Sabrina Hersi Issa
Jul 24 · 8 min read

“Recognizing the challenges of leadership, along with the pains of change, shouldn’t diminish anyone’s eagerness to reap the rewards of creating value and meaning in other people’s lives.”
Ronald Heifetz, Center for Public Leadership at Harvard Kennedy School

Image via Unsplash

‘What is the future of news?’ is an evergreen question in journalism. Over the course of conducting this research, I continuously encountered the leadership and labor of individuals in journalism who did not wait for someone else to answer that question for them in order to execute necessary critical work to create the future of news we all deserve.

They are individual leaders inside and outside newsrooms who identified problems and took the initiative to become apart of solutions building and possibility remodeling. They started online communities for diverse journalists, built robust and dynamic databases featuring diverse talent, spent nights and weekends training emerging talents in their specialities, they invested substantial labor to support the future of journalism so that diverse talents do not abandon the field because of structural and systemic inequalities.

These solutions builders understand the nature of newsroom systems and practice adaptive leadership, a “… leadership framework that helps individuals and organizations adapt and thrive in challenging environments. It is being able, both individually and collectively, to take on the gradual but meaningful process of change. It is about diagnosing the essential from the expendable and bringing about a real challenge to the status quo.” Developing adaptive leadership is a model that is philanthropy supports in other sectors such as in education, healthcare and technology.

Often for media funders, support for initiatives intended to improve diversity in journalism are delivered to programs with explicit focus, such as skills training, leaving gaps of support for initiatives to address the implicit systems that undermine newsroom efforts to recruit, retain and promote diverse journalists; bias, discrimination, managers ill-equipped to support diverse direct reports, targeted harassment, pay inequity, burnout, and advocating for oneself, to name a few.

In newsrooms, adaptive leaders steward progress through complex systems. The adaptive leaders interviewed for this research who witnessed or experienced systemic failures went to work to fill this gap in order to improve the field, often did so without institutional support and in addition to current workload, creating a double burden and accelerating rates of burnout.

Invest in Systems Stewards & Possibility Builders

Tara Pixley was a Knight Visiting Nieman Fellow and is one of the founding members of Reclaim, a project alliance of five organizations dedicated to “amplifying the voices of underrepresented photographers and decolonizing the photojournalism industry.”

“I believe deeply in journalism as a tool for democracy and as an imperative in our everyday lives and with that respect and that love and that passion for journalism in general, and photojournalism specifically, I want to make it better,” she said in a New York Times piece announcing the project. A PhD candidate at the University of California, San Diego, Pixley is approaching designing solutions with the expertise of a trained social scientist: she is collecting the missing datasets and has an open survey for photojournalists, a design approach supported in an earlier piece of reported research for media funders seeking to support diverse journalism ecosystems. There is an opportunity for media funders to support adaptive leadership initiatives from diverse journalists building solutions and practicing a form of industry intrapreneurship that should be cultivated and invested in.

Rachel Wedinger shared with me in an interview for this research:

“It’s important to support individuals who have a very high level of comfort with complexity because we are going to act in values-based way within a complex system. I don’t really see the point of understanding a complex system if you continue from the other side of that understanding to act in the same kind of simplistic ways. Come to understand the landscape, come to understand the complex system that you’re trying to make change in and then make sure that your approach is taking into account that complexity in a real way.”

Project Alloy is another case for adaptive solutions-building from leaders within a different complex system struggling with diversity: the technology sector. Three leaders, Starr Simpson, Ian Smith and Brooke Jarrett, created the nonprofit to provide grants to underrepresented individuals in the industry to attend technical conferences otherwise financially inaccessible to them.

Simpson explains the impetus behind Project Alloy at GraceNotes, a convening created by another adaptive leader Tess Rinearson.

“When we give grants through Project Alloy, we give directly to people for whom we wish to open doors of opportunity. This approach is change we believe in, and also change within reach — we, as individuals who work in the tech industry, are capable of making this kind of difference for others. So we decided to form a nonprofit to centralize and scale the process so we could reach even more people.”

Image from Project Alloy

For media funders, there is opportunity to create agile grants that will support efforts from adaptive leaders like Pixby, Simpson and Rinearson. Their leadership is not only filling critical structural gaps within their respective sectors but also cultivates talent from underrepresented backgrounds to create a community of people who will ultimately support one another down the line and over the arc of their careers. Yet these efforts are unfunded, underfunded or side projects added to already demanding workloads.

Simpson explains the level of volunteer labor in her GraceNotes talk:
“All three of us are volunteers. We have accomplished what we have so far by meeting every single week for over a year and a half for an hour in our free time,”

There is room to invest in those stewarding inclusion in their fields and there is a substantial need to invest in individual leaders who have entrepreneurial tendencies for solutions building.

Invest in Implicit Needs for Underrepresented Leaders

Carmen Medina is the former Central Intelligence Agency Deputy Director of Intelligence. She is a 32-year veteran of the intelligence community and also the author of Rebels at Work: A Handbook for Leading Change from Within.

Image from Rebels at Work

I reached out to Medina for an interview on this subject as I knew her reputation as the driving force behind major organizational shifts and internal innovation within an institution known for a deeply entrenched resistance to change: the CIA.

Medina’s analysis of change and development balances leadership needs that are both macro and micro in nature, she explains the importance for an individual to understand the system they operate in and invest in making those systems better but also recognizes the need for the organization to invest in the growth of individual employees.

As a change agent and leader of color, Medina recalls, “I wish I had had mentors. I wish that there had been people before me who had been Latina and female who could have said, ‘Watch for this. Don’t watch for that. Don’t do this, do that.’ So, I think the lack of a mentor was a real problem. I wish I had really understood better how people saw me or heard me.” But, as Medina goes on to explain, she was not completely lacking for mentors, “I did have mentors but they were white males, great people. I don’t think that they ever felt that they could have had a conversation with me to say, ‘Tone that down’ because for them, of course, it’s a hazardous conversation to have. I was completely sympathetic to where they were coming from.”

In this context, there was not an explicit need for mentorship but rather an implicit need for support from another woman of color within the ranks. For funders seeking to support diverse ecosystems, adaptive leaders from underrepresented backgrounds often have unique experiences, workplace vulnerabilities and needs that tie back to inequitable structures within organizations. To solve for that, we must name and address that the systems these leaders operate in, that are already inherently unbalanced and drive resources for corrective adjustments.

Emily May, Executive Director of Hollaback an organization dedicated to ending harassment, spoke to me about the experience designing solutions with journalists of color targeted for online harassment. “Women and people of color across the board were more severely impacted because it was worse and it came loaded with an entire lifetime of harassment and discrimination that this sat on top of it of these attacks.” May’s organization, nationally known for its bystander intervention programs, created a program to support newsrooms and media companies in addressing online harassment of journalists from diverse and underrepresented backgrounds experience at alarming rates. In this case there is an explicit urgency to address this implicit need, as harassment campaigns targeting journalists from vulnerable and underrepresented communities are actively creating unsafe work conditions and driving talent from the field. May shared that in surveying journalists in Hollaback’s trainings, “most people reported that they had no idea how bad online harassment was going to be and that it made them consider leaving journalism.”

It is difficult to surface to higher and higher levels of leadership when your mere presence, as a person from an underrepresented background, creates a hypervisibility. Medina speaks to her experience navigating those dynamics as a senior-level official within the CIA:

“Often times when you’re a minority in an organization, you come across as a rebel or a dissident even if that is never your intent. That was a big learning for me that, by definition, people would see me as disruptive of the status quo just by my heritage. I didn’t even have to speak up. Then when you do speak up, you will actually have a greater chance of seeing things differently from the prevailing norms. However distant you are from the prevailing norms, that’s how greater your likelihood is of being disruptive in what you say.”

For adaptive leaders from underrepresented backgrounds, visibility is a double-edged sword: there is both a power and a vulnerability to being seen. It is incumbent upon newsrooms and funders supporting news organizations to name these structural barriers and invest in systems that mitigate its negative impact so that diverse talent at all levels of newsrooms can thrive.

Sabrina Hersi Issa is an award-winning human rights technologist and leads global research and analysis for philanthropy. She organizes Rights x Tech, a gathering for technologists and activists and runs Survivor Fund, a political fund dedicated to supporting the rights of survivors of sexual violence.

The Engaged Journalism Lab

Welcome to the Engaged Journalism Lab, a project of Democracy Fund. Here you'll find blog posts, case studies, event recaps, and more ― all centered around building trusted, inclusive, and audience-driven journalism.

Sabrina Hersi Issa

Written by

Journalism, human rights & technology. Venture investor | leading @beboldmedia | founder @survivorfund

The Engaged Journalism Lab

Welcome to the Engaged Journalism Lab, a project of Democracy Fund. Here you'll find blog posts, case studies, event recaps, and more ― all centered around building trusted, inclusive, and audience-driven journalism.

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