Editor’s Note: This post first appeared as part of The BMJ Leader Blog.
For as long as I can remember I’ve had a keen sense of justice, for the most part I did not consider myself a leader. It is more so in the past few years I have been grateful to be considered a leader and work to uphold what that means for myself and to those who support me. That is why I want to highlight that, as leaders, we cannot avoid the difficult questions and it doesn’t mean we always have to have an answer, but we cannot dismiss those who are looking up to us for one. It is a privilege to be called a leader, so there must be awareness on how we define and hold ourselves to account when taking on the role. Who else is holding us accountable? And, perhaps, most importantly what are we doing with our platforms? It’s easy to take on or accept a role without considering the weight or enjoying a position without considering the trajectory.
Leading in a space of social justice is not easy – for many of us who are a minority, we can become fatigued by the ask to speak up, and it is usually those of us who are consistently speaking up. It can be exhausting having to share your story, your trauma, your history time and time again, with others looking up to you, because you look like them and share a mutual experience of what it is to be in a society that was not built for you to win. That being said, I will continue to do what I’m doing until I can no longer do it or I am no longer able to do it effectively – passing the baton to those I have extended my platform to.
Many years ago, a racist experience in the workplace (not the first or last) left me distraught, confused and unsure of my voice. Part of the reason I was verbally attacked was due to my confidence and speaking up for myself – something that was perceived negatively coming from a young Black woman. Although there were many events and incidents that took place around this time, the anchor was when I expressed my utter despair and the response was “what can you do to make those around you who aren’t comfortable with who you are, feel more comfortable?”. Immediately, I was stunned and I honestly did start to consider what I could do for about two minutes. However, this is when I found a new level of commitment and understanding of myself – there will always be people who are not comfortable with me. I have known this my whole life on some level, one of my earliest memories is an experience of racism, but this was a turning point.
It is not up to me to make others comfortable with who I am. It is not the work of Black people to make other people comfortable when we share a space or to congratulate you for calling yourself an ally. Nor is it the job of the LGBTQIA+ community to comfort those with queerphobic views or for disabled people to make able-bodied people feel better for not making spaces more accessible. I think it is important that allies are held to account in all spaces — you are a valued invited guest. Allyship is not a title, it is an act of service to a community that can benefit from the privilege you inherently hold. This is at times where we enter conversations on white fragility and privilege – there is also ability, socio-economic, class privilege to name a few.
Accountability is at the center of ‘doing the work’, we need it for ourselves and for each other if we are working to dismantle colonial structures, change systemic policies and systems. We must hold people, policies and structures to account and if we are struggling with tackling the hard questions, are we really doing the work?
When leading, I make a point of asking:
- How are we reflecting on the systems we benefit from?
- What are we doing to dismantle them?
- Are you actively aware of the systems you benefit from?
These are questions for continual reflection. I do not know of a definitive answer, but we have to put them out there to ensure the conversation continues with action. It can feel disheartening when I’m in spaces with people who I admire (especially those who consider themselves leaders) who choose to overlook these questions when raised. Not only is it disheartening to be dismissed by my peers but fundamentally the message I’m getting is that I should be seen and heard only when convenient.
I stand by the fact that we need to ask these questions to not only start a conversation on social justice, but to also remind others and ourselves of why we are working towards change. And why we have to keep going on what sometimes feels like the longest road to equality. For all the words and banners an institution can display, the proof is in the structural change and culture.
I feel the reality is that if we are standing up for social justice we cannot lead on the fence – we must turn up, speak up, and act. When we are engaging and learning in mixed spaces, they can often become uncomfortable for those learning and potentially re-traumatizing for marginalized people at the center. There needs to be a consideration on who we are protecting – those who are living and challenging the experience or those who are learning about it? The discomfort will come and go on the educational journey, but that cannot always be said for a continued lack of safety. To take on the role of leader is not easy and there is no one size fits all but we have to stand in our truth and ensure we are giving space and a soft place for those we are fighting for.