Leadership in COVID19 — Getting Proximate

Recently during a Facetime call, the person I was chatting with let out the fact that her pandemic life was in-fact pretty great. She is used to working from home, her pandemic-proof business is booming, and the ‘extra’ time has given way to cooking big, indulgent meals. Living in an affluent suburb with big homes, perfectly manicured lawns, and broad sidewalks, she said: “I’m sure someone is suffering, but I just don’t see it.

I few weeks prior a colleague wanted tips on approaching her boss who was asking women on the team to “be honest about their hours” and take a pay cut if they couldn’t swing a full 40-hours a week. Pre-pandemic expectations held, regardless of their new household and homeschool responsibilities.

Yesterday published NoVo Foundation’s pandemic response — ending multi-year funding, reviewing every one of its current grants, and letting a full program team go amid the pandemic. The response from the philanthropic community was swift, with experts saying that the foundation is “doing literally the opposite of what all equitable, trust-based, decolonizing philanthropic practices tell us is right in this moment of crisis, by divesting from the lives and safety of women, girls and GNC youth of color, while whitesplaining the stock market… I’m no expert, but I hear,We are making a choice to maintain our wealth, rather than move money.’”

What would be possible if leaders, decision-makers, and those with wealth could get closer to the issues, and more proximate to the people being affected? You can’t solve, what you can’t see.

During this moment of chaos, I’ve been exploring identities — wrestling with the unequal risks and impact of COVID-19, and in it, seeing an opportunity to build a new normal with clients, collaborators, and community. The biggest thing I’ve learned in this time is that we need to get closer to the ground.

Because of social dynamics and historical factors — where we live, go to university (or not), and our professions — we have limited access to those whose identities are different.

For instance, in the current COVID19 moment, some of us live in neighborhoods with well-stocked grocery stores and easy access to a range of nutritious foods, while being fully aware that large portions of urban areas are looking at food shortages, and miles-long lines at food banks.

When it comes to COVID-19, we know that the impacts are felt by everyone. That is the truth. But the reality is that while some of us are struggling with the very real consequences of social isolation, balancing domestic responsibilities with work, homeschooling — others are getting sick and dying in record numbers. We know that African American populations across the country are disproportionately dying at extremely higher rates (e.g. In Chicago and DC 70–80%). We now know that women are losing their livelihoods in greater numbers than men, and immigrants in low-wage jobs are experiencing unemployment with few government safety nets. We know that 90% of PPP claims filed by minority businesses have been denied.

Dr. Leticia Nieto’s body of work along with Dave Snowden’s #Cynefin framework has deeply impacted my work during this time. Dr. Nieto to help us navigate this conversation and bring into focus how racial inequities are playing out during this COVID-19 moment.

  • Many aspects of identity are unearned and unchanging (race, national origin etc)
  • Others shift over time (age, care giving status)
  • History and social dynamics have resulted in segregating that exacerbates inequity

Our identities and blindspots affect how we see those we intend to serve, manage, and collaborate with. While race is one significant identity that predicts outcomes — privilege in areas of socio-economics, ability, gender and others can create significant blindspots.

Leticia Nieto describes identities with unearned privilege as ‘agent’ and unearned disadvantages as ‘target’.

Credit — Dr. Leticia Nieto

Let’s reframe the ‘target’ as ‘resilient’. In the current COVID-19 context, we have seen an amplification of those underestimated or marginalized identities playing a crucial role in the survival of individuals, communities, and the country at large. As we see many of us with privilege struggle in this time of COVID-19 — newly experiencing anxiety, uncertainty, and financial stress — those who are all too familiar with this daily reality are resilient in comparison. These include undocumented farm workers, people of color in retail and food production, child care workers, and more.

This framework offers you an opportunity to reflect on who you are, your social positionality, and your mix of intersecting identities. It also allows you to reflect on who makes up your organization, who serves in decision making roles, and the identities of clients and peers that you interact with. And ultimately, what is lost when we don’t have a balanced set of identities to draw from.

Since most leadership teams across all sectors lack diversity at the leadership level at this time, this framework helps shift awareness of how we react when faced with those differences. It’s an invitation to be mindful of our default settings and start to operate from a place of choice and power.

Frameworks like this one give us tools and language to bridge the ground realities with the realities of our business leaders, clients, and peers. It helps us get closer to those who are best placed to design solutions in this moment.

As we emerge from the most chaotic phase of this pandemic many of us have our eye towards building now for what is coming out of this. This COVID-19 experience across the globe is directly illuminating cracks in the system — for some seeing them for the first time.

Virtually every sector/issue area is impacted by this crisis right now and therefore virtually anything could be reimagined. Pandemics are not equalizers, they are amplifiers. As we simultaneously work to stop the bleeding and address the emergency of the Pandemic, we also need to think in terms of recovery to something better and not a return to “normal” (which was already a crisis for so many).

Rebuilding back to how it was is not an option. Leadership at this moment requires new ways of working and connecting — starting with getting proximate.

Note: This article is written in collaboration with Jessica Walker Beaumont, Principal Consultant at Moving Beyond.

Dreamer, Do-er, Dissent-er // All things women and girls, equity and innovation Co-Founder @futurefor_us & Moving Beyond

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