Black Leadership and the Need to Support Young Women of Color

Tides Perspectives is a collection of audio stories and conversations with Tides leaders – sharing learnings and experiences within the nonprofit industry and philanthropy at large.

We have to acknowledge the deep gap in philanthropic funding for girls and young women of color. In a recent landscape analysis provided by the Advancing Girls Fund, we see that less than 2% of foundation funding is directed to girls and young women. When we specifically zoom in on funding for girls and young women of color, the percentage drops to about half a percentage point. These statistics reveal a disturbing inequity of philanthropic funding and highlight the need to work alongside aligned donors to shift funds towards young women.

In this interview, Dr. Christian Friend, senior director of Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion at Tides, and Alia Stevenson, development manager for the Advancing Girls Fund, bring their insights and experiences to this discussion around Black leadership and the need to build institutional support systems for young women of color. We hear about the intersecting challenges around Black leadership, especially the urgent need to have Black women in leadership positions, as well as the need to shift our narratives and perceptions about how we see black girls and young women of color. From their sharings, we get a clearer perspective on the disparities in philanthropic funding, while also hearing messages of hope, resilience, and the collective action we can take to uplift Black women in leadership positions and young women of color.

Could each of you give us a quick intro about yourself and your work at Tides?

Christian Friend: Sure. My name’s Christian Friend. I always tell people that’s my real name. That’s what my mother named me. I didn’t make it up for marketing purposes. I am the senior director of what we call JEDI here at Tides. Professionally, I’ve had experiences in nonprofit organizations and public education as well as philanthropy. Excited to be with you both and have this conversation today.

Alia Stevenson: My name is Alia Stevenson – and just a shoutout to Black History Month, I was named after the great Muhammad Ali. I’m a development manager with Tides, and I’m actually in my first year with Tides. My history and background at nonprofits is working in the health equity and racial equity spaces – specifically with Black Women and Girls-led initiatives. Super excited to be here and to share more about my role at Tides with the Advancing Girls Fund.

Christian Guerrero: I want to note that DEI work and JEDI work is sometimes taken for granted or simply assumed that it’s happening because an organization is a nonprofit, but that’s not the case. It takes active investment to be impactful with JEDI work. 

Christian, can you give us your thoughts and your approach in terms of implementing JEDI at Tides and at an organization?

Christian Friend: Let me just start by saying it’s an important framing to say that people assume if you’re a nonprofit organization – and a particular one that has a mission that’s focused on social justice – then it automatically brings people in who are aligned and everything’s going to work perfectly in terms of diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice. One of the things I appreciate about Tides is the framing around equity and justice, the J and E in JEDI. Historically, folks have started on diversity initiatives and even worked to be more inclusive as an organization. Equity is about outcomes. It’s looking at differential outcomes at the systemic or structural level and saying, “How do we close these gaps? How do we make sure that the outcomes are equitable for all groups?” And with a particular focus on the marginalized groups who have been harmed by systemic oppression. The justice piece forces us to look at structures, not just individual relationships or how one institution works, but how we as a country and as a society have created these tools of oppression and how we can undo some of what we’ve done.

Rolling out JEDI in an organization is both bottom-up and top-down. And I don’t mean the org chart. I mean bottom-up in the sense that we start by thinking about what implicit bias is, how our brains work as human beings, the assumptions we carry, and how to undo some of the biases that we might be socialized into. At the same time, we think about the systemic or structural approach – what is White supremacy broadly in the United States and how has it influenced a given institution? By doing both of those types of work, we can arrive at a place where we have a shared understanding of JEDI. We can then take steps individually and collectively to address it.

Christian Guerrero: So if I’m hearing you correctly, you said that the assumption happens because people think that because an organization is mission-driven, it automatically attracts people who have already done all the work that has to be done, but that is not the case. You are naming that there is still work to be done on the individual level to address these biases and maybe even more especially at a nonprofit.

Christian Friend: Absolutely. And it starts with the understanding that we all have them. I am not exempt. None of us are exempt. We are socialized – meaning what we see on TV, what we read in the newspaper, carry messages that we internalize intentionally or unintentionally. It’s important to be honest with ourselves and each other about that and to do the work. And finally, there’s never an endpoint on this. There’s progress and advances that can be made. Dr. King says, the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice. We’re talking about something we’re doing for the universe, and that means it’s consistent and must be persistent work.

Alia, could you give us a little bit more context about the Advancing Girls Fund? Can you give us its focus, its drive, and a little bit more about your role?

Alia Stevenson: The Advancing Girls Fund invests in the leadership, well-being, and advocacy of girls and young women of color and their allies to create a more just and equitable world. The fund consists of over 170 partners impacting millions of girls across the US and in over 20 countries. It’s big and also has a very diverse portfolio. Girls and young women are working on some of the most pressing social issues of our time. Those might include economic justice, educational equity, gender equality and health, criminal justice, democracy, and climate justice. Girls are advancing incredible innovations in these areas.

Despite the fact that they’re at the front lines of these movements, girls and young women are grossly underfunded. When you look at overall funding for girls and women from foundations, overall, it’s less than 2%. But when you specifically zoom in on funding for girls and young women of color, we’re getting around the half percentage point.

My opportunity as the development manager with the Advancing Girls Fund is to elevate the incredible work of girls that they’re advancing through our grantee partners and to invite and work alongside aligned donors to invest in these creative and resilient leaders. It’s an incredible time to be in this work. I know we’re going to talk about the current context, but the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the challenges faced by girls and young women. We can talk about the rising mental health issues, issues of isolation, exposure to violence, and combine those things with the attacks on gender, justice, and the critical elections on the horizon. We must move quickly and with intentionality. And that’s what we’re excited to do at Tides.

Chrstian Guerrero: A report by the Washington Area Women’s Foundation says that even if there is a rise of Black women in leadership positions, they lack the infrastructure to support their leadership – 90% of Black executives surveyed for the report expressed that their occupations have had detrimental effects on their health and well-being. 

Christian, from an organizational and structural lens, what can we do to better support Black women in leadership positions?

Christian Friend: I want to take a step back to Alia’s point about the direction of the funding and the little bit that goes to girls and young women of color. That’s a perfect example of inequity. That’s a perfect example of structural oppression because girls and young women certainly make up a larger percentage of the population than 1%. So even if things were equal, even if the funding was distributed equally, then you would think there would be more funding. Then you layer on top of that the fact that this group has historically been oppressed. This is not a new issue. Women of color and Black women in particular have always been under attack in the United States and around the world. They have been utilized – their bodies, their brains, their feelings and emotions. We have a well-documented history of utilizing the reproductive rights of Black women to advance our society. You can think about how they were used during chattel slavery in the United States. Then we move forward not that many years, a few hundred years, and we see these outcomes. Time magazine had a statistic about the suicide rates for young Black girls that are skyrocketing. And you say, “Well, what’s happened? What’s going on right now?” You have to understand the trauma – the oppression that Black women experience broadly – just by their existence, they’re under attack. Then you layer in the idea of intersectional identities. I can acknowledge that as a Black man, an African-American man, I hold a position of privilege as a man. Black women experience things in terms of marginalization and oppression that I never will, just by my unwanted privilege of being a man.

The historical factors combine with what folks are currently experiencing. Many folks think that after an Obama presidency, we live in this post-racial and equitable society. In reality, the systemic oppression that created these differences in outcomes was never addressed. So while someone may be in a leadership position, the systemic and institutional structures that have oppressed them – in particular women of color and Black women – haven’t changed. They might be a CEO, but in that CEO position, they might come under attack by their board or staff. They might come in underpaid for their position. There’s a gender wage gap we would see in the statistics if we looked at them closely. It’s a historical issue that’s being exacerbated now, as Alia pointed out, by some of our economic and social circumstances. While people have thought that placement of people in positions is a solution, in many ways, it’s a setup for failure and further pain for women of color.

If we are in an organization with a Black woman as our leader, how should we frame our thinking or what should be at the forefront of our minds as individuals within this organization?

Christian Friend: I think this is true of an organization that has a Black woman as a leader, but it’s equally true in any organization. The first step is to acknowledge our own positions of privilege and biases. For example, I can say “My CEO, who’s a Black woman, might have a position of authority and power in this workplace, in a hierarchical organizational structure, but I have to recognize that I bring male privilege into a meeting, even if it’s just the two of us meeting. Society will look at us differently.” When I come with that, I can be a lot more empathetic. Acknowledging my privilege – anyone acknowledging their privilege – helps them to be more empathetic. It becomes a lot clearer where the structures, policies, and procedures are advancing or disadvantaging someone else. And so again – bottom-up or inside out – the idea that I, as an employee, need to do my work and say, “What are the positions of privilege that I occupy? How does that show up in my interactions? And what can I do to ensure that I’m not operating in those biases?” I think that’s the first step.

Alia, your work with the Advancing Girls Fund has given you insight in terms of the systems of support needed for young girls and women. Can you give us your insight on building out support earlier in the pipeline rather than having band-aid solutions when people are already in crisis?

Alia Stevenson: I think it’s important to reiterate and call out the fact that these attacks on Black women’s leadership or even exclusion from leadership opportunities may have been more noticeable in recent years , but they are not a new phenomenon. We’ve recently seen Dr. Gay, the former president of Harvard, being pushed out after serving the shortest presidency in the university’s history. We’ve also seen the recent suicide of Dr. Candia-Bailey at Lincoln University. Although we are incredibly grateful for the attention that’s being directed now at this alarming issue, we want to highlight that these attacks are not a new phenomenon. I just want to reiterate that. We don’t even need to turn to news reports. We can listen to our grandmothers, our aunts, our cousins, our mothers, or even hear from our own experiences or our colleagues if we really want to hear about how Black women’s leadership is being challenged. We know and we have data that shows us that these attacks begin far before Black women are seasoned leaders. The hostility towards Black women, the unfair expectations, the limited opportunities, and the strain on their health and well-being begins in girlhood.

I want to bring in the resource Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood. It’s a report that was conducted by Georgetown University where we can see the ways that Black girls, between the ages of 5 years old to 14 years old, are viewed by adults. These beliefs about Black women are starting in their girlhood. The report shows that compared to White girls of the same age, Black girls are seen to: need less nurturing, need less protection, need to be supported less, need to be comforted less, and are more independent. What is the cumulative impact of these perceptions? We would argue that the treatment of Black girls and the opportunities that Black girls receive are connected to these unfair and harmful attributions that we assign to Black girls.

We even see this in social media. There’s a viral TikTok that shows a social experiment with a young Black girl and a young White girl who were left alone. The White girl left by herself got all the attention she needed to be safe. People were coming up to her, asking where her folks were, asking if she was okay. But the Black girl was ignored. People just walked right by her. The view that Black girls need less nurturing, protection, and support, and are more independent may translate into less support and fewer leadership and mentorship opportunities. When we think about what we need to transform, we need to think about the ecosystems that girls live within in order to counteract this narrative. We must center the leadership of girls to create the conditions they need for themselves, their families, and their communities to thrive.

That is why I’m so excited about the Advancing Girls Fund. This fund centers the voices of girls and young women of color and their allies to shape these solutions. We pour into their well-being advocacy and leadership. But as we’ve been talking about over and over again, in this huge call to action, we are far out-resourced. Despite all that the fund has done, we are far out-resourced because the anti-gender movement is heavily resourced and organized. Right now, we need champion donors to join us in the fight for girls so we can interrupt this legacy of harm that we’ve been talking about today and write a new story where Black girls and women’s leadership and their health and well-being are supported – so that Black girls and women are thriving. We must begin in girlhood. They’re directly connected.

Christian Friend: That’s so powerful, Alia. The point you make around the narrative – which is supported by the data you offer – reminds me of some work by bell hooks, a Black feminist author who talks about how in the United States we’ve made Black women either subhuman or superhuman and not just recognizing their humanity. We have these stereotypes of Black girl magic and “you can do anything” or we have these stereotypes that hyper-sexualize them or hyper-maternalize them. So we have in our socialization, which becomes our biases, a set of stereotypes that we claim we don’t act on, but the data proves differently. The data proves that we do not think of Black women as just human beings with the same emotional, psychological, and physical needs, wants, and desires as any other human. We make them either more than that as a means of rejecting them, or we think of them as subhuman.

This is a lot of heaviness, both of acknowledging where we currently are at and the need for us to change. I want to ask, what gives you the drive to continue your work? How can we have that hope and that passion to change things on an organizational level?

Christian Friend: For me personally, the hope comes from what I would refer to as a spiritual place. Earlier, I talked about Dr. King saying that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice. For me, I believe that even when we see things that appear to be moving backward — even when the work gets tedious — some progress is happening on a universal scale or on a continuum of time that is beyond my life expectancy. Remember Dr. King saying, “I may not be with you when we get to the Promised Land, but I’ve seen the Promised Land. I’ve been to the other side,” So for me, I can imagine, envision, and believe in a day and time where there is a more just world. I feel like it’s my mission for my life to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly. It can be frustrating, individually and collectively, when you do the work. However, there has to be something greater than oneself that helps to drive the work. So when you think about something organization-wide, the work itself has to be both internal and external or inside out. This means we have to do our own work through critical self-reflection – to examine our own beliefs, values, and biases, and confront those through education, understanding, and community building. As we start to understand and have a shared perspective or what I call a worldview lens around JEDI, then we can all work together to apply that lens to policies, practices, and procedures.

I think part of the challenge is folks want to jump right to policies, right to procedures, and rightfully so because those are the things that uphold systems. However, the policies are the way they are because we have failed to confront our implicit biases, and we’ve built policies inside of institutions and systems that exacerbate or expand on those biases, whether it be explicit or implicit. So the work is inside out, acknowledging my own biases and opportunities for growth, working on my own growth, so that we can then fix our institutions and systems.

Alia, to reiterate the question, what gives you hope on that individual level to continue the work that you are doing in light of all the challenges that Black women face? What can you share with folks to shift their thinking, especially in the philanthropic world, to think about the sector and even critique their own choices of where their funds are going?

Alia Stevenson: Individually, what gives me hope are Black girls, Black women. They are who give me hope. I’m the mother of five, three of which are Black girls. I am the grandmother or Uma as I go by of a Black granddaughter. And so they give me hope. Their joy gives me hope. Their innovation, their ideas, their intelligence, their resilience – all those things give me hope. If we can just tap into even a little bit of what they have to offer, we’ll be better for it. The grantee partners fall into that as well. To witness the work that these girls are doing – name any critical issue and there is a young Black woman or young woman of color or their ally at the front lines of it. So we can sit in despair, but these individuals, without the resources that they need, are advancing work that we’re all riding the coattails of. They’re making the world better for all of us, not just for girls of color, but for all of us. That’s what really gives me hope. These young women and girls aren’t just advancing their own self-interest. It’s all of our shared self-interest. That gives me a lot of hope and a lot of excitement for the work.

For donors and fund managers, I think three things need to happen. Number one, we need to move upstream. We need to disrupt what we’re seeing happen with Black women and other women of color by focusing our resources during girlhood when the attacks on their leadership and well-being are beginning. That’s number one – move upstream. Number two, as Dr. Christian brought forward earlier, we need to shift our narratives and our perceptions about how we see Black girls and young women of color, which is resulting in harmful practices and policies. To reference the recent webinar that we hosted, one of our guests was Joanne Smith. She’s the founder and president of Girls for Gender Equity, and she’s one of the Advancing Girls Fund grantee partners. She brought forth the words of Leila Mottley, the author of Nightcrawling,  who said, “We owe Black children the gift of childhood. We owe them that.” So we must challenge these narratives and these perceptions that rob them of their childhood. And lastly, we need to invest in girls. Joanne said, “We act against our own humanity when we don’t resource the youngest of us.” Let me say that again, “We act against our own humanity when we don’t resource the youngest of us.” We can do better than investing less than 1% of foundation funding in girls and women of color. They deserve more.

Christian Guerrero: From what I’m hearing from the both of y’all, I’m reminded of the phrase “the personal is political.”

Can you give me your thoughts on the interplay of the personal and your work? We have to acknowledge there’s a person behind these positions and initiatives. Could y’all touch a little bit on that?

Alia Stevenson: I’m so happy you brought that forward. When we think about quality of life indicators, Black people are lagging behind in every indicator. So when I look at these five beautiful Black children and my beautiful granddaughter, I think to myself, there’s no reason that they should live less years just because of the color of their skin and how they’re racialized. They shouldn’t get paid less just because of that. They should be offered every opportunity to develop their leadership, to show up in spaces, to shift the outcomes, and to have autonomy over their lives. It’s very personal. And as we celebrate the beauty and the achievements of Black people, we can hold that joy in all the innovations, inventions, cultural and social capital, and amazingness of Black people, and still hold at the same time that when we look at every indicator around well-being, our community is lagging behind. It has nothing to do with the individual characteristics of our community and everything to do with these historical and current-day structures and systems that are disadvantaging Black women, Black men, Black families, marginalized groups, and other folks of color as well.

That’s what drives me. It is very personal. It is political. And it’s something I believe we can do something about. These systems and structures were created. And if they were created, they can be dismantled. We can collectively co-create something new. That’s the invitation for Tides – join us. Walk alongside us. If you are as passionate as we are about the lives of girls and the communities in which these girls exist, then join us.

How about you, Christian? What drives you on that personal level? What is the relevancy of the phrase “the personal is political” to your work, to your JEDI work?

Christian Friend: There are a few things that come to mind immediately. One of the things is just genetics – my lineage, my ancestry, I know for a fact that my ancestors, many of them or some of them were brought to this country as enslaved Africans. We can trace it to a port in Maryland. I can go to my grandmother’s house or my uncle’s house in Virginia where they still live on the land where my family was enslaved. I can see the graves of my ancestors, not too distant, who were born before 1865 in Chesterfield County, Virginia. Therefore, they were born into slavery. I see the evidence of their persistence through slavery. And that keeps me inspired. I imagine that I am a culmination of some of their dreams. The idea that I can work towards social justice, racial justice, economic justice, and get paid to do it in the United States is probably something that they never imagined would be a possibility. So I always try to keep that in perspective. Leaning on this theme of genetics, I believe that this is about science and not just emotion. In a world where control of the narrative is really powerful and there are attempts to distort truths in order to control that narrative, one of the things that always rings true to me is that we know from biological genetic evidence that the first human beings were born in Africa – created or existed in Africa. If you then follow this reasoning, that means every human being after was birthed by a Black woman. All of humanity and civilization was birthed by Black women.

People might hear that and think it’s hyperbole, but in reality, it’s just science. And when we have an erasure of the facts around science and history, then it leads to inequities. Part of what continues to drive me or is personal to me is not just my own family’s experience, but my extended ancestry back through time, the genetic linkage to the fact that Black women are the creators of humanity. And that’s important to me.

Thanks to both of you for sharing your wisdom, thoughts, and lived experiences on this topic of Black leadership and Black excellence. Are there any last thoughts you would like to share before we close out?

Alia Stevenson: I just want to extend love and gratitude. Thank you so much for offering this opportunity. Thank you, Tides. Thank you to our JEDI work for offering up this opportunity to highlight the work that we’re doing internally and how it’s translating to the work that we’re doing externally alongside our grantee partners. I feel very privileged, as Christian talked about, to be able to do this work, to be able to advance my passion and my expertise and my interest in this way alongside this critical fund and in this organization that has shared values and a shared mission. Thank you.

Christian Friend: Just an appreciation for the opportunity to share in this conversation and appreciation for Tides in the work it does to advance these issues around social justice. Glad to be a part of it. Thanks and gratitude.

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