In the 12 months since beginning my Bush Fellowship journey, I have traveled 33,576 miles and spent 76 hours in the air for fellowship experiences. That equates to roughly 1.4 laps around the planet and 3.2 full revolutions of it spent hurtling over 500 miles per hour above the clouds consuming a potentially toxic amount of peanuts and ginger ale. You’re welcome, Delta.
A pretty famous Walt Whitman mantra has danced in the back of my head throughout this busy first year of exploration. Hey, it could be worse. I could throw in song lyrics from seminal 80s rock band Journey here. Anyone who knows me knows I am not above it. And I “don’t stop believin’.” Sorry – there was just no way that was not going to happen. Okay, back to Walt:
“Not I, nor anyone else can travel that road for you.
You must travel it by yourself.
It is not far. It is within reach.
Perhaps you have been on it since you were born, and did not know.
Perhaps it is everywhere - on water and land.”
I am learning that when it comes to leadership development sometimes far is within reach while near is farther away. Whether I am in Budapest feasting on the sights and sounds of the contemporary world music scene (not to mention awesome sausages – man do they know how to cook meat over there), or in Melbourne witnessing Australia come to grips with self-inflicted wounds from its shameful treatment of its own indigenous people, I am keenly aware that far and near are matters of degree.
Hungary struggles with political authoritarian overtones and a fear of the unfamiliar in the face of Europe’s refugee crisis. Hungary shut its borders, built barbed wire fences and points guns to keep people with no home from making a new one on their land. Sound familiar? We have a national presidential candidate right here in the good ole’ U-S-of-A barking this dangerous rhetoric and stoking the same simmering coals of intolerance in our melting pot. Famous (and infamous) NYC performance artist Penny Arcade puts it this way: “Politics is what we do to each other. Culture is how we express it.” In that expression, we come to grips with our failings and realize our potential. While I was in Hungary, it was the creators, the artists, the “makers,” who powerfully confronted politics to push the conversation ahead. Collectively, through discourse and communion, we seek paths to better tomorrows that seem both painfully distant and tantalizingly near.
In Australia, the staggering social crisis facing communities of people descended from the original inhabitants of a land taken from them is painted in the same dark colors of what is happening on Native American reservations across the U.S. and Canada. Disenfranchisement does not even begin to describe what has happened to indigenous cultures around the world. Hundreds of years of spiritual, moral and physical violence infliction generated powerful afflictions that threaten their survival. Whether it be all the way across the world in Australia or right here in Minnesota, it is our shared responsibility to find a path to redress the shame of history and commit our full resources to support indigenous cultures in their quest for spiritual and social reclamation. Far and near are one and the same.
I intend to use the second half of my Bush Fellow experience to make what is closer to me more within reach. I hope knowledge gained in exploration informs empathetic, thoughtful personal and professional life and leadership choices. I am learning that to understand your leadership potential, you must travel a winding road through our own soulscape. You have to understand your body’s relationship to the earth and to the “world” you live in. Being a person with a disability, I am uniquely aware of these notions on a different plane than most people experience. My body is touched, pulled, pushed, grabbed and guided without my permission. I bounce and stumble, knock around, spill things, and get confused in busy spaces. But I also manage moments of physical grace that people with sight could never imagine. It is all about balance and perspective. Through meditation, exercise, mindfulness and connecting my physical and mental states, I am more fully prepared to travel my own road.
And it is my own road that no one else can travel. One of the biggest challenges to my leadership development is mostly beyond my control. People with disabilities are rarely in leadership positions in most any field, profession or setting. I get asked if I need help a hundred times a day. I rarely get asked for my help. How do I get people to think of me as a leader when they assume I can not function without assistance? Furthermore, if I do require accommodation, that is a matter of equity, not equality. People think of leaders as having enhanced abilities and extraordinary capabilities. Thus, a large chunk of mileage on the road I travel is chewed up in disavowing people of their natural assumptions. I challenge people to think differently, to consider the notion that I have plenty of capability despite the fact that I need to use a cane to walk down my road. What I am learning is that I will grow as a leader by drawing a new map where all roads intersect.
Leadership is not far, it is within reach. Perhaps it has been part of my journey since birth and I did not know. The past 12 months have been the first steps on new pathways of discovery of who I am and who I can be. I am merging the macro with the micro, thinking globally to act locally, exploring the world and myself to map new terrain.
I am looking forward to continuing my amble down this road in the year ahead.