Do we dare talk about legacies

With the help of friends and colleagues, I had built the Institute for Nonprofit Practice (INP) to train nonprofit managers, entrusted with the holy work of supporting our society’s most vulnerable people, how to combine their passion with skill, perspective, and strategic intelligence.  We have done well.

On June 8, 2017, the Institute for Nonprofit Practice celebrated its 10th anniversary.  Its curriculum and culture were based on deeply held values, then passed it on to a young woman, Yolanda Coentro, who shared those values and the capacity to put them into action.   During the celebration, Yolanda asked INP faculty and alumni to stand.  We did; and as I looked around at the sea of 300 Black and White, Brown and Tan faces, tears of gratitude and love trickled down my face.

It was as though the Gala had launched the INP anew.  Now it stood by itself, independent of me and in good hands.  This was my legacy.

The experience was as strange as it was wonderful.  It was a little like attending my own funeral, hearing, all at once, those things about yourself that usually come with the distance of death.  Retirement had been a symbolic death that allowed me to see the INP as though from a far horizon, and I was proud.

At my judgmental best, I have always dismissed the idea of legacy for its narcissism and arrogance.  I’ve watched many a man—it’s rarely a woman—spend much of their time shaping the narrative they hope to preserve, writing memoirs, accumulating fortunes, polishing their images, and fighting against unseen enemies who might diminish their importance.

I never imagined that people would cherish or admire the memory of my character or achievements?  My children will remember and, I hope, love me, but lionize me?  I doubt that.  Who am I, after all?  A man who has lived a reasonable life, taken care of his family, worked hard at his job, and tried to give life to his values.  When I’m in a contemplative mood, I see myself as a grain of sand in along a vast stretch of beach, next to an even vaster stretch of ocean and sky.  In both senses, it seems certain that, soon after I die, I will be largely forgotten.  That seems to be our common fate.

Since I’ve gotten older and retired, though, since, since my actions no longer speak as readily for me, I find myself thinking about the meaning of my life, wondering if there is a coherent story that has emerged, and, yes, imagining how I will be remembered.

It’s hard to avoid.  We humans are meaning makers.  Just living day to day isn’t enough.  We need to wring order from chaos.  For some reason, we need a purpose for living.  So we construct stories that link one event to another and both to ideas and values that make sense in the cultures we inhabit.  It is through these stories that we know ourselves, and we try very hard to have other people see us within our terms.  Even as people and events intervene and force us to change our narratives, we do so reluctantly, with an eye to continuity.  The continuity is an essential quality of human life.  We need to be recognizable to ourselves—and to others—over the years.

Building a legacy is creative effort to extend that narrative beyond ourselves and beyond the years of our lives.  This is key: our legacy doesn’t completely belong to us.  Others help to build it as, for example, historians and politicians have built the legacies of  Washington and Lincoln to further their own ends, often in the best sense.  My father’s legacy, for instance is mine, too.  My fate is an essential part of his legacy.  He was the son of an immigrant.  As his son, that immigrant story early on settled deep within my soul, helping to define who I am, where I stand in the world, and what I stand for.  I am not my father.  His identity has been transformed within me but it accompanies me every day of my life.  That is his legacy.  Similarly, there are narratives that co-mingle between me and my children.

As I stood at the Anniversary Gala, I knew that the legacy of the INP was not mine, alone.  It was shared and it would be interpreted by many others, and especially by the students, who had passed through its rigors.  I had fallen in love with them and they with me.  They had helped transform the Institute from an educational program into a cause: by improving leadership, we believe, we improve the capacity of nonprofits to protect abused children, house the homeless, rescue the crime-infected streets, give dignity to immigrant communities, and to redress disparities in education and housing, race and gender, and environmental degradation.  What they do with their education, not the education, itself, is the legacy.

Legacies are how we expand ourselves by extending our values out to the world and into action.  The legacy of the INP is coded into the collective impact of its students. Legacies represent our aspirations—actions and ideas drawn from past and present and hurled into the future, hoping that they thrive.

It is the hope, itself, that may be most important.  It is living in a world of possibilities, not defeats.  The legacy I took from my parents wasn’t that the world would inevitably become more just and equitable but that the possibility exists and that we, who share that hope, are ennobled by our efforts to make it so.

Legacies are bridges.  The INP leads through my parents—and those educators and social reformers who influenced them—through me, through Yolanda, through the INP students, and then to their progeny.

What makes the idea of a legacy so compelling is that it is timeless.  It joins us to our past, our present, and to a fondly imagined future.  In a small way, it allows us to transcend ourselves, to believe, at least for a moment, that we are more than grains of sand in the vastness of eternal time and space.  We are giants that span the ages.

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Completing a Career

This essay is the first in a series of personal explorations into the completion of careers.   Ending a career marks a monumental shift in a life, especially for those who have very much defined themselves through their work.  The essays will address questions like: what does it mean to be done?; how can we say that we have done enough to satisfy the desires and demons from within; how can we feel proud and at peace with ourselves so that we can meet the challenges in the next stage of our lives.

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The year was 2005.  I was sixty-three years old.  I had already had a substantial career.  In the way that novelists have with book jacket bios—truck driver, cowhand, waiter, and drifter—my own winding career had its own cache: historian, therapist, consultant, writer, entrepreneur. I had adjusted well to my failure to become a professional basketball player, a Pulitzer prize winning novelist, and the leader of a social-democratic revolution. But I didn’t feel complete.  I wasn’t sure why.  And the years were whizzing by.

Part of the urgency came from my sense of living on borrowed time.  My father had died from pancreatic cancer at fifty.  I was twenty-six.  I was filled with a childlike sense of magical thinking and believed that I would also died by the age of fifty.  This wasn’t a vague notion.  I believed it with the same certainty that the sun would rise in the morning.  My friends and family still tease me about how well I prepared them for my impending death.  I seem to have survived my fiftieth birthday but at fifty-eight I got cancer, myself.  When the initial surgery failed to capture all those cruel little cancer cells, my conviction about a short life simply reignited.

The next few years again defied my expectations.  I was alive and energetic, and I was faced with the question of what to do with my life.  I had given up psychotherapy.  After almost thirty years, I was too restless to sit still listening to an endless stream of distress and rage.  I had returned to my consulting business, often working with big organizations like State Street Bank and  Honeywell Corporation.  While lucrative, the work felt barren to me.  I really didn’t care about helping rich people get richer.  I did care about supporting the work of the nonprofits to which I also consulted.  Their mission to empower the disempowered, to house, feed, and educate people living in poverty, appealed greatly to me.

If I was going to live, I wanted that ever-present “one more shot” that you hear from people who are not yet ready to cash in their chips.  And I wanted to focus on communities most in need.  I wanted a shot at doing something worthwhile.  Yes, helping couples and families resolve their difficulties had been a good thing to do.  I loved many of the people I worked with and felt gratified when their lives improved—and heartbreaking when they didn’t.  When I complained to my wife that it wasn’t enough, she would remind me of the hundreds of people I had helped and about the thousands of people that my students had helped.  But it still didn’t feel sufficient.

Sufficient for what, though?  I don’t know how to put this in psychological or professional language but I wanted something that touched my soul.  I wanted work that drew from the well of my deepest values.  Only that would permit me to complete my career and to feel that I had done enough.  At the time, I couldn’t articulate this desire very clearly.  It was more like an ache in my heart in need of fulfillment.

In 2005, I saw an opportunity.  I had been engaged with the Boston nonprofit community for some time, consulting to organizations and coaching its executives.  These are dedicated, often gifted people who work long hours for modest pay.  But they have learned their craft in a hit and miss manner, mostly by trial and error.  Maybe they found a mentor along the way, but they rarely find the time or resources for formal education.  I had some experience building training programs, in 1974 founding, with David Kantor and Carter Umbarger, the Family Institute of Cambridge to teach practicing therapists how to work with couples and families.  I believed that I could do the same for nonprofit leaders.

What made the opportunity most compelling was the potential to build a more diverse leadership cadre.  Nonprofits serve people and communities of color in disproportionately high numbers, but only 12-14% of the organizations are led by people of color.  This needs to change.  It is both unjust and ineffective.  The ability to mobilize the resources of organizations and communities depends in part on the credibility of leadership and the rapport among them.  What’s more, the time seemed ripe to make a great impact on nonprofit leadership.  Research now tells us what I knew intuitively in 2005.  The imminent retirement of the baby boomers meant that 70% of nonprofit leaders would leave their jobs within the next five years.  If we could educate and help place young leaders of color in urban centers—now minority-majority cities—powerful social progress could be achieved.

During that first year, Hubie Jones, the dean of Boston’s nonprofit community and a member of my Advisory Board, asked me a simple question: “What’s in this for you, Barry?”  With a little bit of tongue in cheek, I said “It would make my parents proud.”  Once out of my mouth, I realized that I meant it.  My parents had long championed social justice.  That was the religion into which I was born and raised; and the development of the Institute for Nonprofit Management and Leadership (INML) felt to me like a homecoming, a return to direct contact with the values that animated my childhood.  The possibility of feeling whole, bringing together my values and my actions, seemed tantalizingly near.

 

So I began.  I called lots of friends and colleagues, described the new curriculum and asked them to send students.  They did: fourteen that first year, more than half young leaders of color. I loved the teaching.  I loved just getting to know all of the young people who attended classes.  Even without knowing or, in the beginning, thinking, I could build the INML into a substantial force in Massachusetts, the work was satisfying, in itself.  I didn’t have a blazing dream nor great ambitions nor even clear goals.  I just thought that I’d start something that I liked to do and that I believed in.  Now there are over 700 graduates of year-long programs situated in four cities in Massachusetts and Rhode Island with more to come.

Building the INML meant talking and writing about it all of the time.  I had to recruit new students.  In the beginning I met with each prospective student to discover his or her goals and to explain what our program was all about.  Our connection felt—and was— personal.  I had to recruit teachers, board members, philanthropists.  There would be weekly meetings with foundations in which I had to try persuading program officers that the INML was a wonderful investment.  All of this meant that all day, every day, I was talking the language of social justice and diversity, skill and network building and gathering a cadre of strong, well-educated, well-positioned leaders of color.  I bathed myself in a world of language that spoke directly to my values and informed my actions.  I was incredibly active but often it felt like the experience was happening by itself and I was carried along in its surge.

I can’t say that I grasped the full meaning that the INML would have for me right away.  Rather the meaning spread through the days until I had to acknowledge it.  There are about 36,000 nonprofits in Massachusetts serving more than a millions people.  If we could make the leadership even a little better, they would make their services better, which would mean a great deal to those millions.  We could make a difference and I, personally, could live in the world of difference-making.

This, more than anything—joining the fight for social justice and doing so in a way that I had something to offer—was not only satisfying, it also permitted me to complete my career.  I had immersed myself for a decade in the convergence of my values and my activities.  The immersion was sustained.  It was like completing a circle, from childhood to old age:  living my values more deeply, more immediately, and to some effect.  My parents might be proud but, at last, I felt proud.  I felt at one with myself, peaceful and fierce in my work.  And ready to let it go, ready to enter the post-retirement stage of life.