The value of staying true to yourself can often get blurred when you’re positioned to need funding from others. As a woman of color and leader navigating through the world of fundraising, this becomes a dilemma for Tahisha Victor. Tahisha is the Executive Director for the San Francisco 49ers Academy, a nonprofit organization helping students achieve personal and academic success and fulfill their untapped potentials. She joins host Dr. Kevin Sansberry to share how she faces these internal battles and external pressures. Tune in for an insightful discussion on equity, leadership, and tokenism in the world of nonprofits.
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Dr. Kevin Sansberry II is a behavioral scientist and executive coach with expertise in toxic leadership, human capital strategy, and creating inclusive cultures of belonging to enhance organization performance. Over the years, Kevin has focused on providing research-informed solutions in various settings such as higher education, nonprofit, sales, and corporate environments.
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The Value of Staying True To Yourself In The Workplace With Tahisha Victor
Welcome to the show. This episode is with Tahisha Victor. She is the Executive Director for the San Francisco 49ers Academy. Hearing about her experience as a leader in the workplace is very insightful. We had a great conversation about the manifestation of race and how it intersects with gender in the workplace as leaders, as well as how toxicity may manifest covertly in many organizational structures. I enjoyed this conversation because it’s representative of what this show is all about. Let’s get to it.
Welcome to the show. We have Tahisha Victor. I am so excited to talk to you about the emotional toll in the workplace and embracing equity. Before we get into that, how are you?
Thank you for having me. I’m doing well. This is one of those days that at least, I can move on.
Before we jump into some topics, how about you tell the readers a little bit about yourself?
I am originally from New York. I’m born and raised there. I moved out to the Bay Area a few years ago. I am proudly Haitian-American, proudly, I’ve always told everywhere I can and where I go. I am a social worker by trade. I went to grad school at SUNY Albany to get my MSW. After undergrad, I went straight to grad school two months later and came out as a young and impressionable social worker trying to figure out where I can create change.
As I’ve gone through different sectors, I’ve worked with different populations, I’ve learned more and more of what organizations should and should not do. I dabbled a lot in some consulting work with companies forming workshops or training that people can do with their staff and I fell in love with organizational development. When I moved out here, it was almost like my bubble got burst a little bit and realized like, “I have a lot more work to do and there are a lot more pieces to see.” I went into a different sector outside of consulting. Still training, still working but in a smaller space.
I got to travel around and teach about the financial capability for young people and how to work with young people, which then landed me in my role as Executive Director of a small nonprofit here in East Palo Alto called the San Francisco 49ers Academy. My trajectory has been interesting and it’s been amazing years, tiresome and I definitely learned a lot.
Thank you. I appreciate hearing about your journey. Your journey was a number of paths and a number of directions winding. As I’m assuming, you being on this show, you had to have some type of experience with this construct or with this topic. I want to talk a little bit about that and ask what is your entry point into toxic leadership? What have been your experiences?
Truthfully, there have been different ways I’ve seen it and different ways I’ve experienced it. Back in New York, I was working for organizations that were so white male-driven and oriented so certain things were subtle but I didn’t notice because it was a norm. I was taught to adapt to this space. It wasn’t until I moved to California that it came to me in different ways and I saw different things.
I do think being from the east coast, I’m more direct. I say what I mean and I don’t try to cater to people’s feelings to get my point across. Whereas here, there’s a lot of subtle and underlining thoughts. Instead of saying, “Tahisha, I did not like you to going in this direction.” It’s more so, “I’m going to get your coworker to tell you that I didn’t like this direction and undermine what you do next.” I saw a lot of that especially at my last place of work and it was unfortunate.
The more I saw it, the more I realized. I kept asking questions, “Is it me? Am I too direct? Am I not leaving room for empathy?” In these spaces, it can make you go a little nutty. It can make you feel that you’re alone, everybody’s against you and it’s all on you. It wasn’t until I had a mentor who ironically was supposed to be consulting with us, pull me out of it and say, “It’s not you. You’re just too smart and black.”
That’s when I realized that it doesn’t matter how much I work hard, it doesn’t matter how smart I am. There’s a viewpoint that whatever’s coming out of my mouth is coming out of a black woman. There’s not a lot of sensitivity and grace there. It surprised me even more because it was coming from other marginalized groups. It was interesting to say that in that space, it was almost like a competition of who can not only be in the forefront of that executive director but also who can get in front of Tahisha so Tahisha doesn’t make me look bad.
We don’t coach leaders to be leaders, we coach people to run a business.
From that standpoint, it feels like there can only be one person of color at the top or be in the light. I know exactly what you’re talking about and it is something that is tacit. It’s something that’s invisible until you’re in that Hunger Games situation. The question is, how can we create environments that don’t perpetuate tokenism? That’s really what that is, perpetuating. It’s perpetuating the model minority and tokenism. I appreciate you lifting it up because not a lot of people talk about that.
There are several ways to combat it. There’s a teaching moment when folks become leaders that we don’t get. We don’t talk about the model minority stance and the trajectory of marginalized groups to get where they are. We also don’t coach leaders to be leaders. We coach people to run a business and we lose a lot of empathy for how other people are being viewed in an organization.
I’m an ED so there are some concepts I understand now a little bit better. It’s like, “I need to get this organization to X, Y and Z. You, Tahisha, are in my way because you’re the loudest in the room. I need these other people to just calm you down so I could get X, Y and Z.” Instead of approaching it in the understanding of like, “Tahisha, I want you to be able to express your concerns. How can we get you into a space that is trusted or an avenue that you’re able to express them and feel like you’re being heard? Let’s talk that through.”
At times, there’s no room for that. What we’re seeing in the world is a reckoning happening in nonprofits where people are at their wit’s end. You’re seeing a lot of training changing their tune to turn towards that empathy stance but at the end of the day, there’s so much work to be done towards white supremacy within non-profits, towards people of color coming out of that tokenism feel and feeling like they have to appease white people in B spaces. Also, there’s another of self like, “What do I know as a leader to bring my full self into the conversation and into the work?”
On that notion of self, there is internal work that needs to be done because the terminology I’ve seen in some of the research is “crab mentality” or “crabs in a bucket” where members of any group will reduce self-confidence, gaslight or compete with others for their own benefit. If I can’t make it, no one can, in a way.
I’ve been through it, seen it and will see it.
To me, part of that internal work is, “Where am I contributing to this pulling down of others? Not operating with empathy and compassion, as it relates to the work.” I don’t want to make generalizations but if I were to, I would hope that if you work in a nonprofit, you care about the communities that you serve and you care about the work you do, that the work is more than just a paycheck.
With that being said, we should operate differently. I’m not saying for profits. They’re not out of water. They need to do stuff too but if we’re talking nonprofit, you practice what you preach. If we want to be inclusive, let’s be inclusive. If we want to use the word compassionate in our communities, we need to be compassionate behind closed doors and these four walls.
Many times I’ve told especially my current board, if we’re saying these are our organizational values then it needs to be our values in 360 degrees, all the way around. I am a person who is strong in ethics and morals. I try my best to emulate that with whatever I do. If an organization is going to say they value equity, that is a big statement and that is a tough angle at the same time. That means there’s going to be a lot of work to get towards the equity stance. Is everybody going to be in it with me to get into that equity stance?
Do you know what you’re even saying?
One of the things I talk about a lot is the reason why I don’t like a lot of acronyms is because they tend to trivialize things. Your company talking about DE&I and all they’re focused on is like, “We need to hire better. “The E and I are super important. We’re good. We got DE&I now.” It’s not necessarily. To your point, if we say equity and if it’s 360, A) Let’s know what we’re talking about and B) This needs to be a value that is applied when times are good and when times are bad.
One of those notions of equity I want to lift up is fundraising. That comes up a lot especially with leaders of color. As a black woman, as you think about fundraising, how does that look different compared to what you were taught, to what you have seen and experienced? Talk to me about that difference.
It’s an experience that I’m going through. We talked about knowing oneself and that was one that I realized like, “I don’t know how I feel about fundraising and I have to but I’m an executive director.” It comes from a place of, truthfully for me, knowing our donor pool and being concerned about who they’re seeing and how they react to things that I would do versus the former executive director because my space always comes from the space of the people I serve.“
If we’re saying these are our organizational values, then it needs to be our values 360 degrees, all the way around.
How can this, equal this, to get this kid to graduate,” is usually how I process things but that also means, I will not cater to certain donors. I’m not saying we won’t accept funding because we will but it does leave a question mark with certain people because of their stance and their beliefs in how they want to see the world. Those things come up for me. Those things are fully in my face and it is because I identify as a black CIS woman and those things are prevalent.
I hesitate to do certain things and I see myself question how I’m about to approach a funder, not in, “Do they like an email or do they like to meet in person, in terms of what words am I using? If I’m meeting them in person, what does my hair look like?” Things that I don’t think a lot of other females think about that I do of like, “If I come in with my hair scarf, is this over? Is this conversation over? I had a little hair scarf because I had to lay down my edges.” I would leave that in but if I’m meeting a donor, maybe I should take that down. Maybe I shouldn’t wear my hoops because they’re going to perceive me wearing hoops as X, Y and Z.
Will they take me seriously? These are the constant tropes that go through a lot of black women’s minds as they’re meeting certain people and then when you add a donor on top of that, knowing that this donor has a big influence on your organization’s health, that adds in another pressure. There’s this flip side of it for me personally, of the notion of having people who I work with look like me or people of color. Students and families who we partner with look like me and are people of color and our donors don’t.
When I first got into this role, there was a hesitation of making requests to white people to help people of color. I was trying to grapple with what that meant for me. It made me feel weird at first, truthfully because it was, “Am I begging white people to give money to us?” That did not sit well. There were a lot of conversations I had to have with myself to even get over that hump to not only realize that’s valid but also don’t let that stop you.
How do you cater to both ends is a constant conversation that I have in my head. How can I bring my full self knowing that my full self may not be as comforting to our donors into the conversation? My full self is black, Haitian and a woman. How do I bring these elements and stay true to that but also understand that I have to navigate in certain ways with certain donors and whatnot?
One of the things that have me thinking about is that’s a lot. That’s weight. That’s heavy. That’s not on your job description and yet, that’s something you have to deal with before donor meetings. What I think is, a lot of the root of all of this is money. It’s control. You have to make a conscious decision about, is this funding worth the gaslighting or the emotional toll? How does this funding potentially shift our mission? Also, how we do the work too.
One thing I would also add is that I often hesitate a lot, which I’ve seen other white EDs who haven’t hesitated on, is sharing stories. Most of our stories are trauma. It’s hard at times to share those personal journeys but you know that it creates a story for other people to understand. Balancing that out is tough at times because, at the end of the day, I’m not trying to overexpose or my favorite phrase “poverty pimp” any of my kids or any of these families for a dollar. There’s a give and take that happens here and it is a lot.
At the end of the day, fundraising at its core is building relationships or at least it should be. With that, you have to have an undercurrent of trust but a lot of times, as I’m sure you’ve experienced in your work life for some pretty known reasons, to me at least, trust is not automatically given to me as a black man. I would assume, similar experience as a black woman, we got to earn it. It feels like that and that’s not a bad thing but then when you overarch the topic of, we’re having to earn trust and the main conversation we have is about money, that’s a big gap.
It’s 2021 and as we talk about trust-building and fundraising, plenty of organizations are still debating on the notion of unrestricted funds and general operating expenses. Let me caveat for all my fundraising audience, I’m not a fundraising professional. I’m just outside looking in. If we’re talking about race equity and DE&I and we’re not unrestricted funding and that’s not on the table as a conversation piece, we’re not doing equity work. We’re not inclusive, in my opinion.
I will even add-in, if our funders do not look like the populations that we are working with, it creates a non-equity lens because you have these big foundations but ultimately, who’s making the decision of where this money’s going to? A lot of times, I am not seeing a person that looked like either of us. I’m not seeing a lot of people in the Latinx community. I’m not seeing a lot of people that have similar circumstances as the people we serve, who truly understand where that dollar could go to.
That’s also a big piece within it, too. If we’re truly talking about equity, how are we getting certain foundations? How are foundations looking at the people that they’re staffing out and the people that they’re bringing on to their team? On an individual donor side, how are organizations targeting black and brown folks who can give at a certain level? They’re are out there but we’re choosing to not target them.
I often ask the question, do we feel that that money is not sustainable? Do we feel like those who are black and brown who have wealth aren’t sustainable or they don’t give? Why are we not targeting those individuals who may have more of a connection or understanding of the folks that we serve? It’s a question I often ask because if we’re talking about fundraising in its entirety, there are so many things that we can look at on an equity platform that we are not doing.
All we’re doing is perpetuating the cycle. Certain funds are going to continue to be restricted because there’s a level of control. There’s a level of I “know what’s best to give this money towards.” Rather than listening to organizations that are saying, “Even onboarding somebody onto our team is work. Even doing board development is work.” Those little things you can’t explain that makes an organization successful are work and we need to have funding to support that.
We are pointing out the issue here but I want our audience to know, pointing out issues is always important because if the goal is we want to be more inclusive and we want to reduce inequities, these constructive conversations are necessary. It’s important for us to lift these up because plenty of people who are people of color, black women in general, are struggling with funding that is a lot different than what their predecessors may have faced as they succeeded. You touched on some of that emotional toll. As you think about the emotional toll of being a black woman in fundraising and raising money as a leader, how does that impact leadership?
It’s those microaggressions that nobody sees. It’s hard to explain, but it does take a toll on you as a person and how you navigate to your next steps.
There are times that folks don’t see the unknowns in terms of, you’re essentially responsible for people’s paycheck. You have to make sure that there is funding generating or you’re in good organizational health so that you have a business. You have a team to keep running. It becomes these side conversations that people don’t hear whether it’s a board member who would like you to do better or who would like you to do more and not realizing you’re already over-exerting yourself. Whether it’s a funder asking you personal questions of certain students because they feel like they need to have that connection.
It’s often a fight with yourself. I wouldn’t say I’m having an argument by myself but it’s often like, “How do I take this? Which direction do I go?” that I have to think about 24/7. Even when writing an email, I’m like, “Let me think about this before I press send,” because I already anticipate a reaction and I’m already preparing myself for that reaction.
It’s those microaggressions that nobody sees. It’s hard to explain but it does take a toll on you as a person and also how you navigate to your next steps. At times, I feel like my mind is constantly on go. It’s like a chess piece that I have to keep maneuvering and figuring out because at the end of the day, again, it’s my responsibility but there’s a judgment that’s placed on me before I even walk into the room that I have to knock down to even get my point across.
I always like to tell people, microaggressions are micro invisibility but macro in impact. Just because it’s something you may not perceive or you can’t resonate with, that’s something that’s weighing heavy on you 24/7. We have to be able to value that. Another strategy that I’m thinking about is having more mentorship opportunities so that cognitive dissonance is shared with other people. That consultant pulled you out and said, “This is not normal. It’s not you.” Having that mentorship in this positioning is also helpful so that you don’t get into a state of blaming yourself or learn helplessness and putting everybody’s salaries at risk.
Oftentimes, we see burnout happen quickly with specifically black women in leadership. I’m seeing it more so as I scale up in my career. It’s that we truly do take on everything. It’s something that I’m trying to combat within myself. I know how to delegate but I also need to know how to separate and understand. I am giving responsibility to other people and I need to be okay with it. I can’t be the caregiver or savior every single time in this scenario.
I need to be able to give that to other people and other people need to learn to be okay with that and that’s what I’ve found. Other people are not okay with it. Once you start taking a step back and truly care for yourself and your leadership, it’s other people’s responses that you have to prep for because I see myself fall into it like, “Other people are responding in a weird way or a difficult way. I need to do X, Y and Z.” It’s then like, “I’m going to take this all the way back.” I need other people to start learning that these are the decisions I’m making and be comfortable within it and leave it there.
Leaving room for empathy and discussion but truly leaving it there. To your point, what has been helpful the most with my leadership is meeting black women who are in leadership. I say that because there’s still a disconnect oftentimes when I talk to other women of color who are willing to put up more with certain things that I’m like, “This doesn’t make sense. This doesn’t fit. Why are we over-exerting ourselves for this counterpart?” When I meet other black women who say, “I completely understand. I’m also willing to help you navigate through it but just know you don’t have to take it.”
That was the most beautiful thing I’ve heard where I told a group of people what was going on and they all looked at me and said, “You could get through this. Also, you don’t have to do this. Save your mental health. Remember about you because the more you can’t pour into yourself, the more you can’t pour back into the organization.” That’s a discussion that everybody’s nervous to have. If we can take care of ourselves while leading an organization, we need to leave this room for this type of conversation so we are able to let it out and we don’t feel like we’re alone in this whole ordeal.
Thank you for sharing that. I appreciate you lifting up these very real elephants in the rooms that exist in plenty of board rooms across the country. Before we wrap up, I wanted to ask you if there were any words of wisdom that you wanted to leave our audience with.
Once you enter nonprofit leadership, there’s a big conversation with oneself about your values, your morals and your ethics. I say this because it will be tested a lot especially as a person of color. How do you still care for oneself and still navigate through it? At the end of the day, it’s still good work we’re trying to do but it’s all these other parts that make us leave non-profits so it’s digging in deep.
One of the things I’m hopeful for is that people learn from you even outside of this show. I want to give you the opportunity to share how can the audience get a hold of you? Where can we reach you? Where can we find you?
I want to thank you for the opportunity to cross paths with you. We’ve had a lot of great conversations off-air but then even having this fruitful conversation on-air will help a lot of people. I hope we get this conversation to continue going as we look at truly embracing equity especially as it looks to fundraising and leadership. I appreciate you being on the show.
I appreciate you having me. This was fun.
I appreciate all of you and thank you all for reading.