Love, Liberation and Leadership

By Rosa Bransky and Chernor Bah, Co-founders of Purposeful.

Chernor Bah and Rosa Bransky

We are Chernor Bah and Rosa Bransky and we are co-founders and co-leaders of Purposeful. Prompted by a panel we joined on love, liberation and leadership, we have finally put pen to paper to share reflections on 4 years of co-leadership and a decade of comradeship. We have wanted to write this forever and have never quite managed to find the words. We were joking as we began to reflect and write that no Human Resources department would have ever paired us with each other. There is definitely something magical, almost alchemic, about what makes shared leadership work that is like water in your hand; it feels hard to pin down. But as we continue on our shared journey of feminist leadership we also feel like we have a responsibility to document this process because we see it as so central to what it means to engage in liberatory practice — that is, to name how we do this work and how it feels to do this work in different ways in different kinds of bodies.

An obvious place to start is to name how different we are — how we look, sound, experience and move through the world in very different ways to each other. Chernor is a Black man who grew up in a poor neighbourhood in Sierra Leone. His childhood and adolescence were defined in so many ways by the Civil War. He grew up in a war zone, in refugee camps in multiple countries, and just to stay in school was a profound victory. Rosa is a white woman born in the UK, in a comfortable neighborhood in London, with access to an education system that meant University was a certainty (and at that time entirely free). In so many ways our formative years could not have been more different.

And yet there are some similarities that have shaped the contours of our shared values and our understanding of each other. We both have a kind of lived understanding of change, of liberation, as a long and winding journey of which we are one small part. Rosa grew up to parents in political exile from South Africa. One half of her family lived in East Berlin before the wall came down, her childhood traversing Black liberation and anti-capitalist organising across continents. She learnt an awful lot from real life freedom fighters what it means to resist and developed a deep scepticism of those who romanticise resistance — experiencing the displacement and violence and sadness and tiredness that marked so much of what it meant to be in that struggle. And maybe most importantly the deep machismo that accompanied the hero’s she looked up to. Learning early, even without knowing the phrase, that there could be no justice without gender justice.

Chernor credits the beginning of his political and activist awakening to the images and stories of the youth-led black liberation movement in South Africa. His favourite childhood movie was Sarafina- a depiction of students organising to resist the oppression of white minority rule in South Africa. When he started organising other students in Sierra Leone at age 15 to advocate for children’s rights in post war Sierra Leone, the passion, principle and power of the student uprising in Soweto were his blueprint. And that means we also like to listen to township Jazz and the Sarafina soundtrack really obnoxiously loudly on long car journeys. We like the same music. No joke but this is pretty key if you are going to spend years in the back of a car, on a boat, on an airport floor with someone. We both NEED to dance. We have a pretty excellent ability to sniff out a club in the most unlikely of places. We believe that joy is resistance and that love is liberation. We return to this a lot as we challenge ourselves and each other about what it means to build a feminist organisation.

Chernor began organising children in the refugee camps and when he came home to Sierra Leone during the last days of the war. He ran the first children’s radio with some of the people now part of the Purposeful family. He mobilised all over the country as part of the Children’s Forum Network, giving evidence at the Truth and Reconciliation commission on behalf of Sierra Leone’s children. Still today children meet every week across the country as part of Children’s Forum Network clubs, a most enduring example of the power of base building and political organising in our movements for justice. And very practically why movement building is so central to our strategy at Purposeful.

At the same time, Chernor talks often about navigating those times as a brother to two sisters. So much cleverer than him (he says!) he watched as their social worlds shrunk at that moment of transition to adolescence, whilst his expanded. He holds with him what would have happened if they had had some of the opportunities he’s had. If that was multiplied by all of the sisters. The idea of girls as pretty central to our collective liberation began to take hold at a young age, even as he left Sierra Leone for Liberia and the Philippines and then the USA. At the same time, Rosa was navigating her own choppy girlhood. Emerging out of chaos and beginning her own work with survivors of early childhood abuse, addiction and the criminal justice system, she worked in crumbling homeless hostels and temporary housing for young offenders and needle exchange busses in London and Scotland. She did too many night shifts and managed case loads of way too many girls who had been set up by way too many systems. Before we met, through different experiences professional and personal, our deep belief in the power of girls and girlhood had solidified in both of us.

We first met in Ethiopia in the year 2012, in our mid 20’s, working on this big flagship project about girls and social change. On that first trip we spent weeks travelling to remote parts of the country together. We developed a strong critique of the development system and at the same time a really strong shared practice of holding spaces of radical imagination with the girls we were doing participatory research with. We had no idea of course but we were absolutely sowing the seeds of Purposeful back then.

We started Purposeful at a pretty illogical moment personally. We both had good jobs and had reached a kind of financial stability neither had experienced before. Starting an organisation was in neither of our plans. We’d been out of touch for a while and then a fortuitous bumping into in Kigali between Rosa and a mutual friend just as Ebola was unfolding kind of threw us back together. We spent a couple of weeks in Freetown working on a really distinct piece of work doing some communications for girls during the epidemic and another seed was planted. Sian Lord Baptiste, an old comrade from the Ethiopia days who is now our COO, was with us and we started plotting together. We spent a year talking and planning and returning to Freetown again and again. We fundraised. We decided to take the plunge. Chernor had a baby. 2 weeks later we lost all of our funding. Rosa found out she was pregnant. We decided to do it anyway. We cobbled Purposeful together with sheer will, rewriting our strategy on the back of an envelope with Cee’s new baby crying and Rosa vomiting in the kitchen sink.

We talk a lot about the foundation of our partnership being one of trust. Of knowing that there is this person who has your back. That no matter what’s happening in the organisation that you can just kind of trust each other to make the right choices and represent you when you’re not in the room. It’s hard to know where exactly that comes from but it probably got solidified during those months of working to hold Purposeful together with string. It felt like we walked into the sea together sometimes and we came out again and this beautiful thing emerged along the way and if you can do that with someone you can do a lot of things.

Which is not to say we always agree or that there isn’t tension or irritation. But we’re both pretty upfront humans and we have a way of being honest with each other, of holding each other up in a king of loving way that means those tensions get navigated quickly. We were reflecting on the fact that most of our divergence ends up being around process — how we’re going to get somewhere, rather than where we’re heading or why. And that’s ultimately the kind of tension you can resolve without too much pain!

One of the reasons an HR department would never have put us together is because there is a similarity about our professional styles that we know makes us quite hard to work with as a pair at times. We score way too close together on all of those personality tests. We both like ideas and aren’t brilliant at the details. We’ve learnt sometimes the painful way that being in leadership means being on top of detail in a way neither were quite prepared for. We aren’t brilliant at process, and we’ve had to build up a team of folks around us who are. At the same time, Chernor is much better at managing people and brings a sense of humanity to the work. As a student of peace studies he has a pretty unique ability to take a compassionate view of the world and of people. Rosa can be very impatient and is quick to write people and process off if they don’t click into the vision. But she also holds the line on politics and takes a more strategic view of decisions in ways that help us stay the course when things get choppy. In the middle of those poles is an organisation we hope is underpinned by those dual values of love and liberation.

We have quite different relationships with money. Chernor is more optimistic about the future, in general, and of our ability to stay afloat in particular. He’s more likely to be bold about spending, to trust that good ideas will generate resources. Rosa is more fiscally conservative. She likes a healthy reserve and to know there’s a strong pipeline before starting a new piece of work. In the middle of that is a financially healthy organisation that has taken some bold decisions that have really paid off, literally and figuratively. It’s probably one of the most useful ways in which we’ve been able to lead into our differences.

We grew up together in a lot of ways. And certainly into our leadership. We met in our mid 20’s. We were quite wild back then. No ties. A lot of dreams. We built Purposeful in our early 30’s. Both stepping into our leadership but also into parenting roles at the same time. As challenging as that’s been, it’s also been really helpful. To have something else going on outside this mad journey of building a transnational organisation of over 40 people and multi-million dollar budgets in 4 years. To have people at home that keep us real and pull us away and demand we turn off our computers. It’s probably because of this shared life moment we find ourselves in that we’ve really taken stock over the last year and asked ourselves “what are we building here?”. Does this work for us as humans and parents and carers. How do we make it so that mothers (and fathers) can be in this work for the long haul. To be ourselves fully and name the struggles and create space for ourselves to be whole and healthy and to breathe.

A few years ago we took on a grant and a donor relationship that has tested the limits of what it means to do this work as feminists. Thankfully that relationship is ending and it has given us a renewed chance to look around us and consider what we are building and how we’re building it. It has forced us to get even more serious about what it means to be in feminist practice as a collective of people. We’ve learnt what happens when you let that slip, when you don’t question the foundations of things; how strong the instinct to default to the status quo is. And because we get to do this together we get to be braver about our decisions as leaders when it comes to bold practice. That’s one of the best things about being in shared leadership. The ability to have flights of fancy about what is possible because there’s someone to pull you back if it gets too wild, or to jump on board if it feels right. And then you know you’re really on to something.

With impeccable timing we’re both about to have babies again, 4 weeks apart this time. We write this in our final days before parental leave. It’s pretty amazing to look back on those early days of Purposeful with a kind of deep love and also a deep relief that we are in a different place now. That we can step out. We can take time off. That we know with certainty that we can pay our rent. That there is this whole family of Purposeful folks that are powering the work. That we will turn off our phones and our emails and there will be something to come back to but it will probably look a bit different and that is the best thing of all. That today, Purposeful is so much more than the two of us and that back of the envelope strategy. That we are a leadership team of fierce feminists who will hold the work as we step out. That we are leading this organisation with a group of bold young women. Women who, at some point, we’ll pass the baton onto entirely.

One day they’ll sit down and write their own reflections about shared leadership and love and liberation and maybe they’ll be a bit less tired than we were and maybe they’ll have written that novel and they’ll have started that side hustle and they’ll have found a way to make sure everyone keeps eating lunch together and dancing together and taking moments of radical rest away from it all. And best of all we’ll get to look on from our deck chairs on the beach together, knowing we did something here, together.