What does it mean to be in a community?
The answer to that question is as varied as the people you choose to ask.
As the topic of the second session in this program, the community is an apt term to define — and redefine — in today’s reality. Undergoing a pandemic and racial justice awakening puts into perspective the need to see the ways we must actively support one another; that the separation between individuals is at once space where collective care can emerge. Where we see division or absence, we should turn our gaze: That’s where we most need to pour community efforts and resources if we are to show that community is a core value.
One thing that I’m learning each day in this season — and through this program — is that to be in a community, you must first show up for the community. You can live years — your entire life, even — in a place without fully basking in the warmth of the community that envelopes it. Receiving what’s on the other side requires effort, vulnerability, and an openness to see what’s familiar with fresh eyes.
I moved back to Grand Rapids from Boston — jobless — with the renewed conviction of this truth and faith in the power of investing in this community for all it has to offer — especially its people. Having a spirit of stewardship for others creates the foundation for mutual aid that brings people together. This is my why, and yet it shifts and grows in meaning as I realize new ways that care for the community is a responsibility as much as a privilege.
Our last session of the Grand Rapids Chamber’s Emerging Leaders Series came the day after the Derek Chauvin murder trial verdict. I couldn’t help but perceive the gravity of the decision on the minds of many in the room. Were we distracted? Were we extra motivated to bridge community gaps and work together to solve real-life challenges in our present society? Were individuals within the group exhausted, emotionally charged, or withdrawn? Having only recently met this group of 20 individuals, I was tentative about how to move through the day. Building trust and creating safe spaces is a delicate task and earnest undertaking under any circumstances; on a day such as that one, the need to foster such relationship within our cohort felt more urgent than ever, and yet the news also made me keenly aware of its infancy, its fragility. What followed was a crash course in leadership skills that I’ll never forget.
Learning about leadership is one thing; seeing it carried out is another altogether. As Ken James, Director of Inclusion for the Grand Rapids Chamber, began to address the group during his allotted part of the program, he asked us all to check in on how we were feeling. Altering his originally planned presentation to get to the heart of the moment, Ken created space for us all to reflect and directly address the news that was on everyone’s minds then and is shaping our communities now and into the future. He opened a door to foster real conversations that made us stronger for it. There have already been innumerable instances of leadership-in-action such as this demonstrated throughout the program, and I look forward with anticipation to many more.
As Brene Brown so poignantly says, “I’m not here to be right. I’m here to get it right.” In positions of leadership, or even simply in social settings when seeking the validation of peers, often the fear of saying the wrong thing keeps us silent. We miss ample moments for growth and for connection when we let this fear drive how we show up with one another.
While we may muddle through the things we want to say at first — in moments where the current events demand recognition in many facets of life, at work or at home, or at times when ambiguity may stifle dialogue — when we speak up, we learn something. We’re gaining muscle memory to embolden us for scenarios where our voice may be even more important than ever. And when we’re actively engaged in community, so too are we listening first to the voices of others who are better equipped to provide perspectives from which we can build our own sense of direction for future conversations. Those conversations only begin when someone dares to enter them.
One of my favorite quotes has always been: “Reflection, which defeats the tendency to take the obvious for granted, is what gives experience value.” If we are to grow from the lessons we are learning today, we must take the time to be introspective and to process what’s happening around us. This takes time and ample attention; it can also feel — for those of us eager to always be “doing” something — insufficient. Where it is understandable to have feelings of hopelessness, or uncertainty regarding ways to help, introspection may at first feel passive. Yet it is from there that all other progress springs forth. A year full of “both, and” learnings can teach us that pausing to reset, resting within advocacy efforts, and listening before speaking can offer guideposts for all of us as a balance to actions that feel untethered or begin to lose direction.
Our last session offered moments for both: reflection and action. Contemplation and conversation. Learning and movement (literally, through our walking tour led by Caroline Cook, chief ambassador of Grand Rapids Running Tours, and through planning and action for our upcoming blood drives for Versiti Blood Centers of Michigan). Building upon our first session, where we were reminded to always return to our mission — starting with why — the momentum feels palpable. And as we’re building trust with one another, we are unlocking the power to lean into that momentum to lift one another up — in our own micro-community, representing so many different perspectives present in the spirit of Grand Rapids — so that we can emerge, together.