Embracing Radical Leadership

By Elizabeth Mpyisi

“What’s going on?” - Marvin Gaye, singer, songwriter

Elizabeth Mpyisi

Elizabeth Mypisi and Calvin Niles completed a series of Courageous Conversations on the theme of Radical Leadership amongst people of colour and allies working on social and racial justice in England. This involved conversations with 24 individuals between March-May 2021. They explored the challenges, needs, opportunities and emergent threads around supporting inner-led radical leadership amongst people of colour to flourish in service of deep cultural transformation.

A lot has happened in the past few years. The times we live in can feel tense, lightning quick, and often exhausting. From global lockdowns to the Black Lives Matter movement and even big environmental policy changes with activism playing a big part. 

And yet, we ask ourselves, “What’s going on?” Fifty years on from the release of that famous call to action anthem, tinged with quizzical sorrow, we resonate with the words by late great soul singer, Marvin Gaye - there’s far too many of you crying, far too many of you dying….”

When I teamed up with coach and teacher Calvin Niles to speak with inner-led change practitioners in the Black Indigenous and People of Colour,(BIPOC), Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer (or questioning), intersex and other sexual identities (LGBTQI+), and environmental and social justice community, I quickly came to recognise the radical qualities of leadership among those groups. My work as a Senior Lawyer in the United Nations over 25+ years around the world working with refugees, in former Yugoslavia, Liberia, South Africa, South Sudan and Switzerland has brought me to the coalface of life for those suffering injustices. Now, as a practicing Buddhist and founder of Ubuntu Mindfulness, inner-led work sits at the core of everything I do. My journey of collaboration with these practitioners has solidified some of what I had already known and served to make clearer, some of which I set out below.

For change leaders operating at the intersection of race, gender and the environment, there is—not completely a sense of urgency or day of reckoning, but rather an opportunity—a real chance to move the whole of society forward. In spring 2021 we  spoke to some of these change makers who are not just working to effect change with everyone, many of them identify as the very people that their efforts towards change are meant to affect. BIPOC, LGBTQI+ community, social, political, and environmental justice activists, have demonstrated a drive and passion, infused with determination and compassion to see their work spread out into the communities they serve and catalyse greater growth and healing.

“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

James Baldwin

Inner support

Everyday is a new opportunity to face up to our own trauma. For many people working with inner-led gateways, whether it is mindfulness, psychotherapy, ancestry, somatic or creative work, we sometimes experience pain and resurgent emotions that we did not expect. Expect the unexpected! Those feelings may be triggered by conversations that stimulate the pain of racism, systemic oppression, grief, and all of the trauma connected with that. I experienced some of that myself, especially when hearing some of the stories of abuse and racial injustice in the conversations we had with people of colour. It served as a reminder to us, the importance of not only holding space for the communities we serve but holding space for each other as practitioners. It is not just how we show up for others, it is also how we show up for ourselves. Self-care is a significant component for us, to allow space for healing to take place in our own lives and to be the living breathing embodiment of what is being taught in our work. 

Outer support

Being the catalyst for change can seem oxymoronic. Change is constant and therefore in perpetual motion. However, when we talk about change, I am talking about step-change, or a paradigm shift, in the way that we operate in the world as change makers. As catalysts of this step-change; a change toward healing, justice, and equality in the communities we serve—and therefore wider society—many practitioners know that there is a need for more resources to fuel it. 

If the flame of change is already alight, we need the fuel to increase its amplitude coupled with the intention to blow in a desirable direction. This is a simple matter of resources, human and financial, and the ability to rapidly upskill to enable growth and flourishing in the chosen field of inner led practice. I see the problem of lack of resources as an age-old problem dressed in modern day clothes; the really important deep work being done in the world has some of the biggest barriers. When the work is better enabled, we envisage a self-sustaining flow of inner-led change pouring its benefits into every community.

“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

Cathy-Mae Karelse

Putting the work into context

Nothing can beat lived experience, therefore the people who have the lived experience know it best. Yet much of the provision of many of the inner-led gateways seem to be confined to those with the most privilege. That privilege itself is contributing to more marginalisation, particularly as it pertains to inner-led growth and healing. The effect, in some ways, can be seen as the efforts of trying to cure marginalisation having the effect of compounding it. 

If a rising tide raises all boats, then we assume all boats are already in the sea. What happens when the boat is inland, cut off, in a lake far away from the shore? In that case the boat is no longer in the right context to benefit from the rising tide. A channel must be built. In practice this means such things as working with more inner-led practitioners from the communities they serve to refine and contextualise the modes they are teaching. It is great to see and be part of the enabling of this channelling so that marginalised groups can get the education, tools and skills that can benefit us all. 

I am because we are

As a human species our interdependence is beautifully expressed in one word: Ubuntu ( a Zulu word, variations of which appear across East, Central and Southern Africa, bearing the same significance, namely "interconnectedness"). Ubuntu expresses the collective’s desire for continual spiritual growth, which transcends ethnicity, gender, vernacular, or geography by embracing humanity within its shared values of ancestral grounding and interconnectedness for the common good of all beings. Yet, nested within Ubuntu, I also see that there is a space for an independent element of healing. Not just limited to the individual, but it also includes those groups of people who have a shared experience at the intersections of BIPOC and LGBTQI+ communities in this specific context. This is of particular importance when it comes to collective processing, healing of trauma, and other oppressed groups. We need the mirrors of those whose shared experiences help us identify, grow and transform. When these wounds begin to heal, it catalyses healing of the collective and fuels greater collaboration across difference for the benefit of all human and other-than-human life.

While the conversations grow and the efforts continue, I am inspired by the work taking place in the communities. Even though the arch of change may sometimes seem to be bending in the wrong direction—away from healing, equality and peace—there is a great potential being awakened in these groups of change makers to act in bigger bolder ways not just to do, but to be, not just lead, but to lead radically.

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