Equipping nonprofits to advance social change

Three Secrets of Effective Leadership I Learned from Linda Campbell

Written by Aaron Handelsman

Four summers ago I was a frustrated community development officer for a large bank, venting in my living room to a friend.  As a third-generation Detroiter, I was (and remain) convinced that we have enough resources to ensure that all peoples’ needs are met and to address our area’s most pressing problems. And yet, then as now, we live in one of the most unequal regions in the United States. I wanted to be part of shifting the consciousness and making change. “I’m sure there are other people doing this work,” I said, “but I have no idea how to find them.”

“You need to meet Linda Campbell,” is what my friend said.

Over the past few months I’ve interviewed a variety of religious leaders, activists, and organizers about their relationship with Linda, to better understand how she influenced them and why they continue to look up to her and value her leadership. This list of leadership qualities was distilled from those conversations:

  1. Build on existing institutions, organizations, and people.  Nobody likes the newbie who comes onto the scene assuming nobody is doing good work—especially in Detroit, which, contrary to a popular narrative, is not a blank slate. When Linda came back  to Detroit after working in New York City, she started a series of learning circles with social service leaders across the city to better understand what work was happening, how it was being done, and what organizational leaders felt were their biggest obstacles.  The current Executive Director of the Capuchin Soup Kitchen reflected on the impact of one of these learning circles, saying, “I think Linda has made me realize that the Soup Kitchen has some real power that we could use to effect some real change.” Sometimes existing resources just need to tap into their power. That’s the idea behind the origins of the Detroit People’s Platform, which has changed the political climate in Detroit by building on and subsequently enhancing the relationships and expertise of block clubs, advocates, residents, academics, and nonprofits.
     
  2. Be authentic and engage the whole person. When someone you deeply admire and respect takes the extra time to check in with how you’re doing outside of the work you’re collaborating on, it makes it clear that the relationship isn’t merely transactional—it’s personal. And when you have a mentor who does that, you learn how important it is to be real with the people you work with and to see them as whole human beings with their own set of needs and dreams. Having authentic, personal relationships stops seeming like a luxury. Instead, you learn that it’s how to keep people feeling engaged and supported, not as pawns in a game, but as allies in life and struggle.

    Numerous individuals specifically mentioned how Linda’s authenticity and integrity, as well as her genuine commitment to and concern    about them as people not only made them feel good and safe, but also brought out the best in them and caused them to want to step more fully and bravely into the work. This is one of the greatest lessons I’ve learned in working alongside her over the past 4 years: being an effective leader requires allowing space for a wide range of emotions and feelings and supporting people through personal and professional victories and struggles. I can attest to the power of this in my own growth through my relationship with Linda. While continually teaching me through example and one-on-one mentorship, which helped me feel more confident as I was given greater roles and responsibilities, Linda has also met my family, my partner, and supported me as a person through numerous job transitions, quarter-life crises, and doubts. Our regular calls don’t start with business. They begin as conversations between two friends who are committed to shared ideas and values.
     
  3. Don’t try to be a leader—focus on connecting and creating space for others to lead. One of the greatest heroes of the Civil Rights was Ella Baker, who stated, “I have always thought what is needed is the development of the people who are interested not in being leaders as much as developing leadership among other people.” Linda is all about developing other leaders. Within one year of working with her, Linda had pushed me to grow my skills, confidence, and knowledge to the point where I found myself agreeing to projects I previously thought were beyond my capacity.

    Recently, I found myself asking a member of the Detroit Community Land Trust Coalition—a part of the Detroit People’s Platform—who did his thesis on Community Land Trusts to help the Coalition develop and present a second popular education toolkit for the group’s next meeting. He was eager to do it. I had been nervous to ask for assistance, then pleased to reflect on how enthusiastic we both were about the project. I realized that the project had only come up after we had discussed the pending birth of his niece, his recent decision to pursue law school, and the move he and his family would be taking to make that possible. In the middle of the conversation, it dawned on me that I was having the very same kind of conversation Linda used to have with me, except that now I was facilitating the group and asking the DCLTC member to step into a role of greater responsibility with the Coalition.  In this context, leadership didn’t feel like a role to inhabit—it was simply a way of connecting around our shared mission.

    Linda’s dedication to this leadership-building model can also be seen in the recent formation of the Detroit Center of Community Advancement, a group of young social justice advocates committed to supporting social justice projects and principals across the city, which Linda pulled together and continues to provide mentorship to.  When experienced leaders create space for young people to step up through their contributions and leadership, they do. What will make this group special is the fact that by the time we have adopted our bylaws—after numerous monthly meetings, each of which begins with personal and professional check-ins—we will not only be allies and colleagues, but friends.

     

Transformation takes time. It requires patience. With so much disinvestment from our communities, we have a long road to climb. It’s hard to be accountable to others when you’ve no access running water or secure transportation, as is the case for many in Detroit. Working to build power means making sure that even as we mentor and ask people to step into leadership roles, we are simultaneously fighting to transform structural issues and ensuring that our colleagues and allies have the support they need as individuals, be it emotional, physical, or economic. That’s why sustainable movements are slow. They are simultaneously inward and outward looking. They require an unwavering commitment not only to the building of supportive structures—and infrastructures that will respond to their wants and needs—but to the individual members and communities who make them up and carry out their work.

As patient farmers sowing seeds of love—whether we call it that or not—we must know that change is a long and multi-faceted process. People undergoing transformation—and those supporting that transformation—require support and many gentle reminders to keep going, not necessarily in the form of a rousing speech, but sometimes just a whisper, to “Grow, grow, grow,” especially in the darkest hours. When the resources are running dry and the threads of hope wear thin, sometimes picking up the phone and sitting in a comfortable chair to listen to the woes and dreams of a friend on a Sunday night is the same thing as sustaining the movement.

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