Supporting leadership that promotes racial justice

Filed under: Featured,Racial Equity,Youth Activism |

By Deborah Meehan, Executive Director, Leadership Learning Community,

Oakland made the headlines again this summer when a jury delivered a verdict of involuntary manslaughter in the trial of Johannes Mehserle.  Mehserle, a BART police officer, was on trial for shooting Oscar Grant, a young, African American, unarmed passenger who died on New Year’s Day 2009.  Oscar Grant’s shooting and death were captured on a cell phone video and posted on YouTube.   Oscar Grant was shot in the back while he was defensively held face down by other BART police officers with his hands handcuffed behind his back.  Mehserle asserted that he accidentally pulled and fired his pistol instead of a taser gun.  It is possible with this verdict that Mesherle will be given probation and no jail time when he is sentenced on November 3rd 2010.

Months in advance of the verdict, a number of youth organizations in Oakland began organizing to provide opportunities for young people to gather and talk about how this could happen and what could be done so that it doesn’t happen again.  This is a leadership question and makes the findings of a report just released on Leadership and Race particularly relevant.  Why? The report, How to Develop and Support Leaderships that Contributes to Racial Justice, suggests that the focus on the individual has permeated the ways in which we think about leadership with some serious costs to our efforts to change the realities of people like Oscar Grant who have been denied many life opportunities because of their race.

The dominant culture in the U.S. promotes the idea that as individuals we all have equal opportunities and are individually responsible for our achievements or failures.  In the case of this shooting, a bias towards focusing on the individual would look to understand the killing of Oscar Grant as the product of individual behaviors isolating this experience to the behavior of the BART police officer.  Depending on what one believes of this event, one implication could be better weapons training or prejudice reduction.  Of course these are important, but changing individual behaviors will not make life safer for people of color when historically, the criminal justice system that supports racial profiling and disparities in sentencing fails to deal effectively with brutality and killings by police. For instance, one of every three black males born today can except to go to prison in his lifetime. (2006, The Covenant with Black America)

The report recommends that to help promote racial justice, organizations and individuals need to adopt leadership development approaches that explain how a system of culture, policy and structures produce and perpetuate differences in access to life opportunities.  These leadership approaches should provide the analysis, tools and resources that will help young people and communities change the system that put a young man like Oscar Grant at risk and then failed to deliver justice in his killing.

The efforts led by youth organizations in Oakland , including Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth (RJOY), Youth Uprising, and Youth Radio, in preparation for the verdict represent a positive example of the type of leadership approaches that contribute to racial justice.  But these efforts were largely overlooked by the media, which was more interested in covering the anticipated riot that, in fact, never happened.

The youth organizations understood that if Mehserle was not convicted of murder, it would be important for young people to have multiple opportunities and venues for making meaning of what happened and to talk openly about their feelings. The Philanthropic Initiative on Racial Equity and mosaic, in their report, “Changing the Rules of the Game: Youth Development and Structural Racism” also link the meaning-making process to leadership development, explaining that the work of youth development organizations is to help youth analyze and comprehend the world around them at a critical stage in their development. As young people better understand how their lives and opportunities are influenced by racism, they can become a collective voice and advocate for themselves. This is what we saw take place in Oakland.

The youth organizations, in coordination with the city of Oakland, provided safe spaces at five sites throughout the city where young people could meet, participate in peacemaking circles, use art, music, digital storytelling and radio to talk about what had happened and their feelings. The youth organizations provided multiracial teams of trained facilitators at each of the centers. People were also encouraged to attend a large demonstration being organized in front of city hall, and close by open mics were set up for young people under 25 to speak out. A coalition, “Oaklanders for Peace, Justice and Healing,” developed teams of peacekeepers trained in nonviolent communication and had 40 people in orange vests talking to the crowds and encouraging participation in peaceful opportunities to speak to injustice.

Those of us who believe that we can help to bring about change by supporting leadership have a lot to learn from the events in Oakland early this summer.  As the report explains, “Focusing on the role of individuals in creating and solving problems does not look at the impact that systems have on the ways people behave and tends to attribute racism only to ignorance or hateful behaviors.”   Leadership programs need to mobilize broad action that promotes more systemic changes in the criminal justice systems, e.g. eliminating the Three Strikes Law, promoting community policing programs, or demanding changes in the demographic makeup of the police force to better represent communities served, and outlawing racial profiling.

If in our leadership work we are not helping people to understand and address the consequences of structural racism, we help to maintain it.  We hope this report, which was  produced as a collaborative project by the Leadership Learning Community, Applied Research Center, Center for Assessment and Policy Development, The Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity , MP Associates and Social Policy Research Associates,  will help leadership programs that engage thousands of people every year to make an important contribution to a more just and equitable future for people of all races and ethnicities.  This report is part of the Leadership for a New Era Series, a collaborative research project launched by the Leadership Learning Community in 2009 to promote leadership approaches that are more inclusive, networked and collective.  For more information about the report, please visit


Deborah Meehan is founder and Executive Director of the Leadership Learning Community (LLC), a nonprofit organization focused on transforming the way leadership is conceived, conducted, and evaluated.  She is also one of the co-authors of the How to Develop and Support Leaderships that Contributes to Racial Justice report.


2006. The Covenant with Black America 1st ed., Chicago: Third World Press.

Quiroz-Martínez, J., HoSang, D., & Villarosa, L. (2004). Changing the Rules of the Game: Youth Development & Structural Racism. Washington, D.C.:

Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity.


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Author: Kirwan Institute (427 Articles)

Kirwan Institute

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