This interview is the fourteenth in our series, Black & Bold: Perspectives on Leadership. For more about this series, click here.
Michell Speight, Chief of Staff, Race Forward
Imaginative. Rebellious. Genuine.
What are some of your career highlights?
I’m proud of the positions I’ve held and causes I’ve dedicated my career to championing. Working at Planned Parenthood after completing by MBA in Health Administration was a huge milestone for me. I particularly appreciated that my fellow staff were predominantly feminist women and women of color.
I moved on to work as a program director at Associated Black Charities. Associated Black Charities was similar to the United Way, but Associated Black Charities raised funds and dispersed to them to Black-led nonprofits in New York City. At that time, as I recall, we were focused on raising funds for organizations working with people of color impacted by HIV/AIDS. This was my first experience with private foundations and raising money. Prior to that, I had worked with community-based women’s rights organizations that mostly received government funding. I hadn’t considered the possibility of raising money from foundations. As people of color, as organizations led by people of color, I don’t think we have the connections or knowledge base of how to raise money. Foundations often overlook organizations run by people of color. It was a new idea to raise money from foundations.
Eventually I decided that I wanted to work at a foundation and ended up at Dyson Foundation, a family foundation north of New York City. I was there for 15 years making grants in the Mid-Hudson Valley and to some national organizations.
If there was a headline for your leadership journey throughout your career, what would it be?
“Very little planning.” I would say that. When I went to school there was no such thing as the “nonprofit sector.” There wasn’t a degree…not a thing folks understood. I majored in Sociology and minored in Business with a concentration in Social Welfare. There wasn’t a degree in Nonprofit Management. I knew that I wanted to do something in the social sector but didn’t really have a plan. I didn’t really have a lot of career advice. My mom told me Black women become teachers or nurses and I didn’t want to become either one. I had no particular plan for how to use my degree. My first real job after college was as a case worker in a foster care agency at 22.
I didn’t have a career plan. I had been interested in reproductive health and that’s why I went back to school. I didn’t want to be the provider of medical care but wanted to work towards ensuring access to healthcare. My leadership journey has evolved and emerged over time. To say that I knew what I was going to do in college is not true.
Even when I think about leadership and my role at Race Forward, I don’t think of leadership as a person, but a process. This whole idea of complexity leadership…members of an organization produce results for the organization; it’s not necessarily about me as a leader. It’s really about the interaction of all members in the organization. Even in roles where I didn’t have a leadership title, I was responsible for participating in the leadership process. I made decisions. I always took the opportunity to make decisions whether it was my role to run the department or not.
What are your favorite types of challenges?
I guess seeing a problem or situation in the world and working on figuring out how an organization I am part of can address that particular challenge. At Race Forward, I think about structural racism — a big challenge in this world — and coming up with solutions to address external challenges. My favorite challenges are those that are external to an organization and related to vision and mission.
Another favorite, which is not necessarily a challenge, is mentoring or helping younger members of staff develop professionally within the organization and in life. I like helping them to see their life beyond their current position. I didn’t really have mentors, so being a mentor to younger staff — especially women of color — is important for me to do.
What is one book that was meaningful or influential in your development as a leader?
bell hooks’ Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom is a book about pedagogy for educators, but what I take and apply to my life as a worker in nonprofits is that she talks about teachers bringing their whole selves into the classroom. I think that I, Michell, need to bring my whole self to work. I don’t believe you can separate your body from your work. You need to be a whole person to bring the best to every situation that you’re in.
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?
When I was working at the Foundation, there were some grantmaking decisions I didn’t support, and those were made by the president of the board. For example, we funded a university that already had a huge endowment. There was very little in terms of due process or due diligence for these huge grants that went to universities. On the other hand, nonprofits would get tiny grants with lots of due process and compliance. It was not the best use of funds. Community-based organizations were meeting the survival needs of people in the community. I thought they would be better served to receive funding versus professorships or department heads at hospitals. In that role, the only thing I did was speak up. It didn’t change where the money was going, but I tried to push forward grants that were important to make and needed in communities. The Foundation also had some racial politics, but sometimes what came up at board meetings had to do with the board’s ignorance about race and people of color. Those kinds of situations were difficult, and I was the only person of color in the organization. I often spoke up, though it was difficult to do.
When my values become out of sync with an organization and we are not on the same page, I must decide whether I can remain with that organization. Like bell hooks writes, I need to bring my whole self as a Black woman to an organization and I can’t be out of sync with being a Black woman.
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?
When I first started at Race Forward, everyone could book empty time on my calendar. There were lots of appointments and meetings. I was shocked to see that my calendar would be filled from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. with no breaks at all. I started blocking out 12 p.m. to 2 p.m. every day during lunchtime and began to refuse appointments. I blocked off two hours knowing that someone would pick one of those hours but encouraged people not to hold lunch meetings. That’s one way that I have reclaimed my time. I’m also careful about what work I do that is outside of work hours. I don’t do weekend retreats. I answer my email but do not respond right away during the weekend. It’s also about reclaiming your headspace and trying not to focus on work 24 hours a day. I choose to pursue activities like acting classes or language classes that don’t have a direct relationship to my work.
There used to be a policy at Race Forward that staff would share rooms with other staff during business trips. I cannot do that. We need downtime. I can’t live like that in terms of not ever being off work. I reclaimed my time by saying no, I won’t do this; it’s the ability to say no.
What’s your approach to self-care? Are there any rituals you use to survive and thrive?
It has to do with home — not necessarily the physical space, but where my family is…a space where people love me regardless of what I do for a living. Half of the people don’t know what I do for a living and the other half probably don’t care. Having my family, friends, and people that see me as a whole person, and they love me regardless.
It’s also home in terms of physical space. Coming in, closing the door, and being Michell in my space. I also like being outdoors, taking walks, and spending time in parks.
What advice would you offer other Black women trying to develop or amplify their voice and become self-advocates?
Be brave. It sounds silly because how do you become brave? One thing I say to myself is that the worst thing an employer can do is fire you, and there are so many worse things that have happened in this world, so being fired is really not the worst.
Be supportive of other Black women and women of color.
Be your whole self. It’s too hard to pretend to be someone else for eight hours a day. Just being who you are reduces a lot of stress.
Be intellectually curious. Figure out what Einstein was talking about. Explore things of interest or things you don’t have interest in. Since I am intellectually curious, I know a lot about a lot of different things which allows me to be a resource for myself and learn how to maneuver to get what I want. You can also become a resource for others by learning about stuff that doesn’t have to do with regular work.
I advise career coaching that focuses both on looking where one is currently in terms of their career and where one wants to be. What do you see yourself doing? For Black women the pursuit of happiness is a radical act; we often act out of tradition, obligation, and responsibility. We think of this pursuit as being selfish, but Black women should have that on their agenda. It’s radical because Black women are not encouraged to seek happiness. Advocacy grows out of that. In situations where you are unhappy, you will change your situation or advocate for yourself.