Hiding in Plain Sight: Leaders in Our Midst

There are certain people who touch the lives of others, some lightly, some deeply, seemingly without effort or without concern for their own standing.  To me, they more closely resemble the flight of bees fertilizing one flower after another than the deliberations of those in search of influence.  Some are my friends.  Others are strangers who have fascinated me throughout my life.

James Agee wrote a wonderful book called Let us Now Praise Famous Men.  Instead of the famous men that the title suggests, the book is about Alabama share croppers during the Great Depression, whose humanity he captured in the most concrete yet profound way.  He said of his book that it was an “inquiry into certain normal predicaments of human divinity.”  I have something like that in mind.  I want to write about the seemingly ordinary people who serve their communities in extraordinary ways and with humility, dignity, and passion.

In the near future, I’m going to begin a series of interviews with vibrant older people who have sustained their community engagement and influence well into their old age.  I am using the word ‘community’ broadly to include actual neighborhoods but also other groupings, like the GLBTQ, religious groups, people with a hearing loss, artists, and even professional groups.

The purpose of the project is to understand and celebrate leaders, some hardly known, others with some renown, who are so vital to their communities.  By leader, I mean a person, most of all, who gets things done, usually as a catalyst, sometimes as an inspiration, occasionally as a manager, but always to the benefit of the many, a person who others look up to or admire, a person who matters to the community.

People like the Kelly’s (a pseudonym, because I haven’t yet asked their permission to use their real names), of whom my friend, Bill Walczak, a great community organizer himself, writes:  They are “an amazing couple in Codman Square, beacons of hope in hopeless times, who have been the bedrock of that community, and the couple who, through goodness and example, kept their neighborhood from blowing up in the 70s and 80s when racial change occurred in the neighborhood.  They invited new black families and couples to pizza dinners at their house to introduce them to their new neighbors, integrating newcomers of all sorts into the fabric of that community when busing was tearing it apart. Kevin started the Codman Square Health Center with me.  Kevin and May are people who continue to make a huge difference in their 80s, and maintain their optimism and hope, despite their own son getting murdered about 20 years ago.  Lots of people tell me that they “want to be Kevin and May” when they grow up/get older.”

People like Lauren Hatch, who I first met about twenty years ago when she was leading an organization that housed, educated, and found jobs for homeless women in one of Boston’s poorest neighborhoods, Dorchester, Massachusetts.  Today, Lauren is no longer heading up an organization but works tirelessly in the same arena, now happy to assist all the official leaders in the community by mentoring and connecting them.

I have put out the word to friends and colleagues to identify these industrious souls and to introduce them to me.  Already my interview schedule is burgeoning.  But I want to know about as many of these leaders as I can.  So I’m asking you, my readers, to introduce me to them, to tell me their stories—or your stories.   And, if there’s someone you particularly want me to meet, introduce us.

I will be describing what I learn in my blog and, if I can find the stamina, in a book that features the sustaining power of these aging ‘local’ leaders.

In the meantime, here are some of the qualities that I have discovered so far and that I find so intriguing.  Maybe the most remarkable quality that these elders bring to their work is a rare combination of freshness and perspective.  You’d expect the perspective.  They’ve been fighting the good fight for ages, seen ups and downs, strategies that succeed and fail, people who join and those who reject their missions.  But the sustained enthusiasm and the pleasure in the work for its own sake that they bring to their missions after all these years is so admirable to me.

Like Camus’ Sisyphus, they have learned to act well and act decisively in a world that seems absurd.  They have lived through economic depressions and natural disasters.  They face opposition that makes no sense to them.  They might may say that we need more jobs, better health care, and better schools for people and think “No one could disagree.”  How could they?  But people do—under  the banner of lower taxes or fear of strangers in their land—that’s code for people of color.  The community leaders might answer that “It will help your children, too.”  For whatever reason, the opposition can’t factor that in, and you could tear your hair out.  Even so, the community leaders that I have met move on, with less confusion and less anger than when they were younger.  They’ve seen this before.  They know how to take the high road.

Of course, the elder leaders have their setbacks, feel discouraged and blue.  But the ones who keep on going into old age seem to have a resilience and a capacity for affirmation that is rare.  ”This, too, shall pass,” they say.  They have learned to work through the darkness and into the light.

The role that they play most often and best is that of mentoring the young and idealistic leaders who cross their paths.  I think of people like Hubie Jones, who, in his day, built and led innumerable nonprofits but, somewhere in his seventies, called an end to formal leadership.  In its place, he set up shop in a little office in City Year, whose leaders he has supported for decades, and “receives” visitors in search of his wisdom and in the hope that he will “lay on the hands,” will give legitimacy to your efforts through association with him.  I know because I was one of those visitors, even though I was already sixty when we began to talk.

I’ve noticed in myself and others a withdrawal from formal leadership roles, which seem to have lost their appeal.  I am grateful, for example, to have Yolanda Coentro lead the organization I founded (Institute for Nonprofit Practice) and grateful, too, that Mark Rosen serves as Board Chair.  In place of those formal leadership roles, many older leaders have discovered their places in a less defined but very fulfilling set of roles: mentoring and encouraging and connecting younger people.  Isn’t that how it should be?

No doubt, there are other qualities of elder leadership that I will learn about during the upcoming interviews; but this should give you an idea about what makes them special and why we should celebrate their efforts.

 

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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.