New book helps leaders who are seeking to supervise and lead others with, through, and for justice

SANTA ROSA, California – With special focus on social justice organizations and nonprofits, author Rita Sever encourages a unified approach to human resources in her new book, Leading for Justice. Sever, a business consultant committed to advancing social justice causes, curates her advice in this book, helping leaders identify and address challenges in the workplace to help level the playing field and promote equity.

Leading in organizations working for justice is not the same as leading anywhere else. Staff expect to be treated as partners and demand internal practices that center equity. Justice leaders must meet these expectations, as well as recognize and address the ways that individuals and organizations inadvertently replicate oppression.

Created specifically for leaders who care about social justice, Leading for Justice addresses specific concerns and issues that beset organizations working for social justice and offers practices and models that center justice and equity. Topics include: the role of a supervisor in a social justice organization, the importance of self-awareness, issues of power and privilege, human resources as a justice partner, misses and messes, and clear guidelines for holding people accountable in a manner that is respectful and effective.

Written in a friendly, accessible, and supportive tone, and offering discussion questions at the end of each short section to make the book user-friendly for both individuals and teams, Leading for Justice is a book for leaders who want to walk the talk of supporting social justice, in their organizations and in the world.

“Leading for Justice: Supervision, HR and Culture”
Rita Sever | Aug. 3, 2021 | She Writes Press | Non-fiction / Business
Paperback | ISBN: 9781647421403 | $16.95
Ebook | ISBN: 9781647421410 | $9.95

About the Author

Growing up the youngest of six kids in a low-income family, Rita Sever often had the experience of feeling unseen and unheard. She became very focused on hearing and seeing others—as individuals and within the groups that we live and work in. This led her to recognize the uneven playing field that the world calls “equal.” This awareness has been part of her unified approach to human resources and organizational development for over twenty years. She worked as a staff member for nine years at an AIDS organization and another nine years at a community action agency. In her consulting practice, she works with social justice organizations throughout the United States.

Rita has an MA in Organizational Psychology and is a certified professional coach. Rita approaches supervision as a primary leadership function. In addition, she sees the function of human resources and the culture of an organization as essential components of organizational effectiveness. She works with individuals, teams, and entire organizations to help the organization to be in alignment internally as they work to achieve justice externally. Rita works as an affiliate consultant with RoadMap Consulting, a national group of consultants committed to strengthening organizations and advancing social justice. Rita lives in Sonoma County, California, with her husband, Mark, and their dog, Lacy.

In an interview, Rita Sever can discuss:

  • Unique challenges that nonprofits and social justice organizations face and how to address them — The predominance of mainstream white leadership practices in organizations that fight for justice in the world, expectations of staff to be part of the decision-making process at every level, etc.
  • Social justice and nonprofit leadership in the age of COVID, and what a post-pandemic world might look like for those organizations
  • Her work in the nonprofit sector and with social justice organizations, and how that led her to a career in human resources, specifically impacting (and changing) policies and practices that replicated oppression inside organizations
  • How inequity and biases can penetrate organizations, including those that are created to support equity — Impacting hiring processes, promotions, pay and treatment of staff
  • What it means to have a healthy workplace culture, though this is never one size fits all
  • How to give feedback in a way that is more likely to be heard, and therefore effective
  • Recognizing and preventing burnout in employees
  • Why an organization’s mission, vision and values actually matter, and how to bring these concepts into daily work
  • How HR can be an advocate for staff while still ensuring compliance and supporting performance
  • The top qualities of an effective leader — Self-awareness, collaborative, trustworthy, honest, compassion and integrity
  • The top practices of an effective leader — Regular one-on-one meetings with staff; articulating clear expectations and values; giving prompt, specific and effective feedback; active and consistent self reflection; routinely asking for feedback and creating an environment where staff feel safe to give it; listening at least as much as they talk

An Interview with RITA SEVER

What unique challenges do leaders of social justice and nonprofit organizations face?

The unique challenges that I look at in “Leading for Justice” center on the predominance of mainstream white leadership practices in organizations that fight for justice in the world. These organizations are usually very diverse in their staff representation and yet leaders often continue to employ top-down management practices that tend to be exclusionary. Another unique challenge is that the people who staff social justice organizations expect to be included in decision-making at every level and that is not always practical or effective. So how do you include people but not make every decision cumbersome and interminable?

What brought you to this work?

I grew up the youngest of six children and therefore had a strong sense of not being seen; I felt a lot of things were not fair. All six of us probably felt that way. When I started working, I was drawn to work in the nonprofit sector. I wanted to help people feel seen and to make things more fair. I worked in an organization that helped people with AIDS, I worked in a community action agency, and now I work with social justice organizations. Along the way I got my master’s degree and found a career in human resources, and even more importantly learned about racism, privilege, oppression, and intersectionality. I learned how my work could directly impact (and change) policies and practices that replicated oppression inside organizations.

How is your view of HR different from what many people experience at work?

I have heard people tell me that in their experience HR is not on their side; that HR is there only to protect managers and that anyone who complains to HR is deemed a problem employee. This is not the view of HR that I practiced and endorse. HR can be an advocate for staff while still ensuring compliance and supporting performance. HR can be the person, or department, that ensures people are treated well, that concerns are addressed and that managers are held accountable. HR can also be a primary partner in operationalizing values of equity and inclusion. When staff feel respected, heard and engaged, the organization will be safer – for the staff and from liability. I know that many HR departments quietly live these values and practices but our reputation is not always “user-friendly.”

What makes “Leading for Justice” different from other books that center on leadership?

This book helps leaders and organizations bring considerations of equity into their leadership practices. It helps them look at the common practices that favor dominant identities (i.e. white, straight and male), and it helps them weave equity practices into their supervision, their approach to HR and their day-to-day culture. The format is also different in that the book is written in short sections that promote quick reads while inviting reflection and personalization through “Make It Your Own” questions after each section.

How are social justice and nonprofit leadership roles evolving in the age of COVID?

Just like they are for every other organization I think. Most went through a period of time when many staff members worked remotely although there were some staff who continued to show up and do the in-person work in homeless shelters and child care centers. I was tremendously impressed to see how so many nonprofits found ways to retain their staff and keep the work going – even when they could not always physically deliver services. I think there will be more remote work and disbursed work groups as the virus passes; people have learned how to make it work and in many cases found value in being freed of geographic limitations. And in an ironic turn of events, in many organizations, COVID led managers to make room for grief and stress and fear into work spaces thereby humanizing them even as people were physically separated.

At the same time, the Black Lives Matter protests and the incredible organizing efforts in response to the overt white supremist actions and legislation has amplified the powerful work being done by social justice organizations. Conversations about racism and transphobia and sexism are happening in organizations, perhaps at a deeper level than they were previously. BIPOC staff are calling out practices that work against them and many social justice organizations are embracing a vibrant and transformative process to address these concerns. This work can be transformative for both individuals and organizations.

What are the top qualities of an effective leader?

  1. Self-awareness
  2. Collaborative
  3. Trustworthy
  4. Honest
  5. Compassion
  6. Integrity

What are the top 6 practices of an effective leader?

  1. Scheduling regular 1:1 meetings with each staff member they supervise
  2. Articulating clear expectations and values
  3. Giving prompt, specific and effective feedback (addressing what is working as well as what is not working)
  4. An active and consistent practice of self reflection
  5. Routinely asking for feedback and creating an environment where staff feel safe to give it
  6. Listening at least as much as they talk

You mention giving feedback as an important practice for supervisors. What are your best tips for giving effective feedback?

  1. Remember this is just information – information to help the person be successful – not a judgment of the person.
  2. Give feedback on what is working, as well as what is not working.
  3. Join with them – by naming a common goal or commitment.
  4. State what happened; an objective observation – not an interpretation.
  5. Name why it matters – connected to the work.
  6. Identify what you want them to keep doing or to do instead.
  7. After a brief statement of feedback, invite them into the conversation about next steps.

How does inequity show up at work, even when organizations try to support equity?

It shows up in how organizations hire, how they promote, how they pay, and how they treat people. There are so many practices that are inherently biased, if we are not actively working to see and change these practices, we will replicate inequity. And that is what happens when organizations are so focused on producing outcomes that they don’t hear the concerns of their staff and just keep doing what has always been done.

How do our biases sneak into our work as supervisors?

There are as many ways for our biases to sneak into our work as supervisors as there are ways that it can sneak into life. Our biases can directly impact our hiring decisions, our compensation decision, how we do evaluations and how we treat our staff. The assumptions we make about who people are can trigger us to interact in a less accessible manner or we can become more micromanaging with people that we think we are helping. Our definitions regarding work practices can be fraught with white supremacy values. What we mean by concepts such as “common sense” and “professionalism” and “work ethic” (these all sound like neutral words but actually come drenched in mainstream assumptions) which can lead us to mistreat people who have different understandings of those words or who see those words as triggers and racial judgments. We can be subjective in how we apply oversight. We can expect our staff to do things the exact way we would do them, instead of focusing on the outcomes and critical criteria. And of course, we can say and do things that insult and minimize our staff, creating distrust and distance that does not lead to success.

How important is an organization’s mission, vision and values? And how can you make those clear to employees?

An organization’s mission, vision, and values are the blueprints for who they are and how they plan to get where they are going. I believe that every staff member should be able to draw a clear line from the activity they are doing and the mission, passing through the organization’s values on the way. If not, why are they doing it? It is important that the mission, vision and values be an active part of the work and the culture, both in speech and in action. They should be discussed periodically, mentioned frequently and enlivened through the work The BIG leaders need to connect the dots and so does every manager and supervisor. If the mission, vision and values are only named during orientation, then they are stuck on paper and another “HR thing.” They should be part of onboarding in a way that every supervisor talks about them in a real and enthusiastic manner. And they should be part of evaluating the work – for staff and for the entire organization. Are we doing what we say we will do? Are we doing our work in alignment with our values? Are we getting closer to realizing our vision?

What does a healthy workplace culture look like?

A healthy workplace culture is one that supports the mission, vision, values and people of the organization. Culture is not one size fits all. There will be variations based on the work, the values and the leadership. Having said that, most healthy cultures will be grounded in respect and trust, will have standards of supervision that managers are held accountable to, will build a clear and consistent way to invite input from staff on a wide-variety of factors – and the input will be listened to and responded to, will be safe for people to be fully who they are while they do their work (including physical safety and safe from harassment, bullying, microaggressions, and disrespect), will foster growth and learning and in which all staff center the mission and work with engagement and effectiveness to support the mission. On top of all that, joy, laughter and play are always good additions to a healthy work culture.

How can leaders recognize and prevent burnout in their employees?

Burnout happens in all sectors and industries but it is an inherent danger in social justice work because there is always so much more to be done to address the injustices of the world, that it can be hard to feel like we are making a difference. Leaders can make sure that staff recognize the progress they are making. Victories and benchmarks can be celebrated. Staff can be valued and appreciated (both financially and in gratitude). This is a big reason I focus on supervision in my work; I saw what an impact an individual supervisor could have on their staff – in either a position or a negative way. So making sure that supervisors are trained to be supportive and clear, giving people tools and avenues to address problems that arise and most of all, listening and responding to staff concerns will all help to prevent burnout.

When burnout does happen, talk to staff about your concerns. Name what you are seeing. Listen when staff say they are overwhelmed or exhausted. Pay attention to changes in performance, or changes in how they show up. Ask them how they are doing. And listen to what they say. Do you hear a theme here?