Just shy of a year ago, I walked into a room at the Tacoma Art Museum to begin my orientation in Class XXI of the American Leadership Forum. I was dressed to impress and felt like I had something to prove.
In the months leading up to class, I would read and reread the biographies of my soon to be classmates…Executive Director, Marketing Director, Art Director, Development Director, Deputy Director, Fire Chief, Police Chief, Chief Executive Officer, Principal and Professor, Owners and Managers and…
At this point, I had opened and failed a small business in Tacoma while my classmates were working for massive companies and universities and state agencies and non-profits. Needless to say, I was a little confused on why the hell I had been nominated and accepted to share in the experience with people who have and are doing so much for our local community.
The other feeling meeting my insecurity of being there was my uncertainty of what the hell the American Leadership Forum even was. I mean I had met people who have been a part of it, and every time I inquired it felt like I was met with some “beat around the bush” answer. It felt like these so called “Senior Fellows” has something to hide. ALF began to sound like a secret society of movers and shakers who made change from the TOP down.
So, again as a 27 year old fashion school dropout you can hopefully understand my confusion around why I was chosen to be a part of such a thing. But nonetheless I was.
A day into our Orientation, and our first official class session, we kicked the year off with our 7 minute stories. For those of you who don’t know, a 7 minute story is a story in which you have 7 minutes to share with your class what the hell you are all about. The goal being that we can have a deeper understanding of each other afterwards. A major encouragement in telling our stories was to “lean-in” and show our classmates who we really are.
In writing my story, I embraced the mantra of leaning in while I was preparing. It was honest and vulnerable, but the idea of sharing myself with strangers scared the hell out me. When it came time for me to stand in the middle and deliver, leaning in, all of a sudden it began to feel like falling off.
As I began to speak, my voice was trembling and I was uncertain and, most importantly, afraid. I was afraid to be seen and to be judged by people who mattered. I’ve always had this false story in my head of “I don’t care what people think”. The only thing I felt after I was done was, what the hell do they all think???
I sat back down after sharing and was so curious what everyone thought. Even more curious, while all of a sudden I cared.
As I sat and listened to others stories, something beautiful began to take shape…
My classmates weren't just “leaning in” they were “falling off” as I just did. Each story was unique and beautiful and honest and sincere and true for each of them.
Have you ever met a group of strangers, then almost immediately shared some of your most intimate thoughts, desires, and fears? It’s terrifying and freeing at exactly the same time. It was beautiful to watch them not just lean but fall, trusting that we would all be there to catch them.
The day continued, one by one, we fell into each other’s trust. I would say this was the beginning of our class bond. Really that bond is Love.
Over the next few months we learned about Leadership and the Inner Journey, then Difficult Conversation and Transformational Dialogue. Finally it was time for us to head, INTO THE WILD.
In August, we spent almost a week together on the FLYING L RANCH. We talked and listened and shared, we began to find common amongst our difference. During that week we rocked climbed then climbed a mountain, and the night of our ascent we slept under the stars. The next day we spent a whole work day, in silence in separate spaces spread out across this mountain for our SOLO time.
That’s right 7 HOURS ALONE IN THE WOODS. It was moving, but I gotta say, there is nothing pleasant about pooping in a hole you dug in the ground with a stick. At this point, it was the longest I had been away from my wife, the longest I had gone without cell service, the longest I had sat in silence and the longest I had been ALONE in my adult life.
I was glad it was over…
Then it would be month or two of learning how to lead in diversity. Then the art of Aikido. Aikido means “when the shit hits the fan, you just flow with it.” Then there was something about systems and engagement and then finally came time for our ALI. Pronounced like Mohammad Ali, it’s our applied learning initiative (project) and its beat the hell out of me. The idea being, how can we collectively impact our community through a singular or a series of events?
I’ll be there first to say, somewhere in the midst of our ALI my patience escaped me. Working as a group of leaders on this project, is well, a pain in the ass… but we’re getting there.
A major thing happened for me personally in January at our Taking Stock Retreat, the counterpart to our time in the Wilderness. In a group exercise I wrote the question on a card, that went something like this: “What, if any, are judgments you have of classmates that might be getting in the way.”
That’s not exactly right, but its close enough.
It would be had that I would have the opportunity to pose that question out loud and then invite my 5 classmates who I had the most judgment over into a circle. Then I began to tell them, one by one of my judgment of them. Now I know this sounds actually kind of rude, but I did it because they were the 5 people in the room whom I had something blocking my ability to fully love them for who they were.
So I let it go, and we shared and had a pretty incredible breakthrough. I would like to also say, the rest of our Taking Stock Retreat had that same energy. It was the idea that through our difference, we can still find reasons to love each other.
Our love bond had gotten stronger.
We spent these last few months getting beaten by Ali, I mean our ALI, and a few of our classmates took the brunt of it. As I said, while working on this project I did more leaning out then in. All I wanted to do was learn more of each of you, and fall deeper in love as a collective. Instead, there was some more thinking and collaboration and then finally Profiles in Courage and Moral Leadership.
We sat and listened to three Senior Fellows talk about difficult situations and how they were able or not able to overcome. All of the learning and reading and listening throughout the year left my brained packed with so much information it'll take me another year to get through it all.
Now I don't want to make it sound like I am ungrateful for these opportunities or the speakers and facilitators, because there were many gems of information to be had. I am also grateful for ALF itself and the board and the Senior Fellows and the committees. (I am actually only saying this so I don’t get kicked out…just kidding) I guess for me personally, ALF doesn't seem like a class, it seems much more like a family reunion that just happens to be once a month and over a specific topic.
Over this past year, my biggest take away wasn't so much the information, it was more about realizing that I had 22 people who I know care for. Its 22 people who shared themselves with me and our classmates, 22 people who leaned in and showed support through conversation, showing up, offering rides and meals and the occasional alcoholic beverage. Its 22 people who I can call in a time of need and 22 people who I feel like I can be truly 100% myself with. Its 22 people, well that I LOVE. Beth and Chris, it’s actually 24, but you get the point ;)
Yesterday, in our last class session, we were to speak to our class about our unique perspective and learning’s from our year together. I just told my class, I LOVED THEM. Now some of you might be thinking… uhhh, wait a minute… you spent a whole year together, and had so many incredible opportunities for both personal and professional growth, and that’s all you can come up with?
The crazy ass part is…I mean it.
I want to stop for a second and think about this… ONE YEAR AGO… I was feeling insecure in a group of strangers with titles and accomplishments. ONE YEAR LATER, I am telling you that I LOVE THEM.
I said yesterday the magic of ALF is that it breeds love amongst strangers. I can’t tell you how true this is, and I believe my classmates would agree. Going into yesterday, I was terribly nervous, because I wanted to tell my class I love them. I have always hesitated to use the world LOVE, and more so to say I LOVE YOU. Because honestly it’s all I have to give.
I now consider them more like a family, a family that doesn't always see eye to eye, but is able to find compassion and graciousness and love for each other throughout our differences.
If I can leave my class with anything it’s this, let’s continue to grow together and to lean on each other in good times and in bad. Let’s love on each other through everything, and in turn give that love to our community.
The power of community is in the realization that we are all necessary to make it whole. Without a single one of us, it would be broken. It takes all of us, everyone, to make it one.
And our wholeness is made by the glue that holds us together, and the glue is….. LOVE.
And that all of our greatest gift to this community, because that’s what it needs the most.
To those of you, who aren't my classmates, I’d say this…GO FALL IN LOVE WITH A STRANGER and tell me how it feels.
I promise it feels GREAT!!!
To the American Leadership Forum-Tacoma Chapter, the nominating committee, to my mentor, Diane Powers, to Beth Boggs and Christopher Algeo, and to my classmates, thank you. To my family, my mother, and sons, and my sister, thank you for extending the grace to allow me to participate in this class. Everything about being here today is an honor that I never envisioned happening. NEVER.
I could make this speech about things pertaining to American Leadership Forum because after all, that’s the glue that binds us, right? I could talk about Gracious Space, Non-Violent Communication, I’m in, DISC, Wilderness, Brakeman, Back-up Brakeman, Breathe, Bill, Pam and Cliff, the old white school bus, the moraine on Mt. Adams…taking stock, micro-aggressions, the applied learning initiative, the seven minute story, stand and deliver, when things fall apart, having difficult conversations, aikido, SWOT Analysis, Peter Block, the moraine on Mt. Adams…ethics and morality and integrity and…COURAGE.
I could make this speech about the experience of Class XXI, because, after all, that’s the glue that binds us here today, right? I could talk about the hum in the room, hug it out, assigning intention, sleeping bags, shooting stars (which one? That one? No, that one over there!), that damned hand shovel, black cat privilege, the moraine on Mt. Adams, no one gets left behind, we are in this together, share the load, WHY AREN’T WE FIGHTING YET PEOPLE?, no matter what, the births and deaths and sorrows and joys that only our class can understand and our infamous 90 minute plus check—ins. We could hear about how each of us was affected and impacted and hurt and buoyed and supported and how we grew into a being known as Class XXI. But that’s personal and I choose to keep the details of that intimacy amongst ourselves.
I could share with you some of my own reflections and learnings—that no matter how high you go, you can always go higher. That what might be the scariest thing in the world to you might be a cakewalk to someone else. That you cry until you’re finished. Find your center. Laugh and do it often, dammit! Or…everything that I needed to know about myself, I learned on the moraine of Mt. Adams. Yea, I could make this speech about me, because, as anyone living with an Aries knows, we can make it all about us—
But it’s not about me, it’s not about this class, and it’s not even about ALF. It is about this place and space that we occupy for this whisper of time called community. And it doesn’t matter whether you are a born and raised hometown girl or boy, or an immigrant who came here because of the promise of freedom and earning a living to take care of your family, or you were a young woman driving across the country to give your children a better life, safe from threat of domestic terrorism. Community is where you are now. Community is the thing that brings us here and love is the glue that binds us and the failure to love or apathy is what makes us fall apart. Not hate, but apathy. Apathy is the thing that allows blight to encroach upon a community, and results in our waking up to things in complete disarray…chaos…yes, even “all hell done broke loose!” The grass in the sidewalk cracks that have taken deep root into the ground, the peeling paint on falling shutters, the sense that it’s not my problem, the overarching sentiment that it’s those people’s issue not mine, the lethargic sentiment that there is nothing I can do anyway. That “they got themselves into their issue, they need to work their way out.” Us versus them. Consider this—even hate acknowledges the humanity of others, or why would you put the energy into denying it? Apathy on the other hand, fails to see the condition and plight of our neighbors as having anything to do with our membership in community. Apathy is the enemy of community building and strengthening and reinforcement.
The purpose of ALF IS TO JOIN AND STRENGTHEN LEADERS TO BETTER SERVE THE PUBLIC GOOD. It’s not to have a yearlong engagement with 23 other community leaders and then go on your merry way. “Well, that sure was an interesting experience. Glad that’s done” It’s not an exclusive country club of individuals who have a secret handshake and account log ins and quid pro quo. It’s about “I will be there for you when you need me” and “we will go up this mountain together” and “I value what you bring to this discussion” and “hey, I need to have an A L F discussion with you” and…you get it, right?
And these are the things that OUR community needs from us right now. You’ve heard me reference the moraine, the last part of the trek up the mountain, climbing its narrow, gravelly, treacherous spine to the summit, a rolling drop littered with boulders on one side, a precipitous multi-thousand foot drop on the other side. No side rails. There is something here that we all really need to get from this. Hell, we, COMMUNITY, are all on that moraine right now. That ascent and, scarier yet, the descent, wasn’t just for me. Or Class XXI. Or ALF. We accomplished the challenge—by our determination and focus and in a space blessed by grace. But our community is falling off that trail left and right. Could it be that we are the ones who call the community to say, we are all in this together? What if we model the ALF way and say this is going to be difficult, but we can build a space that is gracious to allow the difficult ascent to happen, and you can cry and you will still be accepted. That we understand if one fails, we all fail and that when you succeed, we celebrate your success and consider it ours as well.
Imagine if we were to say “no one gets left behind. Just keep your eyes on the trail.” And we look for that person, who, despite being in the back, shows the promise to lead and who can deliver in getting us, COMMUNITY, to the summit. That we don’t default to what appears to be the weakness of some as our lowest common denominator, but that we raise the bar and then hold each one of us accountable to a new standard. This is done with love, the glue that binds us. That we open ourselves to the stories we have been telling ourselves, about ourselves, and about others and where we see biases and prejudices, and—let’s call a spade a spade--where there is racism and bigotry, let us examine and remove them so that our community, with intention and focus, and determination, and presence, makes the transition to a higher level. Apathy does not accomplish this. It is through love, the glue that binds us. And then, we learn to walk back down together, walking in a different way. Because you know, you don’t ever walk the same coming back down. AND!! We use our communal experience to prepare for the next mountain, the next community ascent and descent. John Gardner said, “We are all faced with a series of great opportunities brilliantly disguised as insoluble problems.” That is what community is, that is why ALF exists, and THAT is why we are here.