Leading as a Black woman

The Ms. on Martha’s event returns to the Island. 


A gregarious crowd gathered at Grange Hall in West Tisbury on Tuesday, August 15, to attend the Ms. Foundation for Women’s annual Ms. on Martha’s event, which also coincided with the foundation’s 50th year in operation. 

Ms. Foundation for Women president and CEO Teresa C. Younger, the National Partnership for Women & Families president Jocelyn Frye, and the National Women’s Law Center president and CEO Fatima Goss Graves talked about their experiences leading “legacy organizations” as Black women on a panel Tuesday. The discussion was moderated by Errin Haines, editor-at-large of the news site called the 19th.

Younger, Frye, and Graves discussed issues that impact women, particularly those from minority communities, such as the decreased access to abortions, or the elimination of affirmative action in college admissions. 

Each of the women reflected on why it was important to have Black women leaders in different organizations. 

Graves started by underscoring the significance of being able to lead an institution in the right direction, although she was building upon a base already established at the law center. She said this was especially important because of concerns over the stability of American democracy, whether children will properly learn their history, and an “out-of-control court” making decisions that limit people’s autonomy.

“It is hitting in ways that are terrifying, especially for Black women,” Graves said. “So I think about how lucky I am that I can take this institution and point it in the direction where we can, on purpose, do the work that we are doing.”

Frye said the organizations gathered at the Grange grew out of the “narrative of women’s rights,” providing a platform for women. Additionally, she said having Black women be able to set the path forward was meaningful; it brings new perspectives and develops new thought. 

“Historically, Black women were expected to follow,” Frye said. 

Younger also highlighted a need to shift the focus to communities where women of color come from. She emphasized the differing lived experiences of each panelist — underscoring Black women are not a monolith — and the importance of having Black women leadership in varying fields, like communications and government. 

“When people look at philanthropy, and they see a woman who looks like me — who is both Black and indigenous — they say to themselves, ‘I can be there, too,’” Younger said. “The importance of any of us sitting in any seat is that there is some little girl saying, ‘I can be there, too.’”

Additionally, Younger said people need to be aware of “who’s never been to the table,” not just who is missing at the table. She said advocates of equality cannot just call it a day after having some success, such as having elected an Indian-Black vice president or “invisibly” placing indigenous people in leadership positions. 

A difficulty the individuals raised was that while many people like the idea of having a Black women leader, not everyone wants to be led by one. 

“We’re in the midst — especially if you look at social justice work right now — a lot of Black women are leading, a lot of women of color more broadly leading, and that is a shift,” Graves said. “It shouldn’t be just admired from a distance.” 

A point that was raised was a need to refocus feminist issues so it is not primarily centered on white women. Frye said that while white women have also experienced biases and misogyny, the history and levels of privilege are different for women from other minority communities. Centering feminism around white women can make women of color an afterthought, according to Frye. 

“If you start with … folks who are experiencing multiple barriers, then you’re accounting for all of those things,” she said, adding that this also needs to be addressed in how women’s issues are discussed in public discourse. 

Among the various points discussed throughout the evening, a key theme that arose again and again was the importance of working together toward making progress. The panelists spoke about the need for women of color in leadership positions to have one another’s corner in sisterhood through difficult times, such as during the COVID pandemic.

A question and answer session with the audience was held after the panel discussion.