Our director of organizational effectiveness and talent development, Alli Naithani, talks about Vice President Kamala Harris, new possibilities, and being brave.
We’re in the midst of an earth-shattering moment—former Senator Kamala Harris is now the vice president of the United States of America. She’s the first person to hold that office who identifies as a woman, as a Black person, and as an American of South Asian descent.
It’s so exciting. Kamala’s election to the vice presidency opens pathways by creating hope among women, especially young girls, about the limitless possibilities ahead of them.
Young kids are impressionable and need to see that they belong.
As a child growing up in South Minneapolis, I was the only person of color in my class in a predominately white Catholic school. Back then it never even occurred to me that a woman who looked like me could hold such a powerful position in the US.
I was a happy-go-lucky kid, a bit of a troublemaker, and an endless talker. I used to tell my mom I couldn’t wait to go to sleep at night. The sooner I fell asleep, the sooner I’d be able to go to school to see my friends.
One day in second grade, I was particularly anxious to get to school. We were exchanging our Secret Santa gifts. I remember my excitement as I peeled back the wrapping paper. Then, when I saw what was underneath, I quickly used the paper to cover it again.
My classmate’s well-intentioned mother had picked out a Black doll for me. I felt a flash of embarrassment and a pit in my stomach. I wondered, Why did she give me this?
I felt suddenly exposed by the opening of that gift. As if the doll made my difference real—there was no denying it, no hiding. I was markedly different from everyone else in my class by the color of my skin, and that fact was sitting right in front of me in the form of this doll. I put the gift in my locker and didn’t want to look at it again.
The overt and subtle messages we absorb as children stay with us. At seven years old, I couldn’t understand the racial constructs that sent me the message that my brown skin wasn’t equivalent to my white peers. But I was intuitive, as many children are, and I could feel the tensions and differences between how my family did things compared to my classmates’ lives. I didn’t represent the “right” way to be or look. My skin was brown, the food we ate was spicy, and my black, curly hair was unruly.
Today we can think of leadership in new ways.
It’s hard to overstate the power of seeing yourself reflected in the leaders around you. I’m so thrilled that children have a new example to look up to in Vice President Harris.
When I heard the election results last fall, I had an overwhelming sense of jubilation. I raised my arms into the air and exclaimed, “YES!” I gave my husband a bear hug that nearly lifted him off the floor. The moment revealed a strength I didn’t know I had.
And I believe Kamala’s election to the vice presidency will bring out the strength of Black and brown girls and women in ways they hadn’t believed possible.
“I believe Kamala’s election to the vice presidency will bring out the strength of Black and brown girls and women in ways they hadn’t believed possible.”
As she said in her victory speech back in November, “Every little girl watching tonight sees that this is a country of possibilities.” I felt the power of those possibilities as I watched Kamala take the oath of office on January 20—administered by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the first Latina member of the US Supreme Court.
When women in this country have made progress, it’s often a white woman who forges the way first. But Kamala didn’t follow in the path of a white woman. She got there first. This is significant for Indigenous, Black, and brown girls. Kamala gave us a new model: Don’t wait, go ahead and forge your own path. No waiting needed.
The election of Kamala Harris matters. Deeply. And in ways that will echo in the years to come.
Be like Kamala: Don’t wait for someone else. Use your voice.
In 2020, the Foundation updated our values statements, which highlight six core ideas: social justice, courage, grantees come first, listen and learn for change, trust, and heart.
This blog post is inspired, in part, by those values. In my human resources role at the Foundation, I kept telling my colleagues they should write a blog to get their voice out there. Then it occurred to me that I should take my own advice.
Don’t wait for someone else to make things better, to hold up a mirror to choices that feel outmoded or unexamined. The kind of change the Foundation aims to support—and that our society needs—requires moving past the inertia of “that’s not how we do things.”
“Don’t wait for someone else to make things better, to hold up a mirror to choices that feel outmoded or unexamined.”
Representation matters, and so does lived experience and action.
During a 2020 Foundation board meeting, a grantee shared a powerful message: “Don’t let these injustices we have experienced in 2020 be a passing moment.”
Saying the right things in the aftermath of a traumatic event can be soothing and healing, but we can’t stop with that. We need to see these events as a call to act, as a push to make long-lasting change that addresses systemic inequities. Our program team heard those sentiments reinforced by a number of other grantees throughout the year.
One way to move toward lasting change is to fulfill those promises of broad representation in all facets of organizations—from diversity among entry-level positions all the way to inclusive leadership.
There is a certain comfort when we’re in a group of people who all think alike. When everyone in a group just “gets it.” It can take a lot of energy and courage to speak up in ways that disrupt homogenous thinking. After all, who wants to break the comfort circle?
“Imagine if leaders welcomed change rather than feared it. That modeling would go a long way toward positive systemic change.”
Including diverse voices around a decision-making table helps remove the need to work up the courage to speak when you’re the only, or one of the few, Black, Indigenous, or people of color (BIPOC) people in the room.
Those of us in leadership roles need to ask ourselves how we can encourage ideas from everyone. Maybe the idea won’t work, maybe we don’t agree, maybe it’s only half developed. Perhaps, though, at its core is an insight only available through someone’s lived experience.
What if the leaders in the room said, “Oh, I’ve never thought of it that way. Tell me more.” What if they were transparent about taking a different approach to decision-making. Imagine if leaders welcomed change rather than feared it. That modeling would go a long way toward positive systemic change.
“For there is always light . . . If only we’re brave enough to be it.”
When day comes, we step out of the shade, aflame and unafraid.
The new dawn blooms as we free it.
For there is always light,
if only we’re brave enough to see it.
If only we’re brave enough to be it.
As we look to 2021, we have so much work to do. Kamala Harris as vice president of the United States of America has created the foundation for hope for the possibilities. I am encouraged that Black and brown girls do not have to look far to find representation.
As leaders, let us not let this be a moment that passes us by. The time is now, the moment is now. Will you answer the call and see the light?
Director of Organizational Effectiveness and Talent Development, Northwest Area Foundation