Lesley Kennedy, AM 03

Lesley Kennedy HeadshotAs everyone vies for their seat at the table, the real challenge might be knowing what to do with that seat once you have it.

Lesley Kennedy knows what having that seat is about. With a background in youth organizing, she became executive director of the Chicago Girls Coalition shortly after receiving her degree from the University of Chicago Crown Family School of Social Work, Social Policy, and Practice.

After landing so suddenly in a leadership role, however, she encountered obstacles to expressing herself as a leader that often felt insurmountable.

“It’s almost heartbreaking that I can’t go back and implement some of the strategies I know now,” she says. “Even if I had the seat at the table, I didn’t feel safe confronting or acknowledging the biases I felt as a young Black woman. Basically, I put on armor. I hunkered down and rolled with the punches. I lacked the insights and tools to manage the ingrained biases—things as basic as microaggressions—I was facing.”

She now teaches the course Inclusive Leadership at the Crown Family School's master's program in Social Sector Leadership and Nonprofit Management (SSL). What drives Kennedy’s passion for teaching inclusive leadership is that it gives her a way to ensure that her students, when they find themselves in similar situations, will have the tools to stay grounded in themselves and lead authentically.

“But that’s the personal reward of teaching this class,” she says. “I’m able to reach back to professionals and discuss what it takes to establish a sense of purpose and an understanding of your identity. These are issues that become very complex when leaders encounter structural biases in the workplace.”

“I want students to feel empowered to be vulnerable as they chip away at the barriers keeping them from leading from their most authentic place. The hope is that the lessons they learn will provide a rich and grounding experience they can use to orient them in their careers and in life."

- Lesley Kennedy, Instructor, Master's Program in Social Sector Leadership and Nonprofit Management

Build an inclusive environment

Designed for early- and mid-career individuals with previous experience working in the social sector, Kennedy’s class gives students the conceptual underpinnings to lead in an inclusive way as they expand their understanding of themselves as leaders. The goal is to integrate the lessons from lectures and readings into one’s personal experience and to use that knowledge as a way to grow as an inclusive leader.

“People spend their entire professional lives in armor,” Kennedy says. “They force themselves not to be vulnerable and not to be who they are because they fear losing their jobs or not being promoted. In class, we spend time focusing on each student’s particular leadership style and developing the skills to be nimble and adaptable when confronting the complexities that exist within the nonprofit space. It sets the tone for the rest of your professional experience.”

Kennedy notes that there is sometimes a misconception among social sector professionals that their organizations are already inclusive workplaces. After all, the equity that comes with inclusivity is precisely what orients their work in the communities they fight for. Assuming that these barriers have already been overcome, however, leads individuals to put the blame on themselves when biases get encountered. 

“That’s how imposter syndrome develops,” she says. “When you decide that you’re going to dedicate your career to nonprofit work you do it because you have a sense of purpose. You’ve dedicated yourself to helping people change those systems, but when you’re confronted by those very systems in your workplace it makes it very difficult to envision change.”

It is partly why creating an inclusive environment in an organization takes more than just having broad racial representation. Inclusivity involves deliberate action within the culture and it starts with the leader’s commitment to creating an environment in which everyone feels safe to share their experience of inequity.

“These are not conversations that happen all by themselves,” Kennedy says. “The environment has to be built, it has to be fostered and encouraged. There is learning that has to happen for most people to feel equipped to talk about their experiences when it comes to race- and gender-based workplace biases.”

Feel empowered to face challenges

Embarking on this journey requires both courage and humility, as well as a willingness to challenge oneself. To get started, however, it takes a safe environment. When it comes to building that environment in her virtual classroom, Kennedy focuses on creating safety rules and building trust. Each student shares their leadership story and the experiences that have led them to take the class.

“So much of this is about everyone being reflective about what has brought them to do the work that they’re currently doing,” she says. “I want students to feel empowered to be vulnerable as they chip away at the barriers keeping them from leading from their most authentic place. The hope is that the lessons they learn will provide a rich and grounding experience they can use to orient them in their careers and in life.”

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