Takema Robinson-Llewellyn is a mother, entrepreneur, social justice strategist, and avid advocate for Black women and radical self-care. With more than two decades of experience in strategic philanthropy, policy, advocacy, and fundraising, she is the CEO and co-founder of Converge, a social justice consulting firm whose purpose is to accelerate the creation of a radically just new world where communities of color thrive. In addition, after the near-death experience of delivering a son at just 24 weeks, she also helped to form the National Birth Equity Collaborative, which works to decrease birth inequity for Black women across the US by raising awareness of Black infant prematurity and mortality and the growing Black maternal mortality crisis.
Join this conversation as Takema explores her family’s distinguished legacy and talks about how that, coupled with her experiences at Howard University and The Hill, has shaped her and the work she does through Converge. Listen as she discusses leadership, radical-self care as an act of revolution, and dreams of what a radically just new world looks like.
Darren Isom (00:01):
Welcome to Dreaming In Color, a space for social change leaders of color to reflect on how their life experiences, personal and professional, have prepared them to lead and drive the impact we all seek. I'm your host, Darren Isom. I invite you to join me in these candid kitchen-table conversations where, together, we celebrate these leaders' ingenuity, are inspired by their wisdom and wit, and learn how collectively we can all strive to do and be better. This is Dreaming In Color.
Takema Robinson is the CEO and founder of Converge, a national social justice consulting firm whose purpose is to accelerate the creation of a radically just new world where communities of color thrive. With over 20 years of experience in strategic philanthropy, policy advocacy, and fundraising, Takema has built a company that supports some of the leaders in the social sector, with clients like the American Civil Liberties Union, the Ford Foundation, the Packard Foundation, Blue Meridian Partners, and Stevens Spielberg's Heartland Foundation, representing over $100 billion in philanthropic investments worldwide.
Since founding Converge in 2016, Takema has grown the firm to over $3.5 million in annual revenue, and a team of 20 and growing. Takema is an advocate for Black women and radical self-care, wellness, and healing, which she practices daily through meditation, collage, watercolor painting, yoga, and watching the sunset on any beach in Jamaica, where she resides with her beloved family.
Full disclosure, Takema and I have been friends since our days back at Howard. When we connect, I always feel transported to a sunny spot in front of Frederick Douglas Hall, out on the yard, because that's where all the best conversations happened. Hello, Takema. It's great to have you here. It's good to see you, friend. As you know, I start off by offering you the floor for our invocation. Open us up, please.
Takema Robinson-Llewellyn (01:40):
I reach back for this invocation, and I'm sure our conversation will illuminate why. But it comes from Toni Cade Bambara and The Salt Eaters. It is actually the opening scene of The Salt Eaters, and I'm not sure if all the listeners have read it, so I'll set it up. It opens with a healer tending to a Black woman activist who has attempted suicide. The irony is, it occurs in the very space that Verna has created in service of community. The quote is, "Are you sure, sweetheart, that you want to be well? Just so you are sure, sweetheart, and ready to be healed, because wholeness is no trifling matter, a lot of weight when you are well."
Darren Isom (02:24):
Wholeness takes work. Listen, that is rich. You reached way back. That is a perfect setup, actually, for the opening question. So thank you, and we'll talk a little bit more about that. But, that was a wonderful invocation.
Takema Robinson-Llewellyn (02:35):
Darren Isom (02:36):
I was thinking back from a conversation, one I wanted to talk about with you. I said in passing, to my husband, "Oh, I've known Takema since college." You realize, that was a long time ago.
Takema Robinson-Llewellyn (02:46):
I'm realizing it was a while ago.
Darren Isom (02:47):
That was a long time ago. So you start doing the math, and I'm not going to call out the numbers because I'm not trying to age myself. So we've known each other since our days at Howard.
Takema Robinson-Llewellyn (02:54):
Darren Isom (02:55):
Howard is a magical place in general, but we were at Howard at a very magical moment.
Takema Robinson-Llewellyn (02:59):
Darren Isom (03:00):
We were framed between Coates and Boseman. It was a powerful time to be at Howard, and we can talk about that a little bit later as well. But you were a force then. You've remained a force in the best way possible. It's truly been an honor, and just a privilege really, in some ways, to see you cultivate this truly impressive career. But I would love to start by just asking you if you've had that time to reflect, how you feel you changed with the evolving roles? More importantly, how have each of your roles changed how you see yourself as a leader and a world builder?
Takema Robinson-Llewellyn (03:36):
Ooh, a leader and a world builder. I've been on quite a journey. First of all, I was a political science major at Howard, where we met. But, I also double majored in art history.
Darren Isom (03:48):
Oh, wow. I didn't know that.
Takema Robinson-Llewellyn (03:48):
Yeah. Because of Howard's relationship with George Washington University, I was actually able to get a minor in curatorial studies while at Georgetown.
Darren Isom (03:56):
Takema Robinson-Llewellyn (03:56):
Then I stayed at Howard for my art history degree. It was always the essential question from me, whether I was working for Vernon Jordan, who I did work for in the middle of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, and that's a whole story in and of itself, or working on the Hill for Joe Lieberman, who was actually mentored by my grandmother, to studying our history, the central question for me has always been about liberation, and about freedom, and about how we find it, whether it's through the political or the creative. I think that has always been the question in my heart that is woven through the many journeys that my career has taken, from being a curator, an art educator, a founder of a public school, and a school leader, to an activist, and now owning and starting Converge, which is a social justice consulting firm that I run.
Darren Isom (04:52):
Wow. I'd like to think of your starting point as Howard, but you speak about your grandmother, and I think that we all have these rich family histories that we arrive at Howard with, and those histories make us who we are to some degree. Can you talk a little bit more about your family background and how that's shaped who you are in your march towards liberation?
Takema Robinson-Llewellyn (05:09):
Yeah. My grandmother, I always carry her with me. I find myself in many of the same rooms that she was in during her career, and I have that same feeling of, "This, clearly, is where I'm supposed to be." There are these footsteps that have been left for me. There have been these offerings that show me, breadcrumbs showing me the way. A lot of it has been her legacy. I'm proud to say that my family is pretty eclectic.
My family, the Robinsons, have owned land in Massachusetts, where they have a pretty large ranch in the Berkshires of Massachusetts, and have owned that land which was also an Underground Railroad stop, since the late 1800s. So there's a legacy there around land and around Black people trying to find liberation, whether it was the Underground Railroad stop, or whether it was my family, this Black family, who found themselves in the middle of the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts, which happened to be a town over from W. E. B. Du Bois. So in my imagination, somewhere, our families knew each other.
Darren Isom (06:13):
Oh, they did. Of course they did. Of course they …
Takema Robinson-Llewellyn (06:14):
At some social event, right? But I like to think about that, and that I come from a people who have constantly looked for, and saw and built their legacy, and my grandmother being one of them. She was the mother of four, including my father, who went on to be a world calf-roping champion. So I'm proud of that legacy as well. A legacy of a family who invested in the dreams.
We're talking about dreaming in color, right? Literally dreaming in color. How do you become a Black cowboy? Because you come from a family that believes in investing in those dreams. My grandmother was that person, through her support in bringing my father's dream of being a Black cowboy to life, but also through her political work. In prep for today, I actually picked up her resume.
Darren Isom (07:02):
Takema Robinson-Llewellyn (07:02):
And printed it out. I hadn't looked at this in years. It starts off with her community involvement, on her resume.
Darren Isom (07:11):
Takema Robinson-Llewellyn (07:11):
Starts off with president of Ivy Street School Parent Teacher Association. Darren, it goes on to representative to the White House Conference to fulfill their rights, Committee member to the Governor's Conference on Human Rights and Opportunity, Member of the NAACP, member of the Dixwell Congregational Church, Board of Directors National Council of Christians and Jews, Board of Directors of the New Haven Community Foundation.
Darren Isom (07:43):
Takema Robinson-Llewellyn (07:43):
Let's see. It goes on to “alderwoman.” So she was a city councilwoman in the 20th Ward, where I grew up, and she was also the Commissioner for Equal Opportunity in the state of Connecticut from 1964 to 1976.
Darren Isom (07:57):
That's something to be very proud of.
Takema Robinson-Llewellyn (07:59):
Darren Isom (07:59):
It also speaks to so many of us, and I speak personally here as well, as you know, that so many of the things that we are pursuing, it's part of a natural legacy.
Takema Robinson-Llewellyn (08:10):
Darren Isom (08:11):
This is literally what we've been groomed for …
Takema Robinson-Llewellyn (08:12):
Darren Isom (08:13):
To some degree, and not just groomed within our generation, but across multiple generations. Going back to Howard, you arrive at Howard, and it's like, these legacies that have just been going on for such a long time, and a normalization of all these things. Of course, this is literally why we're here.
Takema Robinson-Llewellyn (08:28):
Excellence. Black excellence.
Darren Isom (08:30):
Yeah. That's really powerful, so thanks for sharing that with us.
Takema Robinson-Llewellyn (08:33):
Darren Isom (08:34):
I love your grandma's story. We should talk grandmas, 'cause these grandmas were out here doing a thing.
Takema Robinson-Llewellyn (08:38):
They were. Their stories have just not been told enough, and I'm grateful that they live through us. Part of my journey, as a leader, has been learning those stories, and learning the lessons from their leadership, which take me back to that invocation that have a lot to do with wellness, and what it means to be well, even as we build beloved community, even as we build the lifelines for those of us who are in our communities. Part of our leadership journey is learning how to birth that own liberation for ourselves, to actually be the recipients of our own labor.
Darren Isom (09:14):
That's a perfect transition. A story that I did not think about sharing, but it comes to mind for me, I remember heading off to Howard and coming back to New Orleans and, of course, my grandmother, being my grandmother, invited our church pastor to dinner. He asked me, what sermons did I remember from growing up? There are two that I remember. I'll share the second one at another point. But the one that I remember mostly was, he gave a whole sermon on the Bible's instruction to love thy neighbor as thyself.
Takema Robinson-Llewellyn (09:43):
Darren Isom (09:46):
In the sermon, he mentioned how we missed the important part of that commandment, which is loving yourself.
Takema Robinson-Llewellyn (09:54):
Darren Isom (09:55):
What does it mean to love yourself as an act of liberation, and to model self-love as you think about loving others? Your work is so much about advocating for radical self-care.
Takema Robinson-Llewellyn (10:05):
Darren Isom (10:06):
And really striving to prioritize the practice, in your life, as a model for others. I would love for you to just talk about, what is radical self-care? I know it sounds silly to ask. And, why is it important?
Takema Robinson-Llewellyn (10:18):
Radical self-care is a revolutionary act, specifically as a BIPOC person, as a Black person, as a queer person, as a person of color, as a woman, to decide to love yourself and to do that deeply. I think it is the human journey to come to self-discovery and to understand self-love. But there's a particular journey when I think it is people of color, it is women, it is LGBTQ folks.
So for me, at the core of that question about “What is liberation?” I think what I have found that the answer is there, in radical self-care, it is the journey to loving myself despite systemic oppression, despite circumstances. It is a decision and a stance to affirm my own humanity and to love on myself. Again, it goes back to why I've held on to that quote, because it's also a choice, and it's a powerful choice.
I think the way that capitalism, systemic oppression, is set up, is we are supposed to believe that it's not available to us. It is why one of my favorite characters of all is Dominique Deveraux from Dynasty , the epitome of, "You will put some respect on my name, and I will enjoy this luxury and this liberation, and I will be seen, and I will be heard, and I will love myself, and I will protect myself, and I will be my own savior, and I will create my own liberation."
That's been a big journey for me. Not, I think I should know, because it's my son's birthday, but I think some folks know, and I've shared pretty openly my story, particularly my birthing story of my second son, August. So this journey around self-care, radical self-care, was a slogan I had before that. Then life happened, like it does to many Black women. My son, who is now nine, was born in 2013 at a pound and 11 ounces.
Darren, that's when it became less of a slogan for me and really a calling in to save my own life, to save my son's life. It really reinvigorated how I approached life. Out of that, I birthed Converge and really felt purpose behind our mission to create a radically just new world where communities of color thrive, and where I had to get really real about this question about radical self-care. No longer a notion or a tagline, but it had to become a way of life.
I've been on a journey and it keeps iterating. It has included my physical health, it's included my mental health and, eventually, it included me leaving the United States and being an expat now located in Jamaica. So it's a continual journey. Right now, I'm on sabbatical, and I will have to say …
Darren Isom (13:23):
Takema Robinson-Llewellyn (13:25):
I have not not worked since I was 14 years old …
Darren Isom (13:29):
Takema Robinson-Llewellyn (13:30):
And, I am 46. These three months represent, other than when I had my son and was out for maternity leave, the first time where I get to intentionally rest and recover. So it is a constant journey for me, radical self-care.
Darren Isom (13:46):
Which is humbling. I also just want to pull out your son. How much did he weigh, you said?
Takema Robinson-Llewellyn (13:48):
August Kamelle Madiba Bradbury was a pound and 11 ounces, and …
Darren Isom (13:54):
A pound, 11 ounces, and you named him August. Basically, you named him to fight.
Takema Robinson-Llewellyn (14:01):
You already know, August Wilson. “Augustus” means “his majesty,” so we crowned him accordingly.
Darren Isom (14:08):
Wonderful. I want to just double-click a little bit on that. You talked about this idea, you defined it, you've made it very clear why it's important, and I think you've also modeled it in the work that you've developed and organizations you've started. I would love to get your thoughts on how the sector, collectively, can promote and champion self-care, especially for leaders of color. What does that look like?
Takema Robinson-Llewellyn (14:28):
I want to give folks a lot of credit for struggling with this question, because I think this is one we are all evolving into. I don't want to say I have it perfect, or we figured it out at Converge. So we are really continuing to iterate.
Darren Isom (14:42):
For the record, I just want to note that we are all making it up as we go along.
Takema Robinson-Llewellyn (14:45):
We are all making this up. Some of what I've seen is just creating more space for people's humanity and really allowing that to come through in our organizations. I think COVID was a calling in to all of us around humanity. I think it forced us to figure out how to be more flexible, how to be more understanding, and more empathetic, more compassionate. It sounds corny, but love, bringing this idea of love into the work, into our leadership, into our organizations, is key to creating space.
Because people have to feel like they have permission to take care of themselves. I know a lot of organizations, including my own, have unlimited PTO, and we talk about self-care. Well, we talk about a lot of things like, "We don't like systemic equality," and then we do other things. So, we talk about things that we don't do. So we have to model it, and I appreciate you talking about me modeling it. But it's been critical because, unless I do, my staff, my organization, won't take that seriously. So I have to live it, I can't just talk it. I'm constantly digging deep to figure out what else that looks like.
So compassion, and bringing that and infusing that into the work is definitely where folks begin to create space. But also, making sure that leaders are modeling it, because you can't say it and not demonstrate it. People have to know it's real. So if you are sending emails at 4:00 am in the morning, you are setting the tone for what is expected of folks. If you are not taking time off, if you are leaving time on the table for PTO in your organization, as a leader, you are not modeling to folks that they have permission to really take care of themselves. So I would say both the compassion and love, as well as the modeling, have to be at least the beginning of the conversation about how we do it.
Darren Isom (16:40):
Also, I'd love for you to talk a little bit 'cause I think this is something that I just feel like my squad, in general, do fairly well, just called it out. I think that there's something to be said about, how do you normalize your existence as being a wonderful, beautiful thing? I know this sounds like such a silly thing, and I know we're in a world where we celebrate a little bit too much.
But I've joked with Rhonda before, and maybe even on the podcast, about how when I was in Memphis, folks were just so impressed that I was out. Like, "You're out? You're talking about your husband?" I was like, "Look, how am I going to hide?” first of all. Second of all, why would I hide that? You don't realize how many young people came to me, and they were just so excited to see someone who'd embraced …
Takema Robinson-Llewellyn (17:24):
Darren Isom (17:25):
Their identity. I had never thought about it before. I'm with you. I totally embraced Quakerism, in a sense, there's a little bit of God in all of us. I'm all about celebrating that God. There's some godly things. So I would love you just to chat a little bit about how, in your identity, in your affirmation from a life perspective, there's so many things that we just do naturally that we don't realize how radical they are in the grand scheme of things.
Takema Robinson-Llewellyn (17:48):
We don't. We're just trying to live the truth. For me, finding my liberation, and just often doing it out loud. It takes a lot of courage. I think there are a lot of things about us, our generation, you and I joke all the time about what it means to be Black Gen X, to sit between these two generations, a little bit of the Baby Boomers and a little bit of Millennial.
Darren Isom (18:12):
Yeah. We talk about, in many ways, being an in-between generation. Not only are we connected to Baby Boomers, we were also raised by our grandparents, so we have another generational connection. I would argue, don't tell my mother this, but probably raised more by my grandmothers than my mother. My mother was working, our parents were working.
Takema Robinson-Llewellyn (18:28):
A village of aunties, and grandmothers, and great aunties.
Darren Isom (18:31):
Yeah. What you're speaking to, and I would love more thoughts on is, how do we encourage folks to stay showing up for themselves, and living their truths, and showing up for themselves even while they're operating in roles that often require them to pour so much into others? So how do you get people to prioritize themselves, and what does that look like for you?
Takema Robinson-Llewellyn (18:52):
I think the other thing that you were speaking to earlier, or just asking me to illuminate, we give other people permission to do the same. When we live our truth, or we live into our own freedom and our own liberation, we give other folks the permission to do the same. The truth is, listen, I don't know how to do anything else but be my full self at this point. You and I are constantly having those things, we're like, "Listen."
I think some of the choices that I've made in leadership have not always been co-signed by my mentors, but I think it is thinking about those folks who are looking at me, and the changes that do need to be made, the hard truths that need to be told about how previous generations have worked, the inhumanity of how we have worked in the past, and the courage to say, "I'm going to live my truth. I'm going to share my life. I'm going to share my full self. I'm going to show up in these Jordans for this meeting because my feet hurt, I'm going to wear…"
Darren Isom (19:54):
Takema Robinson-Llewellyn (19:54):
“These locks, I'm going to wear these big earrings and bright lipstick, and I'm going to grace y'all with all this amazingness."
Darren Isom (20:02):
"And, you are lucky to get it. I'm going to show up and show off."
Takema Robinson-Llewellyn (20:06):
"And, you are lucky." I finally got comfortable in that space. I think it was through the revelation of, "What y'all need is all of this. You need this because this person, this Black woman, this Black leader, this Black life, this Black experience, this Black expertise in excellence is what's been missing from this conversation." I think it's just, over time, standing in the confidence that I have something to offer that's unique, and I have a place at the table, and owning it. But that takes time.
I do hope our examples, because it's not just me, it's you, it's a gang of folks. I'm glad you lifted up Rhonda, she's one of those folks too. I think showing folks that they can be their full selves in this work, and they don't have to feel guilty about enjoying themselves, loving on themselves, their self-care because, truly, that is actually what we need you to do. We need you to fortify yourself, to sustain yourself, to love yourself, to be in this work with us. So I get it right, I get it wrong, but I am trying to at least be honest about what the journey towards my own liberation is.
Darren Isom (21:20):
One hundred percent. My mother's favorite quote, "If you love me, take care of yourself. I need you around. If you love me, take care of yourself." My mother says it all the time. You've talked on this a little bit, but I'd love to give you a little bit more space as I go into the next area of questioning, if you will, around this radically just new world. I would love for you to talk a little bit more about how your identity as a mother has contributed to your vision for the future that we're trying to create.
Takema Robinson-Llewellyn (21:40):
Wow. I'll say this …
Darren Isom (21:42):
I know, right? Easy question.
Takema Robinson-Llewellyn (21:44):
Being a mom, since I called out August, I also am a mother to another son who is 11 years old, Kingston Toussaint Bradberry. So, speaking to my Haitian ancestry there. Raising Kingston and August has been a journey. But I think being a mother grounds you in a way that I never was grounded before, it tethers you to the care and shaping of these human beings.
But it has also made me think a lot more about the future and about legacy. It's made me think a lot more about where I sit in that trajectory of my ancestors, as well as future generations, and being able to be directly responsible for the next generation, the next iteration, and the world they grow into. So we hear a lot of people talk about having children, and how it really does bring into focus our responsibility to hand a world to them, so I think a lot about that.
I can tell you, Darren, it is not an easy thing to be a mother, and be a Black mother, in this moment when the world is changing so much. I'm not always sure what world I'm raising them to live in. So many things are changing. I love being a mother. It is the joy of my life and I think without it, I wouldn't have the grounding and also the vision that I have. It definitely has put everything into much bigger perspective.
Darren Isom (23:22):
Well, I do wonder as well, and I tease y'all all the time, out here having kids and the world's looking precarious as hell. So, it's a level of optimism. It's a level of optimism to have a child 'cause things ain't looking good.
Takema Robinson-Llewellyn (23:33):
It is. It is.
Darren Isom (23:34):
So I wonder if there's almost, I wouldn't say a forced optimism 'cause there's no such thing, but if there's a need, in some ways, to be thinking about the future, because you're thinking about the world that you're shaping for your kids to live into, or preparing them to live into and lead into.
Takema Robinson-Llewellyn (23:50):
I'm also thinking about, somebody got to raise some good Black men for the next generation.
Darren Isom (23:55):
Listen, and we do a horrible job of raising men in general as a culture.
Takema Robinson-Llewellyn (23:58):
Yeah. So I think about that as the assignment as well. It's a ball around here, so they're probably outside skateboarding somewhere.
Darren Isom (24:06):
I know that's right. Well, make sure they stay safe out there. Are you in Jamaica now?
Takema Robinson-Llewellyn (24:09):
Yeah, we're in Jamaica. They're out in the garden.
Darren Isom (24:11):
I want to spend some time talking about Jamaica as well, at some point, because why not? But I do want to just talk a little bit more about that radically just new world that you really center a lot of your work around. I’m wondering, what does it look like to achieve radical justice for communities of color? What does it look like? What are we trying to build? What are we trying to create? I asked that question, while you think about it, 'cause as I think about my tenure, professionally, and I don't know how you're 46 because we went to college together and I'm only 36, but …
Takema Robinson-Llewellyn (24:39):
You're right, exactly. I'm sorry, 36.
Darren Isom (24:45):
But I think that earlier in my years, power came from critiquing, pulling things apart. Then, at some point, the flex became created.
Takema Robinson-Llewellyn (24:55):
Darren Isom (24:56):
Literally, that table that you've been criticizing for so long, you're sitting at it, and that table doesn't need your critique. That table needs you to say what it should look like. So I want to give you the opportunity to flex, which is the flex of saying what we're trying to build, what we're trying to create. What does that future look like?
Takema Robinson-Llewellyn (25:14):
So when I think about a radically just new world, I think we're talking about a world where systemic oppression no longer exists, where these false categories of people determine life outcomes. I think that is a …
Darren Isom (25:37):
Yeah, and folks can't see at home that I totally shrugged it up like, "Oh, how radical."
Takema Robinson-Llewellyn (25:41):
That is a just new world. I don't know if it's clearer than that. But ultimately, it is where our humanity is honored. I also think it's a world where folks don't have to suffer for survival. I don't think we talk enough about the unnecessary suffering of folks. Particularly, as much as we talk about race, I think we need to talk about capitalism and what that does to all of us. In many ways, it reinforces racism.
I think that does something to all of us, to have to be put into such a situation where we have to survive for every mill, in a world as abundant, or in a country like America, which is financially abundant. To me, a radically just new world is not a world where we have to do that. Someone posted the other day, I want to say it was something from the early 1900s which predicted, in 2023, we'd no longer be working a 40-hour work week.
Low and behold, Americans are averaging 50 and 60 hours still. So to me, a radically just new world requires a vast imagination. I am so excited to live at a time where people are interrogating that, and interrogating all of it, whether it is the conversations around gender, or the conversations around borders, the conversation around race, or the conversation around how democracy is structured, or the impact of capitalism.
So I think we're at a really profound time when folks are beginning to tap into their imagination to draw, it's not just what we don't want, to your point, it's what do we want? So I know what we don't want. I think we now need to do the work of accessing our imagination to really create what we want.
Darren Isom (27:49):
One hundred percent. Remember Dr. Thornton at Howard?
Takema Robinson-Llewellyn (27:54):
Darren Isom (27:54):
Dr. Thornton was an advisor for me, just a brilliant Howard professor who had both the cynicism and optimism that comes with being a wise Howard professor. I don't know if it was a class, or if it was an honors program, something or another, he said that, "America's founding documents were perfect when they said that all men were created equal. We just spent our country's history deciding who is a man." That sits with me often.
So we have a very clear sense of what liberation looks like for a specific group of people. The question is, how do we expand that sense of liberation to include all of us from a race perspective, from a sexual identity/sexual orientation perspective, immigrants, children, are they men that are all created equal as well? So how do we expand that definition when it's powerful? I do think that requires some re-imagining, but it also requires us to look at what's here already, and how do we celebrate that?
Takema Robinson-Llewellyn (28:43):
It's not just a civil rights struggle. We're talking about a major culture shift. So we can pass the policies, but we still have to change hearts and minds to create a radically just new world. The way in which we've internalized this mess, it is hard to access our imagination to know what we want, not just what we don't want.
Darren Isom (29:07):
One hundred percent. This idea that, ultimately, there are two types of wins. The policy wins, and then there are the kitchen-table wins, and you have to have the kitchen-table wins to sustain the policy wins. At the same time, you have to have the kitchen-table wins that allow those policy wins to even happen. So I think that there's a kitchen-table conversation that requires some re-imagining of how we think about these things, how we live into those things. I do want to get your thoughts …
If I stop and think about it, I was watching the Pelosi documentary a few days ago. First of all, Pelosi's badass. I'll leave it at. You know how California does. Also, shout out to Baltimore. But as part of that, we're walking through both the Trump years, followed by COVID years, which we're still living through, and we had a civil rights movement smack dab in the middle of it, that I hope we start to talk about at some point. The narrative has shifted in a way. So I would love for you just to maybe chat about, clearly, there's lots of work to do. Any positive signs that you've observed in recent years that show we're currently moving in this direction towards a radically just new world?
Takema Robinson-Llewellyn (30:12):
Darren Isom (30:13):
Give us a hope lifeline, please.
Takema Robinson-Llewellyn (30:16):
Absolutely. I absolutely have hope. I remind myself, I remind the folks I work with, that they said it was a long arc. But I also believe that that north star is on the horizon, and I believe that because of these coming generations. I believe it because of the young people, the millennials who are pushing my thinking, the Gen Xers who are pushing their thinking, and my children and their friends, who are growing up completely different than we are.
They're not going to have the same level, even psychologically, in terms of limiting beliefs. I was working with some of the organizations in Georgia around the midterm elections, and it was always interesting to watch the numbers every week on the number of folks eligible to be registered to vote. Just thinking about the fact that every single day, this country is getting younger, it's getting Blacker, it's getting more female, and more queer. That is the hope on the horizon.
Darren Isom (31:30):
The starting point is just different.
Takema Robinson-Llewellyn (31:31):
Not to say that demography will eliminate these issues, but it changes the conversation. I think that young people are, in the same way every generation has done, they are really advancing this conversation. I think that plus technology is expediting this change. It is exponential. So to me, that's where the hope is. Not necessarily in technology, but in young people, how they're using the technology, and how that has the power to do culture change.
Just think about, it wasn't just the pandemic, but we also experienced a civil rights struggle, but also an international global human rights struggle where one country was instigating another. So we see how that can work in the positives, what we saw happen all across the country as we were experiencing those flare-ups here. But we also see how that can happen in the adverse. Think about Brazil. Those are some of the things that I think about when I think about hope. Some of the things, maybe because you asked me about being a mother, I don't feel like I have an option but to look for that optimism. But I believe it's there. It is there.
Darren Isom (32:50):
Yeah. Well, I think it also speaks to, from a generational shift perspective as well, is this whole idea of risk, and what risks looks like within the work, within philanthropy, within social justice work, defining risk. I would love to just get a sense, in your mind, what is at stake when social change leaders and philanthropists do not take risk for radical justice? We have to redefine this language around risk because, first of all, I don't know what's at risk. We have this bar around risk that's unrealistic. So what's at stake when we don't necessarily think about taking those risks from a radical justice perspective, and how do we normalize that for others?
Takema Robinson-Llewellyn (33:25):
What's at risk is the status quo.
Darren Isom (33:29):
And, the status quo ain't working.
Takema Robinson-Llewellyn (33:30):
What's at risk is more of the same. I think the irony of even taking my grandmother's resume out to read it, she was working on the same damn thing. You know what I'm saying? We have come at this so many different ways. We can't engineer change. We can't socially engineer it. We have to be about it. We have to do it. So if we're not willing to take risk, then we're settling for the same. To be honest, I don't think philanthropy has always been benevolent in its investments, or in its risk management profiling.
So to me, we have to go back to, why was philanthropy started, and who was it started by, and what is it really up to? It begs those questions, when we're really not interested in investing our money where we know we need to do so. There also comes, and we've had this conversation quite a bit, a lot of paternalism around who gets to decide what that risk profile is, who's the judge, and who creates the criteria, most of which is riddled with the racism and systemic issues that we've talked about.
Darren Isom (34:47):
How can philanthropists make space for Black women and women of color to assume leadership roles and to form their practices as philanthropists? I ask this question because we've had a bit of a movement within the country, Black Leaders Matter. We've handed folks some leadership roles. At the same time, however, we have also handed Black women keys to condemned houses, with expectations of they're fixing it all. From Supreme Court …
Takema Robinson-Llewellyn (35:16):
Sistas are tired.
Darren Isom (35:16):
To cities. It is …
Takema Robinson-Llewellyn (35:19):
I'm a mess.
Darren Isom (35:19):
Here's your key. "What are you handing me a key to, and what are the expectations?" What's philanthropy's role in setting people up for success, as it relates to carrying out this work in a way that's meaningful and powerful?
Takema Robinson-Llewellyn (35:31):
I don't know where I said this a long time ago, but this has floated out there. Would we have asked Rosa Parks to submit a grant application? Imagine if she had done so, was still waiting to hear back from philanthropy about whether or not they could move on the Montgomery Bus Boycott. So I think we have to trust Black women. Again, that is not a slogan. It is about creating space for their leadership. It is affirming that their expertise, their excellence, their experience, is what's needed uniquely in leadership. It is recognizing that our preparation is not just in the universities that we attended, but we've been prepped since Junior Usher Board and …
Darren Isom (36:20):
Takema Robinson-Llewellyn (36:21):
Since we was going to church with our grandmother about how you roll up on a community, how you have conversations, how you know who is who, what is what, and how you translate the needs of community into action. So I think that particular expertise of experience needs to be affirmed, and there needs to be space created for it. Just like what you said in the prep, "Fund us like you want us to win, then support us like you want us to win. Make sure we have the resources and then some, because our leadership may require overcoming some things that other folks’ leadership does not."
So I think it is imperative to recognize the unique qualities that Black women bring to this work, and to see and affirm those as incredible assets, and to make sure that we are given the resources to really do the job you're asking us to do. I've had this conversation with many a sister who's been in that place, and gotten those phone calls, and gotten those offers, but we also have to be careful when we accept them, that we are making it clear what our worth is, but also what we need. There is what we need in terms of carrying out the tasks, but what we also need is a support system, and we also need coaching, and we also need support for our leadership. So making sure that is also part of what organizations are looking at when they support Black women leaders.
Darren Isom (37:54):
One hundred percent. I do have a question for you, and one of the things that's really been on my mind, and we're both big jazz fans. So Duke Ellington, one of my favorite pieces by him is the Three Black Kings. It's a beautiful piece. I knew my grandfather was a big jazz head, and I knew it as a child, listened to it growing up, Alvin Ailey dances to the piece. I didn't learn until only recently, about a year or so ago, that the piece, which is possibly Ellington's best composition, he actually dictated from his deathbed.
He never heard the piece performed. As he was dying, he dictated the piece to his son, who scribed the piece and produced the piece after his death. That story's just beautiful to me for a number of different reasons. One, Duke Ellington's a damn genius 'cause the piece is genius. I can imagine him humming it as he's dictating it out loud. But also, it reminds me that so much of our work as leaders of color in this space is about putting out ideas that we know we will never see come to fruition. There's something beautiful that we're throwing out into the world in hopes that future generations can grab. There's been so much talk. But as we read now, Octavia Butler, she was giving us instructions, child, right?
Takema Robinson-Llewellyn (38:57):
Yes, she was. Leaving those breadcrumbs.
Darren Isom (38:59):
Right? So I would love to close by asking you, what instructions are you hoping to dictate, if you will, in your work that future generations will pick up, and live with, and run with, and make sense of, that may not happen in the next 10 years, or 15 years, or 20 years? That may not be relevant for a while. Anything come to mind?
Takema Robinson-Llewellyn (39:17):
I hope the lesson of my life is that self-love and self-care is really what this time on earth is about, is learning to love ourselves deeply. What I want to leave for those who choose social change as a vocation or as a career is, it is required of you if you are going to do this work. You cannot love the people unless you love yourself. So I hope my legacy is one of being a legacy builder and one who saw her own liberation and the liberation of her people.
Darren Isom (40:03):
That's the wonderful way to close. Thank you for that. Just reminded of, all of us as we carry out this work, just a Thomas Paine quote, “The times have found us.” Here we are. This is the times that we were created for. Let us slip into them and make the most of them.” Thank you, friend.
Takema Robinson-Llewellyn (40:16):
Darren Isom (40:16):
This is beautiful.
Takema Robinson-Llewellyn (40:18):
Darren Isom (40:18):
It's very restorative for me. Hopefully, it was healing for you as well.
Takema Robinson-Llewellyn (40:21):
Darren Isom (40:22):
I look forward to seeing you out in those streets.
Takema Robinson-Llewellyn (40:24):
On these sabbatical streets for the next two and a half months.
Darren Isom (40:26):
Well, yeah. I'm not going to see you on any streets in the next few months. I'll see you on the streets post-sabbatical.
Takema Robinson-Llewellyn (40:31):
I'll be on the beach. I love you, friend.
Darren Isom (40:33):
Love you too. Season one of Dreaming In Color started with a conversation with my friend and mentor Urvashi Vaid, a mentor whose wisdom, optimism, and faith reaction shaped so many of us, giving us both a sense of belonging and purpose in this beautiful struggle. Urvashi co-founded the Donors of Color Network. Although she couldn't attend their annual event in New Mexico in spring of last year, a few months before her death, she closed out the event by speaking by Zoom at the final session.
And as she looked out at this group of BIPOC philanthropic leaders, who'd been together for over two days discussing the fate of the world and mapping out our path forward, it was obvious that we were all a bit weary and dispirited. The world's an absolute mess right now, and any conversation on making wrong right is a laborious one, even for the brilliant minds they'd assembled.
"I know the world feels overwhelming right now," she told us, "And it's easy to feel dispirited. But I want you all to know that we are winning. This is what winning looks like. Winning looks like chaos when you're uprooting broken systems and creating new ones. Keep pushing. Look around the room. This is what a winning team looks like." I hold onto those words as a call in, and it's probably why I've told this story so many times over the past year. I tell this story any chance I get.
There's a Haitian Creole proverb I learned many years ago working in Miami the summer after my junior year of high school. "Dèyè mòn, gen mòn": beyond the mountain, more mountains. An expression that, despite its sisyphean-like cynicism, actually has a joyful, celebratory connotation. It is only after making it to the top of one mountain that you can break from climbing to see the mountains to come, celebrate the path ahead, and be ready to continue the journey. The road to victory is only visible from the mountaintop.
As I spoke with Takema, who was just starting a long earned sabbatical, sitting in her home, perched on a hill in Jamaica, speaking of her family's long legacy of activism, I was reminded that our success as a community is a multi-generational journey, a long-distance run where the quality of the rest is just as important as the quality of the sprint. Where radical self-care is critical to both endurance and performance.
In her poem “Fire,” Judy Brown tells us of the importance of space in building fires. "What makes a fire burn is space between the logs, a breathing space. Too much of a good thing, too many logs packed in too tightly, can douse the flames almost as surely as a pail of water would. So building fires requires attention to the spaces in between, as much as to the wood. When we're able to build open spaces in the same way we have learned to pile on the logs, then we can come to see how it is fuel, and the absence of fuel together that makes fire possible."
Or, as my mother often closes out our phone calls, "Remember how fires burn quickly, dear. If you love me, please take care of yourself." It's only fitting that I close out season two with Urvashi’s words from the conversation that opened season one: "Those of us who are running towards liberation, towards the vision of a different social and economic order, we are one team running our relay race together, handing the baton back and forth to each other all the time. It's in our collective that we find our strength and our purpose. It's in our collective that the race is won."
Here's to that beautiful collective, the path ahead, and to victory. Here's to creating space for that fire to burn onward. Well y'all, that's a wrap. While the episode is finished, the work continues. Thank you for tuning in and listening generously to Dreaming in Color, a Bridgespan-supported StudioPod Media production.
Special shoutouts to our wonderful show producers, Teresa Buchanan and Denise Sevas, our video editors, Dave Clarke-McCoy, Diana Roy Dailey, and Alejandra Ramirez, our graphic designer, Deanna Jimenez, and our show coordinator, Nicole Genova. And a huge shoutout to our ever-brilliant Bridgespan production team and family: Cora Daniels, Jasmine Reliford, Ami Diané, Christina Pistorius, and Ryan Wenzel. Be sure to subscribe and leave a rating and review wherever you listen to your favorite podcast. Talk soon.