How did I get into the work I do today? How did I chart a path that was not named for me at birth? How have I come to lead in a space that disadvantages people of my gender and race?
These were just some of the questions on the table before us on a women’s leadership panel with the Maine NEW Leadership Program at the Margaret Chase Policy Center this Monday. I joined a power packed line-up of women: Zam Zam Mohamud, Sallie Chandler, Joyce Gibson, and Maulian Smith. Their accomplishments were incredible and filled with firsts: the first African-American woman elected to office in Maine, fighting racist mascots in Maine, leading as the first Somali woman on the School Committee in Lewiston, and on…
We were gathered to speak with a diverse group of young women leaders as they started to chart their paths from college to impact in the world around them. Our moderator, Joyce, put a deceptively simple question on the table: How did we come to the leadership positions we now have? My answer surprised me.
In reflecting on Joyce’s question, I realized there were three major questions that had guided my leadership over the last 15 years. I had these questions to answer in order to find my way to the purpose driven work I do today:
- What/Where is my community?
- Who am I in my community?
- What does my community need from me?
Until I had clarity on these three questions, I was disconnected from the energy and motivation that I needed to seek justice.
What/Where is my community?
As I reached college and had the opportunity to access privilege and education that few in my family had before, I began to imbibe a vision of my community that was disempowering. I believed I had to climb a ladder that would set me up to lead in a bourgeois, gentrifying “community” with other higher ed grads in major international urban centers: Paris, DC, NYC, etc…. While that is a meaningful path for others, that was an inherently disempowering pursuit for me, because it focused me on a sense of community that was disconnected from my authentic self. After pursuing that path for several years I realized I had been socialized to look down on the neighborhood I was from, the people I had grown up next to, and that I had a vision of success that could only be achieved through paying $2000 or more for rent, $25 dollars a plate for a meal, and interacting with a very narrow section of society that had the same privileges and life experiences as myself.
To find myself, I had to break out.
Seven years ago I made the decision to experiment with a new definition of community. One rooted in forging long-term relationships with people across class, ethnicity, citizenship and more. A community where different people could afford to live, and work with others who wanted to roll up our sleeves and invest in place together. By slowing down and investing in counter-cultural standards of living in a community that wasn’t “cool”, I discovered a healthier, more grounded self. I could hear my own thoughts, I could engage in deeper conversations around my dreams, and I had a network of people deeply invested in helping my find opportunities to put my skills to use. Sure, I had seen glimmers of this in other places I had lived… but these glimmers were distorted by the socialized dynamics of power and privilege that divided us and isolated neighbors from one another.
Who am I in my community? What does my community need from me?
Secret confession that will surprise exactly no one: since the mid-90’s I had harbored this inner image of myself as Felicity/Ally McBeal – that I’d be a smart, sassy, skinny (white) woman with a degree living it up in the big city. Once I gave up on the big city, I needed to be curious about who I was if not that. It took me a beat, but I quickly learned it wasn’t Felicity.
I was a double-jointed, multi woman with an odd sense of humor, a loud voice, a passion for the mechanics of team-building, and a thirst for decolonizing my mind and the minds and bodies of others. As I came to understand that about myself, I needed to better understand what to do with all that.
Lewiston and my peers and colleagues across the state, needed me to be a much more authentic and grounded version of myself. They needed me: to own and praise my own multiracial/working class background, to speak in a way that brought others in and didn’t isolate through hyper-intellectualism, to laugh and share my love of comedy improv, to listen deeply to others and not lead with my own preconceptions of their needs and abilities, and to name the courageous idea that keeps me up at night and pursue it.
When people first asked me if I liked living in Lewiston, my gut-honest reaction was, “No. I liked living in Brooklyn.” The follow-up was: “I love what I’m doing here, and I love the people I’m with. I’m putting aside (some of) my own pleasure seeking to explore my purpose in the world…. and yeah I don’t know what that is yet.” Now, when people ask me why I own a home in Lewiston, I have a much simpler answer: “Because it’s weird in the way I’m weird.” After feeling like I don’t belong anywhere, I found a place of so many misfits, dreamers, and down-to-earth lovers-of-laughter that I could finally be my full self in my leadership. That has been the biggest inspiration for my work.
Is this post not quite what you expected? There are great books on leadership with charts and graphs and bulleted lists of to-dos. I have found that, while useful, none of them can replace the value of answering these questions for yourself.
What questions have unlocked your leadership? Send them my way!