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“Bring Who You Are to the Table” and Other Advice from Civil Rights Leader Carmen Perez

As a teen, Carmen Perez was often chosen to be the captain of her basketball team. Still, the national co-chair of the 2017 Women’s March on Washington, D.C., didn’t start seeing herself as a leader until about 10 years into her career working for social justice.

“I always thought my coaches and teammates chose me because they saw that I was fair and not one to compromise my integrity,” says Perez, who wears several hats, including executive director of the Gathering for Justice, co-founder of Justice League NYC and founder of Justice League CA. “But now I also see that my natural tendency of seeing the good in people helps me bridge gaps and bring people together.”

Her work with the incarcerated community has helped her hone this tendency into a skill. “In my early years’ work, I was trained in the Strength-Based Approach, which allows you to see people’s strengths, identify that spark already in them and help them flare it out,” Perez explains. “We view people as being resourceful and resilient. We don’t judge them by the lowest thing they’ve done in their life.”

Combine this special vision and compassion with the ideology of Martin Luther King, Jr. and a never-quit attitude, and you’ve got a real force for social change. Here, Perez shares her top three tips on how to lead any charge, at work or in the streets:

#1. Never make it about yourself.
“When the Women’s March approached me about co-chairing, I had just come off a three-day conference and concert and was looking forward to getting some sleep. I wasn’t looking for a higher profile. But I felt that with my 20-some years of activism, I could bring understanding and focus to the march’s message and goals, and so I signed on. When it’s about something bigger than you, you will find the courage and power to do what’s needed.”

#2. Bring who you are to the table.  
“If that means be emotional, be emotional. As women, we’re told to act more like men, to be less caring and connected. But to be effective, I think you need to be authentic and lead with the heart. You can teach people about feminism, criminal justice or Kingian Nonviolence, but you can’t teach people to have heart, and those are the people I seek to have on my teams.”

#3. Know that success is a process.
“Goals are like moving targets. They shift as you reach them. Success is self-defined and a series of small victories. The more you accomplish, the more you’ll see there is for you to do.”

Carmen Perez will be speaking at the 2018 MA Conference for Women on December 6.

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