For one definitive week each January (since 1983), all sectors of our society acknowledge the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. We march, we sing, we post poignant MLK quotes and we hold events to honor the commitment and accomplishments of a few seasoned leaders who have played a significant role in the progress of the Black community.
This week elicits a spirit of community action, reminding us that all play an important role in the change we want to see. It seeds hope and faith that we will all experience equality, justice, and racial equity…someday. It fuels us to keep pursuing "the dream,” carrying us for another eleven months until it is time to refuel again.
As a young girl, I remember hearing a story that I still carry with me to this day. A young man* was charged to lead the rebuilding of his community. He observed previous community leadership and noted the inequitable distribution of power and lack of accountability. The struggle for progress was led under one singular voice, a community-endorsed representative. Limited progress was experienced — in fits and starts, three steps forward, one step back, sometimes two. Progress is often dependent on the health of one leader, combined with their flawlessness and likability among both proponents and opponents of the movement and the herd-ability (following) of the community.
He took all he observed and leaned into the essence of the Black community at its core: co-ownership. Many African proverbs share a common lesson, rooted in the interdependence of the village: each villager doing their part for the collective strength and progress of the entire village. He asked each community member to do their part by rebuilding the area in the vicinity of their home or business — tapping self-interest, investment and pride. He encouraged community members to lend, exchange and give their resources to one another so that their neighbors’ area was as strong as their own. Soon they saw a beautiful community — members taking pride and shared accountability to protect and sustain what they had collectively built — creating the change they wished to see!
Fast-forward to today. As the leader of the Black Resilience in Colorado (BRIC) Fund, I am in rooms with Black leaders of nonprofits, community movements, and political and corporate spaces. The pandemic and continued racial injustice serve as a continual reminder of where our Black communities sit in the dreams of our ancestors.
While for the fleeting moment of these last two years, we have seen an acknowledgment of the racial injustices and over 400 years of inhumane denial of racial equity, we also witnessed the strength of current and emerging Black leadership. The notion of a single appointed leader has evolved into an amazing, multi-generation coalition of leaders driving multi-layered (grassroots, regional and national) strategies to permanently dismantle oppressive practices and systemic stifling policies and laws. Their actions demonstrate their vision of Black liberation and the willingness to execute the steps to bring it to full fruition.
While many of these leaders, such as Stacey Abrams or Bryan Stevenson, are on a national platform and well-known, many are still less visible but making a substantial impact locally in the communities they serve. From leading voting-rights movements, running for office and driving community-led economic development to on-the-ground community organizing and local community visioning, their layered leadership is moving us forward. Colorado leaders such as Vanessa Roberts and Kevin Mullin are carrying forth the torch and continuing to lay community bricks to advance the prospect of a better future.
So, who got next as the call for driven, visionary and purposeful leadership never ends? What about you? How will you choose to lead and illustrate your leadership? But more important, how will we continue to seed, enrich and empower the voices of young leaders? As history has shown, you don’t need to have an “official” leadership title or position to be a leader, just a will to lead in making a difference. It’s time that we look at ourselves in the mirror and ask if we are doing our share and living up to our responsibility. We are each called upon to build up the communities where we live. Until “the dream” is realized, we can lend, exchange and give our resources to support our fellow leaders and ensure we are reinforcing their efforts. We must do what it takes to ensure that our larger united community is equipped to create the liberated equitable community that we seek and deserve!
*The young man is Nehemiah (from the Bible, Old Testament)
**Article originally published January 16, 2022 via Denver Westword
LaDawn Sullivan is an influencer, innovator and coalition builder. For over 24 years, she has strengthened and expanded the pipeline of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) leadership, addressed social injustice, and created racially equitable and inclusive practices and policies. She is the creator and director of the Black Resilience in Colorado (BRIC) Fund.