The Dilemma of Leading from Behind

Iron St. Murals in Detroit. Photo Credit: Pendarvis Harshaw

Iron St. Murals in Detroit. Photo Credit: Pendarvis Harshaw

When a marginalized person in our community is given access to power, education, or resources, we often second guess them. There is not democratic process that makes any job, fellowship, internship, roundtable, or leadership position equal opportunity for all of us. Being in the right place at the right time, knowing the right person who vouched for you, or having certain privileges can give you opportunities which are denied to someone even more deserving or qualified. In this competitive world and unequal world, we don’t have control over the privileges that are bestowed upon us or the doors that open up for us. What matters is that when we walk through some doors we kick them open so hard that they stay open. What matters is what we do with those opportunities and how do we serve others with the privileges we have been granted.
 When folks are calling out others, they often focus on the the individual who they see as having shortcomings, rather than the systemic issue that may hamper them from being able to take that ideal path. I’m a sensitive person. So when I see others talk about me or others who I work with, my empath mode goes into full gear. Depending on how we frame a critique, we can create climate where others can be disparaged.  Once someone’s character has been attacked for being self serving, especially when they work to serve the community, they tend to shut down from dialogue. It’s usually against my better judgment to try to try to give context or explain the dilemma of anyone in a position of leadership, including myself. It is not just me being defensive, but with empathy we can better understand each other and move towards a solution. And even if we are at loggerheads, with empathy we can understand the underlying assumptions and motivations that led someone to make a decision or take a stance on an issue. We can disagree without thinking that assuming a moral superiority.
Social media makes us all much more accessible, it means all sorts of moral judgements about your personal choices, your politics, or your adherence to your faith will show up in your timeline. It means that hours of your day can be eaten up going back and forth trying to save face in debates where hundreds of people reading it will form strong opinions about you. It means that people will send you screen shots of comments that may make you question your ability to operate in the community. It means that the cream in your morning coffee will sour as your inbox or mentions are flooded with critiques mixed with ad hominem attacks.
Being put in the position to represent the community is a heavy mantle to bear.  I often wish my family could go back to anonymity and live our lives like normal people. I slowly saw my private life die in 2007 when I posted my first public blog entry. Then across the world, people would recognize who I was. People who never met me had all sorts of assumptions formed opinions about my personal life, my politics, and my religious and spiritual journey. My private life ended when my husband gave his first khutbah at UPenn in 2009. Given the vitriol, I moved into obscurity until I founded an organization in 2014. Initially, I didn’t want to be the public face. I did so because people dismissed our efforts and erased the Black women involved in the project.  There are aspects of my work that I love. First and foremost, I love teaching. But I have to constantly renew my intentions because the constant barrage of critiques and debates are tiring.  The returns of doing this work are limited emotionally, personally, or financially, but this is important work.  Even though I was not the best qualified to do anti-racism education, only a few others stepped up with me to advance racial justice in Muslim communities.
I lead by from behind in trying to serve. I also lead from behind because of my own unique struggle. While coming from a disadvantaged position, recovering from the strikes against me, catching up from my late start and interruptions, trying to  get through each day multi-tasking my duties as a mom and wife of a public religious leader, my vantage point shifts and changes constantly.  I know there are people who have even stronger skills and talents that I have, but they are not built up and supported in our community. I hope to find that person more suited for this work and to have built up a healthy space for them to take this work to the next level.
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