Creating a Just Organization Through Distributed Leadership: A conversation with LaSheé Thomas and Nikki Roe Cropp

Originally posted by Shawna Rosenzweig May 10, 2023

I believe anyone can lead from anywhere in an organization. Actual leadership has little to do with title or position and more to do with influence. At Camp Fire, our definition of leadership and shared power also includes young people in the decision-making process AND a distributed leadership model that goes beyond the individual. Enter Just HQ. 

At Camp Fire National Headquarters, Just HQ is a voluntary, employee-led group of leaders focused on championing the inclusive, equity-driven organizational culture and learning environment we want and seek. Just HQ does this through leading biweekly Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Access (DEIA) staff meetings on different relevant topics, facilitating reflection and intentional conversation, inviting guest speakers (most recent was someone from the Anti-Defamation League to talk to us about Antisemitism), touching on a ‘This Day in History’, actionable Land Acknowledgment, conducting regular culture surveys, and helping keep us accountable to our values. This grassroots initiative makes a positive difference to all of our employees, affiliates, and the youth and families we serve. By creating the conditions where employees and staff feel safe and supported to learn, lead, and thrive, they are, in turn, strengthening the ecosystem that offers youth the same conditions. We know DEIA doesn’t just happen, and Just HQ is a way for us to intentionally prioritize it and bake this value into our culture and organization. We are all on a continual learning journey.

I had a great conversation with two Just HQ members and leaders, Nikki Roe Cropp and LaSheé Thomas, who are working toward a better culture at Camp Fire. We talked about their experience so far on the small but mighty team and what they are learning individually and as a group. 


Shawna: For those who aren’t familiar with Just HQ, could you share what it is and why you wanted to be a part of it?

Nikki: Just HQ was formed to champion an engaged, positive organizational culture and to move us forward in our diversity, equity, and inclusion work. We believe that they are very much intertwined.

LaSheé: I would add that Just HQ is staff-led, so you get all of these voices at the table from multiple levels in the organization. That was extremely important to me and one of the reasons I volunteered to join. I have a strong personal belief that the more voices at the table, the better. 

Nikki: Compared to other staff engagement committees I’ve been a part of at other organizations, this feels more meaningful. It’s more than having a hot dog day to show appreciation for staff. We are truly working on culture–increasing trust, sense of belonging, decision-making, and communication among our staff. 

Shawna: I think it’s a strength that C-suite leaders are not on Just HQ. There is no one who is a de facto leader because of their title. Everyone leads. Can you talk a bit about how that works?

Nikki: We aren’t really prescriptive about who does what, but we do know what jobs need to be done and take turns doing them. For me, since I am a manager, I try to hang back and give other members the opportunity to lead in that way. I try to listen more than I talk. 

LaSheé: Our process is the definition of collaborating. There is conversation and figuring it out together. I get to do things with Just HQ that I normally wouldn’t do in my regular role. We allow people to do what they desire to do even if it doesn’t match their job role. 

Nikki: We spent a lot of time in the beginning talking about how we wanted to function together as a team and how we wanted our meetings to go. 

LaSheé: On this committee, we’re all learning as we go. We’re learning together.

Shawna: I’m curious, what has been the most challenging part of your work on Just HQ? 

LaSheé: I ask myself whether we (Just HQ) are doing enough to allow people to push themselves to the next level of equity work, not just attending meetings and taking in information. I want to be sure that we are taking equity work to the next level.


Nikki: I agree with what LaSheé said. We know that everyone has to own our culture–this team is here to champion that. So, while we want 100% of the staff to feel like they belong and feel included, we’re not at 100% yet. We have to keep figuring out what’s not working and why and keep trying to improve. We also need to keep lines of communication open with the rest of Camp Fire staff and learn from feedback about the education we are offering so our discussions can stay productive.  

LaSheé: I would add that we need to know our limits as a group. There are areas where we have to seek outside assistance to be able to provide the information staff needs in a particular area of equity. Even though there are multiple voices at the Just HQ table, there are still voices missing. 

Shawna: A standard part of your meeting agenda is reviewing Camp Fire norms and values. Can you talk a little about why you do that?

LaSheé: We feel like leading with those is an important way to hold ourselves and each other accountable to what we collectively believe and want to accomplish. It’s turned into an opportunity for staff to affirm each other for acting out those values. Team members give shout-outs to each other for things like exhibiting strong trust and collaboration. 

Nikki: We regularly check in on the values and make sure that they are still relevant to the culture we want and seek. That is part of the process, to make sure we’re staying on the same page.


Shawna: Are there other parts of Just HQ we haven’t talked about yet? 

LaSheé: We have optional book clubs and podcast discussion groups that give people a casual way to connect over certain topics and broaden thinking by considering perspectives from outside the organization. 

Nikki: We borrowed a framework from Christopher Littlefield that encourages teams to learn and grow, laugh and play, rest and rejuvenate, celebrate and appreciate, and connect and reflect together. We use that framework as a guide to make sure we’re staying balanced. 

Shawna: With a team that’s spread across the country, it’s so important to connect and see people as whole people. 

Shawna: What advice do you have for someone who wants to start a group like Just HQ in their organization?

LaSheé: I would encourage them to be clear and honest about what the organization is already doing to advance equity because if that work has not already started, it will be a lot harder. And allow teams, not leaders, to set parameters around what the team might look like. Staff have a closer view to what’s happening on the ground and this process allows those voices to be heard when they might not otherwise be.

Nikki: We don’t want a top-down structure, but leadership does have to be committed to the work in order for it to be successful. We’re able to do what we do because our leadership prioritizes the work.  

Shawna: How has your experience at Camp Fire changed because of your involvement with Just HQ?

LaSheé: I have never been in a role where I am leading or presenting anything, ever. Being a part of Just HQ has allowed me to be in that role and combat my fear of public speaking and present to my peers on topics I’ve researched. It’s allowed me to be more comfortable speaking and leading. It has allowed those walls to come down. I still get nervous but I am not afraid anymore. Instead, I’m proud of the things I’ve learned, researched, and presented.

Photo of LaShee with text of her quote (text that came before this image)

Shawna: How has your experience at Camp Fire changed because of your involvement with Just HQ?

LaSheé: I have never been in a role where I am leading or presenting anything, ever. Being a part of Just HQ has allowed me to be in that role and combat my fear of public speaking and present to my peers on topics I’ve researched. It’s allowed me to be more comfortable speaking and leading. It has allowed those walls to come down. I still get nervous but I am not afraid anymore. Instead, I’m proud of the things I’ve learned, researched, and presented.

Nikki: I am generally happier, more productive, and more motivated in my job because of my involvement with Just HQ.  It’s energizing to be a part of something that is truly making a difference to how we function and work together.  My hope is that this effort outlasts my time at the organization–that there will always be a committee dedicated to this important pursuit. 

Photo of Nikki with text of her quote (text is in body below)

Shawna: How has your definition of leadership changed as part of your experience on Just HQ? 

Nikki: For me, I have gotten fulfillment in seeing others on the team grow in their leadership. It’s more satisfying for me to watch others lead and leverage what power I have to advocate for this group. I now measure my leadership in terms of how each individual on the team feels empowered to create change. 

LaSheé: I have a hard time with the concept of leadership. While I believe everyone can be a leader, I have struggled to define what it means for me personally. But I think that has changed. I have been able to say to myself, “you are leading the values of this organization” which is a quality of leadership. Even if that makes me feel uncomfortable, it is allowing me to step back and see leadership qualities in myself that I have not been able to see before working with the Just HQ committee. I would encourage other organizations to think about those employees that are not as vocal and to prioritize bringing voices to the table that are otherwise not heard.

Shawna: I’m struck by how many important leadership lessons I’m hearing from you two today, like sitting in the discomfort, sharing power, designing from the margins, progress over perfection…all of those things that are pivotal for individuals and organizations that are committed to equity. Just HQ hasn’t been around that long but it’s already changed the org culture and the ways that people are showing up. It’s really quite remarkable. With that, I’ll end with saying thank you for all that you do for the organization, for the team, and for each of us as individuals on our own journeys!

An Open Letter to America’s Youth from Camp Fire

This article originally appeared on Huffington Post.

I am writing you today because we desperately need your help. Adults need you to step up and be our role models. We need you to show the country how to treat people with kindness and respect.

I know what you’re thinking, “I’m just a kid. What can I do? Adults won’t listen to me.”

That’s why Camp Fire is reaching out to you. You ARE a role model, and this is where it matters.

Camp Fire works with young people in small towns and big cities across the country. Kids as young as five-years-old all the way up through high school. When we work with you we see amazing things happen! We admire how you respect the right of other people to be different from you, how you welcome them. You “get it”, meaning you know you don’t yell at people or make them feel stupid just because they don’t agree with you. You show compassion for others…READ THE FULL LETTER.