Centering Joy and Connection
Emma Mayerson Headshot

An Interview with Emma Mayerson, founding Executive Director of Alliance for Girls in Oakland, CA.

Alliance for Girls (AFG) mobilizes girls’ champions to address barriers facing girls, create conditions for their success, and advance systemic change to achieve equity.

Sande: What do you know now about leadership that you wish you knew when you started in your role as executive director?

Emma Myerson: There are two things I want to talk about.

The first is, “When things get hard, look up, don’t look down.” Fiona Ma said that to me and it really stuck with me.

When I’m going through a time where there is a lot going on, and it’s stressful, scary and intense, I have a tendency to want to just put my head down. The more stressed I get, the more I tend to bury myself in the work.

When I’m in those moments, it feels like I have no time, and I want to be really busy so I can get all these things done, and I tell myself that I’ll come out in a month when things have gotten better. But that can be a dangerous mentality because if that carries on for too long, you start to isolate yourself and if you’re the leader of the organization, you’re isolating the organization too.

The thing is, burying yourself in the work is NOT the best way to solve problems. The best way to solve problems is to reach out to people, to ask them for support, advice, and thoughts. Neither people nor organizations do well in isolation.

Organizations flourish when they’re in the flow of social movements and in the flow of the work, with people thinking of you and knowing what you’re going through and saying your name in the right room because they just had a conversation with you and you just mentioned you were trying to do something. That’s how organizations grow and that’s how people grow.

It’s in those moments where the work feels overwhelming and the stress is all-consuming that it’s more important, not less important, to lift your head up and actually talk to people.

I’ve definitely gone through ebbs and flows with this.

When I first started Alliance For Girls, I was good at keeping my head up, which helped me to start the organization. I had been working at the Women’s Foundation of California before I started Alliance For Girls, so I had all these relationships I could call upon.

For example, I could go to Judy Patrick, then-CEO of the Women’s Foundation, with a list of foundations I needed introductions to and ask, “Who do you know on this list?” And she’d say, “I know this person, this person, this person.” and she’d introduce me to them. So all of a sudden I had an introduction from the CEO of the Women’s Foundation, which allowed me to get a meeting even though I was a 24-year-old nobody trying to start a non-profit.

In the beginning I was also good at talking to my personal advisors and asking for help and getting support.

But then in the big growth periods, where the work kind of piled up, sometimes I’d stopped doing that. And then I’d get enveloped in the work thinking that I just need to get this done, and this. That could go on for a year before I’d realized that I have to find time and capacity to get back into my networks, into my people, because that’s actually my job.

The second thing that’s really important is maintaining my joy. When I first started Alliance For Girls, I was good about saying, “I’m going to dance class, I’m not available. I don’t care what’s happening.” Or, “I’m going on a run with my friend, I’m not available.”

Then we’d go through big growth moments and I would think, “Grant reports are due and well I don’t have time right now to go for a run.”

Carrying on that practice too long can be dangerous. Not only because you’re not making time for self-care, but also because as a leader, it’s really important to be adaptable and creative and you cannot maintain adaptability or creativity if you do not center joy.

That’s one of the main reasons I’m on sabbatical right now. I have to center joy. I have to talk to my people. I have to have creative conversations that spark something I never would have thought of. I have to make sure we’re part of the conversation, and folks are thinking about Alliance for Girls and connecting with us. That’s actually how growth happens — not by sitting at your computer all day.

Sande: What else would you say about what it means to ask for help in your role and who do you turn to?

Emma: The number one thing I tell staff when I’m onboarding them is you need your own personal advisors. Not all the answers are going to come from your supervisor. Not all the answers are going to come from within the organization.

It’s important for each staff member to cultivate their own network of personal advisors.

Every single person, not just the leader, every single person should have that. Because sometimes you have questions that need to be asked of your advisors, not just your supervisor. There are some things advisors can tell you that your supervisor might not think of. Your advisors can support you in different ways.

No one can have just one person helping them think things through.

Pay attention to who you jive with. When you have a conversation with a person and you leave energized, and they leave energized, those are the people you’re searching for.

Of course, Alliance For Girls is particularly well-positioned for this because we have so many people who are running incredible organizations who are part of our member network. So I say, “Meet members, make sure you take them to coffee or to lunch and find those people who are going to be your people.”

Even if it’s just three or four people, because you can get a lot from three or four authentic relationships, and it doesn’t have to be someone older or younger or the same job title, higher job title, lower top title.

Just pay attention. Who inspires you? Who engages you? Who can help you think things through and who can you help think things through? Those are really powerful relationships.

When you look at schools and universities, relationships and connections are the number one thing they sell in their programs. But universities are not the only avenue for creating peer networks. You can create that for yourself everywhere you go.

I think the most important thing is that networks are key to success, and they’re not just owned by the executive director. They need to be owned by every single person within an organization.

Especially with younger people coming into organizations it’s important to be explicit about that, because they might not know that’s part of the work.

Sande: What’s important about leading change and how do you think about change?

Emma: We’ve had a lot of change. Over the past ten years, we’ve grown from a staff of one, then two, then three to a staff of 11. And our budget’s grown from $80,000 to $300,000 to $800,000 to to $1.7 million currently. A lot of change has had to happen both internally and externally.

Through it all, I’m always asking, “What are we truly excellent at?” and, “How do we make sure our resources and energy are going toward what we are excellent at, and where we’re most needed?”

That’s a question I think is not centered enough, “Where does the community need us?” Not, what do we think we should be doing? Or what’s logical to be doing? Or what, in an ideal world, would make the most sense for us to be doing?

What is the community telling us they need? Where are we needed? And how do we know that’s where we’re needed? Those are the questions to ask.

We do a lot of research. So do we know we’re needed because of our research reports where the girls have told their stories and told us this is what’s needed? Or do we know because we’ve had 10 meetings where members keep saying the same thing and that’s how we know it’s needed? I’m constantly asking, what signals has the community sent? We need proof.

Too often the way that strategy is conceptualized is sort of logical, but in a vacuum.

I think the at Stanford with their design thinking work starts to get at this issue of paying attention to community. You start by asking those questions about what the community needs, not just at the beginning of a process, but throughout. It needs to be constant and centered in how you do the work.

It’s unfortunate that it took white men at Stanford putting a name to something for funders to pay attention, because that’s not where it started.

The most underfunded organizations are the ones that are running these community based models founded by, or led by, women of color.

I want to emphasize that this model is not in any way unique to Alliance For Girls. And it wasn’t started with design thinking.

The more that I learn about our membership, the more that I see organizations that especially were founded by and led by women of color are often the ones that have been doing this forever — being responsive to community, listening to what the girls actually need and creating programs that are responsive to that.

When Alliance For Girls does our work this way, we are learning from our members and we are learning from women of color who’ve been doing this forever.

When I started Alliance For Girls, that was a very, very hard model to get funding and respect for. I think one of the reasons we’ve grown from three staff to 11 staff so quickly is because concepts like design thinking, trust in community, trusting people of color, trusting young women, are sort of starting to be more accepted in mainstream funding circles.

There are also more touchstones that people in power have that make it possible for them to respect that kind of model. That’s another reason we’ve been able to grow – I built out ways to have the model align with people in positions of power.

For example, our research and our reports are almost like code switching. The content in our reports are things that people in community have been saying for years. But, institutions of power don’t have strong mechanisms for listening and responding to their constituencies.

I realized that creating reports was a way for girls of color to have their voices heard and respected.

Our very first report was valuing girls voices. To read Alliance for Girls’ reports, and learn more about how AFG uses research to inform advocacy, see here.

Sande: How does racial justice play into your leadership practice?

Emma: My thinking has evolved a lot. When I first started, I thought leading with racial justice in mind meant ensuring that decision-making was shared with people of color who worked within my organization, so that I wasn’t making decisions alone.

Then my thinking extended the idea that if the purpose of AFG is to impact the lives of girls through a collective strategy with our members, the only way to do that is to ensure that those most impacted by race and gender oppression are defining strategy. I can’t sit here and define strategy. And so that was how we really developed our model to have girls of color at the helm defining strategy for AFG and for our membership.

And now, I’ve learned a lot more about racial justice since then, and the more I learn, the more excited I am. Because I’m seeing, learning and understanding that there’s another way to operate – a way that has been led by women of color for centuries.

This way of operating is deeply relational, and values people above product at all times. And people above product at all times is so fundamentally different than what we’re used to.

It’s hard to execute because it’s not what we write in grant reports. It’s not how we apply for funding, which asks questions like how many people did you serve, and what’s the data about how they’ve changed?

The grant proposals aren’t asking how do you make sure every person who walks through the doors is held and respected as a person? Or how are you centering joy and freedom in the work.

The other thing that is powerful is this idea that when you you walk into your office the work starts and when you walk out of your office, the work stops. That idea is very white, and is often real only for white people with privilege or people who are removed from the oppression and discrimination of the people they’re serving.

I don’t think that’s actually a productive way to do the work because the work is from the minute you wake up to the minute you go to bed. And if you think of it that way, you have to operate at a different pace, a pace that includes rest and rejuvenation and joy because otherwise, how could you possibly withstand it?

This work is about who each of us are, deeply and authentically.

If we own this idea that it’s sunrise to sunset, that the work is fluid, then it’s actually liberating because it necessitates a new work style that centers community, joy and rest. It forces us to do the work at a pace that allows us to sustain it for a lifetime, all of us.

This way of working includes people of color in leadership defining strategy. It includes those who are most impacted being those with the most decision-making power.

This is a new way of being that I find exciting. When I started to read works by the women of color who have led this movement, I wondered, “Is this possible? Can we really live this way? This would be an incredible way to live. And it would solve a lot of our world’s problems.”

One of my colleagues shared this quote by Arundhati Roy, “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”

That is how I feel about the possibilities of a society that understands the true promise of racial justice and how healing that would be for our world.

Sande: Thank you Emma. It was such a joy to speak with you.

This interview is part of my Defining Leadership: Conversations with Women Leaders series.


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