Sit at the Table + Get off the Menu

Baltimore City Hall photo via    Pixabay.

Baltimore City Hall photo via Pixabay.

Episode four of the Dialogue Lab podcast features a conversation about the skills you need to build local power and create positive change in your city.

Click here to listen, or keep reading for 3 social impact lessons from this conversation with community advocate Chandra Brooks.

About Chandra Brooks

Chandra teaches women of color how to build local power for themselves and their communities from the ground up, and prepare for running for local office. She knows how, because she’s done it herself.

In her own words:

"I had to build my own visibility, my own clout as Chandra, in order to make things happen the way I wanted to see them. So not only as a person within an organization...but also I had to build it for myself, so I had some major influence on what happened in my city….

“I am just Chandra Brooks. Yeah, I have all these accomplishments now, but I'm just Chandra Brooks from the east side of San Jose that got kicked out of 3 schools, and that graduated pregnant. So understanding that if I can do it, you can do it.”

She is the former Vice President of the Silicon Valley NAACP, the former Northern CA staff director of SEIU, and was the Executive Director of a local nonprofit. She now sits on Santa Clara County’s Commission on the Status of Women and Girls. She’s also an author, an entrepreneur, and a mother of 4.

3 Lessons from the Lab

>> LESSON 1: Sit at the table, or be on the menu. <<

A theme Chandra comes back to again and again is the importance of having community leaders who are connected to the experiences of the people they serve.

And she told a couple of stories to illustrate.

One was a story of a school board that was sitting on funds meant to fix the air conditioning in the schools, while the kids and teachers struggled to learn inside the sweltering hot classrooms.

And another was her discovery that the women inside a Santa Clara County correctional facility were not getting the same kind of access to vocational training that men were getting. In fact, they had nothing but a broken-down embroidery machine.

Chandra is a commissioner on Santa Clara County’s Commission on the Status of Women and Girls, and chairs their work to oversee the Elmwood Women’s correctional facility.

And in that role, she has been working persistently over many months to push the warden and sheriff to address this. And then she shared this:

"And the only way I am able to do that is by being a commissioner and having a seat at the table. If I was just Chandra living on the east side of San Jose CA, with no position, with no title, with no action taken to get on these positions, then they wouldn't listen to me.

"Maybe I could send an email. But with no title behind my name, without any clout, without any development of my credibility, then it wouldn't really go as far. That's why I talk about the importance of taking our seats at the decision making tables."

>> LESSON 2: If you care about your community, then you are qualified to be at the table. <<

Chandra tells her own incredible story of becoming a mother at a young age, and refusing to believe it when others told her she wouldn’t amount to much.

And how every step of the way, it’s been her love for her kids and her community that has motivated her to push past her fears and self-doubt, to get herself into the kinds of roles where she can make a difference.

She also told the story of getting coffee with a young mother who reached out to her because she had wanted to run for school board. But then a school administrator told her that she wasn’t qualified, and unfortunately, she believed it.

But what Chandra reminds us is that for a lot of local leadership roles, if you are connected to and care about the community, then you are qualified. And it’s important we start to believe that. She said this about women, in particular:

"The thing with women specifically, is that when we get ready to run for office, or before we even decide to run for office, we're probably asked about 7-10 times to run, before we decide to do it. And with men, you really only have to tell them one time.

"...And men are so confident, they just go and do it. But with women, we second guess ourselves to take leadership roles."

>> LESSON 3: The other qualification is in showing up. <<

Chandra spoke about having her eyes opened through her experience as development director for a nonprofit. That is where she learned that to get the job done, she often needed to know the right people.

And so often what holds us back is the sense that the people in power sitting at “the table,” are fundamentally different than the rest of us.

They already know who is who. They already sit on the commission or they were elected to the board of education, so they must be much more qualified/smarter/powerful than the rest of us.

But we forget that these people all had to start somewhere too. And any of us can start, just by starting to show up.

I asked Chandra what she would suggest anyone listening to do as a first step, and she said:

"I would want them to go online and check to see what decision-making table they can sit on today, that they can apply for. Where can I apply to be on a board or a commission? Or maybe help with the local election in your community. Go volunteer, go walk precincts, because they need you."

And I see two reasons to do this.

One is that it’s important to show up to support the policies and candidates that will help our communities and to lend a hand to people who are trying to make a difference.

And the other is that these activities are a way to get to know who your local leaders are, and to build your own leadership credibility on issues that matter to you. It’s one thing to care about your community from home. And it’s another to show up and do what you can, when you can.  

So those are 3 things I took away from this interview with Chandra Brooks.

And so much of our ability to lead begins with the kind of confidence Chandra embodies. The kind of confidence that says, "yes I do belong here, because I understand this community, and I care."

If you would like to learn more about how I help leaders develop that kind of confidence and resilience, I'd love to hear from you.