An Interview with Tenicka Boyd

This second interview in the series Black & Bold: Perspectives on Leadership features Tenicka Boyd, who shares insights from her leadership journey, books that have informed her social justice work, and words of inspiration for others. For more about this series, click here.

Tenicka Boyd

Very Black. Rock Mom. Advocate.

What are some of your career highlights?

I was a social justice nerd, but it was primarily through academics so my interest wasn’t necessarily actualized. I majored in communications and knew it was important to tell stories from marginalized communities. It wasn’t until I was a community organizer in Flint that I began to understand my career trajectory. That’s when I owned this idea of doing social justice and not just talking or thinking about it. (Tenicka Boyd pictured at right.)

Two highlights were working in the Obama Administration and being part of mainstream policymaking, and building the parent organizing effort in New York City.

If there was a headline for your leadership journey throughout your career, what would it be?

Growing bold. Transitioning from becoming an academic who was thinking about progressivism and never having to put those values in action continues to be a journey for me. I’m leaning into my precious values and finding opportunities that are aligned with them. This involves being in spaces not welcoming to confrontation or agitation — spaces that are made for the very stale, mediocre, pragmatic way of thinking about the world. There are people who grew up like I did as marginalized, under-resourced, and in dire conditions. Those are the people I want to lean into and lift up, since that is my primary identity. Being in spaces where it requires a high amount of being bold. There are people who will find that deeply discomforting.

What are your favorite types of challenges?

When there is an opportunity and tension around intentionality versus impact, and how we lean into our impact versus what we intend. It’s been easier to win helping people understand that intention is not enough and they must lean into impact and be tireless about it. There’s a challenge to be more inclusive around equity. Oftentimes when I’m in progressive spaces or people name themselves progressives, they think that precludes them from leaning into more inclusive and equitable work spaces. I welcome those tensions. We all have points of privilege and they are not all equal, but we need to identify them. Consistently pursuing more inclusion and more equity is always a point of tension. We must be consistent, show up to those conversations, and be vigilant. We live in a racist country and society and we have to be constantly recovering from that every day. It doesn’t stop.

What is one book that is or was meaningful or influential in your development as a leader?

Rules for Radicals by Saul Alinsky is a book I lean into often. That book frames my understanding of organizing and helps me understand this really technical and methodical approach to campaigns.

The Loudest Duck: Moving Beyond Diversity while Embracing Differences to Achieve Success at Work by Laura A. Liswood helps me manage across differences. The loudest duck in a workplace is the one who talks the most, the one who gets the most attention, the one who mimics the style of the leader. This book offers ways to work with people who are different from us personality-wise or in other ways.

Leadership 2.0 by Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves helps me lean into the ways in which I think about management.

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson changed my life. It helped me understand the most marginalized folks and how we as a society are complicit in so many ways in the oppression of others.

The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League by Jeff Hobbs is about a young man who grew up in poverty-stricken conditions in Newark. With his mom’s support, he attended an independent school, then went to Yale on a full scholarship. He came back to his community and was shot and killed. It highlights the precious moment that we have and the many conditions or levers that need to be pulled so that folks can be free. It’s not just about education.

Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More by Janet Mock. This book is so much like my own personal story and reminds me of my experiences growing up as a hyper-feminine Black girl child, and what it means to have agency around that. I grew up as a thoughtful child who found comfort in books and had this really strong intellectual identity, but I presented as frivolous, feminine, and soft. I had to learn that those two weren’t contradictory but complementary and a part of who I was. This book helped me see that. This book was really cathartic and helped me name so many parts of my identity.

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 during your career and how you reconciled that tension or not?

I worked to build a parent organizing base in New York City with predominantly Black and Brown parents who could benefit from progressive policies in the state of New York, but also the bipartisan effort on education reform. The biggest challenge to that is that conservatives who supported education reform continued to malign our parents in other ways, in other policies. It has always been a point of tension as I work in education spaces and continues to be a theory of challenge. In those situations, I lean toward being bold and I disrupt. I never let a word go unspoken. I try to push the agenda toward what I know is just, and when that doesn’t work I have to make both a personal and professional decision to move on.

Last summer, Democratic Representative Maxine Waters coined the phrase, “reclaiming my time,” as she thwarted Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s attempts to waste her time with nonsense. 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? What was the outcome?

There are so many workplaces that are full of toxic masculinity that is just pervasive and lives in both men and women. There is also an overwhelming entitlement of whiteness as the pervasive and dominant culture in work spaces. Growing bold has been a theme of mine and it gets exhausting but it’s necessary. Some people are deeply challenged by the notion that white supremacy is pervasive and don’t believe that to be true — and I’m not. I believe white supremacy to be deeply pervasive; it shows up consistently and needs to be checked. I am so routinely used to it. I reclaim my time each and every day — whether I’m at the airport and some white guy thinks I don’t have priority status or in a meeting where a white woman is trying to re-explain what I just said so clearly and vividly in a way that is digestible for her and her white peers.

What’s your approach to self-care? Are there any rituals you use to survive and thrive?

I love to travel — it’s my favorite hobby. I have a small, considerate family. My husband and daughter are some of the warmest, kindest people I know. I like to unplug and spend time with them. They bring me a tremendous amount of joy. I also try to work out and do yoga as much as I can. More than that, I’m into mindful meditation in the morning to reground myself.

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

Just do it. Do it often. Practice leaning in even when you don’t feel comfortable. When you feel that knot in your stomach and on the other side is truth, just do it anyway. If you’re at the table, you’re supposed to be there and you have to say something. You don’t have to be making friends — it’s not a social experience. Mentorship has also been critical for me. Culturally competent, extraordinary, bold Black women full of integrity. Black women who are both mothers and wives. Black women who are financially stable, who have written books, who sit on boards, are part-time lecturers or professors, leading massive organizations — all women whose leadership is deeply important to me. I have sought out their leadership and have asked them to support me and they have been incredible mentors. Finding that is the journey of a lifetime.

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