We’re building a bigger table

Photos by Webster Mugavazi, Africa Web TV,

We’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be a changemaker. And what we keep coming back to is the concept of collaboration. Every revolutionary act — from the liberation struggle of Sankara to simply existing as a Black person today — has been well-fought because a group of people recognized the importance of working together toward a common goal. It’s with that in mind that we decided to organize the first African Collaboration Summit, as a means to unpack our relationship to collaboration and unlock our ability to work together.

Picture this: you’re the new hire at a blue chip company. It’s your first job after graduating from a top business school and spending the summer interning for a multinational firm overseas. You’re smart, eager and full of ideas, but have little in the way of work experience. You also happen to be one of two people of color on the team. You see the other person and excitedly think, ’What a relief to find a POC in leadership here. I’ll connect with them, maybe eventually ask if they’ll be my mentor.’ But surprisingly, that colleague avoids engaging with you. They’re not unkind, but always too busy to offer much in the way of support or connection. You feel confused, isolated and disappointed at their lack of interest, but mentally prepare to navigate the landscape alone.

Some may have a similar story. And sure, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with a colleague keeping their head down and getting their job done. But the most successful organizations have learned that teams can’t get far when operating in silos. For POCs — who categorically have less access to networks, support and resources to move their career forward — alliances can be a powerful tool to shift the dynamic. Imagine if, as more of us continue to level up, we were committed to leveraging opportunities to bring more representation into the workplace. Imagine if collaboration was always our starting point.

Changemakers collaborate because they want to see things done differently. They recognize a structural issue for which they desire a different outcome; a shift; a radical change. Naturally, such an outcome won’t materialize without an intentional, collective effort of solidarity and unity.

The part we forget is that the outcome we seek must match the way in which we engage each other: if we want to see significant change, we have to put in significant effort. Collaboration involves the sharing of resources, ideas, contacts. It’s a process of transparency, cooperation, trust, and vulnerability… and being vulnerable is hardly fun. Few people will readily place themselves in such a position. Especially we, members of the African diaspora, who tend to fall back on survival skills. And who can blame us? We’ve experienced countless injustices, convincing us that we have no choice but to fight for our own seat at a very small, very exclusive table.

Let’s not buy into the structures that have been created to sustain conditions of disempowerment for us and our communities; to operate from this place of scarcity only makes us complicit.

Instead, let’s collaborate to create opportunities for ourselves and each other, to advance our community, but also, to reshape a hierarchical system that is seldom structured in our favor. Rather than a scarcity mindset, let’s trust in the process of collaboration.

Oh, and remember your new hire days? Flash forward ten years. You’ve risen in the ranks and find yourself seated in the executive boardroom. But when you look around, there’s no one in the room who looks like you. You still remember how challenging it was to get to where you are today, largely unsupported, and vow to open the door for others. It’s in that moment that you think to yourself, ‘Starting today — we’re building a bigger table.’

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