Across sectors, organizations in the United States have long placed barriers between women of color and leadership positions. Women of color are significantly underrepresented in corporate leadership roles and face systemic obstacles in the nonprofit sector where, even with advanced education and experience, they are less likely to hold leadership positions than white men, white women, or men of color. When they do attain leadership roles, challenges persist; the intersectional threats posed by patterns of misogyny and racism intensify, rather than lessen. Leadership roles involve increased responsibility, accountability, and potential risks for all people. For women of color stepping into leadership circles historically dominated by white men, the heightened risks include diminishment, harassment, prejudice, and inadequate support.

But while this moment in US history, marked by heightened racism and xenophobia, is subjecting women of color nonprofit leaders to increased pressures and risks, it is also generating greater civic engagement and providing them with more opportunities to lead. Today, organizations and society have an unprecedented opportunity to honor and support the leadership of women of color, and to transform the culture and systems within which all Americans live.

Seizing the Moment

In 2020, an estimated 26 million people took to the streets to call for racial justice and protest the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers. And still today, people in the United States, including across tribal nations, continue to face a racial reckoning that demands action from groups and organizations in every sector.

The two of us have supported social change through philanthropic and nonprofit executive leadership roles for several decades. During that time, the killings of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner, among others, have sparked similar protests. These too have raised public awareness, and evoked empathetic responses from political and business leaders. But each moment of heightened engagement has lasted only a few news cycles.

In the past, people’s expectations for progress were limited, but today’s reckoning feels different. The initial spike of outrage in 2020 was more dramatic; 76 percent of Americans said that racial and ethnic discrimination was a major problem, up from 50 percent in 2015, when Freddie Gray died in police custody. New organizations led by people of color have emerged at the local and national levels in the wake of the uprisings, and government action has been more significant and sustained. In 2020 and 2021, at least seven states created a commission or task force focused on racial justice. There is now a collective ethos that says out loud, “We have to do better.”

Read the full article about women of color leaders by Gail Christopher and Deepa Iyer at Stanford Social Innovation Review.