Leisha McKinley-Beach has something to say about national leadership in the fight against HIV. And she should know—she’s been working to counter the epidemic for nearly 30 years. The epidemic, she says, won’t change until the makeup of its leadership changes.
“It’s a tough conversation,” she says, “but if we're going to get to the end of this epidemic, the face of leadership has to change so that it looks like the people who are most affected. And Black people are overwhelmingly represented in this epidemic.”
Excluding Black People From the Table That They Built
Even though Black people in this country are disproportionately vulnerable to a large number of health conditions, they are underrepresented in positions of authority at health agencies. For instance, a look at the National Institutes of Health’s leadership reveals that 19 of its 23 deputy and associate directors and 23 of its 27 institute and center directors are white. As McKinley-Beach puts it, “Black people are often excluded from having a seat at the table of HIV leadership.
“Oftentimes, we are viewed as consumers and not as the strategists, mobilizers, or leaders of the HIV movement,” she adds. “And we are expected to show gratitude when we are given a seat at the table. But we have already paid for that table and the house and the land where those strategy meetings are occurring. We have paid for it with the number of Black lives that have been lost and the number of Black people who are living with HIV; and we’re still paying for it with the number of Black people who don’t know all the information that they need to make informed decisions about HIV prevention in this country.”
They Don’t Know They Are in the Way
She is speaking about “founder’s syndrome,” a condition that occurs when leaders of movements refuse to let go of command so that others can continue the mission. Though it happens at countless not-for-profit organizations, McKinley-Beach does not believe that this paternalism comes from maliciousness.
“I truly believe that there are some people in our movement who are unaware that they are in the way,” she says. Whatever one’s awareness or intentions, Kenyon Farrow, the former senior editor of TheBody, says, “We have to seriously think about succession plans for people. The dynamics of the epidemic and communities have changed, and younger folks who are really able to speak to the needs of people [don’t have space] to step into various leadership roles.”
While acknowledging that many activists have spent decades fighting to pass lifesaving legislation, McKinley-Beach says, “There comes a time to mentor and support leaders of the communities that have been impacted the most. There is a season to lead, but there’s also a season to be an ally.”
“I know this is gonna rub some people the wrong way,” she adds, “but the titles and the influence that they have—if they weren’t in HIV, they would not have them. And I understand why it’s so hard to let that go. But if you are totally committed to seeing HIV to the end, you have to acknowledge when it is time to step aside.”
Transferring Power and Continuing the Mission
McKinley-Beach says that she has been “intentional about ensuring that younger Southern Black leaders have the support they need” by steering opportunities their way. As an example, she says that when she is asked to speak on a panel, she will only do so if someone younger and qualified is unavailable. “Thirty years ago, somebody gave me that opportunity,” she says. “Now that I am an elder, it’s my job not to be front and center but to make sure that the issues affecting my community are always front and center and represented by the next generation.”
It’s an essential component of keeping a movement alive. Impactful change rarely occurs in one lifetime, and movements should neither live nor die with one person. “If you retire after 20 or 30 years in the movement without transferring your knowledge, relationships, and connections, then you set the movement back by 20 years,” she says.
Think of the ongoing social-justice movements fueled by a network of grassroot activists who believe in intersectionality and in uprooting every aspect of white supremacy from within our society. If those leaders were pursuing their own legacies rather than progress, then we would not see the incredible inroads that have been made for transgender rights, justice reform, and the acknowledgment that Black lives are constantly discounted. If the same progress in HIV prevention is to advance to the next level, the transfer of power must take place.
Rather than lament lost prestige, McKinley-Beach says that founders have to ask themselves, “Is this about me, or is this truly about ending this for our country?” She says, “If I can’t name women that I’ve invested or connected to resources and people of influence, then I have not done my job.” She calls it “leading from behind” and making sure that the mission continues.
How to Let Go of Power
Knowing when to leave can be difficult, though Farrow says that it helps if “folks in the movement really ask themselves, ‘What role are you playing; are you prepared to make space for other leadership; and are you the appropriate person to hold a certain kind of role?’” Whatever the conclusion, he says, “I would like to see a shift in leadership in a number of different spaces within the movement. ”
When it is time to step aside, McKinley-Beach says that leaders should have the confidence to know that giving up power doesn’t mean taking away from their accomplishments.
“You become an extension of the work that you did and the mentors from your own life,” she says. “All of that becomes part of your legacy.”
And letting go of power does not mean becoming obsolete. “Nobody’s sending us out to pasture,” she says. “Our relevance now is truly about supporting the next generation of leaders [who will] complete the things that we couldn’t. We’ve just got to think strategically about what’s best for the movement. When we do that, it’s easy to transition into our different role to continue the fight.”