January 2016

January 2016

Updated by
Elena Gaarder

“I prefer to be a dreamer among the humblest, with visions to be realized, than lord among those without dreams and desires.”
-Khalil Gibran 

When I started on this fellowship journey six months ago, I had a notion of what leadership looks like and thought that “thinking big” meant working towards being at the helm of a major philanthropic or community development institution. My travels and leadership experiences over the past many months have led me to believe differently. I’ll come back to this thought in a minute.

In June 2015, I set out to build knowledge, skills and relationships in order to shift the economic landscape in the Twin Cities. The shift requires moving away from traditional economic development approaches that are failing to address racial and economic disparities, towards a community wealth building framework that holds greater promise in producing tangible and lasting changes for people of color and low wealth communities.

No small task, but I’m a Bush Fellow after all. Clearly, getting one of the twenty four coveted spots must mean I’ve got something special to offer the world. That is the beauty of the fellowship-- not only does it provide the resources and space to deepen your leadership around a specific body of work, but it gives you this invisible seal of approval. It opens doors. It starts conversations. It can lead to big things.

The big thing I’ve been pursuing during much of the last six months has been worker cooperatives and employee ownership and how these business models can work to anchor wealth locally, provide meaningful employment and ownership opportunities and mitigate cycles of disinvestment in communities.

I’ve had the opportunity to conduct site visits with practitioners and thought leaders doing this work around the country to explore the nuances of bringing various worker cooperative models to fruition. To ask questions that wouldn’t have occurred to me while doing a Google search on the topic. To be immersed in the visions and aspirations of other leaders working towards a similar agenda. The fellowship provides this gift.

In Oakland CA, there are two women that started an organization based on the belief that “normalizing” worker cooperatives as a viable business model and bringing the model to scale holds the key to achieving equity in communities. In the same city, other women are driving change towards cooperative economics and worker cooperatives, pushing against long-held negative stereotypes about people of color, innovating new models and taking risks. The women aren’t the heads of major institutions. They don’t have the title or the singular ability to allocate millions of philanthropic or public dollars. But make no mistake, the women at Project Equity, Mandela Market Place and Prospera are having an impact. They are leading. Not in the way that I originally conceived the “end game” of my leadership journey - having some impressive title and huge resources at my disposal, but in the way that I see myself showing up as a leader right now and in the future. 

What I’ve learned thus far is that leadership is expressed in many different ways and can be found in all people if the conditions are right. Leading is about knowing how to walk along side, encouraging from behind, going up ahead when necessary, being grounded in the values that drive your leadership, asking questions and  being open to finding solutions through shared learning and co-creation.  

Originally, my fellowship plan included formal leadership development experiences, including taking a “Women in Power” course at Harvard. While I may still pursue this option, the lessons learned during the time spent in Oakland have taught me much about women and power and what effective leadership actually looks like.

My learnings are also a result of weekly coaching sessions with a former Bush Fellow (also not originally part of the fellowship plan). The focus of the coaching is on how to put my understanding of community wealth building and new insights on leadership into daily practice. This time gently forces me to look at myself and how I’m showing up in the work.

What the above highlights is that when you start the fellowship, you have an approved plan but almost immediately it changes. Your eyes are open to new possibilities and you begin a journey of discovery. This is expected. The way I’ve decided to approach the remainder of the fellowship is more of an iterative process rather than a formal plan. While the goals are the same, achieving them will include scanning the landscape, digging into new approaches, reflecting on the learnings and then plotting my next steps. I’ll keep everyone updated along the way.

In gratitude,
Elena Gaarder