an executive director’s don’ts

(this is a guest post from a young director named danielle. it was sent to a friend who shared it with me and i thought it might be useful to folks holding leadership roles. it resonates with what i remember of the role…enjoy!)

“don’t try to be friends with your staff
don’t try to get your staff to like you
don’t think your staff liking you and respecting you are the same thing, or that they always go hand in hand
don’t try to build trust by sharing vulnerable personal things
don’t dwell on your mistakes
don’t try to cover up your mistakes– from anyone
don’t make the same mistakes over and over–only new mistakes!
don’t avoid accountability
don’t avoid holding others accountable
don’t overstate what you know
don’t understate what you know
don’t assume everyone shares your analysis or priorities
don’t require everyone to share your analysis or priorities
don’t confuse passion and work ethic (in either direction)(yours and others)
don’t underestimate the urgency of what’s at hand
don’t hurry unnecessarily
don’t get your sense of value, connectedness, affirmation, or meaning only at work
don’t forget the power of humility and honesty
don’t confuse mistakes for flaws, or vice versa
don’t believe “perfection” exists, or that achieving it would command respect
don’t question your right to have your job
don’t stop questioning whether your job is right for you, and whether you are right for it
don’t think that question has one answer and isn’t always changing
don’t attach too much to your ability to raise money–whether you’re raising it or not
don’t process too many work things out of work that aren’t matters of the heart and spirit
don’t attach to things you think you’ve “figured out” — when they’re working and when they’re not working
don’t forget to ask for help
don’t take all the advice people give you 🙂
don’t forget to love yourself and others. it’s all that really matters in the end.
don’t take yourself too seriously or forget to laugh–especially at yourself. :)”

wild seed dinner, albuquerque nm

on june 3 we had an octavia butler dinner in albuquerque, an intimate event, just three of us (myself, host andrea quijada, and ob lover elena letourneau). this format made me kind of want to do it this way more often – the intimacy we were able to achieve was quite remarkable before we even started speaking about the book.

then we moved into speaking about wild seed, the first (and achingly good) book in octavia butler’s patternist series (the first series she wrote). this book is my favorite starting place for anyone who hasn’t read her work.

we had one of those gorgeous conversations where you get to the root by exposing it. a lot of what we shared wouldn’t fit into words. however, at the end we summarized the shareable things we thought/discovered together:

it’s quite possible that gardening and living together and building community together is the most radical work. intentional community is a skillset to develop. but in a u.s. context, individual spaces, interdependent. shifting to intentional living – but slowly. everyone has their own space in it, with shared kitchen, yard, garden.

the interconnection of these communities brings to mind safety in relationships. right now with the balancing between online and offline work and organizing, there is a way we can commune globally. (example given: march on monsanto). we have lost a lot of physical relationships with people, which leaves everyone feeling isolated. but safety is in relationships more than any other structure.

wild seed speaks to the isolation of being a leader, of being special. (how that loneliness piles up, how deep the desire to be met and matched.)

the radical strategy is to love.
we are in perhaps a dark age. our legacy might be that we maintained and remembered the way to love.
vulnerability, attachment, care, attunement, these are the ways we remember. we have to remember to feel.

anyanwu is the living embodiment of ‘transform yourself to transform the world‘.

this book is an incredible exploration of the arc of long term relationship, from the initial passion –> to negotiations and struggle over power –> to transformation.

noticing that in the relationship between anyanwu and doro, that they loved each other after seeing the shadow sides of each other. there are people who are our mirrors and show us what we don’t want to see, and we want to run. we need mirrors. we need also to be able to see and love ourselves. (moved to share nina’s song ‘images’

She does not know
Her beauty,
She thinks her brown body
Has no glory.
If she could dance
Under palm trees
And see her image in the river
She would know.
But there are no palm trees
On the street,
And dishwater gives back no images.
– poem by william waring cuney

loving the body, feeling the potential of breath and self-love and healing in each body is radical. (anyanwu is a study of feeling deeply – perhaps we all have her capacity to heal if we could listen inward?)

we appreciate our bodies when we use them. yoga! breath. walking and being outside doing what it is meant to do. ‘moved to tears using my body for myself.’

our culture teaches us not to love our bodies, that something is wrong. it is radical to reclaim loving our bodies.

gender and body insecurity is interesting too – men/boy bodies usually have to do something to get called names. women bodies just walk in, just people look at us and call us names. doing things for ourselves in our bodies is radical. other gender norms…women have to look good on outside, but vagina always good. men can generally look aight but their penis has to be big/just so. insecurities related to those stories. what does this mean for how anyanwu and doro traverse the world, him jumping bodies, coming to her in any body, with her healing and shapeshifting the one she has.

‘i want all women, all people. to lay on the floor and just feel your body and loving each amazing living part, the living organism of the body.’

what is most radical? to transform ourselves.


makes me wonder – what is your secret gift?

this life is miraculous. what if you don’t waste any day, any gift? if this day, this activity is as miraculous as anyone’s very best day and offering…what then is the call?

octavia + oakland

last week i got to geek out on octavia butler and emergent strategy at solespace in oakland.

about the space – if you are in oakland, ever, this is a place to go and be in movement with others and buy sweet shoes to support the brilliant vision of community and cooperation that owner/innovator jeff perlstein is building there. jeff reached out to me about an event when he heard i’d be in town, and i thought a small talk about octavia butler with some of my homies would be fun. dani mcclain and malkia cyril, both immensely humble and brilliant leaders living in the bay, were game to come play.

about the event…it was pretty magical.

first i read the piece on octavia butler and emergent strategy from the transformative justice sci-fi reader which was unveiled at the allied media conference last year. here’s a few excerpts:

emergence is the way complex systems and patterns arise out of a multiplicity of relatively simple interactions. rather than laying out big strategic plans for our work, many of us have been coming together in community, in authentic relationships, and seeing what emerges from our conversations, visions and needs.

we knew that we were seeing deeper commitment and radical transformation in this community work, but how could we articulate it as being strategic?

we were reminded that strategy is a word of military origin, and refers to a plan of action designed to achieve a particular goal. the fact that many of us were using a military definition in order to achieve an evolution in humanity was both ridiculous and illuminating. that alone was a driver for some redefining. it was also a little funny that we have been saying strategic like its a subjective thing, a sign of good. it simply means planned towards a goal. it can be an inflexible outdated hierarchical colonial imperial urgent haphazard plan towards a goal and still be strategic, technically…

we needed to be able to get more specific in what we meant, what we wanted, and how we could measure our progress.

(input lots of examples from octavia’s work which serve as case studies of emergent strategy)

…we can define emergent strategy as intentional, strong because it is decentralized, adaptive, interdependent, and creating more possibilities. bringing emergent strategy to our organizing means we become creators of our future together.

we are not limited to how things have been done in the past in terms of how we share leadership, how we manage interpersonal justice, how we make decisions, how we grow our work. even our smallest acts of integrity grow our collective capacity to live our visions into reality.

after this reading, we moved into a conversation, first with dani and malkia and myself, and then opened our seats so that anyone in the room could come up and speak. so many powerful ideas were shared. i asked participants to share what impacted them most afterwards, on the facebook event page.

this is no transcript, but here’s some of what folks remembered:

– be careful of charisma (glamouring) in leadership
– it is important to win campaigns, but always know that only gets us from a to b. maybe to j. not to z.
– we need both emergent strategy and more traditional campaign based work. (this is evidenced by the smashing of the Acorn community in parables series after ignoring the radical right wing.)
– “Live from a place of passion.” YES!
– we are made to fear our divinity
– being reminded of the limitations of the noun-centered language we speak, that keeps us from seeing ourselves always as beings becoming.
– the importance of ritual and acknowledgement of ancestors and the native land that we stand on.
– the words of the close-out meditation: “if you are (living your passion) doing what you love, and do it day in, day out… celebrate inside from your head down to your toes. And if you are not doing what you love, lean more towards it.”
– where and how do creative/cultural workers find their place in movement work? so much creative practice happens in isolation. how does that figure into collectivity/collective liberation/emergent strategy?
– (free schools) kids deciding their curriculum year to year, making it work for their needs/desires.
– see everyone as a potential ally.
– creativity comes from making room, rather than pushing.
– honor the erotic as the tie-in to our creativity and play.
– “the arrogance of our opposable thumbs.”
– Even an awkward black girl can lead, even when she doesn’t mean to.
– Play and being curious.
– We are all artists.
– Find a place in movement for what you want to do.
– evoked Dagara ritual of elders council asking child in womb what they are coming here to do, what is their gift. For example, if they say an artist, then artists materials are gathered by community and gifted to the parents for the child. And from a young age they apprentice with and shadow artists so education is based on who they are coming here to be for the community, their calling. While we as a society are a long way from being open to something like this, it would be fascinating to get more curious with children about where their passions lie, and fostering that rather than standardized schooling and testing we now have.
– there are resources available to us in dreaming this new existence into being that we are not tapping as deeply into as we can. Ancestors, Sacred Plants, Madre Tierra, etc are cheering us on and just waiting for us to humbly ask for their assistance. Been waiting for us to do so, and excited to see us awakening on a more collective level.
– always do embodied organizing.
– nowadays my visioning conversations are limited to an organization’s aspirations three or five years hence.
– I need to commit to doing personal work that connects my brain, my heart and my body.
– I need reread all of Octavia Butler’s writings.
– I so needed to be encouraged to lean into my passion. Since I fear it could lead me to create a beautiful reality in relative isolation, I heard everyone saying, “go ahead and build it, there’s a place for your vision within the movement.” everyone has a role to play and we find it by being true to ourselves.
– if we don’t start imagining and creating whole new systems, we will never get past the oppressive hierarchical patriarchal systems we are in.
– through it all, the awareness that climate change will make science fiction a reality in all of our lifetimes. This is real, and we have a great opportunity for transformation amidst the upheaval to come.

hopefully this gives you a sense of the magic that was moving through the room. more events coming soon to a city near you 🙂

How to Be an Executive Director

I wrote this up a few weeks ago as part of the Ruckus Society transition and thought it might be useful to publish it here. Enjoy:

How to Be an Executive Director (from someone who never wanted the job):

1. Get a coach and/or a learning environment where you will be able to vent about how impossible things are (either a leadership development program like Rockwood or Social Justice Leadership, or start/join a Women’s ED circle, or EDs of color, etc).

2. Be able to articulate what you are bringing to the table, and your limitations. Because it is an impossible job, there will be parts you don’t do well. The cost/benefit analysis is important – are you helping or a hindrance to the organization?

3. Join a board or two where you will be forced to have interactions with people of means and influence (be clear that your primary fundraising obligation is to your organization, so you will help in other ways).

4. Identify a few of your funders who you can/do have authentic relationship with and get them in your corner. They will keep you supported and sane through the lean times, and give you honest feedback on what is and isn’t working.

5. Cherish and stay in touch with your community outside of your work to keep you grounded politically and socially – this will help you stay in touch with the true impact of your work. I have a circle of friends to whom I explain things that Ruckus is doing. The reactions they have – laughing, confusion, or dropping their jaws in awe – that helps me gauge our impact in the civilian world.

6. Write every single day – force yourself to get comfortable being a public voice on your own terms, not just in other people’s interviews. I (obviously) recommend having a blog.

7. When doing media, know your do-or-die talking points (Ruckus is a network, directly impacted people are our priority, we cultivate leadership from communities, direct action is relevant when used strategically – these have been mine through the past 5 years). There’s nothing wrong with asking print media to email you questions, and writing your responses, to increase clarity.

8. Understand the strengths and weaknesses of your predecessor(s). Don’t try to fill their shoes, you are walking your own path. However, absolutely put them to work to earn any ongoing adulation folks have for them – instead of resenting them or putting them on a pedestal of awesome you can never attain, see that person’s humanity and make it work for the good of the organization.

9. Be compassionate with yourself – you are totally going to fuck up big things.

10. Be hardest on yourself – as long as you sit in that role, you are responsible for the survival and well being of the organization.

11. Automate organizational development. Build in set times throughout the week, month and year for accountability and awkward, in-depth conversation. Otherwise this slips to the wayside and resentment and/or unintentional practices become the norm.

12. Never do anything to indicate that your role is more important than anyone else’s in the organization – you have the responsibility to hire, fire and manage, someone else has the responsibility to make the program happen, someone else drafts budgets, etc. All that work is equally valuable and should take nearly equivalent time. Never have an assistant unless everyone else does. (This is aspirational but where else are we going to learn new ways of holding power?)

13. Actually do exercises with your team to practice media talking points, speeches, elevator pitches. Ask other organizations who do well to coach you. Never be above learning to do better for the sake of the communities you serve.

14. Don’t get too caught up in the games of people with more financial resources than you. Let them drink, let them smoke weed, let them get naked in the hot tub; do only what you feel comfortable doing (which may be all of those things, or none). Don’t lose your composure – as long as they give only a portion of their resources, you are not in authentic community with them, you are in a power dynamic and you need to be fully aware of your choices and their actions. (***Many of them are amazing, wonderful, compassionate people trying to do well…and some will take advantage of your need, especially of women, POC directors)

15. Don’t cultivate a spirit of gossip in your organization, about people or other organizations. It’s toxic, and translates into a long list of reasons to hate people, rather than growing solidarity and an evolving community and movement – which should be our constant goal.

16. I learned this by doing it the wrong way several times…if you think someone isn’t a fit for the organization, a) give them really clear feedback, b) give them a period to improve, (and if it isn’t working), c) let them go swiftly and with loving kindness so they can move on to a place where they fit and you can focus on meeting the needs of the organization.

17. Do excellent work. Have high standards around the integrity and impact of the actual work – spend more time doing great work than you do writing grant proposals and talking about the kind of great work you could do.

18. Hire people who you think are more brilliant and capable of you, and then actively develop them as leaders and give them opportunities to grow. You should have a few options of leaders who could move up internally into holding the Executive Director duties, and they should know you believe in them and be a part of shaping the way the organization acts and feels.

19. Make sure the other members of your team (note: seeing yourself as part of a team instead of the shepherd or bright shining hope will always help) get the attention and praise they deserve for the work they do, publicly and privately.

20. Have fun. You are still a miraculous being so every moment of the time should feel vibrant, educational, not like you are biding time or wasting your life force. You are so fortunate and radical to get paid to spend time bringing justice into the world. Enjoy it!

I’m sure there’s more, but those are the things that stand out at this moment.

It’s been a huge honor to learn all of this. Thank you Ruckus.