social movements + innovation lab


Shanelle Matthews’ Story

Shanelle is a Communications Strategist who used her CoreAlign fellowship to develop her founding ideas for the Radical Communicators Network. Her story speaks to the vulnerability and self-awareness needed to center people and relationships in leadership.

Throughout my life, I’ve vacillated between being anti-authoritarian and holding the power to communicate. The power to be a truth teller. When I was in high school, I took an ostentatious approach to asserting what I believed. I wore this shirt that said “Lez-b-n” across the back and, I didn’t even really identify as lesbian, more bisexual. It was just to see what the administration would do. There was something about being the only out queer person in my high school in Louisville, Kentucky that made me feel a little important – and responsible. I ended up getting in-school suspension, which ultimately politicized me. It was one of the first times where I understood this quality of myself that I’m learning to appreciate now: I don’t have a lot of fear.

I went to school for journalism but had little interest in telling objective stories. Instead, I became an organizer on campus. I organized against the Confederate flag. I organized to keep the women’s center and African American cultural center open. I wrote columns on the lack of diversity and retention in faculty and students. Social justice never felt inconvenient to me. I never felt like it was a bad time to stand up for what I believed in. I don’t have a lot of fear, and for better or worse, that prompted me to start lots of projects and chase my ideas and dreams. 

I didn’t think of myself as having power, I just thought I was being me. Still, people followed my lead, and looked to me for answers and leadership. But I haven’t always known how to wield power in a responsible way. And this is tender for me. I’m persuasive. In strategic communications, you move people from where they are to where they need to be, or where you think they need to be, in order to proliferate a particular worldview. Without self-awareness, this work can be manipulative. I rode a wave of charisma and energy that moved my organizing forward, but sometimes with an arrogance that kept me from seeing opportunities to grow. My commitment to the work was genuine, but I struggled to move the work forward and figure out relationships along the way. I was humbled when my lack of relationship building skills led to conflict and stagnation on one of my teams. I’ve also conflated my organizing power with personal power, specifically over people I love, in a pernicious way. I’ve struggled with deep, deep, deep insecurity. Comparing myself to other people and never feeling like I’ve achieved enough. These insecurities have driven me to overwork and overcompensate, feeling like I’m never gonna leave a big enough legacy. I‘m never gonna do enough. But in the last couple of years, I have tried to practice a low ego, high impact approach to the work asking for feedback along the way. I learned that from Patrisse Cullors and people in movement spaces who are quiet builders. Not a lot of fanfare in that approach. I thought that the fanfare was what illustrated your success and I’ve been very wrong about that, painfully wrong.

We’re all afraid of failing. We’re all afraid of feedback. We hold ourselves to unrealistic standards. We overwork and prioritize product and ego over process. I know I have. It takes lots of self-awareness, boundaries, and camaraderie to undo these behaviors. One of the best things the CoreAlign fellowship taught me is some of that self-awareness. That I don’t have to fear failure. That I am allowed to experiment, that nothing is permanent, and that I can’t do it on my own. More than anything, this work is about relationships, forward movement, and continuous growth. We need people. I’m learning to be with those people. To hear them, to see them, to understand myself in relationship to them, and to learn how to wield my power.