Racial Equity and the City as Playground
Then I said to them, ‘You see the trouble we are in: Jerusalem lies in ruins, and its gates have been burned with fire. Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, and we will no longer be in disgrace.'”Nehemiah 2:17
For Juneteenth this year, I was in downtown Atlanta with my church and a group of other churches where we marched for racial justice in our city. While my heart breaks for the many places where justice does not yet exist as a reality for people of my skin tone, my heart is full for the way that we were leading the way in the march for justice.
It was also a great chance for me to reflect on my own leadership journey, what has led me to where I am serving as president for the Resurgence Leadership Foundation, and where we are at this moment in time in Atlanta and in the world, seeking to be a nonreactive leader for my city.
As a child, I grew up in Louisiana and migrated to Tacoma, Washington—like many black families in the ‘70s, we were looking for opportunity and our parents worked hard to give us the best shot they could. Here I met some remarkable leaders who I had the great privilege to be shaped by– Dave Hillis, as my Young Life leader, John Bratholm as my basketball coach, and Wendell Phillips, the bus driver for Bethesda Baptist Church on the East side who picked me up– someone who introduced me to the power of the Gospel—it was these men that saw something in me and wanted to invest in me.
How powerful it was in my life to be pursued by these people who saw in me what I couldn’t, who saw potential where I didn’t…
In the early ’80s in Tacoma I didn’t see a lot of people like me – especially in leadership. I’m 6’3”, black, male, cisgendered. Few leaders looked like me. But a gift given early on in my leadership journey was ownership—not a lot of black folks were owners of anything in Tacoma in the ‘80s.
I did, however, get to engage with a great black leader, Tom Skinner, and see what it looked like to be a leader, black, and proud. This informed my own my work—as a youth leader, and now as a local Leadership Foundation president.
Hope and Pain, side-by-side
Right now in Atlanta, there’s a lot going on currently, especially in light of the events that have taken place recently with Rayshard Brooks being shot and killed a few weeks ago. It’s really disheartening – how old this stuff is, and how it didn’t need to happen.
But at the same time, there’s so much here that gives me strength—this is the city of Tyler Perry after all. Keisha Lance Bottoms, a black woman, is our remarkably talented mayor. I remember first coming to Atlanta and saying to myself, “there’s people that look like me that run stuff here!”
This is our tension-filled space in a place like Atlanta—so much hope, but so much work still to do.
The Broken Down Fence
The Covid-19 Pandemic is providing a remarkable opportunity for our world. There are no distractions – we have no sports to distract us.
The pandemic has slowed us down so much that we finally have to deal with what’s in front of us. Many who’ve had their eyes closed, have been forced to open them for the first time to things they would rather ignore –the reality of racial inequity. It’s nothing new, but now they see it.
Even the tall fences—both real and imagined—that people have built around their houses and lives, have been broken down – that is a good thing. With the fence gone, now we have to look at one another.
Equity Means Ownership
What Leadership Foundations offers is ownership – At LF we are all owners, not employees – we own our organizations, we encourage ownership throughout our cities, and we voluntarily opt in to a common way of engaging our city through the wheel of change. You don’t have to abdicate your authority or equity to be in leadership.
That’s why I’m so excited that 55% of local Leadership Foundations are led by people of color. That’s compared to the US nonprofit sector having fewer than 20% of its organizations led by people of color. As a Senior Innovation Fellow with LF, I’m excited for the work ahead of us of strengthening this pipeline of leaders of color to lead in cities throughout the world.
Wakanda—when the invisible becomes visible
Where do we find hope right now? The closing scene of Black Panther is an inspiring image of what this looks like:
Let’s set the scene: T’Challa (Black Panther) and his sister are in Oakland, California, with some young brothers playing ball on a playground. His sister thought they were headed to the ritzy part of the state and were going to Coachella.
“No,” T’Challa says—”here….” “…And we own that building, and that one and that one. This will be our first Wakanda International Outreach Center…”
But here’s the kicker – the technology from Wakanda comes down on the court and the boys start running around it.
It’s that idea of the invisible becoming visible, on the playground—the idea that—at Leadership Foundations we truly believe this—Wakanda has always been there.
At LF, this is what we’re about. We want to make sure that what was invisible shows up and becomes visible in those places that don’t ordinarily see it—in places that deserve it just like everywhere else.
Cornelius Williams, Jr. is the Founder and president of the Resurgence Leadership Foundation, based in Atlanta, Georgia. He grew up in Tacoma, Washington, attended Lincoln High School, led Young Life urban work in Portland, Oregon, and now leads Resurgence in its work to meet leaders where they are at and build tailored solutions enabling them to make a lasting impact in the communities they serve. Cornelius also serves as a Senior Innovation Fellow for Leadership Foundations’ Colangelo Carpenter Innovation Center.