I recently read this great piece in Colorlines about the Ella Baker tradition of leader-full movement building.
Ella Baker was a civil rights activist who worked to help “everyday people channel and congeal their collective power to resist oppression and fight for sustainable, transformative change.” She’s described as working in many concentric circles, strengthening each group she was part of, forging sustainable ways forward. She worked in a way that helped the whole ecology improve.
This is something I aspire to, to improve each group I am a part of. It is an ongoing challenge to balance my own ego and blind spots with the competing demands of other individuals and organizations. And that is why I believe in and am inspired by “group-centered leadership,” because the challenges are the antidote to broken systems that systematically oppress certain people. The concentric-circle approach has built in feedback-loops and pressure points just like healthy ecological systems. Healthy ecological systems are in balance, no one has all the power all the time.
The dynamic tension of working ecologically helps us hold each other accountable, helps ensure that many different people have access to power, and helps prevent one person or group from growing too big. This is why Elephant Circle prioritizes working collaboratively with so many groups: we want to be held accountable by what is healthy for the whole.
In this graphic Elephant Circle is at the center only because that's where we are standing, not because the ecological system begins or ends here. Each point on the circle is a circle of it’s own, connecting with many other circles. The background forest is meant to indicate the depth and complexity of the whole. Elephant Circle is but one tree.
To be accountable to the Denver Health Doula Program, or COLOR, or New Legacy Charter School, or birth workers of color in general, the centrality of Elephant Circle, or myself, has to be checked. Having privilege checked is essential to dismantling systems where people are given unearned power. To have skin-color privilege while working in and for circles of people without that privilege requires me to be aware of and responsible for that unearned power. The same is true of all kinds of privilege, of course.
By being involved in many circles, and being oriented to lifting up each group I am part of, I am constrained by the needs and demands of each of those circles. I believe that working ecologically means forging sustainable ways forward from that constraint. Because my growth is bound up with yours, my freedom is tied to your freedom.