As founder and CEO of All In Together, an organization dedicated to women’s civic and political education, Lauren Leader has spent the bulk of her career working to advance gender and racial equity.
And as the single mom to two adopted, African-American daughters, it’s a deeply personal issue for her as well.
“I have to make the world better for them, but also to raise their consciousness about the real challenges that still exist in the world,” Leader said of her daughters Stella, 11, and Serena, 5.
She had her daughters on her mind when coming up with “Equal Value,” her new digital series she is co-hosting with Daniela Pierre-Bravo for Know Your Value. The two will highlight stories that have been underreported and dig deep into the issues that are affecting the lives of women. There will be a focus especially on women of color.
Leader is currently working with Know Your Value founder Mika Brzezinski on multiple projects, including “Equal Value,” to amplify these issues. She chatted with Know Your Value about her new series, navigating the pandemic as a single mom with a full-time job, her decision to adopt, her best career advice and much more.
Below is the conversation, which has been edited for brevity and clarity:
Know Your Value: Tell us about your new series, “Equal Value,” and why it’s so important to you.
Lauren Leader: “Equal Value” is meant to shine a light on stories that we think need more attention. Stories of women succeeding, of women struggling, of women finding a way to make a difference in the world. We really want to make sure that stories that deserve equal value are getting it.
We recently chatted about Sens. Ernst and Gillibrand’s push to curb military sexual assault. And coming up, we’ll be talking with ACLU’s Arli Christian, one of the leading activists for trans rights, who is advocating and leading the lawsuits against states that have passed bans on transgender girls participating in sports. And we're going to hear from the experts about what that means and what needs to be done to fight these discriminatory bills.
… I’ve spent much of my career advocating for women and for gender and racial equity. And the challenge that I've always felt was that the stories that I think are important that affect the lives of 51 percent of our nation, don't get the kind of attention in the press that they should …
Know Your Value: In the past, you’ve mentioned your unique family – you’re a single mom with two adopted, African-American daughters. What has the journey been like for you, and how does it play a role in your new series?
Leader: I do have a bit of an unusual family! We're kind of a bit of everything. I am a single mom to two adopted girls, Stella, 11 and Serena, 5.
I feel passionately as a white mom of Black girls about the responsibility that I have to make the world better for them, but also to raise their consciousness about the real challenges that still exist in the world.
I spend a lot of time talking with my kids about politics, civil rights, all kinds of stuff that I think not enough parents talk to their kids about. And it's important to me because I want them to know that I'm gonna do everything I can to make sure that they have every opportunity that I had and that they have every opportunity that every kid growing up in this country should have.
I grew up in Washington D.C. … And I feel really lucky that I had these amazing Black women in my life, in my childhood, my teachers, the families of my friends and all of my childhood friends who really pushed me to think about race, to think about equity, to think about politics, to think about the world from a really young age …
Know Your Value: Black Lives Matter was such a watershed moment in the past year. How did you discuss those topics with your daughters? And what did you learn about yourself and as a parent?
Leader: I definitely started my journey around these conversations long before George Floyd's murder.
My daughter Stella, as a 4-year-old came home and announced in this very matter-of-fact way that she was brown. Actually, she said "browned,” which was really funny because she was just 4, and it was really cute.
I was always very open about talking about their adoption and the fact that I was not their biological mother. You can't hide that or avoid it. It's part of their story. And you want them to understand that.
… I really try to expose her to amazing Black women role models. And I'm lucky that we have a whole network of aunties in the mix who have stepped up to support my girls. But that moment when she came home, I realized that as a white person, my immediate instinct was to want to change the subject.
When I was writing my book in 2016, I did a lot of research into the psychological impacts of talking about race and how children form their biases. The psychology says when you avoid the subject of race, when you change the subject, what children take away from it is not that we don't need to talk about this because we're all the same. What they take away from it is there's something bad, and that's why you're not talking about this. And when I read that, I realized that I might inadvertently be actually reinforcing bias with my kids by changing the subject. It was a total wake up call for me. And so, we've always tried to talk really openly about race.
I now live in a town that is not especially diverse. We moved from Harlem in 2017 to a Westchester neighborhood where there's just a handful of Black families. It's definitely been challenging for my kids. They stand out, like everybody knows who they are. When my daughter was struggling socially in the fifth grade, she immediately asked me, "is this because I'm Black?" But we must be able to have those painful but necessary conversations.
Know Your Value: Can you tell us a little bit about why you decided to adopt and what that journey was like for you?
Leader: My best friend in the fourth grade, Annie, was African-American and adopted by a white, Jewish family, as were her siblings. It made this huge impression on me that there was a lot of different ways that families are formed. There was just something about her family that struck a chord with me at a really young age. And I always thought I would adopt.
I had planned to have biological children, like millions of women. We had fertility challenges which I found very emotionally draining, and miscarriages and all the things that we don't talk nearly enough about. But they were really traumatic for me. And I realized that in my heart, I'd always thought I was going to be an adoptive parent. It just didn't feel worth it to me to do more fertility. It wasn't important enough to me to have a biological child. And I felt like it was a sign that I was supposed to do what I always knew I was going to do: to adopt.
I'm a big believer, and I think a lot of adoptive parents feel this way, your children choose you. They were meant to be your children … And I hit the jackpot, just having these two amazing girls. They're not biological siblings, but they're very, very close.
Know Your Value: I love that story. And that leads me to next subject: life during the pandemic. As a single mom who works full-time, what has been the biggest challenge for you? Have you drawn on any skills you didn't necessarily know you had prior to all of this
Leader: It was a really challenging period for me financially. I don't get any financial support. I'm completely the sole breadwinner.
[At my organization All In Together] we faced a financial crisis, like many nonprofits. We made it through, thank God and we're having a great year, but it was very scary a year ago. I cut my salary and some of the outside work that I get supplemental income from went away.
So, there was a lot of anxiety management, just figuring out how to make it work. On the other hand, I'm extraordinarily privileged because I have help. I have a 25-year-old babysitter who actually moved in with us during the pandemic for safety reasons. But also just to help me because my kids were homeschooled and I didn't have anyone. And she saved me. Every working mom will say the same thing, that when you have a great caregiver that your children love and trust that you love and trust, it's everything.
I'm very lucky because, as we've talked about, there are just millions of women who were forced to drop out of the workforce entirely because they didn't have those resources. We've never invested in the infrastructure that women need to work in this country. The only reliable childcare we've ever had as a nation is public school education … I couldn't quit my job -- I wouldn't have been able to pay my mortgage. We would've been homeless. I'm very lucky that I was able to find somebody that I could afford, that I trust, that my children love and could help us get through it.
I learned that I can manage a lot more stress than I knew I could. I definitely doubled down on a lot of health-related choices because I knew from that first day when everything shut down, that if I didn't go walking every day, get exercise, if I was eating badly and not sleeping and not taking care of myself, then it would crush me.
Know Your Value: It sounds like you not only survived but are truly thriving. Now let’s me ask you some quick, round-robin Know Your Value questions. Best career advice?
Leader: Invest in building great relationships.
Know Your Value: Worst career advice you've ever received?
Leader: Stop talking.
Know Your Value: What's a pearl of wisdom you would tell your younger self?
Leader: Believe in yourself. You're usually right.
Know Your Value: Favorite book that every woman should read?
Leader: I love reading presidential biographies. I'm such a dork. My favorite is Ted Widmer's new book on Lincoln.
Know Your Value: What would be your, walk-in entrance song?
Leader: “Roar” by Katy Perry
Know Your Value: Favorite guilty pleasure?
Leader: Mint chocolate chip ice cream with hot fudge.
Know Your Value: Do you have a self-care non-negotiable?