Introduction from Allen Smart, vice president of programs, Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust

 As we work in North Carolina’s rural communities—many of which face deep, historical racial divides—those of us at the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust reflect on the issues of privilege and equity a great deal. We are conscious that these discussions and this perspective must be reflected in our work, our actions and our conversations in community, as well as in the work of the partners we invite to support rural communities.

This blog is a first-person account from Lynn Fick-Cooper, managing director at Center for Creative Leadership, who oversees our leadership development capacity building in rural North Carolina. Like Lynn and Katherine Enright, we believe we must talk about privilege, embrace discomfort and push for equity if we stand a chance at making long-term, sustainable health improvements in the communities we serve.


Inspired by Kathleen Enright’s recent blog posts on embracing discomfort and acknowledging privilege as a blind spot for philanthropy, I am sharing a perspective from the front line of developing leaders in the social sector. In my work as a senior faculty member at CCL, I was confronted with a disruptive, uncomfortable, but life changing question in 2009 that I have since been working to answer.

I was facilitating the first of three intensive leadership development program sessions for a cohort of 30 emerging community health leaders.  This 16-month Ladder to Leadership program was developed in partnership with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and implemented in eight impoverished regions in the country. The goal of the program (in response to the 2006 Bridgespan report on the pending dearth of executives in the nonprofit sector) was to develop emerging leaders in health-related nonprofits so that they would be ready to take over the senior most positions in their organizations.

During the first intensive leadership session for our Albuquerque, New Mexico cohort, I found myself fielding challenging questions about data sets for the various assessments we were using in class, as well as other research that underpinned the content.

One brave participant finally said to me on the session’s last day: “Lynn, we get the diversity of thought and personality and leadership style you are talking about, but when are we going to talk about the diversity that really matters—the inequitable structures that exist across our community health systems and the health disparities those create?  If we cannot get help from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (the leading philanthropy in health) and CCL (the world’s leading institute for leadership development) to create and sustain more equitable health services through our leadership, then where are we ever going to get it?”

Those two sobering questions changed me.

I could finally hear what they were trying to tell me. In all my work in the leadership development field (which began at CCL in 1991), I had never been confronted with my own privilege. I had not spent any time really thinking about the systems that were set up in our society primarily by white men of privilege and how those systems either intentionally or unintentionally left out many of the diverse populations in the U.S.

Most of the people who have access to leadership development work in the corporate sector, and most of those leaders represent the epitome of privilege. Systemic inequities created by privilege were not something we were dealing with in programs.

Don’t get me wrong, CCL had done a tremendous amount of research throughout its history on different aspects of diversity, e.g. extensive and well-known research on women’s leadership and what it would take to “break the glass ceiling;” as well as work in the area of what African-Americans needed to succeed as leaders in the workplace.

We had even come out with a book and a set of tools about Leading across Differences at that time, which helped organizations overcome the inherent conflicts present in a lot of organizations with workforces who have among them historical differences based on race, gender, and religion. But we had yet to weave those concepts and tools deeply into our programs or to challenge our privileged leader participants to disrupt the inequitable systems in which they worked.

So we began having conversations internally about systemic privilege and diversity and what that meant for the curriculum. Embracing the discomfort of our own privilege and the inequities that exist in our health systems was not easy for any of us, but once you see the water you swim in, you cannot “un-see” it—or as Maya Angelou said, “when you know better, you do better.”

Fast forward 7 years and several different health foundation-funded leadership programs later, and I find myself unwilling and/or unable to design and deliver a program, especially for U.S.-focused health leaders, that does not address the issue of privilege as a critical program thread.

Last week, I had the honor of co-facilitating a class with one of my CCL colleagues for a group of 19 mid- to upper-level leaders from community health nonprofits within the state of North Carolina. The program, Community Leadership Essentials, was created in partnership with both the BlueCross BlueShield Foundation of North Carolina and the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust.

The program includes two different residential sessions, as well as executive coaching and virtual learning sessions and toolkits. During the first residential session, we include a pretty powerful and yet still fairly uncomfortable thread on social identity and power and privilege.

We begin by examining our own diversity through the lens of social identity and we eventually explore the many ways we have privilege and how that privilege affects the organizations in which we lead and the services those organizations provide.

We examine our privilege by looking at the 7 primary types of privilege in the U.S. (Nationality, Class, Race, Gender, Sexuality, Ability, and Religion).  If we have experienced any kind of oppression in our lives (discrimination from being female or being black, or being Jewish, for example), we know how to embrace that oppression and spot it when it happens to us.

However, most of us also experience benefits derived from privilege that we never look at. As a white, American-born, able-bodied heterosexual female who was raised a Christian and who had access to a college education, the only real oppression I have ever experienced was based on my gender. Having been born in 1967, however, meant that my road as a professional female was much easier than many of my predecessors.

When we go through the exercises and discussions about privilege in the training, we examine both the privilege we have and the privilege we don’t have.

It can be incredibly eye-opening for even the most “under privileged” leaders in our classrooms. We challenge participants to then examine their own organizational policies and practices to begin to identify the ways they are perpetuating (either intentionally or unintentionally) the negative “isms” associated with each type of privilege.

For most people in the room, it is a sobering exercise.

I always start the privilege exercise and discussion by sharing a bit of my own learning journey on the topic and by saying that by the end of the afternoon we won’t have answers for how to overcome the issues of privilege, but we will be better able to see them. I believe we have to start with self-awareness as it will lead to improved empathy, and through courageous and strategic actions, empathy can ultimately lead us to greater equity.

I will forever be grateful to that young leader in Albuquerque who had the courage to push back on two very privileged institutions and ask those bold but necessary questions.

If the privileged among us do not embrace the discomfort involved both individually and institutionally in addressing issues of equity and ultimately stand up and challenge the systems we have created, things will not change.

3 thoughts on “Leading from a Place of Privilege: Moving from Empathy to Equity

  1. Patrick Sweet says:

    Thanks, Lynn!
    We too here in Geneva must address ‘the elephants in the room’ when we bring together our leaders from Africa to Asia to the Middle East to Western and Eastern Europe. Good job! When we all get it right, the transformations are stunning.

  2. Robert Stewart says:

    Good perspective. Coming from a military background and working within the Department of Defense today, I can say we work hard to eliminate the typical barriers you discuss. What is important in our leadership development is the position and grade you hold, not who and what you are. In many ways that frames how we look at individuals as we seek to create opportunity. It is easier for those of us who achieved higher ranks and positions during our military careers, as we were exposed to so many great leaders and learning opportunities, both formal and informal. Now as a DoD civilian, I again see opportunities presenting themselves for further development. However, it is when we see people achieve higher levels of an organization who have not had mentor ship and leadership development as part of experience who seem to under appreciate how these programs make our organizations better. I am happy to say that there is infrastructure for professional development if you are willing to apply for it and take advantage. The one challenge I see, finding out about those opportunities.

    I also think that because the Department of Defense has been a leader in tearing down traditional barriers, it and those who spent a career in it, are better able (as part of their value system), to see beyond the external factors that may otherwise impact a decision about professional development, and see the talent instead. I am convinced that if an organization values performance over everything else, it will “grow” the traditional biases and barriers out of their leaders. If a leader persists in holding those biases and prejudices, then that leader need not be part of that organization.

    Remember, often times we focus on the biases of white males, but we sell ourselves short when we do that. When speaking about the “elephant in the room,” prejudice is between your ears, racism is between your ears, sexism is between your ears and when we fail to accept that we are all at risk of these behaviors.

    1. Lauren McSwain-Starrett says:

      Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments sharing your perspective.

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