In 2012, Kofi Hope was hired to re-start a failed initiative intended to support economic development for Black youth. Over the next six years, he and his team reconstituted the project as the CEE Centre for Young Black Professionals. At the heart of the initiative was a focus on reaching youth who could be labelled “hard to serve,” and were facing significant barriers to employment. Within CEE, Kofi and his team built an organizational culture that put meaningful human relationships at the core of all programming. For this Five Good Ideas session, Kofi drew on his work at CEE, his time as a student activist, and his graduate studies on Canadian non-profits in Africa to provide his views on how to be a values-based leader. He explored how values are critical to success in social change work, the special role a founder has in developing the culture of a new initiative, and considered the challenge of turning values into daily practice.
Five Good Ideas
- Recognize that all actions begin with values
- Explore your own values and communicate them through your leadership story
- Build shared organizational values over time, starting from your own values
- Consider values in hiring your team
- Focus on policies and practices that live out your values
- TED Talk Start With Why
- Marshall Ganz lecture on public narrative
- Public Narrative Training Manual
- Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.This book by David J. Garrow provides a meticulous look at the leadership, tactics and many missteps of this ultimately highly effective values-based leader.
- The Happiness Hypothesis, Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. This book by Jonathan Haidt starts with a quick overview of the divided mind, and is a good example of spirituality in dialogue with science.
Full session transcript
Alright, good afternoon. I’ll try it one more time, thank you. Good afternoon. [Audience] Good afternoon.
So it’s a pleasure to be here, and I wanna start by acknowledging our First Nations and Inuit brothers and sisters we share this nation with, and whose land we’re meeting on. And secondly I want to acknowledge all of you. I got a sneak peak, I got to see the guest list for this afternoon, and it’s a fabulous room full of change agents. And I want to especially salute those folks, who I’ll call elders, and that’s actually a term of endearment, who have been doing this work for decades. Thank you for the work that you’ve done. And finally, I’d like to acknowledge our ancestors, those from times past who’ve struggled for this work for social change, and who have fought for the rights, freedoms, and privileges that we enjoy today.
But as they say, the struggle continues. And let’s not mince words, social change work is hard. The work I’ve been doing for the last six years at CEE, around economic empowerment, is difficult and sometimes painful work. When you try to empower people, you soon learn that no one can empower anyone else. All you can do is offer opportunities and support, and you hope and you pray that people take advantage. At CEE, we provide career development and life supports to highly marginalized Black youth, many who’ve been in conflict with the law, precariously housed, and suffering from trauma. It ain’t easy, and you don’t always see the results.
I remember one afternoon about three years ago, we were at Humber College. I’m standing in the back of the line watching people graduate from our culinary program, and it was such a good day. After six really hard months of work with those young people. And I saw this one young woman, and she’s there dressed in her finest, and she had told me a couple days before, she’d never graduated from anything in her life. So for her, this was like her high school graduation, like her university graduation, and her whole family was there supporting her. Another young woman I saw, when she’d come to our office the first time, she was in a very difficult place. She’d been separated from her daughter, and she was really down on her luck, and she said she just wanted to enter the program, to graduate, and to show her siblings that they could accomplish something in their lives. And she even lost one of those siblings, during the program, to violence. But she stuck through, and she was there to graduate that day. Her daughter was in the room.
So. Feeling really good, and literally at the moment those young people were stepping onto stage to get their diplomas, the phone rings. One of my staff pick it up, and she lets out this primal scream from the pit of her stomach, and she puts the phone into my hands. And I pick it up, and I start listening on the other line, and literally as those young people graduated, I found out that a young man in our other program had been shot and killed, multiple times on Sheppard Avenue, left to fade away on the side of the road. Right when we thought we were about to celebrate, we sprung into action, driving off to support some of the other young people involved.
And so began some of the toughest weeks, and actually months, of my life. And that’s the work. Sometimes you get to save a life, you get to kind of revel in the feeling of someone graduating or moving to the next step, and then sometimes you’re just at another funeral, for another young person you mentored, looking down into that coffin, seeing them in an all white suit, just shy of 25 years old, all white Blue Jays hat there, and you look over, and you see another young person, six or seven, in a matching all white suit, and you realize that’s his son. And you think, “Damn. Are we really making a difference?”
So how do we do this work then? How do we keep ourselves engaged? How do we lead our teams in an industry where people are overworked, underpaid, undervalued, and surrounded by some of the most raw traumas in this city? We do it because our work is fueled by our values. And I don’t have all the solutions today, but I’d like to give five good ideas for an approach to leadership that I’ve found to be highly effective, which is about putting our values front and centre.
My first good idea is about recognizing that all action begins with values. And because of this, I’ll argue values are key to all effective teams, and all effective leaders. There’s this great TED Talk, some of you might’ve seen it, by a guy named Simon Sinek, called “Start with Why,” and it touches on this. And he talks about how all great leaders drill down to the why of their organization, not what the organization does, or how it does it. And we like that, right? We all like to talk about activities. I could just come up here and blab for 30 minutes on how CEE runs its programs, and maybe that’d be intellectually stimulating, but Sinek argues that great leaders don’t start with that. They don’t start with the what or the how, they start with the why, with the purpose and the values.
And there’s a reason for this, and the reason is based in psychology. It’s based in the fact that despite what most of us think, despite what economists and rational choice theorists have argued, human action is not primarily driven by rational decision making. It’s driven in large part by emotion, and unconscious processes that fall outside of our rational, calculating, and conscious mind. To understand this, we must begin by understanding our minds, and understanding that our minds are not unified. Our mind lives inside of our brains, and our brains are made up of various parts that have kind of grown on top of each other, shaped by evolution, over millions of years, and the different parts do very different things. The self, the part that most of us think we are, the part that pays attention to things, and seems to be in control is just one part of our mind, just one part of our brain. It’s the tip of the iceberg, and the vast majority, nearly 90 per cent of what goes on in our minds, we don’t directly control.
Now this idea of a divided mind has been discussed for thousands of years. The ancients talked about it, sometimes they talked about the spirit versus the flesh. If you know Sigmund Freud, he talked about a mind divided into three parts, the ego, the id, and the super ego, and even though it’s strange to think about, all of us have experienced that divided mind. Whether it’s the fact that thoughts just pop into our heads, and we’re not sure where they came from, or the fact that we grapple with emotions we don’t fully understand, or dreams, which is basically one part of our brain, producing a virtual reality, and sending it to the other part. Our mind is not one.
Now as much as I love this topic, I’m actually not a neuroscientist, and as I tell people all the time, I’m not that type of doctor, so I won’t make brain science the focus of this lecture. Instead, I’m the type of doctor that’s a social scientist, and as a social scientist, I’m gonna use a metaphor. And this metaphor comes from the psychologist, Jonathon Haidt, who says we should think about our minds as a rider and an elephant. The rider is the conscious self, which does all the high order thinking. The rider can make decisions, it really steers the ship. The elephant meanwhile, is all the unconscious processes, and while the rider can guide it, really, the elephant makes the decisions on where to put down its feet, when to stop suddenly, how to turn. It’s really as much in control as the rider. And if the elephant decides to charge and take off, well, the rider just has to stick along for the ride.
Now the elephant, unlike our conscious mind, can do multiple things at once, whether it’s controlling our breathing and our nervous system, to processing that argument we had with our spouse in the morning, to taking in all the stimuli around us, and deciding what it wants to send up to the conscious mind. The elephant also has this constantly running like and dislike meter that judges every single thing we’re aware of on a scale of good to bad. Now we call this our instincts, or our gut feelings. Whether you’re gonna have fries or salad with that meal, when you’re asked for it on the spot; when you decide in a moment if you’re gonna trust someone or not; when you see – will I take the left door or the right door? We rely on gut feelings to do this. And later, we may go back and try to explain our choice, try to rationalize it. Oh yeah, I decided to have the fries, because I’d eaten a healthy breakfast, and I knew it was okay to cheat. But many times, that’s just us rationalizing the decision after the fact. Really, the elephant chose to move that direction, and we rode along.
Now the fact the elephant has so much control is not such a bad thing, actually. Our internal wisdom, many times, makes the right decision, and it does it much quicker than we could come to that decision if we did it consciously. And when they look at people who’ve actually had damage to the part of their brains that generate emotions, those people suffer terribly, because simple tasks take them hours to decide on, when they don’t have gut instincts or emotion to rely on, and they have to weigh every single consequence. So what does this all matter? Well, it matters because – and this is something conservative politicians have known for decades – because emotions, not conscious rational thinking, drives our decisions. That’s why we had Rob Ford elected in this city. That’s why Donald Trump was elected. It’s not because they had these amazing, well thought out policies, that everyone looked at and analyzed, and said that really makes the most sense. No, it’s because they spoke to people at a deeper level, at the level of emotion.
And that my friends is the level of values. Values are part of our deep set understanding of the world. The schemas we build around what is important, how things ought to be, what is valuable. The elephant knows this, our subconscious knows our values actually even deeper than our conscious mind. And so if you want to inspire people to follow you, if you want them to stay later in the office, to give their all, to sacrifice to get the task done, then you need to start with why. You need to speak to their values, to trigger their emotions, incite their passions, and this in turn will activate their actions. All great leaders understand this, and are able to speak at the level of values.
So how do we do this? And this brings me to my second good idea. If we wanna lead high performing teams, if we wanna change the world, then we need to acknowledge the role of values, and be leaders who are attuned at communicating, building, and inspiring values in others. But I believe to do that, you first have to start with yourself. You really have to do that self work to understand – what are my values, what are the things that move me, and what is it that activates my gut instincts, that drives my actions? And then you have to be able to communicate your core values to others.
And I believe this first step – and some people might disagree with me, find it controversial – but to me this first step is not just an intellectual task, but it means engaging in some spirituality, or if you’re more comfortable, in some philosophy. To me, I think of spirituality as the exercise of searching for and finding meaning in your life. Now as a spiritual person, I believe there is a meaning, there is a truth to be found. Not saying I have that truth, but I plan to spend my whole life seeking more of it. If you don’t necessarily believe in that, well, you can say it’s philosophy. It’s about creating meaning, which is subjective, in an ultimately random universe.
Either way, great values-based leaders have to spend time searching and uncovering their own values. This means asking yourself the tough questions about what you really think of the world, and your purpose, what your life is actually about. It means thinking about what the people who raised you taught you, about the values you got at home, the values you got from your community, and which ones now as an adult truly resonate. And it’s also searching for, and adding new values to the mix, because our values aren’t set.
But there’s this thing called cognitive dissonance. We have a way where we believe the world works, and it actually hurts us to have this idea challenged, and so we tend to avoid processing, or accepting any information that challenges our preset values. So this is hard work, shifting your values and your worldviews is deeply unsettling. And it could be uncomfortable, but it is worth it. But the discomfort is why most people wait till things are bad, till they’re in crisis, till what you thought about the world just doesn’t explain what’s happening, that you’re actually forced to critically look at your values and adjust them. So part really of being a values-based leader, is living, getting out there, failing, picking yourself up, and being self-aware enough to take the learnings, and update your worldview.
For example, when I was 18 I was hired by my local church in Mississauga to be the director of all their summer community programs. They had a drop-in youth center, which was mainly for youth from a social housing community up the street, they had a summer camp, they had a literacy program in the building. It was a big job, hundreds of kids involved, and the previous person doing it had been in their mid-30s. And I got so stressed out by the responsibility, and it just got to me, and it started manifesting physically. One time all the skin on the inside of my hands just peeled away.
Around that time, I started really getting deep into Eastern philosophy, Hindu philosophy, reading the Bhagavad Gita, and there was this idea of karma yoga – that we don’t control the world, that we have to let go, that’s actually an illusion, that ultimately all we control is our intentions, and we need to start to think of ourselves, not as independent individuals, but as instruments for good in the world; not as the actor, but the tool through which goodness manifests. As I started taking on this worldview, and practicing detachment, and taking the ego out of my work, my stress went down, and I was able to lead better. And I came away with new values, created in response to crisis.
But this may all seem a little abstract for some people. You may be thinking, well, I’m not into reading all of this philosophy, I’m an action person. How do I even start thinking deeply about my values? Well, luckily there is a simple starting place, and it starts with storytelling. There’s a man named Marshall Ganz – he is a Harvard professor, he has an illustrious biography. He worked with Dr. Martin Luther King, and Cesar Chavez, and some other great American organizers, and he was the person Barack Obama brought in to help craft the ground campaign for his 2008 campaign through Organizing for America. And Ganz talks about how stories are the way you communicate values to people. That through storytelling, you can directly speak to values, then trigger emotions, and ultimately actions. And I use Ganz’ work all the time, with my staff and with participants at CEE. And he talks about how great leaders craft what he calls a public narrative – a shared power story that can inspire action. And the first set of the power story or public narrative is your own leadership story.
One of my mentors is a man named Gervan Fearon, who’s now the first Black president of a university in Canada, and long-term family friend. And Uncle Gervan, one time when I was in my early 20s, he was coaching me, and he sat me down, and we’re talking about what we wanted to do. I thought it was gonna be like what’s here, and what job next, and he was like, “You’re gonna start by writing your own biography.” And I was like, “Huh, why? Okay, fine.” But it was because he understood that when I did this, I would have to start thinking about what are the key events in my life, what are the key people in my life, what really matters? That I’d be forced to grapple with my own values, to start with discovering my own why.
And pretty much all the inspiring leaders I’ve read now, they have power stories. They have a story of self that illustrates the challenges that have shaped them, the people who inspired them, the values they have, and why they lead. So I’m not saying to be a values-based leader, you have to go out today and have a spirit quest in Algonquin Park for a month, or read Kahlil Gibran for hours on end, till the sun comes up. It might help, but it’s not necessary. But you do need to craft a story of your leadership journey, and through that, you need to examine and tease out your core values. And you need to continually find ways that work for you to keep yourself reflecting on, and deepening, and grounding yourself in your values.
Let me maybe talk a minute about my own values, some of the values I brought to CEE. One of my core values is around the primacy of healthy human relationships. Now I ascribe to a southern African philosophy called Ubuntu, and Ubuntu basically says, I am, because we are. Now for a couple of thousand years in the Western world, thanks to Greek philosophy and its traditions, we have seen human beings as unique, distinct individuals. Descartes later expressed that succinctly, in I think, therefore I am. Ubuntu meanwhile, says we exist as human beings, not as separate individuals, but as beings in relationship with each other. It is through family and community that we become human. And for me, creating and deepening relationships based on love and respect, are the foundational value in my life. That to me is my starting place.
So going from this focus on healthy relationships based in love, I moved to society. And Dr. Cornel West says, “Justice is what love looks like in public.” And so for me, social justice, and being part of creating it is another core value. Beyond that, I believe when we work for social justice, we become part of something bigger than ourselves. And we are part of a movement that is ethically, philosophically, and even metaphysically right. And that this is a movement that will ultimately win. That as Dr. King said, and he’s right, “the arc of history is long, but it curves towards justice.” And it’s a value that says doing justice work makes you part of a historical process. One tiny piece in a chain of destiny that links us to our ancestors, and to those who will continue the struggle long after us.
This value keeps me going, because as I said, this work is hard. Take a young person we’ve coached for five months. They’re on their way to their first job interview, and they literally get arrested before they step through the door to that interview. You see a young person who finally got a job, after months of working with them, and they’re fired two or three days after they get there, and then they block your number, and you don’t talk to them for a year.
It’s hard to do this work, and not be cynical, but this faith that I’m part of something bigger, and that ultimately people are good, and history is moving towards justice, keeps me going. And so I use the parable, when I’m talking, of the sower – that social change work is like throwing seeds, and you throw them out there, some land on the rocks and they don’t grow; some land in the weeds, and they’re choked, but they grow to a certain level; and some land in the soil, and they grow into big trees. But we don’t know. We can’t stick around to watch it. We just have to keep on sowing.
And one of the things where this came home for me was about five years ago. I went to a hip-hop concert. And it was from a local artist, from where I had grown up in Mississauga, and so there was a lot of local guys from community, a lot of guys who went to the church program I was running. And one of the young men saw me, gave me a pound, pulled me in, and said, “Yo, Kofi, straight up, that program, it saved my life.” And I couldn’t believe it. I thought we were just doing basketball and games, and yet it just confirmed that to do this work, you have to accept, you never know the power of what you’re doing. You may never see the results, but you just have to keep the faith and keep going.
And this value, it really held me up in the first two years, when I was founding CEE. United Way hired me to take over a failed program, and create something that could really impact the most marginalized Black youth, and it was so tough getting the program off the ground. And I was in Jane and Finch at the time, and all around me I could see the hardships that the youth we were trying to serve were facing in community. And what I did, one of the things that kept me going was I put one thing on the wall in the office, and it was some words from the Torah. And they said, “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly now. Love mercy now. Walk humbly now. You’re not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”
My last value is around solidarity, and I learned this for my PhD, where I was interviewing and becoming friends with anti-apartheid activists in Canada, the UK, and South Africa. And this is an idea that if we’re working for social justice, it can’t be about charity or a charity perspective. We have to take the perspective of solidarity, and being an ally. And this again was a value I may have learned from speaking to these kind of community elders, but I also learned it through struggle.
So I was a big student activist, had my 15 minutes of fame back in 2005, 2006 when I was at U of T, and there was the summer of the gun, and I helped set up a citywide movement, and we were doing all this great work. But through that process, I started to really recognize my own privilege. The privilege of coming from a middle-class home, the privilege of having two parents who had master’s degrees, of being an able-bodied man who was heterosexual, and as being a mixed person working in the Black community, where I have fair-skinned privilege, and I have the privilege of having a white Canadian parent, who was born here and taught me how to navigate majority culture.
And so here I was recognizing all this privilege, but also being put into the place of a spokesperson for issues that were happening in priority neighbourhoods. And yes, I was an activist for gun violence, but I started to have to try to reconcile this. And I really had to reconcile it, when I graduated in 2007, and started doing work on the ground with First Nations youth in reserves, and specifically in this city in Jane and Finch in connections, or what they call Firgrove. And those youth in Finch who were in their teens, many of them were in gangs, and you’d come in, and they’d be like, “Eff you nerd, why are you here?” “We don’t need you. You think you’re gonna save us?”
I had to step back. I had to struggle with that, and think, how do I, as a person with all of this privilege and social power, do this work that I believe in? And instead of retreating, I realized the answer was to adopt a value of solidarity. That in a charitable framework, it’s all about you have the power, and you’re just giving out of the goodness of your heart to the poor. And it’s a one-way transfer where whatever you give is celebrated, and it’s always on your terms. Solidarity says something else – that we’re in a struggle for justice together, that it’s political; it’s not just a social welfare situation, and that there’s a role for everyone to play in the struggle.
But if we’re working to help marginalized people, we have to realize that ultimately, the struggle must be led by them. It must be centred on their needs, and that they aren’t gonna be saved by us. That actually it’s a mutual process, and many times they are the ones who are teaching us. And this is a value that led me to really work to make sure CEE was representative of the community we served; that we based our work on the voices and ideas of the youth in community; and that we became a person-centred organization, based on the needs that were articulated by our members. And that’s also why we call the young people we serve, our members, not our clients, because we’re not in an economic relationship with them. We are in a community relationship – one of solidarity, and mutual support. So I’ll stop there talking about values, but those were three values at the core of the values that I developed over time, through reading, reflecting, making mistakes, and being in spaces like this, where I publicly had to tell my story.
So that brings me to idea number three – that as a leader, what you need to do is build shared organizational values over time, starting with your own values. Now if we go back to Marshall Ganz, he has three parts to public narrative. There’s your personal story, which can draw people in and show them shared values you have. Then, there’s what’s called the story of us, telling a story of the community you’re in and their shared values. And finally there’s a story of now, which is an unfinished story. It’s the story of the task you as a community face together. So as a values-based leader, you have to get your own story in place, but then starting from there, you have to craft the story of your organization. And you do it collaboratively, yes, but the onus is still on you.
So for example, I got hired in November 2012 to launch CEE. Now things were a mess. CEE came out of a failed initiative, which had happened before. It had been going for three years, and there were millions of dollars assigned, but they just couldn’t get it off the ground. And I walked into a community that was really pissed off. They said, “You guys have been messing around for three years, and you’ve got millions of dollars for our youth, what is happening?” And so there was lots of pressure, and there wasn’t so much support in place. And the folks at Youth Challenge Fund, part of United Way, basically said, “Kofi, just take the money and make it work. And all we really know now about what we want is it should be for Black youth, and it should be for those youth on the margins.”
And so that was the first real organizational value. The idea that every time there’s a shooting in this city, well mainly in the city, or even in the province, but usually in this city, politicians run, and they create a response, and money flows out. But nine times out of ten, that money never reaches the youth who are most at risk, never reaches the youth who are at danger of, or committed that violence. Why? Because it’s simply easier for agencies to work with youth who are high achieving and already engaged, not the young people who’ve got the tattoos on their neck, and are street involved, who have layers of trauma, who aren’t just hanging out at the youth centre.
So I had that value that we were gonna try to work with those youth, those who we say are furthest from the shore. And I also had my own values. But other than that we didn’t have much to start with. And so in the fall of 2012, working at the Black Creek Community Health Centre, I assembled some of the staff I’d brought in to do the initial research. And I got out a piece of chart paper, and I said, “Okay, now we’re gonna put some organizational values on the board.” It didn’t work so well. People didn’t appreciate that process. They were hesitant, we couldn’t decide on things, we went back and forth. And I was like, “What, but I’m being so collaborative, isn’t that great?”
And I realized that people were expecting me, especially at the start, to lead that process; that I was their leader, and they wanted to know my vision. That was what they expected from me. So as time went on, I realized, especially as a founder, you have to put your values out there and use them as a place, a starting point for the organizational values. And then you need to create spaces where people can add their own insights and understandings around them.
And part of that for us, came from doing community research. So over the first year, we spoke to over 100 Black youth in depth, a whole cross section from youth who were part of a Somali youth leadership program to folks who’d just been released from prison, who were in gang exit programs. And there were some consistent themes that came up from those conversations.
One was, the youth said, we like the idea of Black-focused organizations. We don’t feel anything’s for us in the city, something for us is great. But we also don’t want an organization that’s gonna tell us how to be Black. We want it to be a space that respects the diversity of different Black experiences in Toronto – the Black queer experience, the Black Muslim experience, the Afro-Latino experience, the experience of someone who is mixed. They also kept saying to us, the community programs we experienced are not very professional. They’re low quality and they don’t seem to be delivered by staff who are that engaged, or the staff just seem burnt out. So from that, we made sure the next draft of our organizational values had professionalism, and respecting the diversity in our community front and centre. And as we’ve journeyed onwards, values are something we’ve talked about a lot. And we revised them again last year, as part of our strategic planning.
But every day at our office, and Elizabeth talked about this, before we start the day, no matter what’s going on, we do a 20- or 30-minute scrum. And that’s where we all talk about something not connected to work, usually connected to values. And it could be all across the board. Last week we spoke a lot about research the New York Times talked about, about Black men and social mobility, and then we talked about toxic masculinity, and how it’s constructed. We’ll talk about our family relationships, we’ll have fun stuff, we’ll talk about our dreams, nature versus nurture. We’ve talked about reincarnation, the possibilities of alternative realities – we get really out there, all over the place.
But through those conversations together, through group forums we create, through one-on-one meetings I have with my team, through staff retreats where we do things like make power stories and share them, we spend a lot of time talking about our purpose and reason for existing as an organization. Like Sinek says, we’ve talked about “why” a lot at CEE. And I’ve purposely created spaces where values are discussed, so that when we talk about program decisions or partnerships, we’re able to bait them with a common language of shared values. And as a leader, as time has gone on, it’s been less of my responsibility to blatantly put those values out there, but simply now curate spaces where people can deepen them and re-articulate those values in language that makes sense to them.
So talking about staff brings me to my fourth good idea. That once you have these values, you need to hire staff that share them, because the organizational values you create – they’re just words written on a website, if you don’t have a team that can embody them. But this is a real balancing act, and you see, truth be told, I’m a pragmatist. I love values and ideals, but I also believe in results. I also believe one of the burdens of leadership is to deliver results, especially in community sector. You need to give results for your community.
And so that’s why I’m also pretty open, I’m trying not to be ideologically, but I’ll mix truths together. So my worldview, as maybe you’ve seen, it’s shaped by psychology, I’ll pull ideas from quantum physics, take a little bit of Vedanta Hinduism, some First Nation spirituality, mix it all together, try to find something that leads to results.
And one pragmatic reality that a mentor of mine spoke to me about, is the idea that as leaders, we’re always balancing integrity with efficiency – there’s scales. We’re always thinking about sticking to our core values, and how we can get the job done as quickly as possible. And so you can balance it this way. And you can just, you know those people who totally disengage from the world, ’cause they can critique every system and every opportunity as just not being ethical enough. And they can have total integrity in a way, but they also don’t really do much. And we all know the people that can be ruthlessly efficient, and have no morals, but just get things done. And this balance between efficiency and integrity is in everything we do, including hiring.
And for CEE this really played out, because when I started, it was really figuring out that balance between values in staff and experience. And so when I came in I knew that the funders really wanted this to be youth led, and that was exciting, you know, it’s gonna be youth-based energy. So okay, fine, that was important. I also knew from solidarity that it was important to put people with lived experience, and from community, at the centre. And maybe I was feeling a little self conscious of being there as a Rhodes scholar, Oxford PhD in Jane and Finch, leading this community initiative, so I worked extra hard to get people with lived experience.
Unfortunately, what it meant is the first folks we got didn’t have a lot of the technical skills, and work experience we needed, but they had deep community experience. They really understood the community, but they tended to be very young and very raw. Unfortunately it didn’t work so well. It was really tough. The work we were doing was really complex, things worked really fast. A lot of people left, some people had to be let go. We had all kinds of issues.
But as I say, on my journey with CEE, I got an MBA from the School of Hard Knocks. And I started to realize that there was a right balance needed. That yes we needed people with a high degree of cultural competency, who knew the culture and reality of the youth we served, but also we needed a certain level of professional experience in academic training to deliver on what we said we were doing. That values alone wasn’t enough, and that some values, sure, were non-negotiable, because I came to understand, values may take a lifetime to forge, and some technical skills can be taught relatively quickly.
So we came to a point where we said, with attracting the right people, we had to identify what values you had to have from day one. What were non-negotiable values you had to share? And what skills did you have to have from day one? And then what were the skills we’d like to see, but if you didn’t have them, we’re willing to work with you to develop them? So we’ve got that mix, and I think we’re doing pretty good, and once we got that right and got the right people, things took off. But how do you get the right people? How do you find them? How do you find folks who share your values?
Well, one part is that the people find you. I’ll give the story of the two managers I have today, who really help, really run the organization. I do a lot of talking and relationship building, but they, nuts and bolts, they run that. The first person heard me speak about four years ago at a TED Talk in Scarborough, then she reached out to me to have coffee. I learned she was already working in the space, she had her own non-profit, doing community economic development work. A few months later, I came back to her and said, “Hey, I wanna hire a first program staff. Can you be on the hiring committee with me as a community rep?” And she said, “No.” I’m like, “Really?” She said, “No, I wanna apply for that position, because I wanna work with what you’re doing. I wanna be part of it.”
Second manager, he told me when I was asking, “Why did you apply, why did you come here?” He said, “Well, honestly Kofi, it’s because I came to your events, and I spoke to your staff, and I spoke to people in community. And I realized what you were doing – making it person-centred, making it Black-focused – it matched my values. So that’s why I applied to be here.”
And that’s the thing, values-based leaders attract people who share those values. But of course, you also need to test those values in hiring. ‘Cause some people talk a good game in a job interview, and can talk all about anti-oppression, and fighting systems of injustice, and may not actually be like that in actions. Now how do you do it? It’s tough. It’s a lot easier to test someone’s writing ability, than their values.
One of the things I’ll share that we use for front line staff, is live coaching. So for us, a key value is that you’re culturally competent, and that you’re person-centred. And so when we do the interview, we have the normal Q&A, and we always have a young person on the panel, and then we say, “Great. Now for the next half hour – this is so and so, they’re gonna talk about real issues they’re facing, and for half an hour you’re gonna talk to them and coach them about the issue. We’ve got the internet if you need it.” And you tell pretty quickly who actually understands how to do person-centred work, and who really struggles. And the big thing we’ll ask the young person afterwards is how did that person make you feel? Did you feel respected? Did they make you feel comfortable? Did you feel like they actually cared?
Now I’ll come to the last good idea, and that is that you need to focus on policies and practices that live out your values. Now this is a topic that I actually looked at for my master’s and PhD. I was really wondering, how do social justice organizations operationalize the big high and mighty mission statements and values they have on the wall? And so with my master’s I looked up the United Church of Canada, ’cause that was an organization I had links to. I had just worked there for a year. And I’d done Indigenous reconciliation work, and anti-racism work. And so I looked at an international development partnership they had with a radical women’s rights NGO in Zambia, and I wanted to see how did they live out all of their values about partnership?
And I got to go to Zambia, and I interned in the office for a month, kind of figuring out what was going on and interviewing folks. And it was funny, coming out of that, I was able to locate one policy that the folks in Zambia said really made the values live out, and it was about money. It was the fact that the church gave grants that were long-term, and they were kind of like ten-year grants, and they weren’t tied to specific programs. And they said, for them that was the best example of solidarity, that the church cared about right relationships, and that they were actually going against the trend of neo-liberal paradigms, stuff that was preached about all the time in all these documents I read from that organization.
In my PhD, I looked at the different way Canadian organizations practiced this value of international solidarity they talked about, and how they related to the liberation groups in South Africa. And we lived there for seven months, and I got to talk to the actual South Africans they worked with. And it was interesting, ’cause there are different approaches. Some groups felt solidarity meant if the group says it in South Africa, you follow it, no questions asked. Other ones felt, well, solidarity is about following, but you need to be a little more critical, you need to think about who we’re working with, ’cause some of those groups that took that militant approach, ended up supporting groups that 20 years later had no relevance in South Africa. But they were still fighting to the death, saying, “No, these are our comrades, and they know what’s happening on the ground.”
What really came from it was that in all of these examples there was no perfect policies, there was no response that stayed relevant over the years. They always had to be looked at, they always had to be refined. But it meant, coming out of Oxford and starting the work in community, I was really primed to think about how do values play out in social justice organizations.
So I’ll talk about a few ways we operationalize our values at CEE. So the first thing with CEE was we wanted to focus on building a non-profit that was human-centred, and working with the most marginalized. And to do this I had to make a pretty clear choice, to say we’re gonna focus on quality over quantity. If we have this open space with this large amount of United Way money, or Youth Challenge Fund money, we’re gonna use it to do that. And that meant we’ll run programs for nine months, if we need to, with just ten youth. And the whole organization would just be supporting them. Because if someone has just been released from jail, is facing years of trauma or marginalization, if they’re precariously housed, have substance abuse issues, you cannot expect a four-week workshop to really help. You cannot expect real transformation to happen through a webinar. You’ve got to actually spend the time.
And there was tons of pressure, from politicians, from other folks, from observers, saying, you need to do more, you need to get your cost per person down, but I resisted, and now we’ve expanded our scale. Now we work with a lot more young people, but I said, “We will not expand till we really know how to support these individuals. And we’ll build a culture which says, it isn’t just about the numbers game, it’s about quality impact for each person, and to do that it takes time and money.”
We also realized that if you’re about being human-focused, and working with people who face complex barriers, you need to be flexible in your outcomes. Logic models follow linear step-by-step outcomes and processes, but people don’t. Life is way more complex. So our design was always about what does our member need? And even if it’s a culinary program, if through that self discovery they say, hey, what I want is a survival job, and to apply to drama school, then sure, our staff will support them with that with the same intensity they would support them on the conventional outcome of getting a culinary job.
And because a core value was relationship, we also put lots of time and policies into that. For example, we start every program with a three-day retreat. That’s actually where my team is right now, up by Peterborough. And we take the youth outside of the city with all of our partners, even if we have to drag ’em kicking and screaming. No, they usually wanna come, but sometimes there’s hesitation. So we’ll bring the technical instructors, we’ll bring the social workers from other agencies, we even brought the welfare case workers from Test that were working our projects. Whoever’s partnering with us, to be part of the program you have to spend three days living with those young people, and building community with them.
And when we’re there, what do we do? Well, we do power stories. Everyone has to craft a power story, everyone has to share it with each other, including the staff, so we have to share some vulnerability with youth, because we’re expecting them to tell us their whole life stories, we’ve got to tell them a little bit about ourselves. And at the end of that period we can see the results. When you’re on the bus, on the way up, everyone’s mean mugging and kinda looking at each other, got their headphones in. When you’re on the bus coming back, it’s like a family. And from a wraparound support, or service delivery perspective, it’s great, because we’ve done months of trust in three days. So when you get on that bus, people start reaching out to the social workers, and saying, “Yo, I’m living in a trap house, and I think the cops are gonna raid us, can you help me with housing?” Or “Actually I have a real custody issue with my son. Can you help me figure out the options?”
But along with building that culture with members, of trust in relationships, we also take a perspective that the staff are our first members, because to me we can’t say we’re all about relationships and community, and then treat our staff like crap. I mentioned that 30-minute scrum that we do every morning. Another response was a couple years in, I saw it, my team is burning out, this work is really hard. And so what we instituted is that for every staff person at CEE, every summer we close the office for one month, and everyone gets a month off, on top of vacation, just to let people decompress, do growth, and come back to actually work with their full cells.
And this was controversial at first, but I fought for it, ’cause I said, “If we are truly an organization that is focused on meaningful relationships, then we can’t just watch our people burn out one after the other.” And we’re not perfect, but policies like this, plus staff appreciation days, potlucks, all of that is part of workplace culture, that tries to fit our values with how we treat our youth, to how we treat the entire organization, to try to walk our talk.
But once you make these policies and practices as a leader, the question is you must continually analyze what you’re doing, through the lens of your core values. And sometimes those values actually get manifested best in what you don’t do, in the people you don’t hire, in the folks you don’t partner with, in the grants you say, “Yeah, I think I’m not gonna take that, because it’ll lead us in a direction that doesn’t match our values.” So at CEE we’re constantly asking ourselves, does this program, does this practice match who we are, does it match what we believe?
And at first, it was me asking that all the time. Now after six years, I don’t need to ask the question, because the values are shared, and just part of what we do. But we always have to analyze to do better, to chase after the perfection of our values. As someone said, you never live at the level of your analysis, and if you do there’s something wrong. Your analysis or your values should always be chasing after, always striving for.
So in conclusion, I wanna offer that the art of values-based leadership is really just the art of high-quality leadership. And I wanna challenge everyone here today. Really ask yourself, what do you want to do with your life? In your short time as part of this human movement for equal rights and justice, what impact do you want to make? And dig deep, and ask what has life showed you about what’s valuable, and what’s truly important to you?
And then go and ask yourself, these truths that you hold right now, which yes, may grow with time, but right now they’re your foundation, are you seeing them reflected in your work, in your organization, and in your leadership? And if not, then ask yourself, how can you change it, starting today? Because when you’re leading with your values, when our organizations are based in our values, we’re more happy, we’re more inspired, and we’re more productive. And that my friends is how, one small step at a time, moving forward, we can change the world. Thank you.