Willing to be Transformed: A nine year queer, cross-race work marriage

This month, I announced my transition out of my nine year work marriage (i.e. Co-Directorship) at Southerners On New Ground (SONG) with Paulina Helm-Hernandez. Paulina and I have worked together since 2004 in different capacities. In my exit letter I talked about seeing SONG as a ship that I was looking at from a distance as I transitioned out of leadership and seeing that it is a vessel that is not only powerful but one also scarred from many battles and bearing the marks of both mistakes and victories, therein lies SONG’s beauty. Here, Paulina and I come together to look back over nine years together, publicly reflect about our leadership partnership, and document what is on our minds and hearts in the final months of this long chapter of our wild ride together.

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What is something you wish someone would have told us 9 years ago?

Paulina Helm-Hernandez: So many things! I wish someone had really told us to pace ourselves and to learn how to not spread ourselves too thin earlier. We got pushed and pulled in many directions early on in our leadership trajectory, and we made some intuitive calls that were good, but I wish that we had had more time to do some of the things that I now see are core to advancing our work and our shared thinking. For example, I wish we had spent less time on little details, and more time on core skills, running organizing experiments, and on the political relationships that really sustained and mattered to us. On the other hand, we got really good advice from the SONG founders and many elders from the beginning. We always prioritized building the political family and grassroots-led work and were often too stubborn to get formal training (laughs). We never drank the kool-aid on doing things that just ‘seemed’ glossier, so that was good, but some director-level training or fellowship support could have been good.

What is one skill you think any new co-director team should have?

PHH: Learn how to disagree in a principled way. That is the most important thing, and we figured that out early on. Know how to share power in a true way and talk openly and non-defensively about the real dynamics at play around race, class, ethnicity, etc. in the relationship. Know how to reach a common decision when you disagree. Know how to keep it moving, literally! We know how to fight and come back to each other. We go full disclosure on each other and give each other context for things to explain our positions on an issue. We learned how to trust each other and keep each other’s confidences, and I think that is essential to a strong co-directorship and unified leadership.

CB: I think a lot of people would be surprised how much we disagree.

PHH: Yeah. We know how to disagree publicly and privately. We made a point to prioritize the integrity of how we made decisions and incubating unity internally and externally. We have worked hard to get to that level of political unity!

What was one mistake you think we learned from?

CB: I think there were times we made mistakes based on our own lack of knowledge and that made it hard to not be defensive because we felt prideful, you know?

PHH: I think a lot now about hard compromises and some mistakes we made. Sometimes we asked for certain sacrifices of ourselves that we did not ask of others. On occasion, staffing issues and our own growing pains were really hard. We had moments when we waited too long to name certain political differences with other leaders or deal with political conflict more openly. It could have been easier to make certain decisions and keep it moving if we had.

CB: I agree. I think that is broader than us or our relationship. We have to find ways in movement building to have differences in opinion of strategy and priority and not have it translate into personal insult or a lack of loyalty or care.

PHH: I think there were moments we tried to please everyone in the shared work; we were catering to too many interests. Some people we worked with were (and are) wonderful people, and they did not want to go where we did or do what we did, and vice versa. They were interested in other things. That is not a bad thing, but sometimes it has created unnecessary tension.

CB: SONG is not perfect, but we do certain things well. We could never be everything to all LGBTQ people in the South. Many people in the region always wanted more from us. I used to feel so overwhelmed when I thought we had to try to “cover all the ground” of our constituency (LGBTQ) and of the region (the South). In the past few years we started asking, “What are the interventions we can make in our terrain with our constituency that can change the game for our community?” When we changed the question so much more started to feel possible.

After all these years working in a multi-racial organization that includes white people, what do you think is needed from white people in multi-racial organizing in this time?

PHH: It is a lot of what SONG has put out already, honestly. I think white people in movement building need to make a call about whether they will be individual activists or if they are really ready to commit to collective organizing. The latter means that you don’t have to always be the final vote on the strategy, pace, timing, tone and approach. Put another way, it means you have to learn how to share political imagination, power and work without having to always be in charge. We have some great humble, hard-working, politicized and brave emerging leaders in SONG right now, and many of them are white. Personally, I don’t want them to go to those anti-racist trainings where they get de-clawed and told that they should just sit quietly in meetings and then follow people of color around asking them what to do. (Laughs) I want them to have their claws. They need them because we are in a region, a moment, a country — where those claws are needed for the enemies who are killing us. Doing workshops with other white people is not enough. You need backbone. You need practice, you need to take risks, be uncomfortable, and stand side by side with leaders of color and do what needs to be done. You have to be willing to trust leaders of color who have the track record, integrity, and vision to get things done. That’s what I think in terms of big picture.

CB: It is interesting that we are in a time when a common pattern in many movements is what I have heard called ‘white capped’ organizations — organizations with many people of color in their base but primarily white people ‘in charge’. SONG has been moving in a different direction, with a base that includes white people, but majority people of color in centralized leadership.

PHH: It is interesting and important to talk about politically. In day to day work, white leaders doing multi-racial work have to know how to share and build culturally, politically, and spiritually with people of color and give space for us to set the tone. Don’t be that white person in the room who is the reason that people of color feel they like have to watch what they say, and do be able to take direct feedback and roll with the punches! Often times I really believe the faith of multi-racial organizing against white supremacy and for liberation rests on the generosity of people of color to share open space and co-craft strategy with folks whose ancestors often benefited from our suffering. I love me some smart people with great ideas, but I roll with the “team of the willing” and people willing to take that political trust as sacred. “Team of the willing” is a term that Marisa Franco brought to SONG, that implies that we build organizing relationship through not only shared vision and strategy, but shared work and risk together.

Caitlin, you and I have talked for years about how trust in political relationship is precious. It takes five minutes to mess up a relationship and ten years to rebuild it. Trust is earned. You don’t insert yourself in multi-racial organizing. Show up and help, sure, but you don’t appoint yourself politically into leadership. The most trained up, work-shopped white person is not always the one who can lead in a multi-racial organization, or best positioned to ‘model’ organizing to other white people.

What do you think got you and I through the hard times?

We are hilarious. Really. (Laughs) I do think we have a great sense of humor. We pick up other hilarious people along the way. We don’t take ourselves too serious, and we don’t pick fights just to pick them. If we are stressed or angry we process with each other first. This has helped us with burnout. I have never felt like my hands were tied by you in terms of decision-making, but you have helped me do my best to be principled. We have rarely ever put shade or negativity on social media. We know that what we say individually will reflect on SONG. I also think you and I have a lot of compassion for each other. We never looked to SONG to make our co-directorship work. We took responsibility for our relationship.

CB: I learned a lot about political clarity from you and how to escalate when I needed to and not escalate when it’s not needed. I am still learning (laughs). I think we take pride in our collective work, but we are fundamentally not competitive with each other. I don’t know how competitive co-directorships last. Over the years, I think we also supported each other to grow politically and move on our passions, because we also knew the other person had a really intense need to make sure the collective work was done and would not abandon that for new interests. Real talk, we both had moments where we could have chosen to invest in trying to each become individual movement rock stars, and we each chose the collective instead. Even in terms of how much money we make and our pay scale with the rest of the staff. These are things directors often don’t talk about, but they are important.

Now that we are transitioning out of our Co-Directorship, what stands out to you the most looking back?

PHH: Oh, there is so much to say. We started out on faith alone from the beginning; we were co-conspirators in each other’s dream. We were expansive in how we envisioned and worked, and even though we didn’t agree about everything, I never felt I had to set any political dreams aside to do this co-directorship. I never thought you were confused about where I was coming from. We both knew each other’s sacrifices, and when we were stressed we knew how to give each other room. It is like standing guard in some ways. When I thought everyone else was sleeping, I always knew you were awake too making sure everything would be taken care of. That was the thing that helped me sleep at night, because this was never just a job to us; this was a place for our political dreams. Nowadays, SONG is so much bigger than us but we have that period in history of this work where it felt like you and me looking mostly to each other. Recently, you said to me, “I want to be a steady hand in this transition process,” and I was like, yes, of course you are. You already are. Because that is what it is about often at the end of the day. What it takes to lead.

What are you the most proud of that we accomplished together?

CB: The way that more feels possible for so many LGBTQ Southerners and LGBTQ people around the country living in small towns and red states because of what SONG has done, which is not just about you and I, of course, but is huge. SONG has invited imagination and courage into a new set of leaders and changed the climate inside the community itself. That and the fact that we have embraced innovation and timing, especially in recent years. It’s funny, a few people have asked me in the last few weeks if I don’t think white people should be directors at all. No, I don’t think that. I think we would not have been ready for this transition five years ago. What I do think is that we need to work so hard to develop leaders as we go, that we can feel confident a day will come when we can move aside. So I am as proud of this moment in our work as I am of any other one because I feel that way.

PHH: Yes, that, and our team, man. We have built a great team. No family is perfect. No leader is, no set of decisions is. I am very self-critical sometimes. But, at the end of the day — if you cannot build and inspire a strong team, what can you accomplish beyond yourself? Last month when we were in New Orleans and you officially ‘resigned’ from your role we had a long and emotional meeting. But, when I looked across the room at you, I knew what decisions we had made all along the way that got us here, and what we were willing to do for the work. You said one of the hardest things there is to say, and you said it to our faces. You said that it was time for someone else to sit where you were sitting. It was like we were all sitting around and then all of a sudden everyone just pulled their hearts out and put them in each other’s hands. It was powerful and heavy. I asked myself, “Who has these kinds of people alongside them? Who gets to be so lucky?” Not just people like you and I, but all the leaders in SONG from staff to board to members, to our members and supporters. That was a great feeling. It is the feeling of a strong political home because all these days and years — they are our lives. This is our lives. Taking our lives seriously starts with really really being there for each other, politically, spiritually, and emotionally. We had to model it to each other so we could build it.