Women of Color and Leadership – Intersectional Tides Lift All Boats


Written by TC Duong

As a man of color who has spent much of my career working in Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) organizations at the national level, addressing sexism within communities of color is not just about equity but effectiveness.  I have served under several female leaders in AAPI nonprofits and benefited from their leadership.

From that perspective, one data point from Building Movement Project’s latest Race to Lead report – Women of Color in the Nonprofit Sector – particularly impacted me:

“…women of color working in POC- or immigrant-identity-based organizations (36%) were more likely to report that their gender had negatively impacted their careers than those in non-identity based organizations (28%).”  

I was especially concerned that some of the women commented that men were viewed as leaders and advanced faster into leadership roles in those identity-based organizations. The report notes that “women of color expressed disappointment that these organizations were progressive on race and fell short regarding gender.”  

Many national organizations serving Asian American and Pacific Islander communities currently have female leaders and have a long history of women in leadership. This leadership has created positive impacts from the movement level to the staff level. This has shown up in the following ways:

1. Innovation and experimentation

Women leaders of AAPI organizations have consistently created space for innovation and experimentation. Through the leadership of AAPI women, our organizations spearheaded work around language access, data disaggregation and educational equity.  Structurally, AAPI organizations create models on immigrant organizing, constituent engagement and community accountability.  In Minnesota, the Coalition for Asian American leaders, led by Bo Thao and KaYing Yang, has helped incubate several innovative campaigns that have formed sustainable organizations – like ReleaseMn8 around the deportation and detention of Southeast Asians.

2. Network and partnerships

The networks and peer relationships between AAPI women leaders also create lasting change in the movement overall.  The informal networks have resulted in movement level organizations that convene networks of leaders and drive programs and policy.  Among these organizations is the National Council Asian Pacific Americans (NCAPA) which serves as a collective voice for AAPI national organizations.  NCAPA serves as a coalition to advocate for cross-cutting issues affecting AAPI communities.  It convenes national AAPI organizations to develop a platform for AAPI issues and mobilization campaigns.

3. Intentional mentoring

Finally, on the staff level, the mentoring relationships between AAPI women have created  informal ladders of advancement not just for the leaders themselves but people on the staff level. During the 1990’s, our organizations were small and resource-bound. Executive Directors of AAPI organizations strategized between themselves how to advance the careers of their staff across organizations. Staff moved from one AAPI organization to another with the full support of the Executive Directors. My bosses actually facilitated moving to another organization so I could grow. This level of support was based on the deep and trusting peer relationships between AAPI women leaders. 

I have experienced an openness to innovation within women of color-led organizations along with a deep respect for relationships.  At a time where those two capabilities are integral to moving social change, organizations serving people of color need to strategize and implement actions to open the doors for women’s leadership.  This often means addressing sexism within their organizations and directly engaging with their constituencies about the issue. Race to Lead: Women of Color in the Nonprofit Sector signals that simply approaching diversity, equity and inclusion from a single-identity lens negatively impacts women of color, including trans and gender non-conforming women of color.  Supporting and uplifting women of color is not just a gain for women of color but a benefit for the staff who work with them and the movements in which they work.  

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