Lillie Pearl Allen: A 35-Year Legacy of Black Women’s Leadership

Thirty-five years ago, in 1983, Lillie Pearl Allen led the Black & Female: What is the Reality workshop at the first Black Women’s Health Conference. Over a thousand Black women and girls participated in this workshop. This gathering marked the beginning of a social movement, created a legacy of leadership for justice that is inclusive of all people, and laid the foundation for the 1992 incorporation of Be Present, Inc.  

 Be Present is in the 5th year of our Black & Female Leadership Initiative that addresses both the lack and, too often, distortion of the voices and visibility of Black women’s leadership in the literature, historical record and dialogue on social justice movement-building. It also highlights the process as well as the achievements of using a collective leadership approach in creating a diverse national network of activists successfully moving social justice agendas in the United States.

 The June 21-24 National Black & Female Leadership Conference, open to everyone and held in Dahlonega, GA, will highlight Black Women’s leadership in building inclusive movements for social justice.

 This blog is the first in a series highlighting the Black Women who laid the foundation for Be Present, Inc., beginning at the beginning, with Lillie Pearl Allen: 

 My community activism emerged over 40 years ago from my own history and experiences. I was searching for the answers to the following questions: “How do I get to know the fullness of who I am? Not just someone’s best friend, caring mother or daughter of migrant farm workers. How do I thrive in this world and not just survive while living in a culture where people make assumptions about who I am based on my race, my gender, my class?”

I understood that my personal well being is united to a collective commitment to dismantle all forms of oppression. I wanted to live beyond the constrictions of oppression and I wanted other people to live in that way, too. I needed to have relationships with other Black people that were not based on our hurt, but celebrated all of who we were. And I wanted to build partnerships with White people that were not based on distrust or guilt, but emerged from our conscious understanding and true action. Today I am motivated by the knowing that it is possible to live in the present moment without barrier or hesitation from any past or present oppression; and that collective action that truly reflects the diversity of our communities is possible.

My enduring passion and work is about connecting, growing and learning together. I like working with people committed to building authentic relationships and sharing our collective knowledge so that we may accelerate the shift for social justice. I enjoy hearing and sharing experiences about our lives and initiatives, challenges and opportunities; and developing partnerships to move forward on the identified strategies and actions – all in the context of love and wisdom. My life is testimony to the fact that change is possible and that it’s sustainable. As President Obama has stated, “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.”

The social justice sector is on the verge of major change. We are in the midst of a significant transfer of leadership from one generation to another. Organizations striving to increase their effectiveness are searching for organizational practices on how to better partner with each other, as well as to develop sustainable solutions and alliances where cooperation and equity thrive. Shifting the political agenda and expanding the scope of social justice to be more participatory rests on how authentically we organize and work together across issues and constituencies. Building power depends on our collective abilities to unite a multitude of sectors and bring together coalitions, networks, and progressive funders at the local, state, and national levels.

I believe that creating partnerships that reflect values of mutual respect, trust, and authentic partnership is not only the right thing to do, it is critical for a stronger and more effective social justice movement. In the 35+ years that I have been doing this work, I have seen how the issues of race, gender, class, and power are woven through the fabric of our personal relationships, workplaces, organizations, and communities, and continue to have a critical impact on people’s lives. I believe that in order to create peace and justice for all people, it is all our responsibility to critically examine the impact of these interconnected issues. It is from this understanding that we can build better leadership models and create healthier systems that sustain us. We cannot leave ourselves out of the dynamic process of creating and sustaining change; we are and must recognize ourselves as a part of what is and must be changed. When we do, we can take responsibility and model a new way to foster tolerance, promote peace, and work toward social and economic justice.

The transformative leadership model that I created and has been used throughout the country – the Be Present Empowerment Model® – teaches how to create authentic and honest connection between individuals, between individuals and their organization, and between organizations and their coalition partners. It provides a comprehensive and expansive orientation to leadership development, one that is grounded in social justice principles and values. Through this work people are better able to see the connections between self-transformation and social transformation. As a result they become more effective in thinking creatively, collaborating with others, dealing positively with challenging issues, and creating lasting partnerships.