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.