THE BLOG

Who Leads?

10/25/2013 05:13 pm ET | Updated Dec 25, 2013

August 28, 2013, marked the 50-year anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, one of the largest rallies for civil rights in the history of our nation. Little more than a year later, Martin Luther King, Jr., won the Nobel Peace Prize for his leadership in nonviolent resistance to racial discrimination. Dr. King accepted the peace prize, in his words, as a "trustee" of the civil rights movement, the prize being held "in trust for its true owners." The Nobel honored not only the "pilots of our struggle," King said, but also the "ground crew without whose labor and sacrifices the jet flights to freedom could never have left the earth."

King's acknowledgment of the reinforcing relationship between a movement's leaders and its members is particularly instructive for me. As the leader of a foundation that prioritizes movement building by low-income families to effect social change, I am keenly aware of the need to strike a balance between building strong organizations and supporting strong leaders.

The question of who leads the organizations that foundations fund is of significance because the nonprofit sector has failed to keep up with the growing diversity of the nation. According to a 2009 Chronicle of Philanthropy survey of the leadership of the 400 nonprofit organizations that had raised the most from private sources in 2007, people of color led only 6.3 percent of those organizations. If nonprofit leadership matched the diversity of the U.S. population, people of color would hold more than 30 percent of the top nonprofit positions.

The lack of racial/ethnic diversity in the nation's nonprofit leadership is coupled with an urgent need to cultivate more young community members as leaders and then promote them into leadership positions. The nonprofit sector faces a "war for talent" with the business and government sectors to recruit and retain young leaders. A 2006 report stated that three out of four executive directors planned to leave their jobs within five years. Another report indicated that, by 2016, the nonprofit sector would need 40 percent more senior managers each year than it required in 2006.

Recognizing the need to support leadership emerging from and accountable to the communities in which we fund, in 2012, Marguerite Casey Foundation established the Sargent Shriver Youth Warriors Against Poverty Leadership Awards to recognize young people ages 16 to 24 making a significant difference in their communities. The awards are named for Robert Sargent "Sarge" Shriver, Jr. - lifelong public servant and architect of Pres. Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty - because of Shriver's belief that young people are essential to creating a more just and equitable world.

In August 2013, we welcomed the second cohort of recipients of the Shriver Youth Warriors Against Poverty Leadership Award. These young activists, each nominated for the award by a foundation grantee, give us hope that a more just society is achievable and that today's youth, like the generations before them, are initiating and leading that movement. Whether running for elected office, supporting young men to be good fathers or advocating for immigration reform, the activism of the recipients of the Sargent Shriver Youth Warriors Against Poverty Leadership Award is born out of necessity and rooted in personal experience. These young leaders are problem solvers who are unearthing root problems in their communities -- problems that are shared with other low-income communities of color -- with the intention that the solutions might be shared with other communities as well. They are also teachers, as in the adage about not giving a person a fish but rather teaching him to fish so that he can be self-sufficient.

Talking to these young people underscored for me one of the essential truths about social movements, a truth articulated so beautifully by Dr. King in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech: a movement's leaders and its members are indivisible.

The young people who received the Sargent Shriver Youth Warriors Against Poverty Leadership Award are not unlike the leaders being developed by all of our grantees. The leaders doing Equal Voice movement building work are, using Dr. King's words, "pilots" sitting "at the controls as the freedom movement soar[s] into orbit," but they see themselves as the "ground crew," that is, they are working "on the ground" -- seeking justice and meeting the needs of their communities.

These young people are both the leaders and the members of a burgeoning movement that, again using Dr. King's words, has "the audacity to believe that people everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits."

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