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The Leaders We Need

Sabreena Delhon

July 5, 2020

Last month Professor Hahrie Han of Johns Hopkins University spoke about building power for social and political change at a DemocracyXChange pre-event. Her talk described this moment as one of disruption and rapid change. Current conversations about economic and racial justice are accelerating and generating demands for action from our democratic institutions. Han’s remarks raised the question: how do we create conditions that will enable the leaders we need to emerge?

Since the death in police custody of George Floyd in the United States, there has been unprecedented engagement with the link between police services and the disproportionate loss of Black and Indigenous lives in Canada. The call to defund the police in favour of reallocating resources towards community supports is steadily gaining traction in both Canada and the United States as the Black Lives Matter movement surges.

During this period media outlets have struggled to cover stories about systemic racism, prompting critical conversations about their objectivity. There has been an outpouring of stories from journalists of colour on social media and other platforms about the constant burden of navigating white supremacy in the newsroom and at leadership tables. This both compromises the quality of news coverage and constrains their careers. Other professions have followed suit, noting that the limited representation in their fields produces toxic work environments and impedes effective service to the public.

Community organizers, activists, academics and many others have long been speaking out against and fighting systemic racism. After countless commissions, reports and studies their message has now broken into the collective consciousness and is disrupting the default mode that has centred white privilege across our democratic institutions. In Canada, the central question can no longer be whether systemic racism exists — it always has. Similarly, it’s time to stop making selective comparisons with ‘worse’ instances of racism in the United States, as a source of distraction or comfort.

Popular opinion has shifted such that concepts and views previously unthinkable are now mainstream. Han attributed this change to the public reaching its limit and this signals an important cultural shift. Now that we are experiencing the world through a COVID-19 lens, existing inequalities are magnified and new, imaginative solutions seem within reach. In order to stay relevant, institutions of democracy must work quickly to adapt and reflect our pluralistic multiracial society.

Han expanded on the importance of contemporary leaders responding with agility on shifting terrain. It is now critical that leaders show the ability to balance tensions – to move with ease from the top down and bottom up – and to adeptly navigate both constituency and institutional demands. Aspiring and existing non-white leaders working in predominantly white spaces know all too well how to balance duality: for them, being conspicuous and invisible at once is a necessary survival skill.

Struggle is inherent to democracy – it is an unavoidable element and source of dynamism. As we are witnessing, this current struggle to address systemic racism is rapidly shifting expectations and challenging institutions to keep pace. According to Han, the practice of democracy is going through a rapid transformation, one that entails rethinking how the public holds its leaders accountable.

At this moment I ask: are these the conditions that enable the leaders we need to emerge? The momentum behind current discussions about addressing systemic racism is encouraging and the inspiring product of an engaged citizenry. While these may very well be the ideal conditions to produce the leaders we need, their emergence is contingent on having space to step into.

Organizers know that in order to truly change the guard they must sustain their efforts to secure change in the public consciousness, across professional cultures and through policies. The new standards of accountability are calling on current leaders to cede some of their privilege in order to strengthen democracy. The pressure is on to respond because the calls for meaningful, effective and rapid change – they are only increasing.

 

Sabreena Delhon, Open Democracy Fellow