There are some lyrics that keep popping in my head as I have been thinking about what to write for this learning log. “Stop collaborate and listen.” I am a little embarrassed to reveal this and yet it truly is these words from the Vanilla Ice song that are running through my head. At first I thought it was just me being tired and overwhelmed from balancing everything and thus I was reverting back to my 10 year old self. However, if I really think about it, it is my tired mind reminding me of the deep lessons I have learned in the past few months as I have started my fellowship. The last few months have been intense as the work I do at Eureka Recycling has received increasing attention as the issues of plastics and recycling and the intersection to climate and justice issues has received increasing attention. Running a social enterprise in the space of waste and recycling is unique and diverse stakeholders want our perspective on how we have made it work and our ideas for change. It has been an exhilarating and exhausting time. The Fellowship has given me permission to take some time in the midst of all of this and there are two key lessons I am holding: to stop and listen to myself and that leadership and systems change is like a yo yo.
1. Stopping to listen to myself and remember my past and how that influences me. In the first three months of my fellowship, I took some time to pause and spend time with my wife and son, my parents and siblings, and my oldest friends. I wanted to reconnect with where I came from as a way to be able to see where I might go. Having grown up as an extremely privileged white woman in the American South, I had spent my early adult years running from that privilege and pretending it didn’t exist. In the more recent years, I have started to come to terms with it more as much of the world around me called me to recognize it and the intersectionality of so many things. I had come to see that the privilege I grew up around gave me access and comfort around power and I created strategies to leverage that for my work on social enterprise and climate and zero waste. However, I hadn’t really taken the time to intimately reconnect with where I came from and grew up and I realized three powerful things.
a. Being with my mom and my three year old son one day, I expressed my frustration with him wiggling and moving his body all the time. My mom laughed at me and reminded me that I couldn’t stop moving my body growing up and that I also had this extreme ability to concentrate. I can still see those traits within myself. I like to just move all the time both physically and mentally. Just reminding myself of this age old personality trait helped me be more patient with my son. It also helped me see when I am going too fast for others around me versus when the moment calls for a fast paced tactic.
b. My paternal grandmother recently passed away at age 99. She was a powerful and graceful matriarch and a deep influence on my life. On my visit home, my dad and I ended up having a rate intimate conversation about family dynamics and history. Through the conversation, my dad recounted how my grandmother always looked forward and we talked about how that impacted him and me. I felt a sense of relief in connecting my family history and dynamics to the extreme forward, progress oriented side of my personality. This part of my personality has been key to my leadership; however it can have some dark sides as it can sometimes not create the space to stop and listen to how others are doing and what they are experiencing and this can have further negative impact when I don’t recognize my privilege. Something about creating the space to name how my family personality and privilege impact my leadership has been important. I don't totally know how to articulate this yet.
c. My parents were divorced at an early age, yet they have had an extremely collaborative and loving relationship to this day. My childhood was spent travelling back and forth between the two very different worlds of my mom and dad. I learned early on how to be a bridge between seemingly opposed worlds. My parent’s collaboration taught me that it was possible to create bridges and find common ground. My leadership path has continually leaned towards finding middle ground between two seemingly opposed ideas and stakeholders. Going into the fellowship, I was aware of this and have a lot of questions of where this piece of me is a strength and where it is a limit. The fellowship retreat in April helped me name this tension as trying to find the path between idealism and pragmatism. I also had the opportunity to participate in a Quakers in Business Conference that reminded me that growing up Quaker deeply embedded in me that belief that “there is that of God in everyone.”
These three things may seem like scattered reflections. The reason I bring this up in this learning log, is that the Fellowship gave me the permission and the time to reconnect with family and past and it made me stop and remember where my beliefs come from and where my leadership style is rooted. Our past is part of who we are and taking the time to understand that in all its complexity has been really important to have the space to know where to go with my leadership journey.
2. Leadership and system change can be like a yo-yo. My days can feel like going up and down and side to side like a yo-yo. I can have one hour where I am in a meeting with big companies about how to address the plastic waste issue and reshape recycling and then the next hour can be on the phone dealing with insurance renewals for Eureka and then the next moment with the activist and research community talking about the impact of microplastics on drinking water and then the next hour helping to resolve a conflict between two staff members. It can feel exhilarating (that piece of me that wants to move all the time and that piece that loves making connections and bridges) but it is also exhausting to mentally transition to such different spaces. I have had two coaches during my fellowship so far and they have been key to helping me see the opportunity and challenges in this yo-yo existence and to identify where I do and don’t get energy from it and give myself permission to step away when I need to. I have started to get better at identifying at least where I can say no to things. My work is in a moment where everyone seems to want our perspective. I can feel an urgency to do it all because I am worried this moment will pass. My coaches have really helped me to step away from that place of leading from urgency yet holding space for recognizing the urgency. I have created space to let my mind wander. I have been watching documentaries about quantum physics and reading some of the fascinating theories of system change, such as the work of Jonathan Rowson with Perspectiva and Adrienne Maree Brown’s Emergent Strategy. These amazing thinkers help pull me out of the tactics and strategy of the moment and see the bigger moment. That is a humbling and calming process.
Lastly, I have the privilege and honor of being in co-leadership at Eureka with Lynn Hoffman. We stepped into the roles of Co-President three years ago. I could not be doing the work I do without her. It has been really important as we have come to our three year mark to stop and celebrate the amazing things that have happened and also remember the crazy scary moments. In stopping and celebrating, it is powerful to see that so much of the success came from setting intention and vision. Yes there was strategy and workplans and targets, but more than anything there was values and intention and trust and the space to jump into the unknown.