By Ana Martinez-Ortiz
It’s not easy being a leader in a city like Milwaukee, but Shavonda Sisson isn’t one to back down from a challenge.
Sisson is the founder of the Love on Black Women foundation, the director of programming at Public Allies and a board member for Leaders Igniting Transformation or LIT to name a few. Everything that Sisson is involved in, is related to her identity.
As a Black woman, Sisson knows the ways that systemic racism oppresses Black women. Her work with Public Allies helped her find a way to express her opinions so that more people could understand. And her work with LIT stems from her identity as a mother and the belief that “young people are uniquely able to dismantle the systems that are oppressive to them.”
“I always seek out work that I have some type of connection to,” Sisson said.
When Sisson began working at Public Allies in 2009, she was asked to create a personal mission statement, one that laid out the work that needed to be done to create a just and equitable society. Its an outline for the world Sisson wants to see, and as such she uses it as a guide in the work she does.
It was during a feedback session at Public Allies that Sisson first realized she had the potential to be a leader. A team member told Sisson that she not only had a voice, but that people listen when she talks. She could use her voice for good or for evil, but it was her decision on how she wielded it.
Before then, Sisson had never paid attention to her voice and the power it held. Since then, she’s worked on being mindful with her words.
Once Sisson accepted her role as a leader, people began seeking her out, for her advice and for her mediation skills. Still, she noted, being a leader doesn’t mean she has all the answers. A leader has to be ok with being wrong and with being corrected. A leader should always be a learner.
“Being a leader is always being a learner,” Sisson said. “Never stop learning and knowing that learning comes from all places.”
She added that sometimes a leader’s position prevents them from seeing all the solutions and that’s why it’s important to listen to people. For example, as a cis-women, Sisson never gave any thought to gender or gender identity, therefore she makes sure to listen to transgender people especially Black transgender people.
By listening to people who are different than her, Sisson can make more informed decisions.
“I think it’s very important for leaders to have mentors that older than themselves and also younger themselves,” Sisson said. “If I cannot be influenced by youth voice then I might as well hang it up because then I am stuck in a place and not allowing innovation to thrive.”
When she’s facing obstacles, Sisson has learned that the best way to find a solution is by turning to those she trusts most.
“The idea that we as leaders are supposed to know all the answers is false, and I think it does a disservice to the people that you are in service of,” she said.
Sisson explained that it’s the small instances and the little things that make her proud of her leadership abilities. Recently, Sisson heard her son discussing gender and how forcing people to define themselves can yield more harm than good.
It made Sisson proud to realize that her son listens to her and that he’s trying to educate others.
Leadership though, isn’t just about pride or decision making, its about knowing when to step aside. For Sisson, this means stepping down as the leader of Love on Black Women, which was recently named the winner of Best of Milwaukee 2020. In her place, two Black women will be taking control of the day-to-day while Sisson helps with fundraising.
Sisson said in addition to helping the women learn the ropes, she will be directing her energy toward deepening her own self-care.
And when it boils down, Sisson’s efforts and actions all stem from her 2009 mission statement: to make the world a just and equitable place.
“I have a great sense of self in my community and in my family and I want that for everybody,” Sisson said. “I want to see a world where everybody is safe, where everybody has access to the things they need and not just the bare minimum.”
Even though being a leader isn’t easy, Sisson will be infinitely motivated to keep doing her best.
“Love very much motivates me and keeps me going,” Sisson said. “I think, for a while it was anger, but that burns. That burnt out pretty quickly for me and also it was burning me out. [But] You keep on multiplying love.”