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On the leadership growth of a young woman

Friday was my last day of work at the Action Lab for Social Justice at Columbia School of Social Work. After discussion with leadership, I decided not to extend my temporary work contract.

It was a bittersweet day. On Friday evening, a group of 11 students and the executive director of the Lab showed up (any number of our 25 active students who'd have availability would show up to our Friday socials to unwind together) with drinks in hand for a last hurrah with me. It felt much like the last meeting of The Dead Poets Society (but make it WOC-social worker-dominant) --deeply reflected and felt. We shared great laughs and tears. It was the culmination of an intense 10-month journey from managing a scrappy band of student volunteers, to what became a Lab, to what became a university center and spotlight cross campus, to what it is now: a full-fledged organization with over 10 student-run programs, and soon, an esteemed advisory board.

I left proud of what I have achieved. My greatest satisfaction with my work stems from the wealth of stories from students who shared in private or our social how they were deeply touched by the relationships we grew together in this work. It was a great run, and I am incredibly grateful to have had this opportunity to reimagine and envision what is possible in an organizational context.

I share this reflection on what this position meant for me in my own capacity as a leader.

<3333333 Lifting our glasses/drinks at our Friday social (not the most in-sync thing, given Zoom). Faces blurred for those who did not explicitly give consent for their image to be shared here.

Prior to this job, I've observed and been under a lot of different kinds of leaders in all of my working age. Under various organizational heads, I've been fortunate enough to observe some really, really great practices. Small acts of care from the owners of a flower shop that I worked for through my college years went a really long way to make a worker feel appreciated, in ways much more powerful than financial compensation could ever achieve. The director of a national immigrant rights advocacy organization rooted in organizing gifted me with explicit and pointed belief in me in a critical moment and unlocked in me great potential for contributing to the movement. Another leader I met during my stint at a global accounting firm had an incredible way with words that allowed him to flexibly navigate the narrow white culture of corporate America (which, to be fair, as a cishet white man he had an upper hand at navigating than I did) while still managing to make every single individual he interacted with --even for a brief moment-- feel seen and heard with great wit and charm. I have been blown away in every meeting on a board of directors at a legal aid nonprofit, where the president has led with razor-sharp precision and efficiency in language and process. These leaders left a mark on me that I will never forget.

I've also experienced a fair share of disappointment in leaders. The thing about being a leader is that your position as leader inherently means you have power --whether you got this position by organizational position or social power-- and specifically, power over your followers. No matter how collectivist or intentionally flattened the hierarchy may be (or may claim to be), organized movement needs leadership in vision and decision-making. Being a leader at the end of the day means that you say and others follow.

I have seen leaders who displayed all sorts of habitual behaviors: they were absent and unavailable, too controlling and micromanaging, sat in inaction and indecision, provided no vision or direction, put on a mask of friendliness while their actions were inconsistent with their words, were too much "people pleasers" so as to make them hard to rely on, etc. While these could in part be attributed to the circumstances and environment, I couldn't help but notice, over observation through varied lengths of time, that there stemmed some qualities from the leader figures themselves: complacency and lack of responsibility, incompetence, cowardliness, dishonesty.

One could say that these long-term behaviors that I observed were not particularly egregious, given the sorts of horror stories in the workplace that one might hear about. But I did come to realize that they are not uncommonly found, and that these sorts of long-standing and invisible ways of missing the mark, in contrast to marked and explosive violations, can also add up to grave potential for organizational failure, and a toxic environment for workers. The lack of self-reflection from any particular leader was particularly painful in the context of the fight for social justice, given the importance of the mission, the reasonably expected heightened sensitivity to power dynamics, and the relevance of the working conditions for workers and community members.

These leaders also left an indelible mark on me.

"For better and worse, culture and leadership are inextricably linked. Founders and influential leaders often set new cultures in motion and imprint values and assumptions that persist for decades. Over time an organization’s leaders can also shape culture, through both conscious and unconscious actions (sometimes with unintended consequences). The best leaders we have observed are fully aware of the multiple cultures within which they are embedded, can sense when change is required, and can deftly influence the process."

- Harvard Business Review, "The Leader's Guide to Corporate Culture"

Culture is a complicated topic. Subjective, hard to define, and difficult to prove the existence or causality of, making it altogether hairy, sticky, a mess in a world where proven, singular truth matters. An esteemed professor at my MSW program who taught organizational theory liked to stay away from culture precisely for this reason. The intentionally built culture can open doors to thriving discussion and idea-creation, to trust and comfort with sharing in vulnerability, to serve as catapult for true greatness to happen. Culture can also be an easy fallback to evade responsibility for or explain difficult matters. One simple “that’s just how we do it here” from the right person, implying order and norm, could be enough to bring any discussion to an end.

I came to my position at CSSW with certain strongly held beliefs, particularly knowing that these are rare in other organizational contexts. I believed in the critical necessity of the right kind of culture to allow for true inspiration and compassion taking place before obligation, in love for humanity before operating at the level of social constructions, in management that always recognizes the people behind the workers (whether the workers are here volunteering, at work-study, field, etc.). My strongest belief, above all, had been that there is nothing worth doing in life if we do not appreciate what is good and worth valuing --whether this be in the output of our actions, or in the process itself.

The entrepreneurship world emphasizes a culture of boldness and innovation, qualities which can easily also benefit the world of social justice. But the end goal that I wanted to achieve went, as I see it, beyond that. The goal for me was to honor our hearts and intentions as human beings and let these shine above all else. In order to create such an environment, I knew that there are concrete structural elements that are needed at the most basic level. These are such things as vision and direction, structure, and competence in strategic thinking. These would be particularly important in this uncertain and alienating time of remote work during the pandemic. These would also be particularly helpful for social workers, whose focus on interpersonal exchanges, or macro-level societal issues in their academic studies doesn't necessarily train them to think at an applied organizational level. Having now had the experience of founding a startup, I was confident in my ability to provide these.

The novel opportunity that this leadership position afforded me, then, had more to do with having the power to shape the culture that I felt was necessary in ways beyond structural foundations. I needed to know that there can be a way to do social justice in a way that is not only sustainable, but deeply filling. Managing the Action Lab through its foundational period became, in fact, an ideal environment for me to aim to create this culture due to two very important reasons: the people involved and the nature of the organization.

Working with social justice workers who generally had similar values as mine, and with a set of people who predominantly identify as female and of color, I was able to start with a basic set of critical shared understandings. I could trust that our students might already know that social justice work can fall into certain trappings of reductionism, reactionism, or tribalism if not carefully tended to. I could be my full and authentic Asian-American immigrant woman self --mixing up my English idioms, groaning collectively over the pains of menstrual periods, code switching freely and constantly, sharing the immigrant experience. Sharing a space of our own social narratives and norms allowed me to work off of these understandings in order to point towards my deeply ruminated conjectures towards the culture we need to build.

The nature of the Lab is quite unique on campus and as an organization overall. While entrenched in the behemoth-sized bureaucracy that is Columbia University, our nimble and swift startup-y Lab stands out from other labs in its focus on action over research (in alignment with the professional focus of its parent discipline on this academic world: social work). Moreover, given this entrenchment within a graduate education program, this organization allows for a dual focus that would be a luxury for other nonprofits: a focus both on outcome and process. Students join to advocate for and provide social and systemic change and join to invest in an opportunity for personal and professional growth. To err is human, and this learning environment allows for understanding that mistakes are opportunities to grow. Moreover, this environment allowed me to invite them to partake on reimagining and creating what an ideal environment to create social change looks like. This shift towards a collective shaping was a critical component for change to happen.

During that Friday social, I believe we were continuing on this discussion together one last time, and I knew I succeeded on this front. The students showed that they were deeply moved in personal ways by the act of recognition for the people that they are, rather than the production or contributions they made. They had witnessed what it looks like to recognize humanity and the person before engaging in the critical and necessary acts of observing, identifying, and fighting at the level of social constructions. They recognized that there is something profound there.

Have I mentioned that I have left quite contented? I've been in seventh heaven all weekend, dreaming and fantasizing about what we shared in that social and in private dialogues. The quietness of the pandemic life was marked with bursts of cracking up due to some of the most hilarious exchanges and personalities that I got to meet through this Lab.

I wish the best for the Lab in its continued and rapid growth. I have already made resoundingly clear my great optimism and joy for the students and their individual paths towards growing into their own leadership, so I will spare the gushiness here.

A word cloud from the words on a final group card from the students, created by the heart-warming Ethelyn Pugh, whom I nominated as “the most likely to” outdo Larry Page in harnessing tech in 2021. After having spent decades working with families in need, she has not wasted a single moment since she arrived at CSSW

(except, perhaps, in creating this word cloud for me 😊).

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