After months of nationwide protests against police brutality and systemic racism, along with a pandemic that highlights healthcare inequalities and a polarizing election, Kiantha Duncan will step into the role of president of the Spokane NAACP during what she calls the “perfect storm of a lifetime.”
When elected president last month, Duncan went to her uncle Wendell Harris, who serves on the NAACP national board of directors, for some advice.
“He said, ‘You have to be really strong right now. More than any time before, you have to be a strong leader to handle this time. If you don’t, who will,’” Duncan recalled.
That message is something Duncan has shared with the NAACP’s executive committee as well.
There would be no Spokane NAACP if 100 years ago the founding member had said they couldn’t handle this, Duncan said. Without those founding members the organization wouldn’t be where it is today, and the door would not have been opened for Duncan or any of the executive committee members.
“If we don’t do something in the now, 100 years from now, those people’s experiences will not be any better,” Duncan said.
Duncan was born and raised in Milwaukee, one of the most segregated cities in the United States, according to a 2018 Brookings Institution study.
“That is where I learned to pay attention to the differences that are in this world and how people of color are really treated differently,” Duncan said. “Because my community was completely separated from anything white or Latino or anything, it was Black only.”
Duncan spent most of her career in nonprofit management working for organizations including the YWCA of Seattle/King County and the Salvation Army.
Through those professional experiences, Duncan developed what she calls “soulful leadership,” which she defines as leading from the heart with consideration of the spirit of those you work with, and leading from the mind, using tools like data as a guide. Duncan is writing a book on the subject, which touts the idea that soulful leadership, especially in business, isn’t just considering the bottom line but being conscious of the harm that is being done to the community or world through a product or service.
About six years ago, Duncan moved from Seattle to Spokane to be closer to her partner Sylvia Brown.
Since then Duncan has become involved in numerous organizations including Better Health Together, the Black Future Co-op Fund, United Way and Washington STEM’s people of color caucuses, Terrain, and the Carl Maxey Center.
Duncan serves on the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence board, the Spokane Public School’s Diversity Advisory Council and was appointed by Gov. Jay Inslee to the Community Colleges of Spokane Board of Trustees last month.
About two years ago, Duncan attended an event at Gonzaga University that was put on by the NAACP and the Black Student Union. There she heard outgoing NAACPPresident Kurtis Robinson speak.
Duncan was impressed by Robinson’s passion and dedication, so she asked if she could help. A few months later, Duncan became member-at-large and eventually became a vice president.
Then Robinson decided it was time to step aside. Duncan was elected president and asked Robinson to stay with the organization. He will now serve as vice president. Collaborating with Robinson, Duncan said, will hopefully add to the momentum of the “great work” he has already started.
Duncan will be one of the first openly lesbian chapter presidents of the NAACP nationwide.
“That’s not surprising because the NAACP, historically, is an organization that was founded with the Black church as the primary partner,” Duncan said. “And theBlack church has never been particularly fond of, or in agreement with, LGBTQ folks, ever.”
In 2008, Alice Huffman, as president of the California State Conference of the NAACP, told the Bay Area Reporter she pushed the organization to pass a pro-gay marriage resolution and failed multiple times. Huffman even faced backlash for testifying in support of a marriage equality bill.
Ravi Perry was elected president of the Worcester, Massachusetts chapter of the NAACP at just 28-years-old. He was one of the first openly gay chapter presidents.
In 2012, the national organization endorsed same-sex marriage. In 2019, the Seattle King County NAACP chapter appointed DeAunté Damper as the first LGBTQ chair in the 110-year-old organization’s history, Crosscut reported.
For Duncan, being one of the first lesbian chapter presidents in the organization is something to celebrate.
“All of this is an example of what you get when someone shows up fully as their whole self.” Duncan said. “I don’t walk in the room and say, ‘I’m Kiantha, a leader,’ or ‘I’m Kiantha, a Black woman,’ or ‘I’m Kiantha, a lesbian.’ I just say, ‘I’m Kiantha and these are all pieces of me.’”
Bringing people together
As president, Duncan hopes to bring the community together, even if they don’t always agree.
“People get to think how they want to and they get to feel how they want to,” she said. “If it’s just a matter of us not agreeing, I don’t care about that. I could still be your friend and I could still invite you to dinner.”
She hopes to take the NAACP in a new direction focused on making policy change through unity, Duncan said.
“We’ve been so busy fighting for justice. I don’t want to fight. I don’t have that energy,” Duncan said. “I cannot walk around fighting everyday. I want to figure out a way to bring us together.”
Duncan plans to use that soulful leadership idea to expand the infrastructure of the NAACP locally to allow for more subject-matter experts, who are already doing equity work, to lead.
“I think it’s going to increase, definitely increase the number of people who are not just involved and not just members, but really committed, committed to making the world better, because that’s what this is ultimately doing,” Duncan said.
Anyone can join the NAACP regardless of their race, Duncan said.
“You don’t need to fit into a particular box to be a member of the NAACP, there’s only one box that you need to be able to check,” Duncan said. “And that box is, do you believe that everyone should be treated equally?”
Duncan plans to expand the executive committee from the current 10 members to 21 members. Those positions will be announced Monday at the chapter’s general meeting, Duncan said.
“It’s a shared power model,” Duncan said. “if you are the best at that thing, then you should be the one doing it – not me just because I’m the president.”
Those new executive committee members will focus on policy work in various areas including education and health care.
“We have got to be thinking on a policy level as an organization,” Duncan said. “Do we want to be responsive in real time to things that are happening? Yes. But we also need to be thinking about how do we change policies that allow things like this to happen?”
With expanded leadership opportunities, Duncan said she hopes to drive home the message that “everybody has something to give.”
“Sometimes a larger national organization can be intimidating,” she said. “In a city like this, this is like a home-grown organization.”
Duncan hopes to expand both individual and corporate membership, she said. Currently the NAACP Spokane has about 500 members.
The NAACP gets complaints daily from local people facing discrimination, which Duncan plans to address with a team of people to field them. Through a partnership with Better Health Together, the NAACP will do a monthly web series starting in 2021 to walk through the complaints, hoping to show corporations and businesses that there are resources to fix policies and company culture that leads to discrimination.
“They can see what happens, they can see what the complaints are. And they can see how we help to resolve them,” Duncan said. “And hopefully, that will help us build better partnerships.”
As business leaders watch the series, Duncan hopes they will become proactive in dealing with discrimination or problematic policies through a collaborative relationship with the NAACP.
“If you are a soulful leader, you care about everyone in your company,” Duncan said. “We’re not coming with judgment. We’re not coming with anger. We’re not coming with policing. We’re not doing any of that. We’re coming to say, hey, you are a part of our human family. Let’s let’s work it out.”
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