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Despite efforts, people of color still too often denied top leadership roles

This week, we celebrated Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day. And while it is surely a day to remember one of America’s most courageous and inspiring leaders, I feel folks are often missing the point.

This is not a day that should be spent in the nostalgia of what was and what could have been. It should be a day for looking toward the future and what could be. Specifically, we should be looking at who will be the next great leaders of color in the United States.

No, I don’t live in a cave, and yes, I’ve heard of Barack Obama. But I’m not talking about icons here; I am talking about the kind of local leadership that affects your daily life, the president of your bank, the executive director of your favorite nonprofit, the head of your health insurance company or your boss.

This is the kind of leadership that is still sorely lacking in America, and that discrepancy is what the National Urban Fellows addressed last week, when it held its 38th annual Leadership Conference in Minneapolis.

NUF is a leadership development organization founded to counter the under-representation of people of color and women in leadership positions. The group identifies, recruits and develops multi-ethnic, multicultural midcareer women and men who show the potential to make a significant impact in identifying issues, shaping solutions and developing policies.

At the conference, the organization specifically addressed the continuing disparities between population trends and leadership positions.

Statistics show the number of individuals of color steadily increasing, with one-third, or 34 percent, of the nation’s population multi-ethnic, multicultural individuals, according to NUF.

But there are gaps in representation at the highest levels. Of the top elected government officials, such as members of Congress, NUF statistics show only 15 percent are African-American, Latino, Asian-American or American Indian, and only 24 percent are women.

And in nonprofit organizations, 84 percent of them are led by whites, with 42 percent of these groups serving only white communities. The total multi-ethnic, multicultural leadership in nonprofit organizations is 18 percent.

A changing workforce
NUF’s mission will become ever more important, says Dr. Ryan Smith, associate professor at Baruch College, as American’s workforce changes. Smith, one of the conference’s presenters, sees a dramatic change in the nation’s workforce. In 2000, people of color represented 27 percent of the labor force and will represent 50 percent of the labor force by 2050, he said.

“The old white-male model is coming into conflict, and I submit to you that it must change,” he said. “The battle now is not about moving in; it’s about moving up.”

Smith, a sociologist, presented data that he says demonstrate “that there are still important barriers to decision-making positions, and they remain stubbornly intact; access to job authority declines as you move up in authority.”

He notes that it is a win-win situation to increase leadership among people of color. “For nonprofits, proper diversity management can help fulfill the organization’s mission to better serve a diverse constituency,” he said. And in the case of for-profit organizations, “it increases their bottom line,” if done correctly.

Smith noted that more concentrated efforts are needed to increase diverse leadership, with consequences and methods to measure effectiveness.

Leadership of color in Minnesota
Elsa Vega-Perez is a longtime Minnesota resident who went through the NUF leadership program. She served as a senior program officer for the Otto Bremer Foundation for many years and currently serves on NUF’s board of directors. She helped bring this year’s conference here.

“Minnesota must acknowledge that we have changed dramatically over the years,” she says. “Our leaders, such as (state Reps.) Willie Dominguez (and) Carlos Mariani, (St. Paul City Council Member) Melvin Carter, (state Sen.) Mee Moua, are over-extended and held to standards that are not required from ‘traditional white male leadership.’ We need to mobilize our communities and encourage us to engage in civic participation.”

Vega-Perez feels that disparities within communities of color in the areas of health, housing, criminal justice and education represent a violation of basic human rights and says leadership needs to reflect the communities they serve.

Leadership among people of color in Minnesota is under-represented, she says. “Diverse perspectives are critical today more than ever, [but] I’m optimistic that with efforts like the National Urban Fellows and the support from progressive funders we can achieve parity and equity.”

She, like Smith, notes the urgency of the situation, as populations continue to change at dramatic rates. Smith, for example, ended his presentation with a reference to King’s famed “Letter From a Birmingham Jail”: “Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men.”

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