Reflections on Our First Five Years and News of What’s Ahead

Jennifer Werdell

Author: Jennifer Werdell, Former Executive Director, JustLead Washington

As JustLead passes its 5th Anniversary, I am reflecting on what an intense five years it has been – for the world, for the communities we strive to support, and for our organization. In early 2017, while we all collectively despaired over an election that endorsed vitriol and bigotry, the courageous efforts of communities and equity & justice partners to actively resist toxic, racialized policies like the Muslim ban inspired and uplifted us. During this time, ada shen-jaffe and I – along with a handful of devoted Leadership Academy alumni – were conspiring to steward the vision and promise of the Leadership Academy. That vision and promise have been – and remains – providing the support necessary to grow an aligned network of leaders committed to transforming structures and systems in furtherance of equity, justice, and belonging. 

In partnership with a dedicated group of alumni, board members, committed investors, and eventually amazing staff, over the course of three years we were able to stand up JustLead not only to host ongoing, yearly Leadership Academy cohorts, but also to house coordination of the WA Race Equity & Justice Initiative, generate nationally shared resources such as the REJI Organizational Race Equity Toolkit, and support dozens of partner organizations in their efforts to more fully center equity and anti-racism. 

Since our start-up period, we have recognized that JustLead cannot be dependent on its founders or any one person. As JustLead thought about the future, we started dreaming of a structure that would better reflect our values around collaboration between legal and community-led partners, adaptive leadership, and centering those most harmed by racism – especially anti-Blackness and anti-Indigeneity – and other forms of oppression. Our team grew, and we started experimenting with new staffing and consulting structures. But, in 2020, the world shifted on its axis. COVID-19 shattered personal and professional lives and laid bare tragic disparities based on race and poverty. At the same time, demand for JustLead support intensified in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many others. Our dreaming and scheming about structures and transitions fell to the backburner. 

Fortunately, thanks to the foresight of our funders and partners, our community already had the infrastructure and a network in place. As a result, JustLead continues to be able to support our partners’ capacity to respond to crises while also confronting the ways the legal system has itself been complicit in perpetuating harm. We have also been increasingly imagining and working toward fostering transformational, anti-racist change. Next month, we will have completed our 8th Leadership Academy cohort, bringing over 220 Fellows into JustLead’s alumni network. And, JustLead’s incredibly talented program team continues to provide anti-racism and leadership-focused facilitation, training, coaching and consulting support to hundreds of additional advocates each year. 

Though we are all continuing to navigate the intertwined crises of COVID, virulent racism, deepening wealth inequities, and increasing mental health impacts, JustLead entered 2022 with a renewed commitment to create and hold space for ongoing learning, beautiful disruption, relationship building, and joy. While our work is far from over, there are significant changes happening at JustLead that we want to share with you. First, I have stepped down from my official role as Executive Director at the end of this month, though I will continue to work with JustLead on a part-time basis. JustLead’s board and staff are partnering together to address leadership needs over the next 6-9 months and to vision and confirm what the leadership structure of the future will be. 

While this change is something I have needed for some time to better support my family, the shift also aligns beautifully with JustLead’s readiness to reflect, renew, stay true to its values, and take its work to the next level. I could not be prouder of what we’ve built so far or be more excited about JustLead’s future. While there are some details we don’t know just yet, we do know that change is a constant in social justice work, and we’re ready to embrace change and risk to imagine and aim ourselves toward a more equitable future. Here’s what we else know

  • The typical Executive Director model for small nonprofits is not sustainable. It leads to overwork, burnout, and the perpetuation of power-over instead of power-with hierarchical relationships. I am proud of our board and staff for taking a leap of faith to become part of a growing movement to explore values-centered, alternative models to better share and distribute power and decision-making. 
  • We must model for ourselves the changes and future we hope to see for the world. For an organization that champions adaptive leadership and valuing the wisdom and experience of those most harmed by racism and oppression, this transition will create more space and opportunity for necessary and often overlooked perspectives to be centered in our work and structure.  
  • ada and I are thrilled to make time for our “highest and best uses” in service to our community and the movement. I will continue to create programs and content for as long as it is of value to the team, and ada will operate in a reduced consulting role to support the JustLead team and clients in crisis.
  • JustLead’s talented team will continue to offer high-quality, needed programs and services. Tentative 2022 plans include:

·       A next Leadership Academy cohort (Cohort 9!)

·       A restart of REJI activities, which likely will include rebooted caucusing opportunities and holding more space for relationship-building, rest, and joy (REJI Partners can share feedback on what feels needed most in this moment by responding to the survey that was recently shared)

·       Updated versions of the REJI Organizational Race Equity Toolkit and Training Guide for Pro Bono Volunteers along with more blog posts

·       Collaboration on an 8-week, cohort-based series for white Executive Directors of legal service organizations (hosted by Just Roots Consulting)

·       Continued facilitation, consulting, and coaching support for organizations and advocates committed to equity, justice, and liberation

We wish we could be in person to celebrate what we have collectively built together and accomplished in these past five years. In the meantime, please know how much I have treasured working in support of the equity & justice community with JustLead and how grateful we are for all that you do. Please check back for updates as we continue to share our learning journey with you!

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