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After climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. -Nelson Mandela
The late Nelson Mandela understood that leadership and stewardship are inextricably linked. He knew that unless our leaders were willing to “lead from behind,” that the systems we create, the moral infrastructure of a nation, will fail many people. Those failures are oftentimes an issue of access, or lack thereof.
If you ask any self-described progressive today, chances are likely their lexicon readily includes the term “access.” Access to quality education, to healthcare, access to justice and equal protections. The list goes on. We campaign on platforms of access as a means to elevate the most marginalized in our society, lobbying for the inclusion of non-Eurocentric history and culture to transform and undercut bias within our education systems, organizing out in the field to register voters previously voiceless in our electorate, and building businesses and non-profits from the ground up to provide meaningful services like counseling and care for victims of intimate partner violence.
We tend to focus on our one great hill to climb, an issue we champion, but inevitably along the way, we find that there are many more hills to climb that intersect with our own.Sometimes, try as we may, we still falter on the issue of true access. Our progressive organizations and institutions are riddled with unconscious bias and intersectional failures that result in some folks falling between the cracks.
The Kentucky chapter of NLC just completed an institute that simultaneously proved and abated some of my fears about access to leadership trainings such as that offered by progressive organizations. It was only by way of a true display of progressive leadership that my NLC experience was an exceptional one. I would like to share a bit of my NLC story and 3 points of access that NLC provides its fellows that make all the difference.
When I received my selection as a 2017 Fellow, I initially declined. I communicated with the director, Latara Appleby, that I simply was unable to secure childcare for my two sons...at least not for the five, two-day institutes that the fellowship would require. A number of institutes where I would need to be away from home overnight. (Not to mention, I had a job working at night on weekends at the time.)
I remember being a little annoyed and thinking to myself, for this to be a progressive organization, they sure don't make it accessible to ALL people. But as I've been a single parent without family or help nearby for several years now, I've grown accustomed to opting out of leadership opportunities with sad resignation, no matter how great they may be to my personal or professional growth. Now hang in there, this story will turn around, I promise.
No sooner than I had hit 'send' on the email declining the fellowship, Latara responded to say she could work to find some NLC alum to help out if I was willing. I was touched, to say the least. Not only did she find help, she found amazing help, and not a single person looked at me sideways when I walked in wearing my suit with two kids in tow. One board member, Mari Graham, took my children to the Louisville Slugger museum while I joined a group of peers for leadership training. In a world that consistently denies single parents access, NLC proved the proof was in the pudding on this one.
Remember I mentioned my fears about access to leadership trainings such as this one? The first day of training, there was a blaringly apparent issue: We lacked racial diversity in our fellowship class. There was not a single person of color in our class. Of course there was plenty of diversity to be had, but in being the first class selected since the election of our current president, I expected to see the Bluegrass that I had come to know and love.
I was sitting across the room from a variety of people from marginalized communities, however, it did not go unnoticed that the most racial diversity in the room came from my two mixed race children sitting in the back playing on electronics. Considering that in my interview I had intimated that I had recently left my nine-to-five to dedicate my life to the racial healing of our nation, my “unbridled spirit” was somewhat dampened to find a lack of representation.
The first institute was in Owensboro, KY… about three hours and some change from where I live in Berea. I was disheartened to have traveled so far for what I thought might be a regrettable experience, but I was also trying not to judge my peers before getting to know them. I was looking at the planners of the institute with an inquisitive eye, however. How did this lack of representation happen? Access came to mind.
Those of us who were curious about selections and recruitment and access wouldn’t remain in that state of mind for long. Within the first hour, the NLC leadership named the elephant in the room, our lack of racial diversity. Not only did they immediately name the issue, it was clear that there was already a recruitment plan being executed and as an immediate response, board members and alum were called upon to join some of our trainings to provide what we all knew was necessary for a progressive conversation to occur.
Needless to say, it felt like the best response to the situation from our leaders and I was glad that they prioritized it as something that needed to be addressed with transparency and urgency. Throughout the course of the institute, board members displayed a sense of true stewardship, serving with openness and compassion, taking feedback with grace. They were embodying a leadership style Mandela prescribed when he said, “It is better to lead from behind and to put others in front.” As a result, I relaxed a bit and I absolutely enjoyed the leadership training experience.
Each fellow has their own unique reflection from their time as NLC participants, so these top 3 “access” points that I found most salient and memorable from our training may not reflect my entire class, but there is likely some shared sentiments:
One of the most helpful sessions of our training, during the Covington institute, provided resources and information for women seeking to start business. Naashom Marx blew my mind in a very short time. I left her session feeling like I could achieve every entrepreneurial dream I had ever had. It was empowering to access such tangible knowledge that I will always have in my back pocket now.
It goes without saying, we met so many powerhouse women, including the mayor of Springfield, KY, Debbie Wakefield. Her story of her political rise and the way in which she relates with her constituents is nothing short of fascinating and awe-inspiring. Jacqueline Coleman, President of Lead Kentucky, is empowering young women from all across the state as well. It was encouraging to see that there are progressives who are mindful of succession planning, fostering the leaders of tomorrow. Having the opportunity to pick their brains in such an intimate and exclusive setting was deeply profound for me.
Hands down, one of the most enjoyable days was during our Louisville institute. Dave Rini spent almost an entire day with us, developing both our hard and soft skills in public speaking. As someone who has spoken publicly quite a bit, I found the training helpful in a very practical way, and challenging as we were given the opportunity to practice our new skills with real time feedback. Having Dave fly in from Boston exposed the fellows to other chapters. I loved hearing the stories from NLC trainers who had traveled around the country, comparing notes from the leadership training in various regions and pulling it all together to give us the very best workshops.
For those who are in the process of or considering running for office, Chad Aull gave us a riveting dive into campaign management during our Springfield institute. It was the crash course I didn’t see coming. I left his session committed to run for office at some point … and with the tools to do it!
As NLC national’s honorary co-chair, Michael Blake, stated in his address at the NLC Retreat in Pittsburgh, “leadership is lonely.” Especially in a state like Kentucky, where conservative politics and processes seemingly rule the day, it can feel like you’re a person on an island alone. It’s also easy to harbor some of the same biases toward our own here in the Bluegrass that those who live outside assume Kentuckians to be.
Tearing down those stereotypes were my fellow classmates this year. Progressive school teachers, progressive children of coal miners, and yes, progressive Christians. The 2017 class came together in a way that has given me lifelong friendships. We have had a private group chat since before our program begin, and we are constantly remaining in touch with each other, encouraging each other’s rise, and supporting the progressive values we all want to see make Kentucky better for everyone.
This network is not limited to my classmates and the NLC Kentucky board. We met NLC alum at every single institute. While in Louisville, an alum hosted a soiree with Mayor Greg Fischer. A house party in Springfield at the Haydon family homestead attracted NLC folks as well. Fellows were able to meet and network with several powerful alumni in each city our institutes were held. The value of NLC, a free program to those selected, was not lost on this class.
In my application essay, in my interview for the fellowship, and in my everyday spiel about “why Kentucky”, I repeatedly say, “Kentucky needs people like us.” The state needs people like us to stay and push progressive issues forward. The state needs single moms like me who care. It needs a room full of white folks pointing out the fact that a room full of only white folks will never have a truly progressive conversation alone. The state needs people who are going to show up over and over again, even when we face the consequences of elections that strip us of the progress forged by those who came before us.
NLC Kentucky is consistently showing up and I want every progressive in Kentucky to have access to this leadership training. I’m proud to have been part of NLC Kentucky’s 2017 graduating class and thank the board members who worked so hard to make it possible, especially those aforementioned and Jamie Rodgers, Westley Whistle, and Christian Motley, our new co-director.
Join NLC Kentucky. Because like true progressives, we admit when we make mistakes, then we keep pushing the envelope forward with the fortitude and unbridled spirit of a Kentucky thoroughbred … and maybe a little Kentucky bourbon.
Emily LaDouceur is Executive Editor of The Good Men Project and a wellness coach who lives in Berea with her two sons. She is a proud graduate of 2017 New Leaders Council Kentucky Institute.
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