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On a late-summer afternoon, while returning from a gathering in Rochester, MN, my colleague Mandy and I stopped to have coffee with Chris Johnson and Laura Kinkead from the Center for Courage and Renewal. We sat under a gazebo in the yard next to the historic Smith Douglas House, which now houses a Dunn Brothers. It was, to say the least, a picture-perfect cup of coffee.
It was exactly the environment I needed to open myself up to the idea of courage and renewal. I’ll admit, I was skeptical of the “touchy, feely” nature of the Center's work. Chris and Laura introduced me to the work of Parker J. Palmer, founder and senior partner of the Center for Courage and Renewal. His ideas of rejoining soul and role, of reconnecting who you are with what you do, of bringing your whole and undivided self to your work resonated for me in a way I wasn’t quite expecting.
Throughout the entire conversation, I kept thinking of the newest group of Bush Fellows and the work that lies ahead of them. These Fellows are tackling real, complex problems in their communities – problems that might not be resolved over the course of their fellowship. I thought of how challenging their work will be and how necessary it is that they bring their “whole and undivided self” to their communities each and every day.
When I got back to the office the next day, another colleague continued the thread of “courage and renewal” and handed me the Summer 2008 issue of Giving Strength, a magazine that the Foundation published from 2004-2009. In it, Val Ulstad, M.D., a 1996 Bush Fellow and creator of a retreat series called Courage to Imagine that’s based on the work of Parker Palmer, invited Fellows to “begin to believe that bringing your unique self fully present to the world is the gift you have to give the world. That is leadership.” Currently, Val facilitates the leadership development seminars that Bush Fellows participate in over the two-year course of their fellowships. During the seminars, Val leads the Fellows through exercises that challenge them to reflect on their practice of leadership, build relationships with other Fellows, and clarify the work of their fellowships.
I’m no Fellow, but I am an active member of my community, serving as chair of my neighborhood’s Livability and Engagement Committee. And while the challenges my community faces aren’t as complex and critical as the issues many Bush Fellows are addressing during their fellowships, such as childhood trauma and economic development, understanding that “leadership” could be defined this way made me look at myself and the work I do in my community in an entirely different light. I've never thought of myself as a leader, but I try to bring my "whole and undivided self" to my community. And if that makes me a leader, well then, I'm okay with that.
As I continued to read the article about Val Ulstad and the work of Parker Palmer, I was introduced to another concept of Parker Palmer’s work – the tragic gap. He defines it as “the gap between the way things are and the way we know they might be.” I imagine this is how Bush Fellows approach their work – grounded in the reality of what is and motivated by what could be. I’ve decided to adopt this same approach in my community work – and in my life as a whole.
Talk Back to Bush
If you’re working to solve tough problems in your community, what do you do to “rejoin soul and role?" How do you bring “your unique self fully present to the world?” We want to know what you think.