Our Gifts Are Not Our Own

IMG_2702As I sat on the small porch of a modest house waiting for my session to begin, I recalled the last time I had visited this lovely place, right after we had lost our best friend to a tragic car accident. We had come seeking a connection and left comforted by the knowledge that she had arrived safely on the other side. We had been given tacit permission to move on with our hurried lives. But now some 20 years later I was back, this time eager to slow life down and absorb the stillness.

Her drawing began with a broken line that gradually spread into a pencil, symbolizing my focus on writing and designing growth and rehabilitation. She shaded big blocks of brown for constructing programs, vibrant blues for connecting with people over the internet, and beautiful shades of healing throughout. The portrait was the birthday gift that I had given myself, but it had come with hidden costs. Before she could sketch my journey she had to establish her conduit, the individual responsible for guiding her drawing and providing commentary on my life.

She described an older woman who had passed when I was young, and I immediately thought of my paternal grandmother for whom my oldest daughter was named. A particularly strong woman succeeding boldly in a world of men, we had enjoyed a strong connection during her life and I was honored to be at her side when she passed. But despite my efforts to cling to her memory, she was clearly not the one.

How I tried to avoid the obvious- my other grandmother, my mother’s mother, a woman who I had barely thought about or spoke of in all these years. Even as her identity was pushed into focus, my mind rejected her presence, resenting her appearance, even mispronouncing her name. I was ashamed of my own reaction and listened with confusion as the medium emphasized this woman’s significance.

Did I know that she was a great writer, and that she was responsible for guiding my own gifts and the manuscript that I was so feverishly working on? Did I know that her relationship with my grandfather was actually loving and strong, rather than the tragic mistake that I had concluded.

No, I obviously knew nothing. And I reeled at the discovery.

The rest of the session had felt like a warm embrace with assurances that I was on the right path and that so many were proud of me.

But the biggest gift came later that evening. After first dismissing the medium’s details about my grandmother, my mother had called her sister to confer. To her surprise, she learned that my grandmother was indeed a gifted writer, although focusing her talents on penning beautiful letters, while longing to do more. When she was young she was the bell of the ball, beautiful and engaging. But after she was married she felt trapped by conventional life, yearning to travel and experience exciting adventures, left to read self-help books and live vicariously through the lives of her daughters.

My grandmother had felt stuck, just like so many women today. Although we try to stretch and grow and challenge ourselves, we are constrained by the expectations of others. But what was her life like compared to mine? Her options, her realities- even more restricting and limited. And when my daughters will someday view my choices through their lenses, what will they see, what assumptions will they make?

How wonderful that she should have a hand in my journey, rooting for me and my efforts to help others actualize their dreams and potential, serving as my guide, my angel, my muse.

Of all the gifts that I have been given, perhaps this is the greatest…. the knowledge that our gifts are not our own

Show Me Your Love

I believe that we all have stories that weave themselves forward and back over the course of our lives. One of my favorite parts of being a parent is helping my children to recognize their own stories and clarify the important lessons that reveal themselves in often unexpected ways.

The following story belonged to my son Owen who is now 11. I recently came across it while organizing my desktop and thought it was worth sharing.

Show Me Your Love

Wow, Mimi and Papa must really love me, Owen said as he sorted through the piles of games and toys he had just received for Channukah.  They’re always bringing us presents and buying us things.

You’re right, said his mother, Mimi and Papa do love you and they give you lots of presents.  But what other ways do they show their love?

Owen put down his toys and thought for a moment. Mimi’s always bringing us gum and candy. And Papa takes us for walks and bike rides.

Very good, said his mother.  What about Nanna, how does she show you her love?

Nanna’s always celebrating holidays. She brings us advent calendars and helps us make gingerbread houses. And in the summer she lets us use her pool, even though we make a big mess.

You’re right, said his mother.  All those things are very tiring. Nanna does so much for you and your cousins. Why do you think she does it?

She wants to make things special, guessed Owen.  Yes, said his mother, that’s how she shows her love.

Come with me, said his mother. She crept over to the door and opened it to reveal Owen’s big sister doing her homework while singing to herself.  How does Elena show her love?  Love, said Owen, Elena can’t stand me.  Don’t be silly, said his mother.  When you were a baby Elena used to watch over your crib, waiting for you to wake up. Sometimes she’d crawl in with you because she couldn’t stand to wait any longer.  Why? asked Owen.  Because she wanted to be close to you, she still wants to be close to you, even when you ignore her.   That’s how she shows her love.

Owen’s dog Puck was snoring on the rug. How about Puck, how does she show her love?  That’s easy, said Owen.  He bent down next to Puck and got a huge furry paw over his arm and a wet tongue across the cheek. She cuddles with me, he said, while wiping off his face.

Next came Claire and Natalie, Owen’s two little sisters, chasing one another up the stairs while screaming. Don’t even ask, said Owen, they’re both crazy. Yes, said his mother, crazy they are, but they love you too. Show me your arm, she said. Owen held up his arm to reveal a line of stamps and stickers, compliments of his sisters.

Just then the door opened. Owen’s father stomped in and didn’t look happy. Owen, I told you to bring your sports equipment inside. Now it’s raining and your new bat will be ruined. He slammed the door shut as went back out into the rain.

How does your father show his love, asked his mother. By yelling at me, said Owen with his voice cracking a bit. Well he does yell at you, but why does he do it? asked his mother. Because I never do anything right? No, that’s not it, said his mother. You do a lot of things right, but your Dad wants you to be your best and he knows you can take care of your things,  that’s how he shows his love. Do you get it?

Owen nodded his head. He sort of got it.

You have so many people in your life who love you, said his mother, but they all show their love differently. Why do you think that is?

I don’t know, said Owen. Because they’re all different people, and different things make them happy?

How so? asked his mother.

Well, Nanna likes holidays, and Papa likes presents, and Elena likes to spend time with people. And Dad likes to take care of things. So maybe that’s why they like to do those things for me.

I think you’re right, said his mother.

Well what about you, said Owen. How do you show your love?

I help you understand how very loved you are, said his mother.

Because love is important to you?, asked Owen.

Yes, said his mother, love is very important to me….

Grappling With Disappointment

Disappointment is a heavy burden.  I’ve struggled to manage its weight ever since I was very young.  Although as a child I could handle anger, frustration and virtually any emotion thrown at me, the idea of disappointing others, especially those who I respected and loved, felt like a dull achiness, a throbbing deep within my core.

As I’ve grown older, I find that disappointment continues to weigh heavy on my soul.  But now instead of worrying about falling short of others’ moral standards, it is my own disappointment in our systems and their leaders that cause the dull achiness within.

Perhaps the child in me continues to believe that if challenges and their corresponding remedies are made crystal clear with no ambiguity or uncertainty; if solutions to our most pressing community issues can be achieved with little risk or additional costs; if we can meet institutional goals AND have a societal impact- then of course our leaders will choose to do what is right.

But the lengths that people and organizations will go to in order to avoid a true and absolute commitment, seem to be far greater than I could have ever imagined.  And as a person who literally cannot stop herself from dreaming up solutions, models, and designs for win-wins, I have begun to view my own sense of disappointment as a trusty sensor, an indicator for change.

As I look deeper into the systems that surround, evaluate, and support our most critical needs and rights, my sense of disappointment continues to grow.  But interestingly, I am finding that the feeling of dull achiness in my core that has long accompanied my sense of disappointment is steadily transforming into feelings of anger and sadness- emotions that are new but strangely emboldening.

For I have come to understand that the root of disappointment is an absolute belief in and commitment to ideals, principles and possibilities that are both sacred and noble; a love for humanity and all that is good.  Of course we should feel sad and angry when our leaders – and ourselves- choose to shrink from our responsibilities and choose to stand for something less noble or worthy.

I guess it is only by embracing the notion of disappointment and all that it encompasses that we can become true leaders rather than simply protectors of the status quo.

Dear Superintendent (From Say Yes “Letters to the Superintendent” Book Project)

May 24, 2012

Dear Superintendent,

It is with somewhat conflicted emotions that I welcome you to our schools and community. Like my fellow Buffalonians, I have anticipated your arrival with great hope and urgency and a clear understanding that the future of our youth and city lies largely in your hands. But as I welcome you I must also share a sense of caution and a need to prepare you for the darker side of our community’s embrace. You will find that like other cities across the nation, we too are experiencing a heightened need for accountability and change; a need that has grown over the years into an almost ravenous impatience, making us both fickle and self-destructive, and most desperately in need of leadership.

I pray you recognize that these two emotions- hope and impatience- have a common root; the realization that our children are our most precious resource and a fear that we have irreparably failed them. Of course this fear manifests itself in many forms- activism, policies and panaceas- and many voices, each colored by politics, ideologies, and agendas, all clashing and competing in a cacophony of noise.

But fortunately it is not only fear that binds us. Our community is connected by a bounty of riches that we collectively guard and admire, but have yet to unlock.  And while we celebrate our grand history, world renowned architecture, and cultural assets, few realize that our schools are among our greatest riches, offering treasure more abundant than we know.

You see, Buffalo is in the midst of a most extraordinary experiment, one worthy of the country’s most careful attention.  Today, there are no fewer than five major reform initiatives underway across the district- each supported by federal and/or local investments.  They include the coveted Promise Neighborhood grant modeled after the Harlem Children Zone; Say Yes to Education; Choice Neighborhoods, funded by HUD; a $10 million NSF Math Science Partnership grant; and an initiative on the West Side sponsored by Buffalo State College.  While these programs all share a common focus on student and community supports and evidence-based interventions, they also represent important differences, with each initiative testing a fundamentally different approach to school and neighborhood reform.  And at the center of these diverse approaches firmly stands the Buffalo School District, keepers of the participating schools, students, and their respective data.

Indeed, in no other city across the country is the problem of Urban Education being studied in such a fully developed quasi-experiment. The collective data, if compiled and analyzed within a comprehensive research design, could inform not only our own efforts but the future shape of policy and implementation with implications for districts and students across the country.  It should be noted that in Buffalo these efforts are already underway, with each initiative in varying stages of funding and implementation, with its own management and leadership teams.   All that is missing is a champion to rally us around the work and a process to weave together these disparate approaches into a thoughtful and comprehensive vision.

As Superintendent you will be a primary keeper of this vision, but since it has yet to be created there is still nothing to be kept.  We cannot skip the exercise of defining our beliefs, promises, and expectations. Our vision must be powerful, clear, and shared in a way that is meaningful and real- so real that with time we will all know it, dream it, and begin to make it happen- for our students, ourselves, and for future generations.  Clearly, this exercise and our resulting efforts will not excuse us from external mandates or performance expectations.  But it will provide a more meaningful frame through which to address and interpret related metrics.  If done correctly, this vision and its components will provide the clarity necessary for us to be nimble, deliberate, and collaborative- all signs of a healthy dynamic system able to thrive and sustain itself while adapting within an ever-changing world.

It is indeed an interesting and important time to assume your new role as our Superintendent of Schools.  But as you prepare for the many challenges and opportunities ahead, please know that we are ready for your leadership and eager to contribute our own resources and contributions toward the collective good.

I look forward to meeting you and working together in the months ahead,

Points of Leverage: Teacher Preparation Programs

Just yesterday I had a discussion with my good friend Dr. James Williams, former Superintedent of Buffalo Schools. In addition to reminding me how much I miss him, our conversation focused on a topic that has dominated a great deal of our individual and collective attention- teacher preparation. Back in 2007 when I worked with Dr. Williams through my then role as Liaison for Higher Education Partnerships, and shortly after as Director of the UB- Buffalo Public Schools Partnership, he was very concerned about the (perceived) lack of alignment between area teacher education programs and the needs and realities of the Buffalo Schools. I, on the other hand, was continuing my early experiences co-leading the accreditation of the UB Teacher Education Program by serving on the Accreditation Panel for the Teacher Education Accreditation Council (TEAC), which has since become CAEP. My own interests focused on PK-16 collaboration and ways to ensure a stronger and more functional alignment between systems.

Despite our differences in specific focus, however, we have both continued our efforts and thinking related to this important topic. Dr. Williams has become actively involved in the process of researching the quality of teacher education programs through the lens of urban education and providing a publically shared rating system, in hopes that this will help drive reform and strengthen higher education programs. While I have maintained my engagement with the accreditation process, I continue to think about structural levers and mechanisms that could potentially support greater alignment if used appropriately. This is of course where my brain always goes- trying to “map out” systems and identify drivers that can help catalyze significant change.

In the world of teacher preparation I continue to see two prominent vehicles for major urban school districts to catalyze change. Although from the viewpoint of higher education these could be extremely scary if leveraged, I feel compelled to point them out if only as a “thought exercise”. The first involves hiring of teachers and the possibility of exercising (and publicizing) preferential hiring or endorsement of specific programs or specialized training. In major cities in which the public districts represent the main employers of new teachers, such public endorsement could have a significant impact on students’ choices for enrollment. And by partnering with districts to develop specialized programs that are deemed to be especially well-aligned, colleges could gain a competitive edge in a time when enrollments are becoming increasingly precious. Since the market of teacher education programs is not highly differentiated with regard to obvious curricular, quality, or placement related distinctions, it is theoretically sensitive to changes in the external market.

A second area that has significant implications is the placement of student teachers. Although higher education programs are required to place candidates in high needs schools/settings, there is no specific mandate for districts to accept and place student teachers. Accordingly, as a point of leverage, if urban superintendents were to limit the acceptance of student teachers based on endorsement of specific teacher education programs and their curricula, higher education programs could theoretically be impacted with regard to their own continued viability.

It should be noted that I am certainly not trying to put institutions of higher education and their programs at risk, nor am I passing any judgment on the quality of their specific programs. I am, however, pointing out some significant points of leverage that have implications for interests in strengthening the alignment between preparation programs and the realities of the districts they serve.

Why I Became a Divorce Mediator

Couples are drawn to divorce mediation in an effort to avoid the ugliness and costliness of litigation.  Although they have decided to end their marriage, they are committed to making decisions that are in the best interest of their children.  The mediator, by definition, serves as a link between the disputing parties, helping them to clarify their vision and align their decisions with shared goals and objectives.  The mediator does not take sides, nor does she allow any discussions or behavior that undermine progress toward the agreed upon outcomes, thus ensuring from the outset that the process will be successful.

It struck me early on that this same model would be a powerful tool for faciliating partnerships, especially those involving colalboration with public schools.  Here was my thinking-  organizations and social systems have very different philosophies, cultures, priorities, and needs which can make sustainable collaboration very slippery.  In fact, left to their own devices, organizations have built-in escape hatches, able to blame one another for failures to execute, follow-through with planned initiatives, or provide necessary support.  Because partnerships are often seen as peripheral to  individuals’ primary job responsibilities, there is no clear recourse when targets aren’t met.  Moreover, since goals are rarely defined or operationalized, partners can frame and communicate their successes independent of external standards or expectations.  Like marital crises, these large-scale interpersonal differences and shortcomings can threaten the ultimate health and sustainabilility of the “family”, effectively putting the children in the middle of the dysfunction.

Earnest efforts to capitalize on the promise of strategic collaboration must recognize these  tendencies and ensure that all parties are working together toward the greater good.  In the world of mediation, this can be achieved through the development of a shared vision that represents a commitment or goal that is highly valued by all parties.  In divorce mediation most vision statements focus on the children and involve a commitment to promote their wellbeing.  Because the tendency to deviate from this vision and succumb to the negativity and anger associated with divorce can be so strong, mediators often encourage couples to bring pictures of their children to serve as visual reminders, thus leveraging the power of the shared vision to keep them on track.

For community partnerships the importance of a shared vision cannot be overstated.  When well crafted, it can provide enough detail to guide efforts while at the same time sufficient latitude to build synergy and generate infinite possibilities.  The shared vision can also serve as a roadmap for communicating goals and successes so that all parties can define and promote their impact and continue to build toward further growth.   In these ways, the vision statement can be the life of the partnership.  But it can also be the death. When poorly articulated or lacking sufficient detail or commitment, the partnership will be difficult to launch and equally challenging to evaluate.   And if the inherent benefit and incentives are not made clear at the outset, it will be difficult to get the necessary buy-in and follow through that is essential for success and sustainability.

Clearly, the most disappointing thing about divorce mediation is that it’s never enough to save the marriage. Even when the mediator is able to facilitate civil and sound decision making the relationship is doomed for failure. But what if the mediator could get to the struggling couple a year or two earlier- would a compelling shared vision and a strong mediation process change the outcome?  Perhaps there is a limited window of opportunity during which relationships between diverging parties can be strengthened and buttressed and successfully led toward common goals.  In the world of community partnerships we are currently within our window of opportunity.  Despite the disparate positions and seemingly infinite dysfunction we are all after what is essentially the same vision – citizens who are prepared, motivated, and able to contribute to our world in important and meaningful ways. Our challenge is to harness the power of this shared vision through a process that will lead and guide us toward our important goal.

Like the struggling couple who carry around a picture of their child, we must constantly remind ourselves of the purpose of our work.  And rather than oversimplifying the process of collaboration, we must recognize and understand its complexity.  Once we acknowledge and appreciate the need for mediators who can serve as keepers of our shared vision, we can finally begin the work of designing and building the “win-wins” that our communities so desperately need.

I Believe…I Promise…I Expect

Here’s an exercise that yields huge returns.  It’s much more challenging than you might think, and can be used with virtually any age group, demographic, or area of focus.  I developed it when my children were very young and I was looking to clarify my approach to parenting in an effort to stay focused and maintain my sanity.

The instructions are deceivingly simple.  Pick an area of focus, a role, or aspect of your life.  Once you select your lens, write with a few concise sentences that sum up the essence of your “platform”, starting with I believe,  I promise, and I expect.   Your statements should be general enough to capture your unique culture, mission, or approach, while specific enough to serve as a guide for future actions and decision making.

I have used this exercise in a number of settings and contexts including coaching, strategic planning, group facilitation, and mediation.  Based on my experiences I would offer the following observations for each category of reflection:

I Believe

It’s helpful to anchor this statement to the role on which you are focusing.  In other words, if you are completing this exercise as a parent, you should craft a statement about what you believe to be the core responsibilities of parents or conversely what you believe society needs in terms of its citizens or communities.  If you are completing this through the lens of leadership, consider the final “product” of your efforts in terms of the bigger world or context.  By framing your core beliefs around the highest level of outcomes that are relevant to your frame, you will create the most expansive space for creating movement and maximizing your impact.

I Promise

This is a big one as it speaks to core commitments, which shouldn’t move or shift regardless of changes in context or the twists and turns of life.  I strongly feel that we need more commitments from individuals, organizations, and institutions- commitments that we can count on no matter what.  Your own promises should come directly from your beliefs and should be broad enough to serve as anchors while allowing for varied solutions and goals.  In this way your promises should not limit you, but instead guide you in your decision making while ensuring ongoing alignment at all times.

I Expect

This one is my favorite but it’s often the hardest to adopt.  Here’s the idea:  while it’s great to commit to others through your promises, you also need to define the parameters of your engagement.  Specifically, what are your core expectations for the individuals with whom you interact in your respective role?  Like promises, expectations should also be tied to your core beliefs and should never waver, serving as a vehicle to ensure the stability of your beliefs while also enabling you to fulfill your promise to others – and yourself.

Although this exercise takes time and necessitates deep reflection and soul searching, I find that it is well worth the investment and yields multiple returns.   When I developed it for myself it was based on a very clear notion that I continue to share with my children today,

…..I don’t want you to waste any of your life trying to figure me out.  I want you to know exactly who I am and what I stand for, so that you can use your time and energy to figure yourself out, to recognize and cultivate your gifts, and begin to impact the world. The sooner you are able to do this, the sooner you will experience the magic that comes with fulfilling your promise.

I hope you all find this exercise useful.  Let me know if you have any questions or need any help!




Dorothy’s Gift

The moment of realization struck me like a lightning bolt.  The woman sitting on this bench before me had been in this very spot for several days, maybe even weeks?  I strained to remember when I had first noticed her, but couldn’t get past the weight in my throat as I acknowledged the obvious.  She was sleeping there, on this bench, in this lovely little park right in the middle of my neighborhood.

My cherished early morning walk had come to a halt as I stood there looking at her trying not to be noticed.  The impression was one of a mystical tree.  Draped in a dark green cloak with a peaked hood and flowing sleeves, she sat with her head down, all angles pointing to and merging with the earth.  Her legs were like thick tree trunks, completing the image of stillness, strength, nature.

Although I didn’t want to disturb her I knew that I had to acknowledge her presence and repent for the days that I had let slip by, lost in my own self.  I resumed walking and prepared to initiate conversation, or at least some respectable gesture.  As my steps approached her bench I uttered, “Good Morning,” and immediately regretted my words.

But a melodious voice echoed, “Good morning to you.”  I stopped to pivot, beholding the rising of the hood, and the whitest most lovely set of teeth parting in a warm smile.  In just a moment I took her all in- well kempt hair, healthy glowing skin, and a tiny diamond ring on clean and dainty fingers.

Despite my shock I continued conversation, confirming that she had been sleeping in the park, and inquiring about her safety and well-being. Her responses were light and reserved, hinting at circumstances and her decision to make the park her temporary home.  She alluded to domestic and mental health issues, plans to move to a shelter in Carolina, and only mild concerns about the cooling temperatures and impending weather.   She was clearly a woman with choices, a woman with a plan.

Feeling our conversation coming to a close I asked if there was anything I could bring her to make her stay more comfortable.  She dismissed my gesture with an airy wave and insisted, convincingly, that she had everything she needed.  I pressed on, determined to offer something of value.  When she finally agreed to some left-over chicken and perhaps a light blanket, I turned and quickly ran home, assuring her that I would be right back but secretly scared that I would be too late.

When I got home I made a beeline for the kitchen, wrapping food items with care, and placing them in a still perfectly functional backpack from the previous school year.  I sneaked up the stairs, trying not to draw my family’s attention as I frantically looked around, surveying the endless shelves and piles of stuff for worthy offerings.  I grabbed a Smithsonian magazine and a book of crossword puzzles unused by my children at camp.  And then I finally saw it, the perfect gift, making me giggle as I touched them one last time.  I lovingly placed my most wonderfully cozy and warm pair of socks into the bag.  They had been given to me by my husband, brought home from our family’s clothing store.   Indulgently unnecessary, they were the perfect gift for someone who had everything and wanted of nothing.  They were the perfect gift for my new friend Dorothy.

When I raced back to the park I was relieved to find Dorothy still on her bench, peaked hood down and re-rooted in the earth.  I experienced a rush of gratitude as she lifted her head once more and returned my greetings.  Like a child I described my offerings as I pulled each from the bag.  Only mildly feigning interest, she accepted my gifts and thanked me by name, sealing the exquisite moment of connection that I continue to cherish today.

A-Rod Sucks and Other Random Observations

The Girls of KitengaSister Rita* Based on our 2009 trip to Tanzania as part of the Buffalo-Tanzania Education Project (BTEP)


One at a Time

They ushered us inside.  The contrast was startling.  Outside was black and jarring but inside was warm and familiar.  The hall was bright and cozy with tables covered with cloths and set for dinner.  We were led to wash our hands and find our places.

in the middle of each table were an assortment of beverages, among them bottles of wine and beer.  Why was I so surprised by this, and why did it bring me such warmth and assurance?

There were singing, happy joyous voices.  There was delicious home cooked food- chicken and cabbage and potatoes.  There were messages of welcome and thanks.  And there was more wine and beer.  Although I had never been a fan of beer my first bottle tasted like heaven. It was a Tusker and the big elephant on the label made me feel like I was really in Africa, here with the Sisters sharing a meal and hospitality.

Sr. Rita, the Mother Superior, was at my table and her huge smile reassured me that we were right to have come.  She put her hand over mine and squeezed it hard asking, “How about another drink Mara?”   I said no thank you, that one’s my limit.  Sr. Rita looked at me with a big smile and answered, “Yes Mara, only one….. one at a time.”


Maybe Tomorrow

Driving into Butiamo was like entering another world.  The air around the shade trees looked cooler and softer.  The landscaping was carefully placed and tended.  The homes were strangely familiar- rounded, dome like structures of cobbled stones, seemingly ancient yet lovingly preserved. The town felt quiet and reflective as we walked toward the museum, eager to learn more about Nyerere and the history of Tanzania.

After parking the Land Rover we started for the museum, walking up a short flight of stairs toward the smiling face of Nyerere- the father of the nation.  We were ushered into a waiting room and sat quietly for a seemingly long period of time.  A small square TV set sat on a cart with an interview of Nyerere on a loop in Swahili with no subtitles. There was a hushed reverent silence.  Then a gentleman came in to collect the ticket price which seemed to be unclear, with negotiations ensuing like a deal being struck.  A heavy guest book was sent around and we were all asked to sign-in before entering.

We were taken on a tour of the small structure filled with artifacts. Usually museums don’t do much for me- I’m too impatient to take my time and possess too little knowledge to take it all in.  Although I shot off quickly, I could feel this man and more powerfully the reverence for him- all his gifts, so meaningful- carved stools, and exotic hides- made me think of the people who gave them to him, with their hopes attached. Right there, not behind glass- it all seemed so recent and new.  The stools- symbols of relationships and accomplishments- newness of the history and the vision of its father.

Imagine our surprise when we were introduced to his own son, Nyerere’s actual progeny.  He sat with us and made idle conversation about the growth of the area, the struggles and the potential- as if we were equals, or even cherished guests.  So comfortable- he showed us around, pointing out the details and sharing the stories, and even took us into the house itself.  He mostly spoke about his father’s humility, how he hated the big pretentious house and would often escape to be among the people. He spoke about the sense of responsibility that he had felt for his country.  He spoke about the struggles of the people and the land….

We walked around the grounds and admired the natural beauty that grew everywhere.  Huge boulders so grand and majestic were allowed to be exactly where they were with structures built around them.  Big whicker holding containers sat ready for grain.  And a cement pergola awaited intimate games and conversations.

What a gift, this intimate glimpse into the birth of the country.  A man, a humble leader who yearned to be with his people.  Could it get any better?  The experience culminated with a visit into Nyerere’s personal library.  The door was beautiful and grand but was no comparison to what lay within.  We saw an extensive and impressive collection of books- rows and rows of books in a country where books were still scarce.  We all dispersed and browsed through rows, glancing at titles and appreciating the diversity of genres and languages.  But then many of us started touching the books, his books.  We flipped through pages and looked at the words written in the margins.  His notes, his writing, his thoughts about the novels and authors of his time.

It was truly remarkable and we all pondered its specialness as we walked through the house and paused to appreciate the vista before heading back to Musoma.   This was the same view that Nyerere once reflected upon and I was moved by the strength of his presence.   When I sensed Sister Rita next to me, I asked her if there were other leaders like Nyerere out there; leaders who were so humble and committed to their people. Without turning to look at me, Sr. Rita answered into the landscape,
“Not today Mara…. but maybe tomorrow.”


A-Rod Sucks

I was prepared for the circular mud huts; the boys with sticks driving cattle; the film of red dust that settled over everything. These were the familiar images that promised the African experience I did not receive.

As we drove away from Kitenga to our base in Musoma, we held onto the walls for stability, our Land Rover pitching over ruts and rocks.  Our visit had been jarring with too many contrasts and not enough distance in between.  We had seen gleaming billboards with white Americans gulping sports drinks against sun leeched earth.  And my annoying ringtone, which had come preset on my Chinese manufactured smart phone, had emanated from the pocket of a village elder as he delivered solemn words under the meeting tree.  Again and again I had tried to take it all in, but was unable to process the juxtaposition of images and sounds, unable to find and maintain perspective without comfort or context.

Then out of nowhere he had appeared, a teenage boy standing firmly in the middle of the road, staring at our approaching vehicle, staring at me.  His royal blue T-shirt emblazoned with large white letters read “A-Rod Sucks.” As we passed he turned to watch us, forcing me to continue my gaze, burning his message onto my throbbing retinas.   A-Rod sucks, I said to myself, trying to remember who A-Rod was, my mind telescoping away from the dusty village back to my own small world in Buffalo New York, to the fleeting context of pop culture and social commentary.  I tried to imagine the intended wearer of the T-shirt as I struggled to understand the comment, seemingly irrelevant and out of place.

Yet what statement would be appropriate in this complex landscape?  How to capture the contrasts, the mosaic of new and old that meanders through the dusty roads?  My mind went blank as “A Rod Sucks” pulsated through my consciousness.   I yearned for context as we continued our long journey home.

The Beautiful Children

So much of that first trip was a blur- white noise without contrast, resisting perception and understanding.  And yet through every place we visited the faces and laughter of children captured our hearts.

There were the mute children who sang to us in sign language and gave us each nicknames based on our unique facial characteristics (not all flattering).  There were the disabled children who lined up to receive our gifts of suckers and stick pens, crowding around us to hug and touch, so happy that we were visiting.

At Kowak School for Girls they performed a dance and sang for us,  we even got to interview a few of the girls. They were shy and timid but so sure of themselves and their futures.  They spoke of their love for the school, the importance of education for all girls, especially those in the villages.  They spoke of their plans to be a surgeon, an attorney, and champions of girl’s rights and futures.  They whispered of secret practices and of dangers for girls and women, of inequities and threats.

They were already on their way to making change.

Emerging From the Middle (TEDx Presentation)

photoWhen I first heard the theme “Invented Here” I was immediately reminded of my children, and the story that I have told them ever since they were very young.  The story changes with each telling, but the plot is always the same.  It begins with my children- and all children- being born with amazing gifts and talents.  The middle is about the success that they will find as they cultivate and utilize their gifts.  And the end is about the contributions that they will make when they connect their gifts with the needs of the world.

It’s a good story and they enjoy exploring it, although they always want to focus on the middle- the part about success and all the wonderful things that they will buy and earn as a result of their talents.  But I, as their mother, always refocus to the end of the story- the part about making their contribution and connecting with the world.  This is the part of the story that I’ve always been most interested in and in a terrible hurry to get to.  So much so that I remember on the very day that I finished my qualifying exams, I rushed home and called the Buffalo Board of Education, announcing ceremoneously that I had just completed my coursework and was ready to make my contribution, ready to help the students and the schools.  I still remember the silence on the other end as the poor woman tried to figure out what to do with my call, and eventually her weak and empty promise that someone would be in touch.

See, that’s the part of the story that breaks down- the notion that if we prepare ourselves, if we cultivate our gifts and talents, opportunities will arise; the notion that preparation will lead to utilization.  The truth is that most of us are underutilized.  Despite hopefully having good jobs and salaries, and certainly being busy, the best part, the essence of what we have uniquely to offer the world, is usually untapped and even unrecognized by those around us.

Sometimes I’m overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of untapped potential.  I literally see it everywhere- seniors, with lifetimes of experience and skills, immigrants with rich cultures and dreams, and women- women like you and me who are dying to make a difference, dying to challenge and stretch ourselves to make a meaningful contribution.

When you think of talent in its broadest forms as a natural resource, THE natural resource, you start to feel it bubbling up around you, it’s literally everywhere, just waiting to be utilized.  And yet through this talent- a sea of abundance- we’ve managed to construct a pipeline right through the middle, supposedly designed to convey talent toward some unknown destination.  And because it’s the only pipeline, of course we spend our energies, and our stories, trying to get in, and through, and convincing ourselves that we’re somehow worthy of our places.

The pipes are narrow so we have to squeeze and contort ourselves to get through.  And so it’s not surprising that somewhere along the way we get stuck, we get stuck in the middle of our stories.  See, we all knew that the pipeline was broken, but somehow we’re surprised to discover that it’s also incomplete.  The pipeline is constructed entirely around the middle of the story, the  part about success and limited opportunities that we need to prepare for.  It’s not at all connected to the beginning or end of the story, which are the most powerful parts. The beginning is about each of us having unique gifts and talents, and the end is about connecting our talents to the world.  These are the parts that give our lives hope and focus, but they’re also the parts that allow us to move.  This idea of clarifying and staying true to our mission while responding to an ever changing world- by staying connected to both ends, we are able to move, pivot, and stay nimble.  But if we lose these connections we find ourselves firmly stuck in the middle of our stories.

Stuckness looks different when viewed through different lenses.  In individuals I sense it as a restlessness, a yearning to move and grow.  In organizations it looks quite different.  Sometimes I see it as a lack of clarity in mission or a lack of responsiveness to the population served or the surrounding environment.  But interestingly, when organizations get stuck they layer themselves in complexity, adding programs, grants, and staff. As they become more complex they are less nimble and able to stay relevant, and eventually may become obsolete.  And communities that are stuck, unfortunately we know these all too well- an inability to gain traction or momentum despite pouring in of resources, with leaders looking for panaceas or false proxies of success.

It is clear that the implications of our stuckness- individual, collective, and societal- are profound.  However, the  promise of getting unstuck is even more compelling.  By tapping into our collective talent we can gain stronger communities while also finding success and fulfillment along the way.  But getting unstuck, truly emerging from the middle, will take a catalyst stronger than the inertia that grounds us.  It will take an ending of epic proportions.

Getting back to the story that I tell my children,I find that as they grow older and become more entrenched in the systems that surround them, the story becomes more dramatic and compelling.  The story now begins with my children- and all children- as superheroes, born with amazing strengths and powers that the world desperately needs.  Their task of cultivating and delivering these powers is their mission, no their destiny.  And it is my job as their parent, and our job as a society, to help cultivate their gifts and connect them in a way that will have the greatest impact.

I tell my children that their story- like all great stories- will not be easy.  They will face countless threats and obstacles that will try to distract them from their mission and zap them of their powers.  But here’s the crazy part- the greatest threats and obstacles that they will have to endure are the very systems- the pipeline- that we have created.  And education system that will try to reduce them to numbers and letters, either making them feel inadequate or entitled; a world of privilege that will try to zap their sense of empathy and compassion; and a media that will try to sell them a sense of beauty and self-worth.  To help our children we must first convince them and eachother that we are destined for greatness, then arm them with the tools and strength to get through the pipeline while pushing back on those who will try to constrain and shrink them, while reserving energy so that when they make it to the end of the pipeline they can reach across the chasm and pull others in, making more room.

Clearly this is difficult and complex work, but wokr that we must take on.  It will call for new paradigms for education, consulting, and support.  But even if we are successful- and we must be successful- I have to tell you that alone it will not be enough.  If we truly want to emerge from the middle we must have the courage to ask ourselves and eachother, what could our children accomplish, what could we all accomplish if we didn’t have to use our energy and stories to get around systems that are designed to constrain us?

It is time to develop new models and systems that are designed from the beginning and end of the story, models that are constrained only by an insistence that we serve the greater good.  Only when we are able to both believe in our greatness AND have communities ready to receive our gifts, will we tap into true potential.  But once we are able to do so we will ffinally discover our infinite potential that is invented here
Thank you…….

(My TEDx presentation will be available witin the next few weeks on TEDxbuffalowomen.com)