“What is your stand?”
With that question, Dr. Monica Sharma launched the Leadership Equity and Opportunity (LEO) Summit. The 73 participants, drawn from nonprofit organizations across the Bay Area, were, for several moments, speechless. We—myself included—weren’t quite sure how to answer.
Certainly, we knew why we were gathered in Oakland’s Preservation Park on this sunny morning in March. We had each chosen to enroll in this globally recognized learning-in-action program, after all. We looked forward to working together, to building our capacity as collaborative leaders, and to aligning our efforts to break the cycle of poverty. We understood that we shared a commitment to sharpening the focus of the equity lens on our work, whether that work centered on education, employment, policy, housing, healthcare, or basic needs. What we had not expected is that our efforts to shift assumptions about poverty would begin by answering a deeply personal question about who and what we were.
“What do you stand for?” Monica rephrased. “What do you act from?” In other words, she said, “What drives you to do the work that you do?”
Slowly we formed our answers.
Each time we took the microphone or spoke in break-out groups, we began by saying, “My name is ____. I stand for ______.” For me, those two sentences were, “My name is Joan. I stand for sustaining myself and others as we build a better world.” I’d made it up on the fly, almost casually, but it turned out to be nearly a perfect summary of my forty year career. The more I said it, the more I realized how vital it is to know one’s stand and to measure all your actions and interactions against it.
There were difficult moments in the training. There were feelings of being straight-jacketed by unfamiliar ways of dealing with one another. There was some anger. There were some tears, some hasty departures before the end of some sessions. But that wasn’t the surprising part. What was surprising was that people came back, that I came back.
We learned new ways of listening, new ways of giving feedback, new ways of speaking our truth, and new ways of absorbing the truth that others spoke. Sometimes the tools felt awkward and unwieldy. Many times, they felt unequal to the enormous job of building a network of partners determined to shift the assumptions that dictate how we, as a society, deal with poverty.
The course ended last month, but the work has just begun.
What has stayed with me are the subtleties. Embrace them and everything changes.
I realize that the ones I struggle with are the most transformative. For instance, am I able to hear the commitment behind the complaint? When someone launches into a heated indictment of what doesn’t work for them, am I able to honor their commitment to getting it right rather than defend against their anger?
In the rare moments I am able to act from that perspective, the ground shifts. Gone is us and them; in its place is we. There is curiosity, a hand extended instead of folded tightly on the desk. When I am able to see the commitment, I understand the question Monica taught us to ask without judgement, without shame, and without recrimination. “Am I in integrity with my stand?” If I am, then I am sustaining myself, my colleagues, our clients. If I am not, someone—myself, others—is doing without. That simple measure–am I in integrity with my stand–is revolutionary.
As Chief Financial and Administrative Officer for United Way Bay Area, Joan is responsible for the finance, human resources, information technology, and facilities functions. She is also a member of the United Way Worldwide Financial Issues Committee, where she joins colleagues from across the United Way system to address common challenges and emerging trends. Learn more here.