of our story. (more…)

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* This first appeared on the blog for the Stanford Social Innovation Review *

Even engaged citizens in Oakland, Calif., didn’t know the city had a Public Ethics Commission, let alone what its purpose was, when I joined its ranks three years ago. And people who did know about it didn’t have many nice things to say: Local blogs sneered at its lack of power and few politicians feared its oversight. Created in 1996 as a watchdog organization responsible for opening up city government, the commission had become just another element of Oakland’s cumbersome, opaque bureaucracy.

It’s easy to see why. Technology and media have dramatically changed our expectations for what defines transparency and accountability. For example, in the past, walking into City Hall, making an official request for a public record, and receiving it in the mail within two weeks meant good, open government. Now, if an Internet search doesn’t instantly turn up an answer to your question about local government, the assumption often is: Government’s hiding something. (more…)

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*This was first published in HuffingtonPost Politics*

Years ago, there was a rural clinic in Northern California where women who got abortions one week would bring lasagna to women getting their abortions the next. When I heard about this, I couldn’t help but imagine myself with them. Would I be hungry enough to eat after my abortion, or would cheesy lasagna make me nauseous? Would I want to talk with other women or hang out quietly, feeling cared for?

This room of women swapping stories and plates of food is an image I equate with the ultimate expression of support, connection, and wellbeing after an abortion.

What if we could turn America into a community known for lovingly providing potlucks and supporting friends and family after an abortion?

We may not be as far away from this vision as you think.

Last month, when New York Magazine published “My Abortion,” featuring 26 different women sharing 26 different stories, women and men came together in the comments section and social media, offering support and compassion. We were all able to witness community being formed across a range of diverse abortion experiences. (more…)

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At 30-years old, I hit a metaphorical wall.  I was exhausted and burned-out.  A social entrepreneur, I had poured my whole self into the venture I began at 24-years old and it seemed there was nothing left of me, for me.  I had a hard time getting to sleep.  I cried a lot.  I was broke.

I looked for role models, for other feminists who had dedicated their lives to changing the world by leading organizations to see how they did it.  I saw just two choices.  Either I could keep going, personal sacrifices be dammed, and find myself an old, bitter lady fighting the same battles year after year, with increasing exasperation and exhaustion. Or, I could quit and find something less taxing and also, less meaningful. I thought this was a false choice. I wanted a third-way, a path where I could be a leader with a joyful heart and a full life.

I set out to make that path. You might say, I leaned in to the challenge. (more…)

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*This was originally posted on the blog Exhale is Pro-Voice*

On Friday, June 17th, Exhale Executive Director Aspen Baker participated in a panel presentation at Netroots Nation entitled “FTW: Social Networks, Down & Dirty for Change.” Assembled by 16 & Loved architect Deanna Zandt, the panel also included Cheryl Contee from Fission Strategy, Anita Jackson from Moms Rising, and Rachel LaBruyere from Mobile Commons and explored case studied of social media successes. Aspen Baker presented the 16 & Loved campaign to a standing-room only crowd, exploring campaign goals, media reaction, and lessons learned. You can watch the whole panel discussion below [a new browser window will open]:

Panel attendees also helped generate quite a bit of buzz on social media about the presentation while it was happening, and you can read some of their Tweets below:

Thank you to all who attended and helped us grow the conversation through social media and beyond! If you’re not already following Exhale on Twitter and Facebook, we hope you’ll join us there in the Pro-Voice

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