Synead Nichols and Umaara Elliott during Millions March NYC
Leadership is not about a position, or a title, it’s about action.
On December 13, 2014 between 50,000 and 60,000 people marched behind a banner with the words: #BlackLivesMatter. Why? Because too often, the justice system fails to find those who cut precious black lives short guilty of any crime. Some of the names of these valued lives make headlines like Trayvon Martin, Ramarley Graham, and Michael Brown, however most of them do not.
Last year, after the Ferguson grand jury decided not to indict officer Darren Wilson (who fatally shot unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown), 23-year-old Synead Nichols was moved to do something. She and her friend, 19-year-old Umaara Elliott, successfully organized —one of the largest single demonstrations in support of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. This significant moment within the movement all started from a Facebook event page launched by two girls who believed they could make a difference.
But they didn’t stop there. These two women (who had never organized a protest before) are continuing to dedicate themselves to the fight for justice and for black lives to be counted. We had a chance to catch up with them and have them share some of the leadership lessons they learned from initiating such a major march.
Her Agenda: What lesson did you learn from organizing the Millions March?
Umaara Elliott: Unity.
Synead Nichols: Perseverance.
Her Agenda: Would you call yourselves leaders?
Umaara Elliott: I would call myself a leader just like everyone else is a leader. We are all leaders.
Her Agenda: What gave you the courage to step up and do something?
Synead Nichols: What gave me the courage is that I am going to have children later on in life and I want them to live in a positive world.
Umaara Elliott: Somebody has to do it.
Her Agenda: what’s the biggest misconception about leading?
Synead Nichols: That you’re always going to know everything. I don’t know everything.
Umaara Elliott: That if there’s one specific leader that they have made every decision. No, they are working with other people and they may not have agreed with something but when you’re working together you realize that you aren’t the only person to decide what’s best.
Her Agenda: What are the biggest obstacles encountered when inspiring/leading a large group of people?
Synead Nichols: Keeping the morale high. We just stayed really positive. Optimism. That was really everything. Surround yourself with that positive energy you will receive that positive energy.
Umaara Elliott: Remembering what you’re fighting for and what change you want to see.
Her Agenda: what are the most effective ways to communicate as a leader?
Synead Nichols: Be open. Be willing to speak. Be willing to be open minded and hear. Be willing to listen but be willing to hear what the person is saying.
Her Agenda: What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned as an organizer/leader?
Umaara Elliott: Honestly, it’s a lot of work and its very time consuming. People have been doing this for years and it’s not easy.
Synead Nichols: Leadership ain’t easy.
Her Agenda: How would you describe your leadership style?
Synead Nichols: To be there when you need me, but to let there be a free flow of conversation. I don’t like ‘this is what we have to do, this is what we have to do’ because then it becomes ‘oh you’re trying to take over things.’ Free flowing conversation. Quaker style. We are very quaker style.
Umaara Elliott: Very democratic
Her Agenda: Which leaders inspire you?
Synead Nichols: Assata Shakur because she held strong to her beliefs. She is the epitome of women empowerment as well as black empowerment and stands strong for that.
Umaara Elliott: Angela Davis. [She represented] an unapologetic, radical, intelligent Black woman who wasn’t afraid to speak her mind. She embodied strength and how important Black women’s roles are in the movement.
Her Agenda: What’s your motto?
Synead Nichols: My mottos are… “the soul unfolds like a lotus of countless petals” from Kahlil Gibran along with “…when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it” from Paulo Coelho author of The Alchemist.
Umaara Elliott: Everything happens for a reason.