Ken Goldstein, MPPA

Ken Goldstein has been working in nonprofits and local government agencies from Santa Cruz, to Sacramento, and back to Silicon Valley, since 1989. He's been staff, volunteer, board member, executive director, and, since 2003, a consultant to local nonprofit organizations. For more on Ken's background, click here. If you are interested in retaining Ken's services, you may contact him at ken at

Thursday, June 04, 2020

When Not To Lead

To be a successful blogger we are told, "Be authoritative! Demonstrate your expertise!" etc. But the truth is, all any of us can ever do is to write from our limited experience, share the lessons we have learned, and hope it helps somebody in their own journey. In the end, we are all in a constant process of learning. Even the so-called experts and teachers - if they're good at what they do - are still learning.

This is generally a blog about nonprofit leadership (including fundraising and administration) written by a middle-aged (58), well educated (Master's degree), white (by most standards, but not to a few), cis male (although that never stopped any bullying by those who presumed I wasn't cis).

In relation to today's headlines, and the continued protests, counter-protests, and eruptions of violence in the wake of the murder of George Floyd by four Minneapolis police officers, this is not the time for my leadership, or for my voice to be the loudest one in the room. It is time for me and (in my opinion) people like me, to be an ally.

But, in my three decades of nonprofit service, what I've learned about being a leader and what I've learned about being an ally both rely on the same skill. That skill is knowing when to close my mouth and just listen.

Yes, I get the irony. I'm taking the time to talk about why I should shut up. You're under no obligation to read further.

Lao Tzu said that, "A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves."

My experience in life has been one of probably 98% privilege. I've had a few incidents with anti-Semites (a lost job, a bloody nose or two), but these are rare. In school days, long ago, my preference for longer hair and lack of skill or interest in sports led to a certain amount of anti-gay bullying (despite my not being gay).

But overall, my life has been one of middle-class, white privilege. I've driven away from traffic stops with only a warning and never thought "this is how I die" when I was pulled over. When shop owners have kept an extra close eye on me I've had the luxury of thinking "what a paranoid ass" instead of "what a racist."

So listening has done me well when serving organizations working with folks who don't share my experience. Listening first, and speaking later, has helped me in building mutual trust and understanding. Listening first, and speaking later, has helped me to recognize leaders, and nurture their skills, where others may have only seen need.

Listening first, and speaking later, has taught me that the most important question I can ask as a leader is, "How may I support you?"

Which brings us to this week. And to be a good ally, the most important thing I can do - the only thing I can do - is to ask the same thing, "How may I support you?"

I've taken answers from many sources, one of them being the Movement for Black Lives, and their Week of Action. Each day has a demand, and a list of suggested actions you can take in support of it. The actions are divided into "Safe," "Medium," and "High Risk."

Today (Thursday) the demand is Community Control. Communities need to control the laws, institutions, and policies that are meant to serve them, but all too often fail (and fail by design). That includes local schools, public budgets (budgets are political documents), and the police. One of my chosen "safe" actions is to write a blog about this (other actions I've chosen are not so safe).

For several years there was progress in many cities regarding community policing. Getting cops to actually live in the areas where they worked. Training them to be present in support of community, not just to show up and pull people out of the community. Policing as a preventive activity, not a strictly punitive one. This was good, but rarely truly brought policing to the full demand of Community Control.

Partly, because the counter-force to that effort has been stronger. There is a nationwide trend toward militarization of the police. Federal programs have sold surplus military equipment to local departments, turning police into an invading force, far beyond what is needed to "protect and to serve."

According to the ACLU, "Sending a heavily armed team of officers to perform 'normal' police work can dangerously escalate situations that need never have involved violence." And police have received training in the use of that equipment that goes contrary to the training they'd previously had in community policing.

Sadly, one of the factors making things worse are the police unions. Bob Kroll, head of Minneapolis's police union criticizes the community policing approach like this, "Certainly cops, it's not in their nature. So you're training them to back away. And it's just not a natural."

You know what else isn't "natural"? It's not natural for a 200lb man to kneel on another man's neck for over eight minutes and expect him to live, or for his three colleagues to stand by and watch.

So, back to theme of this blog. What can we, as nonprofit leaders, do today? We can truly listen to those who we claim to serve. We can elevate their voices where and when we can. We can add our voices as needed (and never loud enough to cover theirs). We can admit our privilege (be it white, Christian, CIS, male, or whatever the source or sources).

But whatever else, what we can do, what we should do, what we must do, is to take action.

"We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented... Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must - at that moment - become the center of the universe." - Elie Wiesel

"Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act." - Dietrich Bonhoeffer

"The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." - Edmund Burke

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