When did you first start thinking of yourself as a leader?
That’s an interesting question. I’ve always been a perfectionist with high expectations of myself and others. I’ve also always been a bit of a “control freak” who does things myself because I believe they’ll actually get done and get done well if I “just do it.” That mentality is not always healthy or productive, but in high school and college it was that mentality which I thought made me a leader. When I became a teacher is when I started to think of myself as a leader. Teaching — if you’re doing it well and correctly — is all about leading. You provide others with the tools they need to fly and then you step a healthy distance away to let them fly. You have to give others breathing room to grow into themselves, to discover their weaknesses, and to exercise their strengths. I’m thankful to have discovered, in the classroom, that my leadership skills are rooted in the concept that I am here to help others fly.
What was one of your biggest challenges in leadership and how did you overcome it?
I don’t have any blueprint to follow. Statistically, most people of color don’t when it comes to entrepreneurship or founding and leading organizations. We statistically don’t have parents or grandparents who have started businesses or nonprofits (and can guide us along), or who have robust networks and connections that would make leadership easy or feel more natural. I’m naturally a very private and reserved and proud person. I hate asking other people for “help.” But to see my ideas through, I’ve had to build relationships with, ask for help from, and trust in other community members along this journey. Without help from others, I’d still be wondering how to file for 501(c) 3 status.
What do you want young women of color to know about leadership?
I believe you have to be true to yourself. You do not owe anyone anything — not an explanation, not a hashtag for the next movement, not a smile, and certainly not a comfortable place to lounge in the context of this world. Being a strong, smart, thoughtful woman of color means you’re bucking against certain stereotypes. You have to validate your own experiences for yourself. We are constantly walking a tightrope between worlds — male/female, black/white, affluent/not-so-affluent. And if we get caught up in that socially constructed circus, we’ll get nowhere. Leadership is possible when you stick to your own beliefs about what is good and right and important and genuinely you. Then you dig in to the hard work you’ve set out to do and you honor your strengths.
Anything else you’d like readers to know?
I grew up in Cedar Rapids and I’m proud of the city I see us becoming. The more experienced leaders in the community seem eager to guide others. There’s an energy about our city right now. It seems that so many of us are eager to build and support a diverse coalition of strong and passionate leaders.
• Akwi Nji is Founder & Executive Director of The Hook, an organization that offers programming to promote literacy, education and storytelling in Cedar Rapids.