An Interview with Karon Moody Harden, Council on Foundations


In this Black and Bold interview, Karon Moody Harden and Makiyah Moody discuss the importance of saying no, the significance of developing a relationship with a mentor, and the journey of self advocacy.


Makiyah Moody: Thank you for tuning in for this installation of Black & Bold: Perspectives on Leadership. I am so excited to have this conversation with Karon Moody Harden. How are you?

Karon Moody Harden: I am wonderful. Thanks for having me.

MM: You bet. I am so excited. So, we’re just gonna jump right in. As you know, we are in a global pandemic. 2020 has been a very what I like to call a “full year.” And there’s so much going on with the protests from coast to coast, thinking about the looming recession, high numbers of unemployment.

I’m curious about what your moment of reckoning has been during this unstable time.

KMH: Yeah, thanks for asking. 2020 is showing me a lot. I’m learning a lot. I’m seeing a lot. I think more than anything there is incredible power in facing and embracing truth. And so, for me, 2020 has really forced me to acknowledge so much that I didn’t realize I had suppressed. And so, honestly, watching the brutal murder of George Floyd crushed my soul. I saw my own Black son. It hurts that he will have to learn that he can be perceived as a threat and his life dehumanized and disposable. And so, he doesn’t know that now because he’s young, but what do I say to him when he’s old enough to understand the burden of being a Black man? 2020 has really forced me to just think about how I want to be the change and how I can use my life and my experiences for that change. So for me, just as that officer callously murdered Mr. Floyd, we can’t let up off the metaphorical neck of injustice. And so, I see this as an opportunity for us to keep applying pressure, for me to keep applying pressure and to really do my own part in pursuit of that change.

MM: That’s powerful to think about the agency and response. And I just have a very visual sight in my mind as far as continuing to apply pressure to the systems that are not serving us. Thank you for that. So, I’m curious about your current role as vice president of programs and peer engagement at the Council on Foundations. How are you keeping the pressure on in that role? And what kind of work do you do as the vice president at the Council on Foundations?

KMH: In my role as vice president of programs and peer engagement, I am essentially responsible for overseeing the strategic development and implementation of all our training and capacity building programs. That includes our portfolio, which includes professional development, events, conferences, peer learning, leadership development, as well as looking at how equity and inclusion obviously is thread and integrated throughout everything that we do externally and the work that we’re producing. And this has been a very difficult season because I’ve been in this organization now for going on six years and this and we’ve got new leadership that we’ve had now for just over a year, but you know, honestly, the work has continued to be so important and it continues to drive me. I’m motivated by the work that we do. But it’s also really challenging because I am the only person of color on the senior leadership team at the Council on Foundations. And I have been in my role as the most senior Black woman for many years now. And so, there is also an enormous amount of pressure that comes from that and exhaustion that comes from that if I’m completely candid. And so for me, it’s been really making sure that I am not the representative for all things Black and all Black people. I have my lived experience that is not every Black lived experience and so helping those around me, in particular my organization, understand that and that has been something that I’ve been able to help them see.

MM: I completely track with what you’ve just stated. We are not a monolithic tribe of individuals.

You mentioned that it can be exhausting and I’m wondering about an example, perhaps either in this current role or in a previous role, where you’ve had to reclaim your time in the spirit of lovely Maxine Waters and what the context was and how you navigated the situation.

KMH: Yeah. Yeah. Many times, I think I’ve had to do that. As I think about the Auntie Maxine, who I adore – she’s one of my heroes – time is life’s greatest commodity, honestly. Once you lose it, you can’t get it back. You know, through my career, I’ve had to learn the power of saying no and choosing myself. And so for me, reclaiming my time has often been saying no. And I’ve been in a position where my work has been expanded. I’ve been asked to take on new projects, new tasks – so many of us can relate to that -sometimes even doing someone else’s job with no additional compensation and pay. But because I’m a hard worker who can be trusted to get it done and I always go back to something my grandmother always shared, which was fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me. And so that to me is that reconciliation of, you know, I have to be able to say no, I have to be able to advocate for myself at some point, enough is enough. I’m going to always choose myself. And sadly, we are often conditioned to do more with less and so we fall into the trap of being OK with doing more because that scarcity mindset is so real to so many Black women, particularly in the workforce. I’ve had to have those courageous conversations. I’ve had to say, hey, you know, I appreciate the opportunity and the challenge and the stretch, but you gon’ have to pay me for this. You know, that’s really what it boils down to. Don’t take me for granted. And so often as Black women, particularly in leadership, we are taken for granted and I have seen that so much over my career. So for me, I always lean into a person will only do to you what you allow them to do to you.

MM: Say it again!

KMH: OK! So when in doubt, I’m going to always choose myself and sometimes that’s saying no. Sometimes that is speaking up. Sometimes that is managing up in a way that it is scary. But being bold and being courageous and doing so is what matters for me. I’ve got to be able to go home and look my little Black kids in the face and be OK with who I am and be able to sleep good at night. And so because of that, I’ve got to stay true to what I know is right for me.

MM: I really appreciate that. It makes me think I recently finished reading Untamed by Glennon Doyle, and there’s a section in there where one of her constant refrains is that she will never abandon herself again. And it’s stuck with me because I think the boundary setting and being clear about, you know, how I will be engaged with, how I will be treated, how folks will be able to tap in to me, it’s just really critical to have those types of boundaries where you actually protect your space, your soul, all of those things. So it makes me wonder, actually, about your approach to self-care. So as you are slaying every day and getting things done, what is your approach to self-care? What kind of practices do you use to survive and thrive in this world?

KMH: Oh, that’s such a good one. My approach to self-care varies. Self-care for me takes on many different forms. Self-care is talking to my mentors. Self-care is setting boundaries. Self-care is taking mental breaks. And more importantly, though, self-care for me is therapy. I spent many years investing in everyone but myself and I suffered because of that, both emotionally and physically. I love the term rest as revolutionary and so as I’ve grown in my career and especially in leadership, I recognize the immense value of therapy and coaching. I jokingly say every Black woman executive needs a therapist, but it’s for real. The shucking and jiving, a.k.a. code switching that Black women have to do in white dominant workspaces is exhausting. And if you don’t consciously protect your space, it will take a toll and I have seen that and I have felt that. And so for me, protecting my mental health is THE most paramount thing that I can do. I can’t be any good to the people that I come home to if I am not protecting myself and protecting my peace and preserving that space. So I made the decision going back to something we just shared to no longer deny my authentic self. I will no longer deny my authentic self. And so that means I’m coming to work, I’ve got my locks and sometimes they look nice and fresh and sometimes they look like they do because we’re in quarantine. And I have no roots in the South. I was raised in North Carolina. I have a Southern drawl. I am no longer going to deny who I am authentically. And when I made that decision, that is when the things changed for me. A lot of that really came through speaking with my mentors, spending time with therapy and really unpacking why I was showing up the way I was and realizing that I am no good if I can’t just be true and authentic to who I am. So for me, you know, therapy has been probably the most important thing that I’ve done in terms of self-care.

But I love, you know, to disconnect and when outside opens up, maybe we’ll be able to travel again as that is one way that I’ve been able to invest in myself, too. But I would encourage any woman, particularly Black women, to not underestimate. I think it’s easy to say, oh, I run, I jog, I go to the gym, we take care of our physical bodies, but I am a strong advocate for mental health and protecting your space.

MM: The word running through my mind based on what you’ve just shared is liberation…that you’ve gotten free. I’m thinking about Lauryn Hill’s song, “I Get Out,”…I get out of all your boxes. I get out. I’m having these visions of you just living your best life and joy as resistance and rest as resistance. And it’s beautiful.

KMH: Yeah, it took a long time to get there. I mean, I can’t say that this was something that came easily. It really came from watching myself lose myself and I was no longer willing to be able to do that. And you see, you know, people around you thriving, surviving, excelling and it’s motivating, it’s encouraging but what’s going on on the inside? You know, the things that you can’t put a finger on, the things that you can’t see. And I recognize that things on the surface looks great. But I was so broken and I was so not whole and not being authentic, and so for me, making those deposits to my own mental health and taking care of my whole self and well-being, that helped me to be able to show up more authentically.

MM: I think that will be such a gift to the women that watch this conversation, because I think it’s clear and evident for so many of us that we need antidotes to the weathering that we experience day in and day out. Just, you know, navigating through life. So we have a rich history. We come from a resilient and strong lineage. How would you describe the type of ancestor that you want to be?

KMH: That’s so interesting. So many things honestly come to mind. I would try to describe the ancestor that I want to be as one that’s strong, one that’s wise, but probably more importantly, courageous. When I started 2020, my mantra this year was to “be bold.” That was sort of my words for this year. And so that just further underscores who I want to be bold, strong, courageous, wise. You know, I’m a woman of faith, so I’m immediately drawn to Joshua and the scripture, which just reminds me to be strong and courageous and do not be afraid or discouraged for the Lord, our God is with you wherever you go. And so I think that continues to center me and to ground me that no matter what I encounter, the life that I live, I want to continue to show up strong and bold and courageous. And that means advocating, being there, loving, living a full life with no regrets and being unapologetic about it, being bold and being unapologetic about it. And for me and for so many Black women, I think we shy away from being bold. We temper down and water down who we are in a physical sense, but also just in an emotional sense.

And I don’t want to do that. I have done that for far too long and I refuse to do that anymore. And so for me, if I can be remembered as one who showed up fully and was bold and said the things that others were thinking and encouraged others to do, then I’m satisfied with that.

MM: That was the whole message.

KMH: Amen, sister.

MM: So as I think about some of the insights that you’ve just offered, I’m curious what advice you would extend to women who are looking to amplify their voices become better self advocates…take up more space, essentially?

KMH: For me, it really starts with learning how to say no. I’ve said this before, learning when to say no. From my own journey in self advocacy, it started with a misdiagnosis that I got years ago and that experience taught me to always trust myself, always trust myself. And so I think for me, I started to surround myself with people who would listen to me, the people who would have my back, and the same is true I would say for a workplace, you know, take confidence in who you are and what you want and what you need.

Don’t be afraid to ask for what you need. There was a time when I probably was afraid to ask for what I needed. But over the course of just my own journey and finding my voice, I’m far more comfortable now asking for what I need.

Find a mentor. Black women, more often than not, do not get the advantage of having someone invest in them, to coach them, to advise them, to counsel them on how to advance and how to excel and how to use their voice. And so for me, it has also been finding much tribe. So I find my tribe. I love them hard. You know, my tribe has helped me to find my voice. It has helped me to amplify my voice, to hold me accountable. And so I use that circle and I use the people around me to really be able to help me on that journey. I don’t think you ever get there; I think it’s an evolution. And so I’m continuing to find my voice every day. I’m continuing to, again, step out and be bold and courageous every day, even when it’s uncomfortable, even when it is painful. We have to do that. And so for any young woman or Black woman, I would urge them to find the people that they can have in their circle, that they can talk to, that they can learn from. Mentoring is paramount, in my opinion, and that takes so much of the pressure and the burden that comes from you feeling like you’re doing this all alone and I’m in this by myself and I don’t have the allies and I don’t have the support. And so it may start very small, even if you have one person or it may be that you’ve identified five people. But I would begin to surround myself with people that could sow into my life, that invest in me, and then you reciprocate and do that same thing for other women.

MM: So that’s great advice for Black women. If we were to, I guess, extend our gaze to the social sector as a whole – nonprofits and foundations – what advice would you offer to nonprofits and foundations for actions they can take that would benefit or affirm Black women?

KMH: Ugh. We need more of us. Period. Period. I cannot continue to step into a room, whether it’s figuratively or literally, and be the only one. We can’t continue to see that and so I have seen the Race to Lead report. Women of color encounter systemic obstacles to their advancement over and over, above the barriers faced by white women and men of color. And so we need change. We need systems change, organizational change, and frankly, support for the women, in particular, Black women and women of color in your organizations. I say that we have to challenge every notion that Black women aren’t ready. That Black women aren’t qualified. That Black women are not positioned and really boldly pursue and continue to position ourselves for what we know we can be doing, we should be doing. Look, I run a program at the Council called Career Pathways. It’s a leader development program that was began about 11 years ago, and it went on hiatus for a while. But it’s a yearlong leadership development program that is aimed at increasing the numbers of executives and CEOs across the sector as it relates to underrepresented groups and communities and I look back at the data that really was the genesis of that program. In 2009, the Council looked across the sector and they interviewed 550 CEOs and 90 percent of the CEOs that they interviewed were white men and 75 percent of them came from outside of the sector. It is 2020, and that data has not changed hardly. And so that work that I do for that specific program is still relevant and is the reason why I’m so committed to identifying and positioning women, people of color, for executive appointments and philanthropy.

We need to be reflective of the communities that we’re serving. I am always elated and thrilled when I see opportunities for us, for Black and Brown folks that are moving and excelling. I don’t want that to be an anomaly. I think we should see more of that. It should be normalized. It should not be a celebration to be the first person of color to lead X Foundation. The fact that we’re still seeing that…seeing the first woman to lead X in 2020…continues to discourage and it is just disappointing. And so for the social sector and nonprofits, we’ve got to do better. We can’t accept what we’ve always done. We can’t be OK with who we’ve always been. We have to look within. I think a lot of this work is forcing ourselves to look within the systems and processes, the structure that we’ve been OK and frankly have led for so many years, but who did that benefit?

And I would argue that we owe it to ourselves, we owe it to future generations, and we owe it to the sector to not be OK with where we are and to look for opportunities. And don’t wait on somebody else to do it. Be courageous and step out there. But I see myself in in an opportunity to really be a catalyst to create more of those opportunities through Career Pathways and through so many other opportunities.

There are many groups that are doing this work far greater and I’ve seen tremendous impact. But we have got to be open to having dialogue, to bringing other folks to the table, being okay with giving up our seat at the table to invite other voices to the space.

MM: People of color are the global majority. I think that our organizations and leadership tables should reflect that.

KMH: Absolutely. Absolutely. We absolutely should and I think it really comes to, you know, this is forcing many folks to do some soul work, to do some work that doesn’t feel good, that is painful, that is not easy to do. It is hard work and so I think it is also reasonable to understand the apprehension, but the time is now. You know, I think that we have seen this, as we shared earlier, the reckoning and where we are that we can no longer be okay with where we are. And there are far too many people, as you know, the global majority in this world are people of color and we have to we have to continue to be in pursuit of that change regardless and not give up on it. And it is not easy, I recognize particularly for established, traditional entities, but your audio has to match your video. You know, I always go back to one of the things my mentor says to me, “Karon, your audio has to match your video.” I say that to folks at the Council all the time. You know, you have to be and show up in this world who you say you are, and if you say you’re advancing the greater good, then the greater good for who?

MM: Aww, shoot! Karon!

KMH: Now, listen. I’m trying not to preach today.

MM: You already did, you already did it.

KMH: But, yeah, you know, we got to turn the mirror on ourselves, be OK with asking ourselves the difficult questions, answering them, hearing from other folks that can help us answer them and be OK with what we hear. I think that there is quite a break down because we are OK with saying we want to hear. But, honey, when it comes to bringing those voices to the table and you have to actually shut your mouth and listen to what other folks have to say, that is very difficult and painful because then you have to do something with what you hear. You know, you can’t just hear it and put it on a shelf. You know, we have to act on and be committed to the change that we say we are committed to. I could get all into, you know, the nuances of how we as Black folk have done so much in building and establishing the very roots of why philanthropy even exists and that’s no secret. But I feel like more than anything philanthropy has to acknowledge…it’s an acknowledgement; it’s a reckoning. It is probably far more difficult to reconcile, but we owe that to the work and the people that we’re supporting and the communities that we’re serving to do that hard work.

MM: Agree. Agree and affirm. Wow. I feel so full after this short conversation with you. I thank you immensely for making the time to share and to plant these little seeds in me to consider as I think about how I want to take up space in the world and how there are ancestors that have paved a way for us to move with intention into the future, to create the type of society that works for all of us as you alluded to.

KMH: Yes. Thank you so much. I am so appreciative of this opportunity. I’m grateful. You know, as I shared earlier, I can only do my part. You can only do your part and part of that just starts with telling the truth. And that’s where, you know, my approach to having this conversation with you is let’s just start with the truth and imagine just the breakthrough that we can all have collectively if we just start with owning our truth and embracing it. Think about how powerful that could be.

MM: It would be revolutionary.

KMH: Revolutionary. That’s exactly right.

MM: Well, it was so wonderful to chat with you. Thank you for your time and I pray that the rest of quarantine treats you and your family well.

KMH: Thank you. Thank you. I appreciate you so much.

MM: Great. Take care. Bye.

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