Each time that I have a recurring meeting scheduled, (and also lead said meeting) I like to begin with a short, grounding question. It provides my colleagues with a little space to breathe and stretch their mental muscles, but it also helps to transition their thoughts away from whatever situation might have just been consuming their attention, in the most humane way, possible. I saw the need first, during peak quarantine of last year, when I was beginning to grow my team. Given that we were all working from small, corners, countertops or couches of our NYC apartments, and at any moment they, --or I, could have been just moments removed from a covid-19 influenced breakdown, I needed some way to start meetings that wouldn’t add to the trauma.
I like to ask questions like: ‘First course through the last, what would your last meal look like?’ or ‘What album do you play through, front to back the most, in any given year?’ or ‘Describe in detail, what the perfect nap looks and feels like.’
My most recent question to everyone: What’s your favorite thing about, or by, the late, great Dr. Maya Angelou?
‘I know why the Caged Bird Sings’ came up, more than once from some of the women I work with. Each one remarked how the autobiography played a special role in their personal journeys into womanhood.
An advisor responded to the prompt with, ‘The way that she embodies not looking like where you came from.’ They were impacted by her ability to turn humble beginnings into humble Presidential Medals of Freedom and world-wide notoriety.
‘Everything.’ Said one of my Board Directors.
Although I’m consistently surprised by some responses, generally, I pick my questions somewhat selfishly, as I already have my own answer picked out. My favorite thing about the icon who accomplished so much, and influenced so many, wasn’t her poetry, or her magnificent art for story-telling. My favorite thing about this legend comes from a YouTube clip I saw of her appearing on the Oprah Winfrey show sometime in the 90’s.
This particular moment, Oprah traveled into the audience to give them an opportunityto ask questions directly to the esteemed guest. One audience member, a young woman with glasses, a ponytail, possibly a college-student or recent grad says into the microphone “Yes, I have a question for Maya,” and without missing a beat, Mother Maya said: “No baby. It’s Dr. Angelou or Ms. Maya to you. I’ve worked far too hard and come much too far for someone your age to call me by my first name.”
Honestly, I’m still floored. And the thing about our Auntie is that she spoke with such discernment and also with such warmth. She said what she said with authority but none of it came off as bitter, angry or bothered; actually, if anything, it was inviting. She had an insane ability to put whoever needed the guidance, squarely in their place while still making the corrected know that they werewelcomed.
Last week, quite serendipitously, I had the great fortune of meeting with an esteemed member and nonprofit leader within the Circle of Change community for an intro call. I won’t name her here but impressing upon me her experience and lifelong commitment to social justice, we had one of those conversations that really made me feel fortunate to be in her presence. I didn’t have a grounding question for her, as I don’t typically do those for intro calls, but we did share origin stories and our survival strategies for doing this work. She informed me that for her, education was her choice weapon against White Supremacy, one that she’d wield dynamically. (My favorite way being), as a PhD earner, ‘no White person was going to call her by her first name.’ That right was reserved for kinfolk. Love it. Within the examples of these two phenomenal Black women living phenomenally, and their demand that the world address them correctly, I see my preferred theory of change for racial equity in action.
As Black folk, public instances of either racism or White Supremacy at work can completely derail our day, sour our mood or leave us questioning the validity of our pursuits for social justice. Look no further than the recent not guilty verdict and acquittal of the White boy who was videotaped shooting people who protested racism. I believe in the power of ecosystems and organizing communities, but to touch equity, even momentarily, I put my highest faith in Black autonomy. That autonomy, (as long as it doesn’t harm, or restrict the natural rights of another person), when practiced personally or professionally by Black and Brown people–behaves like a renewable energy source. It’s one of the few concepts that’s able to meet racism in the multi-layered corners we know them to exist. Consider Colin Kaepernick, autonomously bending one knee on his body while half of America lost their minds as a result. Autonomy is a manifestation of more: wanting more, expecting more, asking for more. It also influences others, inspiring either a feeling of ‘I want that for myself too,’ or evolves into advocacy for others which gives us the mindset ‘there’s enough here, and you deserve some too.’ Looking back to my favorite Dr. Maya Angelou’s anecdote (and basically her entire legacy) I’m confident about one thing; no strategy for true equity can be dictated. It can certainly inspire imitation, but it has to be organic in its nature and original in its form.
Noel McKenzie is a Black, Queer, Jamerican social entrepreneur and organizational development consultant based in Brooklyn, New York. He is Executive Director of Represented Foundation the nonprofit he founded in Brooklyn in 2017 to close the diversity gap in the social impact leadership. Drawing from his own experiences with racial biases in nonprofit leadership in a city like New York, where people of color make up less than 30% of CEOs, despite comprising 68% of the population, Noel created the Vision. Execution. Results. (V.E.R.) incubator, a social impact training program that's helped 30 Black and Brown social entrepreneurs launch 8 social enterprises and bring new community services to 13,5000 people in NYC since 2018.
As a social entrepreneur, Noel designs leadership development opportunities that blend culture and service to promote access and intentional community-building. Former and current workshops of his include: First Generations, a podcast-creation program helping migrant youth find ownership of the immigration narrative while amplifying their voices in educational podcasts and “The Art of Accepting Help Workshop,” a lunch & learn program helping corporate teams create equity for BIPOC, women, Queer or disabled-bodied employees by normalizing vulnerability in the workplace.
Noel is an American Express Emerging Leaders fellow of 2019, a 2020 honoree from the BET network’s Black Excellence Campaign, a 2021 inductee to the Black Innovation Alliance and a 2022 Roddenberry fellow. Noel is a graduate of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, and earned his Masters Degree in Nonprofit Management from The Milano Graduate School at the New School in New York, where he served as President and Lead Organizer of the Students for Social Justice (SSJ).