November 2014

November 2014

Updated by
Chris Stewart

The best advice I received during the Bush Fellowship interview process was to remember that it is a journey and even my best-conceived plan might change dramatically during the fellowship period. 

It was a prophetic bit of advice that has come true.

In the afterglow of becoming a fellow, and the honeymoon of well-wishing from friends and acquaintances far and wide, I had the sense that my life was pregnant with so many possibilities. An enormous investment was made into my growth and I determined to make the most of it.

My way of approaching life is to plot things out. I’m a sucker for professional clichés like “failing to plan is planning to fail” or “start with the end in mind.”

The end I had in mind for my fellowship was the development of a faith-based, intergenerational child-saving network. That goal required the study of networks, Christian theology, child welfare issues, and leadership across generations. My plan was to immerse myself in the work of Peter Block who is on the vanguard of understanding how the “structure of belonging” creates real community; to attend the Christian Leadership program at Liberty University to gain formal religious training; to conduct interviews with transformative black leaders like Geoffrey Canada and Marian Wright Edelman who have done phenomenal work in child development; and to study the literature around how different generations successfully bond and transfer information in two directions (from elder to youth and vice versa).

That was the plan. Then three unexpected events unfolded that changed altered my trajectory.

The first big change was getting a new job with the Results In Education Foundation in Chicago. In my new role I write, speak, travel, and study education issues in places far from home. The change of employment has liberated my mind and allowed me to focus with passion and curiosity. It is a big pivot from when I started my fellowship. Back then my thinking was rooted in the work I was doing for the African American Leadership Forum. I was considering how I might improve my leadership capacity in order to be a better leader for the AALF. But a major employment door swung open and I marched into the light.

The second big change was returning to school. For years I have had a deep desire to gain a theological basis for the social change work I want to do in life. Nothing is more important to me that truly understanding all I can about how my relationship with God should have a material impact in the lives of others. Having a lay person’s foundation is helpful, but I know systemic theology is what I need to achieve my dream of developing a faith-based effort to improve lives.

The third change was the most important and painful.

My new job and school program were great surprises, but I was not prepared for how much internal shifting they would cause. I had some time to take off my old work hat, clear out my head, and search my heart for all the cosmological information that was suppressed when my days were spent obsessed with the particulars of working in the nonprofit industrial complex.

The theology and philosophy I was studying was breaking me down, deconstructing my long held beliefs, and reconstructing my values into a pattern best suited for my new life as a free person. Much of this was a private process that has become less private these days. My view of “leadership” shifted and my expectations of what it entails have grown. I am impatient. Many of the less-than-appropriate action that I previously would have ignored in our community leadership now are inescapable for me. I see no way to change the world without getting the leadership we deserve, and without admitting we do not have that leadership currently.

That puts me at odds with people I have respected, people I think have been come so pragmatic that they take shortcuts that lack integrity. The spiritual wrestling I have had internally has given me a new lens, a cleaner one, and I am able to see dirt more clearly than before.

Unfortunately there is a lot of that to see.

Our community, in my estimation, does not have the leaders it deserves. Some are abusing their positional authority. Some are living immorally. Many live in silence, knowing the things I say about “leaders” are true, but fearing professional and personal backlash for living the truth.

I am aware that I need to be careful and to resist being consumed by self-righteous anger. The goal after spiritual deconstruction is peace, not more strife. The Fruits of the Spirit are positive, not regressive. So, to that end I know I have a long way to go. This journey is not done by a long shot. I still live in the mess that defies planning, or pragmatism. I am learning, growing, and changing.

Along the way I know I am been blessed with the opportunity to step outside of my debilitating professional routines and accelerate my growth.

That is what the fellowship is about.