by Belma Gonzalez
Originally published in Coaching for Transformation
I was coaching a young working class Latina, I’ll call Elizabeth. She was the Program Director in a small social justice organization working with families of color. Her supervisor, Sydney, was the executive director and founder, a middle-aged white woman from wealth. Sydney had created her board of directors from friends—so they were mainly wealthy, older and white.
When Sydney decided to step down, Elizabeth seemed the natural successor. She had been overseeing the finances, the personnel, all the day-to-day operations for several years and receiving excellent reviews. Given the organization’s mission, it also made sense to have a person of color as the new executive director (ED).
Sydney had been doing the fundraising; however, Elizabeth had been a development director for another organization previously and she had good long-term relationships with the organization’s funders. Sydney told Elizabeth—you’ll be the new ED if you want it. Elizabeth told her, she did want to be the ED.
However, the board decided to do a full-fledged search. And, Elizabeth only heard that she needed to submit an application to be a part of the search. She wasn’t told by Sydney what had changed, but decided to broach the subject. She learned the board had concerns regarding her “sophistication.” Elizabeth brought this as an issue to coaching… “I guess I need to be more sophisticated; how do I learn to be more sophisticated?” I asked what this meant to her... what she thought about this. Elizabeth hesitated… I was having a strong intuition—I wondered if “sophistication” wasn’t code. “Code?” she asked, and then said, “Ohhhh…” I asked her about the “Oh”. “You mean like it’s about me being…not like them?” I said, “Shall we just call it out?” And, she said—“It’s class stuff.” So I said, “And maybe race and age stuff too?”
Elizabeth answered yes… We talked about how we couldn’t know this for certain—and we could both pay attention to our feelings about it—from our life experiences and our intuition.
Then we looked at what she wanted to do. Eventually, Elizabeth’s strategy was to ground herself. To know she believed she was the best candidate. To know that her skills, experience and passion were so right for the position and that her ethnicity, class and age were assets. And, in her interviews Elizabeth shared this with the interviewers. Meanwhile, they asked her to be the interim director (while Sydney took unpaid time off ) and Elizabeth got that they were testing her. From my experience with the nonprofit sector often having a scarcity perspective, I got curious about her having two jobs—the interim ED and her program director job—and what she thought about this. After this coaching session, she went back to the board and negotiated: she agreed to be the Interim if she could promote another staff member to interim program director and hire a temporary admin person.
Long story short: they put Elizabeth through being an interim at only a slight raise for three months, they put her through three interviews, and they finally hired her officially. After discussing her frustration about the process in coaching, and deciding to take a stand regarding her value to the organization and as a role model, she agreed to accept the position if she received retroactive executive director salary for the months she’d been interim. Elizabeth also wanted to remove the founder from the board, who as a major donor, had a conflict of interest. They agreed. She then officially promoted the person who’d been interim program director (without putting him through a hiring process), and brought on constituents—parents of color—as board members. She is still the ED, doing great work that impacts social and educational inequities.
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