Lessons in Leadership – When a Seat at the Table Isn’t Enough by Autumn Chmielewski

I stand in a position of privilege and power.

It’s not reflected in my checking account which currently has just enough money to buy one weeks’ worth of groceries for my family of five. You wouldn’t know it by the rusted out, 14-year-old Chevy Impala I drive that only unlocks from the passenger side door, has a missing side view mirror and blows hot air from an air conditioning system that hasn’t worked for years.

There’s no expensive watch on my wrist to attest to my power and privilege. I don’t wear designer clothes or shoes. And my modest home won’t immediately affirm my position in society.

But I assure you, my power is very real because I have been given opportunities. Doors have been opened for me and I have been given a seat at the table. I have been invited to serve on multiple boards of directors and have had access to the power brokers in my community and at national levels. I’ve walked the halls of political chambers, sat in executive meetings where every person in the room earned incomes in the top 2%, and listened as decisions were made that would impact thousands of lives in hundreds of communities.

I’ve been invited into these circles of power for many reasons: luck, being in the right place at the right time, having the right degree and the necessary letters behind my name, being an outspoken advocate for social justice issues and possessing the power of storytelling, and benefiting from a system that was designed to help me, a white middle-class woman in America, succeed.

While I’m grateful for the countless opportunities that have been given to me, I have to admit that through it all I’ve felt like an imposter. I’ve struggled to cover work duties so that I could call into board meetings scheduled during the middle of a weekday, I’ve stayed up late at night mending holes in threadbare suits to make sure I was presentable at early morning executive meetings, and I’ve missed countless dinners at home and evening stories with my children because I was expected to attend networking events.

These struggles are small and I know it. But they worry me because I know that if I can’t make it work with all of the opportunity and privilege bestowed upon me, if I can’t fully engage in leadership positions and ensure that my voice is heard and respected, then what chance does someone without my power and privilege have of being heard and counted in our society today?

One of the key ideas, as I understand it, behind Communities of Excellence is the idea that if community leaders work together across sectors they will be better able to improve the overall health, wellness and vitality of their communities. The inherit flaw in this design is that if communities decide to rely on their traditional sectors and leaders, the voices of minority and marginalized populations will not be heard because they are not authentically or proportionally represented in those leadership roles. And a system designed without authentic input and buy-in from the people it will most significantly impact is doomed to fail.

I say this as a caution and not as an indictment or judgment on the new Communities of Excellence framework. I’ve been immersed in the work of Communities of Excellence for over four years, first as a graduate student and now as a board member for the organization. I am hopeful to see the Communities of Excellence performance framework proved a success. But I know that success will not come easy and it will not come at all unless communities take it upon themselves to actively engage everyone in the conversations and work of building a better tomorrow.

Business as usual isn’t working for our communities. We are now at the point in this country where 51% of children in public schools are living at or below the poverty line, the income gap between the richest Americans and everyone else is greater than at any time since the 1920’s, the unemployment rate for black Americans is double the rate for whites, and access to healthcare services is treated as a privilege and not a right for too many people.

Effective change will only be realized when the people currently holding the power and privilege in their communities willingly let go and actively work to ensure that the people who have been missing from the conversation have a seat at the table. I have a seat at the table and I will happily give up some of my power and privilege to make sure that others can be heard. I will be an ally, supporter and accomplice to those who have been marginalized and abandoned by society. And I will do all I can to support the long silenced leaders of tomorrow in their new roles because I know that a seat at the table isn’t enough if you’re sitting alone.

Read more about Autumn Chmielewski here





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