Power to the Pollenite
Earlier than I would have liked on a chilly Minnesota spring morning, I ventured over to a neighborhood I don’t believe I’ve set foot in before. No one was holding me accountable to show up. No one would have noticed my absence.
But I showed up at The Neighborhood House on Robie Street in East St. Paul, as did 60 some others. We came together for an event hosted by Pollen Midwest: #UnraveledNetwork. I believe we were all happy we did and here’s a little taste of why.
Pollen makes it easier to break down barriers to build better connected communities. They do this by 1. Sharing stories of local leaders 2. Linking people to opportunities 3. Hosting events where essential conversations happen. This event, one in a series of #UnraveledNetwork events (see #UN Networking: Part 1 and #UN Networking: Part 2), was refreshingly story-based in content, ethnically diverse in audience, rich in real world examples and unapologetic in acknowledging the belief that our social justice system is broken.
The two speakers (or story-sharers, if you will): Bo Thao-Urabe, Coalition of Asian American Leaders; and Justin Terrell, TakeAction Minnesota; each started with their personal story. Had they not, the context of the community building portion of their stories wouldn’t have been as connected. That framework, in and of itself, was a valuable takeaway for the audience when it comes to networking. Be real, start with an emotional connection and find out someone’s why. It’s much more powerful than finding out the answer to “What do you do?”
Bo and Justin, community leaders and builders, talked about their childhood. Bo, as part of the largest wave of immigrants coming to the U.S. post Vietnam War, could speak English better than her parents by second grade. She became a community go-to for others who needed help filling out their paperwork upon entry to the U.S. In accepting this role, she began to understand the phrase, “the personal is the political.”
Justin’s story began with a missing adult male in the equation, his father. He noted the incredibly strong, resourceful women he grew up with as influencers. He also cited the happenstance of coming across the show, Eyes on the Prize, a 14-hour documentary about the Civil Rights Movement, way back when blacks only got a week for what’s now #BlackHistoryMonth. A voice from within nudged him to do more. He connected with the only black teacher in his school at the time to organize a time and place for students to watch it. He went on to read Malcolm X’s The Ballet or the Bullet. His passion for social justice had taken hold.
Not that he was a rule follower. A few violations on his record from his late teens or thereabouts continued to problematically pop-up way into his job searches years later. A potential employer would note how well-suited he was for a role, but halt the hiring process when eventually those violations surfaced. If he was running into this issue, others were. And it was prohibiting them from every getting out of their current jobless situation and making a better life for themselves and their families. At this point in the story, the audience might have sensed, Justin was fired up.
The panel moderators then moved them into commentary on challenges and solutions. They shared viewpoints on society’s current methods and models to solve challenges, the dramatic impact and effects of the way we’re currently operating, and pushing through to new ways to operate that make more people more comfortable. They also took the time to thoughtfully touch on building leaders, relationship building and strategic networking.
Just Ask Justice
This discussion included glimpses into how challenges for minorities and low income families are currently being addressed. Many proposed solutions are pushed upon a community when the obvious, but much less opted route is the most effective: just ask them, agreed Bo and Justin. Empower them, ask, listen and support.
We are not asking. We have not deconstructed justice enough to break free of our current model which Justin believes is more like “crime and punishment than justice.” He also notes, “Justice will not be achieved until we can envision a new alternative. We need to organize our communities differently.”
Back to the ask. Asking begs commonality. It creates empathy among the most seemingly disparate characters. “There’s a lot of people with undigested experiences walking around,” says Justin, aluding to the idea that there’s opportunity to come together around sharing and healing. If we don’t, we will continue to fail our community, particularly our low-income and minority communities.
Fish in Different Rivers
Challenging limiting beliefs is important. Are we doing this enough as we sit on our boards and committees? Are we going along with processes and things that make us uncomfortable but they’re too insurmountable to tackle? In this discussion, Bo offered that while we might believe the task at hand for success is to teach others how to fish (you know the saying), might we think more broadly and ask, Why fish in that river at all?
If we move to a different river, per se, it could mean that we organically have more cross-diversity among our communities. Bo cautioned that we’re still running into the be on a committee ask where minorities are only invited to the table because they’re filling a check box for racial or gender diversity with the anticipation that they will chime in as the authority and advocate for these issues.
This non-diverse scenario rang true for me personally as I was just on a committee earlier this week of all white folks and although gender balanced, we were nowhere near diverse. Recognizing that fact is a start and then I think moving to the organically flowing river vs a prescribed ask to grow diversity and inclusivity, trumps any time.
Power is Power
“Knowledge is not power. Power is power,” Justin said. Could be that knowledge is more like the fuel for the passion to take action that leads to successful outcomes, but knowledge alone does not equate to power. I’m still processing this point. I believe Carl, in our table’s breakout session, was also enamored with this idea.
Other conversations throughout the morning also supported how both Bo and Justin approach leadership and community building in powerful ways. Bo cited an intention in her roles and others who share the same passions as more of an ask like, who’s coming with me? not who’s going to do exactly as I do?, otherwise you just end up becoming the gatekeeper with a lot on your plate. Justin noted that the community building mindset is to build leaders through leading by example, then just get out of their way. “Seeing them grow and lead, that’s the best part,” he says.
Truly. Thanks for a great morning, Pollen, speakers, our talented musician and all. I enjoyed unraveling with you and defining how I can use the knowledge and the insight you shared to be a better Pollenite (#PowerToThePollenite) see the Pollenite Quiz questions on my Instagram 4.7.16 posts). More power to you!