“How can we maximize our collective impact?”
We were discussing the adoption of a new local service project, something long-term that would allow us to get closer to the community and make a meaningful contribution.
We had entertained this discussion many times before, but never in quite the same way. Usually it was in the form of self-critique, pointing out what we didn’t do well, or enough of. After all, the mission of Rotary is “service above self” so the question of whether our output was sufficient seemed both natural and heavy as we continued to ponder the direction of our club’s growth and evolution.
But for me this time felt qualitatively different, and the moment resonated with promise.
By framing the question as such, “How can we maximize our collective impact?” we had opened a secret door. And if we chose to enter, it would lead us to something big and important, as long as we had the courage to see it through.
With the question hanging in the air, the probes quickly followed. “Who are we at our core? What do we do best, and enjoy most?” The responses flowed easily.
However, the next question, “What do we have that our community needs most?” gave us pause. It was clear that our city’s needs were great, but there were also so many resources and organizations. We would need to be careful not to duplicate services or even worse, inadvertently compete. We agreed to study community reports in hopes of identifying critical gaps and opportunities.
But we also needed to define the boundaries, the lines that we promised not to cross. As Rotarians we were all volunteers, paying significant dues for the honor of being members. As such, we had little tolerance for going outside our comfort zones. And with membership being such a critical issue, we would have to stay firmly within our sweet spot, maintaining our current members while continuing to attract more.
The promise was tantalizing- identifying a new service project that would serve a significant unmet need, leveraging and supporting other community programs and resources, while being uniquely suited to our club’s respective strengths and interests.
So what did we come up with? I’ll save that for another post. Suffice it to say that our new project, which is still in its formative stages, promises to be both exciting and ambitious, in all the right ways.
But perhaps even more important than the project itself is the associated birthing process. By framing our new endeavors, whenever possible, within the guiding question “How can we maximize our collective potential?” we can ensure that our efforts are both inherently important and uniquely ours. And when we are truly working- or serving- in our sweet spots, not only will we find the fulfillment and satisfaction that we crave, but we will also attract other like-minded individuals who are ready to join us, and our capacity for impact will continue to grow.
We have a lot riding on success.
In addition to improving the lives of individuals and their families, and fostering broader economic health, we see financial success as the primary vehicle for addressing systemic inequities. By helping disenfranchised groups gain access to opportunities and resources, we seek to elevate their standard of living while creating more space for prosperity and growth.
The Women’s Movement has been the most successful large-scale effort to move a defined population into the opportunity continuum. Since women have gained access to virtually every level of the workforce, to some degree, many are now focusing on enhancing positions of authority, leadership, and influence, in hopes of elevating conditions while contributing to the broader systems-level and societal change that we so urgently need. When framed within the deepening challenges facing women and children around the world, and the recent stagnation of women’s progress with regard to key success metrics, it’s not surprising that some women are espousing a specific form of feminism that urges us to dig (or lean) in and fight for our places within the vast power hierarchy.
More than ever, we are invited through books, workshops, coaches and conferences to develop the necessary skills, networks, and dispositions to fight the fight and stay the course. Personally, I have found Women’s Leadership messages and programs to be both inspiring and well intentioned, but ultimately no match for the complexity of the work that stands before us. Through navigating my own circuitous career, observing the self-destruction of many talented and competent women around me, and offering my assistance wherever possible, I have come to the realization that we are desperately in need of more powerful tools and supports than are currently offered.
If we are open, three daunting truths can frame and provide guidance for the next stage of our efforts. First, the complex nature of the professional, economic and political landscape and the subtle and nuanced ways that women are blocked from the full equity we seek, call for more sophisticated tools, strategies, and metrics for navigating and moving. Second, many of our existing systems, leaders, and jobs are fundamentally limited and do not afford the opportunities for connections, creativity, and growth that are most conducive to women’s impact. This reality necessitates the creation of new opportunities beyond what already exist. And third, the existing infrastructure fails to map individual success and talent to societal or systems-level gains, so the success of women (individually or collectively) will not result in, by design, the broader impacts that we need.
This final point alone should warrant immediate attention. Once we acknowledge that our current approaches to success- even if fully realized- would not bring about the scope and depth of change that frames our very Movement, then we need to revisit our notion of success and determine where it falls short. Clearly, we needn’t search far. Virtually all aspects of success, down to our working definition, are based on notions of competing for limited opportunities and access within an inherently competitive playing field. Accordingly, our support and intervention models unpack this definition through the cultivation of strategy, networks, and motivation all with the goal of getting more women in and through the hierarchy, and ultimately to the top.
In addition to being exhausting, this model of fighting and competing is insensitive to many of the more subtle nuances and complexities that obstruct women from positions of influence and the ability to make change. If we want women to not only gain a better life for themselves and their families but also to contribute to stronger communities and a better world, we need to arm them with more sophisticated frameworks, models, knowledge, and tools that will allow them to gain access but also to effectively stretch and reshape the spaces in which they work and live, creating more room for themselves and others to move, grow, and more fully contribute.
To be clear, I am not suggesting that we stop fighting for equitable compensation or opportunities. On the contrary, I am suggesting that we begin to fight and work for much more. This next phase of our evolution calls for more noble and ambitious goals that extend well beyond ourselves. If powerful and clear enough, these goals can serve as a shared vision, propelling us further while connecting us with one another along the way. We will need new paradigms for support and development, a deeper understanding of the complex contexts affecting ourselves and the world, and a comfort with process frameworks be they innovation, community development, or problem solving. We will need to provide our children and ourselves with new narratives and characters in literature and all the various media platforms, expanding the ideals to which we aspire and reference our own worth and progress.
Clearly there is a great deal of work to be done. But our investments will yield far reaching benefits well beyond what we can even know.
It begins with a spark, a current of energy that radiates outward, illuminating the darkness and igniting our collective possibilities.
It exists among us in people of all ages and backgrounds. Although some have achieved prominence it is not about money or power in the traditional sense.
Brilliance is an inner light that shines with clarity and purpose, emanating from within while radiating outward, catching and amplifying the light of others, brightening our world.
To behold it, we must be open and ready. For brilliance is most often quiet and understated.
A taxi driver from Ethiopia who sends his children home every summer to remember what’s important; a homeless woman who feels blessed to sleep in a park that is peaceful and safe, asking of nothing and appreciating the gift of life
Sometimes brilliance is bold and dramatic. A friend who funds medical projects in Africa, or Rotary clubs that together eradicate polio around the world
But regardless of the scope or focus, brilliance includes a heightened sense of purpose and meaning that serve as a driver, activating courage and strength, and mitigating fear.
People who shine brilliantly possess an inherent respect for others, and an ability to experience joy and gratitude that nourish their soul and provide all that they need.
To be clear, the world does not cultivate brilliance, nor does it recognize it as such. In fact the very word is defined as a one-dimensional strength, impressive and rare, but somehow different, as if too much.
Perhaps the notion of brilliance is inherently scary. If we were to acknowledge that it exists and represents a superior state that cannot be bought by money, power, or influence, it would be too jarring to address.
In many ways we are unprepared for brilliance, finding it easier to modulate our light, keeping our expectations low and seeking satisfaction in good enough.
After all, those who dare to shine often find their light weakened or snuffed out by others who fail to nurture their flames.
It is ironic that brilliance is viewed as threatening when it has the power to elevate us all.
By merely recognizing brilliance we connect with what is important and are rewarded with a sense of warmth and promise, a clarity that can guide us toward our own growth and fulfillment.
But how can we nurture brilliance, in ourselves and others?
First we must develop our sensitivity- noting shifts in our own levels of radiance and the radiance of others, as conditions change and become more or less conducive.
As we begin to notice changes we can glimpse the sources of our light, feeling out the edges and boundaries and appreciating our impacts and possibilities.
It is critical that we start with ourselves. For t is only when we are shining brightly and able to sustain our own brilliance that we can cultivate it in those around us.
Yes, brilliance is highly combustible, spreading from person to person, eventually lighting up the world.
And although it begins with any one of us, we simply cannot be brilliant alone.
Two simple questions that can illuminate how we see ourselves and our place in the world
“I am a mother of four and an Associate Dean at the University at Buffalo”
“I am a University leader who works to develop and leverage potential toward the greater good”
“I am a connector, facilitator, and creator of new community models and paradigms”
We all have access to an infinite number of descriptors and frames for characterizing who we are and what we do. The way we define or describe ourselves and our life work can vary with our mood, audience, or area of focus. But by putting ourselves out there in a way that is thoughtful and authentic, we can define our space in and for the world and invite others to engage, share, and co-create.
This morning when I was driving my daughters to school I asked them who they are and what they do. Claire quickly announced that she is a gymnast. And Natalie exclaimed that she is a lover of nature and animals. Obviously their depictions are incomplete, yet they serve as bold announcements of their core interests and passions which are still so beautifully clear and accessible.
As we grow older we often lose the brilliance of our passions, strengths, and gifts. We learn to become more understated in our introductions, qualifying the expectations of ourselves and others. We wear our titles and job descriptions like a yoke, yearning to unburden ourselves yet complicit in our own subjugation.
What is our fear of brilliance? Is it the association with bragging, boastfulness, or conceit?
How interesting that narcissism is on the rise with an insatiable thirst for material possessions and status. People yearn to be beautiful, successful, and powerful yet we cannot exclaim the importance of our mission or the passion with which we work and live.
Several years ago my oldest daughter told me that I am not like other mothers in that I love myself so much.
I could tell that her words were not intended to sting or embarrass, but that she was testing out an observation and trying to put her finger on a quality that she was drawn to but also a little afraid. I explained that I do love myself but even more importantly that I love my life. Every day I have opportunities to make a difference, to connect with people, and to learn.
She assured me that this wasn’t a bad thing…. just different.
Sometimes I have the urge to introduce others to the world and to point out the amazing things that make them so unique and important. In doing so, it is my hope that they will begin to see themselves as I do, and to appreciate the gifts that they have and the power that they possess to make a difference.
So try this… pretend that you are me describing you, and ask yourself…
Who am I, and what do I do?
Just yesterday my friend Fortidas Bakuza became Dr. Bakuza, and Tanzania will never be the same.
When I first met Fortidas back in 2009 we visited his office in Dar Es Salaam. A professor from our university had made the connection through a mutual colleague, and despite being strangers we were warmly received. He passionately shared the many challenges facing the Tanzanian education system and his hopes to strengthen and prioritize early childhood education. When we said our goodbyes we spoke of future opportunities to connect and promised to be in touch.
Flash forward five years, and to our celebratory dinner congratulating Fortidas on his monumental accomplishments. Not only did he complete his Doctorate and Master’s degrees in record time, he did so with a dedication, insistence on quality, and a gentle thoughtfulness that has impressed his professors, colleagues, and all with whom he’s interacted while in Buffalo.
As I reflect on the excitement and pride that I feel for Fortidas and his family, I can’t help contrasting it with my own PhD and my graduation that I never bothered attending. It’s not that I didn’t value my education, on the contrary, it is the core of who I am and what I offer. But unlike Fortidas, mine didn’t require direct sacrifice or hardship. Learning was what I loved to do, and my degree felt highly personal and not requiring any public celebration or ceremony.
But Fortidas’s education is something much different. He left his wife and young children, and his home, for three long years, working tirelessly to complete his degrees. His dissertation was not simply an exercise, but instead an offering to his country and its education system to help inform change, progress, and a path forward toward actualizing and leveraging the talent of their youth.
I know there are many other international students who make their way to Western colleges and universities, seeking knowledge, degrees, and better lives for themselves and their families. But as costs become even more prohibitive and obstacles for scholarships and support more daunting, these opportunities and their beneficiaries will continue to dwindle.
If we are serious about supporting community development and progress throughout the world- which I hope desperately that we are- we must continue to bring the benefits of education to those who seek to maximize its reach. And while intensive on-site programs, such as Fortidas’s course of study, offer extensive advantages and opportunities for students from developing regions, they are neither sustainable nor scalable in the largest sense.
Luckily, the burgeoning world of technology and distance education offer unending possibilities for students and communities to learn, share, and innovate while at the same time addressing the specific contextual challenges and opportunities that frame our realities. As Western university communities that enjoy bountiful resources, expertise, and capacity we stand to partner and offer support in new and important ways.
But as we have learned through BTEP (Buffalo Tanzania Education Project), these opportunities are based largely on our willingness to connect and form meaningful relationships built on mutual respect and understanding.
And as my friend Fortidas prepares to return home to his family and the new opportunities that await him, I can’t help feeling as though his departure is actually just the beginning of the next stage of our collaboration and friendship. And I feel blessed to be part of something so much bigger than any one of us.