When I read that Philadelphia Managing Director Brian Abernathy, who was deputy managing director under Mike DiBerardinis during my nine-month tenure as deputy executive director of the Mayor’s Office of Community Empowerment and Opportunity, said he hopes a Black woman succeeds him in this incredibly powerful position, I bristled.
To be a Black woman in a leadership position with the City of Philadelphia is frustrating on a good day, traumatic on a bad one. This isn’t to say it can’t be done. During my brief time in city government, I worked with some tremendous Black women at the commissioner, deputy, and director levels. But the Black women who filled these roles in the Office of Community Empowerment and Opportunity while I was deputy there are gone. Gone from that agency, and all but one gone from city government. During our time working for the city, I, with my fellow Black women colleagues, cried tears of rage as we were forced to navigate gaslighting and silencing baked into the workplace culture. One former boss told me that 33% of the job was putting up with “the bulls—t” and that if I didn’t like it, I was free to leave. I did.
While it continues to attract the talent of Black women (because we love Philadelphia), the swamps that Black female city employees must wade through to be effective and impactful in their positions must be acknowledged, drained, and reconciled. This must happen before we hand the fallout from brutal clashes with a racist Police Department, a global pandemic, and education and economic crises (among a host of other decades-deep community traumas) to a Black woman and ask her to fix it. Let’s be clear: The pain that so many Philadelphians are experiencing right now, the lack of housing, the rage and deep grief because racism is still killing us, the fear of a pandemic that has spun out of control — this is the dumpster fire awaiting the next Black woman to hold this position.
The city’s work culture is one where 1) Black femme leadership is not intentionally developed or cultivated, 2) Black femme leaders are often pushed out of city government altogether, and 3) politicking and back-scratching result in the promotion of men to positions well above their executive capacity, restricting access to roles with greater decision-making power and influence. I ask: How is a Black woman supposed to succeed in this environment? Especially at this moment in time.
Do I want to see a Black woman appointed as managing director of the City of Philadelphia? Absolutely. I believe that Philadelphians will benefit from the unique and exceptional experience that she would undoubtedly bring to the role — because Black women have a unique and exceptional experience (so you can sit down with that “but all experience matters”).
But first, we need to acknowledge that whoever she is, wherever she is, she is not set up to succeed. Black women are more critically evaluated under conditions of organizational failure, and Black women leaders are more unfairly judged as ineffective when organizations perform poorly. The weight, pressure, and expectation lacing Abernathy’s comment does not set her up to be an effective leader. The racism and sexism, that which is overt and that which is hidden behind the walls of cubicles and in squashed HR complaints, has not set her up to win. The world has not set her up to win.
So, Mayor Kenney, recognizing the odds — which I hope we can agree are generally stacked against Black women — and what our community truly needs to pave a path forward through this terrifying time and amid abysmal examples of leadership across the nation: What are you going to do to ensure the success of your new managing director? How will you invest in the Black women in your administration to ensure that the next Black woman in this position won’t be the last?
Cassie Haynes is co-executive director of Resolve Philly, a nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing journalism built on equity, collaboration, and the elevation of community voices and solutions. She has a background in community organizing, public policy, and nonprofit leadership, and is passionate about journalism’s vital role in creating a fair and just society.