An Interview With Akilah Massey, Vice President of Programs, GEO

Akilah Massey, Vice President of Programs, GEO

Authentic. Joyful. Learning.
Twitter: @akilahmassey @GEOFunders

Tell me about your current role?

I’m vice president at Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO), which means that I, along with the rest of our team, am thinking about GEO’s program portfolio and how it can help us be in community with the sector, the field, our members and community. We want to see grantmakers adopt the grantmaking practices that we know let nonprofits do their work better – capacity building, learning and evaluation, strong relationships between grantmakers and nonprofits, collaboration and flexible, reliable funding. This means that we’re uplifting not only those practices but the underlying issues that affect how they’re adopted including organizational culture, change management and equity. To get this work done, we’re developing and delivering GEO content but we’re also convening and creating space for grantmakers and nonprofits to connect and reflect on the change that needs to happen together.

If there was a soundtrack of greatest hits related to your career, what would make the list?

Is “She Works Hard for the Money” too on the nose? (Laughter.)

Work in the social sector can be very personal and linked to one’s values.  Can you think of a time when your values were in tension and how you reconciled that tension or not?

I can think of so many examples of this because being a person of color, especially a black woman, in most workplaces is hard and most of the working environments that I’ve been in have operated with principles of white dominant workplace culture. My values have been in tension with each other most often when I realized that I was upholding values that I didn’t necessarily believe in. I was prioritizing relationship-building and working hard but didn’t realize the parts of myself that I was implicitly being asked to leave behind. I just thought they were how you survived in the workplace and what you had to do to be successful. As I get older, I’m unlearning those ways of operating and realizing that I don’t want to “code switch” or, for example, be one way in a professional setting and another way with my friends.  My goal now is to be the same person in all settings and by doing that create space for others to do the same, no matter who they are and how their self is different from mine. It honestly feels like the work of a lifetime.

Can you share an experience in the workplace where you have had to reclaim your time?  What was the context? How did you navigate it?

More than reclaiming my time, I’ve had to reclaim my space, which feels related, right? Earlier in my career, I would often take myself out of the running or question whether it was okay for me to take up space that could go to others. I know now that imposter syndrome is rampant among young professionals of color, but I didn’t know that then. I really related to that quote from Michelle Obama about how she’s been in these rooms with so many important people and that “they’re not that smart.” I don’t see her as trying to tear down those people, but I take it as realizing that I am just as smart as anyone else and that it’s up to me to step into the space that was mine to take. And that I had to see it as mine first.

What’s your approach to self-care?

I have been thinking about this a lot lately because I’ve been in a space where we’re moving at hyper speed for long periods. Because of that, I’ve spent timing reflecting on burnout and what the signs of it are and most importantly, how to combat it. For me that has required me to first find ways to devote myself to rest. For example, I love-love the work of the Nap Ministry, which is a project that is all about unlearning the capitalist-industrialist notions that our worth is tied into how hard we work and how busy we are. I’ve also been having discussions with my colleagues about self-care and how we’re taking care of ourselves, mostly because it was something that I knew I needed more of too. Since then, we’ve had group discussions, developed self-care plans and started a Slack channel. It’s been helpful to have that support and to know that there are others trying to get better at this practice. When things are working well, I have consistent routines of self-care. To be my highest self, I do a bit of meditation and at the end of the day some kind of journaling to get out whatever happened during the day. I have a consistent practice with those two activities to make it easier for me. Also, I work with a therapist and our work has been to understand self-talk and how it relates to the stories I’m telling myself and to change them, as needed.

We come from a resilient and strong lineage. How would you describe the type of ancestor you want to be and why?

This is an interesting question. I had a Reiki session earlier this year and the practitioner told me that my ancestors are very present with me. And honestly, I feel it. I come from a family where my ancestors, people who passed before I was born, we talk about them. I know their stories. I know how my story is shaped by their story. I don’t know that I think about what kind of ancestor I want to be as an individual, but I am always thinking about what the collective is and how our stories come together as a tapestry. I get strength from my own ancestry – stories of Black women who knew what they wanted and able to see if for themselves and their families. My grandmother would always tell me, “You need to know yourself and what you want.” It helps to be clear on that so that we can truly manifest our desires. It’s cliché but if we don’t speak them, there’s a 100% chance they won’t happen.

What advice would you offer other Black women trying to develop or amplify their voice and become better self-advocates?

We tend to be fierce advocates for others and need to be willing to do that for ourselves. We need to see ourselves as we see those people. My day is not complete if I have not told another Black woman how fly she is or how cute her outfit is, how much she has to offer, how she is blazing a trail in this organization. It’s easier to put ourselves behind everyone else. That’s one way to build ourselves as advocates.
There is a gender element – as Black women we are socialized to tend to and care for Black men and that’s not bad, but we need to do more of that for ourselves. Sometimes we can be too focused on others when need to focus on number one – ourselves.

If you could change the social sector in a way that would benefit, lift up, or affirm Black women, what would that change be?

My first thought is more Black women in leadership. That doesn’t automatically fix the problem, but I see how Black women I know lead; we show up as leaders, caretakers, healers…we’re amazing. Sometimes the experience of being marginalized, shut down or shut out can bring a different perspective and help us see other people who are being overlooked. I think this is true of many different types of people too and extends to all those other groups of people that society tries to put in boxes that don’t fit us because they weren’t made for us. We can be such exceptionally talented leaders in the social sector especially when we have the chance to create the spaces where we get what we need. So, so often, it will help us create welcoming, inclusive spaces that are going to be what others need too.