Laying Down the Burdens of Being First, Only Different

Embracing, supporting and promoting BIPOC leaders can truly enrich an organization.

As a child, I was so excited when my dad would let me come to his office.  From my child-like perspective, his office was immense, with a large desk peppered with neat piles of important documents, a fancy phone with many buttons, and an intercom. Though it was certainly no corner office, to me, dad’s office was a reflection of his level of authority and respect within the company. 

Thirty years later, I found myself reminiscing about those visits as I sat in my own office as the new President & CEO of the Shriver Center on Poverty Law. Unlike my dad, I truly did have a large, corner office, with sunlight streaming brilliantly through the two walls of large windows illuminating  a gigantic white board where I had already begun to construct my master strategic blueprint for the work ahead. I knew that my father would be bursting with pride to see his daughter follow in his footsteps, and even surpass him as the head of a national organization.

Yet I could not help but think that in some ways, little had changed between our pathways to corporate ascension. My father was an immigrant accountant who endured slights, insults and outright discrimination on the path to becoming the first Black comptroller at his company. I was now the head of a venerable social justice non-profit organization, born out of the War on Poverty, where I had started my career 20 years ago as the only Black attorney on staff. I succeeded its first and only president, a white male attorney long considered a pillar of the organization and revered within the broader public interest sphere. Though my path to leadership was not as hindered by the overt discrimination that my dad had experienced, I was struck that even within this world of social justice organizations, I was an anomaly.

In general, being a CEO is a most paradoxical experience. It is a testament to the skills you have amassed, the wisdom you have acquired and the confidence that you’ve cultivated over decades. It is also a curiously isolating, lonely job. As CEO, you must now create a professional distance from the very same people who nurtured and supported your ascension, lest you show favoritism. As a leader, you must be accessible but not too available, friendly but not too familiar, collaborative yet still authoritative. 

Female CEOs, who often lack many peers in comparable positions of authority, frequently find ourselves even more constrained. Very quickly, you realize that there are less liberties afforded to you than your male counterparts. You must be compassionate but not too emotional, assertive but not too bossy, decisive but not too rigid.

And Black female CEOs are subjected to yet another dimension of scrutiny.  From our stellar academic credentials to our seemingly otherworldly professional accomplishments that, on average, far exceed our white predecessors, the expectations heaped upon our performance can sometimes be comically unrealistic.

Super-producer and trailblazer Shonda Rhimes coined a term to describe this: “first, only different,” or F.O.D. As she explains it, as F.O.D. leaders, Black female CEOs are “saddled with that burden of extra responsibility — whether you want it or not.” In my experience, this observation could not be any more accurate. Studies have shown that all too often, women and people of color are frequently elevated to positions of authority when things are going poorly. If they are successful in their roles, the reward is high. But not surprisingly, the risk of failure is considerably higher.

Undoubtedly, the dynamics of leading  a nonprofit organization, especially one like my own where equity is at the very core of our mission, are different. I am able to engage in a level of discussion that my colleagues in other sectors are not afforded. For this, I am grateful, and feel more confident in my ability to succeed. But it is naïve to think that no structural dynamics exist in a social justice organization, even one whose mission is to combat systemic racism. Ironically, the very people who work for organizations intended to “do good” are often the most resistant to acknowledging their latent biases. All too often, they mistakenly feel that they are inoculated from bias by the altruistic mission of their organizations. 

I began my tenure at the Shriver Center one week after the murder of George Floyd. I couldn’t help but notice the irony of the organization’s first Black CEO starting at a time when the nation was plunging into civil unrest. I had to reconcile my own ire, exasperation, and renewed pain in the moment as a Black woman before meeting my new team. My first day was complicated by the fact that we could not meet in person, due to the pandemic. Trying to greet our staff and assume leadership in a moment when our city and our nation was in such turmoil was made worse by having to do so remotely. But I welcomed and encouraged open conversations about race equity and the path forward — both for our advocacy and our organization. I was particularly attuned to the feelings of my fellow BIPOC colleagues and ensured they knew I was there to support and process these events with them.

Over the past few decades, and before to this most recent racial reckoning, many leaders of color have emerged across various sectors. In Chicago alone, there are numerous examples of dynamic Black female leadership. Newly minted leaders of color have been deliberate in creating a safe space and peer “sounding boards” for support, commiseration, and sharing ideas. Such spaces are essential for all female and BIPOC leaders, many of whom have inadvertently become trailblazers in their respective fields.  

The extra burdens we place on female and BIPOC leaders can be debilitating. When a decision I’ve made is challenged or an action I’ve taken is questioned, it can be difficult to wonder whether that objection is a racial or gender microaggression or merely a generic test of my authority. At the same time, I have important work to do — charting a new course for our organization, including a new multi-year strategic vision, bolstering our programs, growing our funding, and overhauling our internal practices to create a truly equitable workplace. It’s a big job. And I am all in. But I cannot do this alone, nor can I do this overnight.  

Embracing, supporting and promoting leaders of color can truly enrich an organization. But achieving diversity, equity, and inclusion goes beyond merely setting aside additional seats for people of color in traditionally white spaces. We must work to meaningfully incorporate the unique life and work experiences and perspectives of people of color into the work to yield more unique, creative approaches and solutions. We must understand that any discomfort that might be felt by white leaders in addressing structural inequity within an organization pales in comparison to what aspiring leaders of color endure on a daily basis in navigating otherwise homogeneous work spaces with longtime structural inequities. We must recognize that female, Black, and POC leaders are not superheroes. By offering trust, collaboration and support, we can help our BIPOC leaders thrive. 

About the Author

Audra Wilson
Audra Wilson
Audra Wilson
President & CEO


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