The Next Step, and the One After

main.jpgPressed shoulder to shoulder in a conference room, folders and chairs scuttled to the middle of the circle, we were asked a deceptively simple question; “What are you personally, and professionally, interested in?”  Starting with the first brave soul who was (and presumably still is) interested in sustainable transportation, they were handed the end of a spool of yarn. The follow-up, “Alright, who else is interested in sustainable transportation?” was met with a smattering of raised hands. The yarn made its way to a second person, and then a third. Church planting, podcasting, travel in New Zealand, mining in central Minnesota. A yarn web (a yeb?) was forming, giving real-time credence to the statement: There is no substitute for being in a room full people all saying “I need something.”

This late morning session, facilitated by YNPN leaders Lindsay Bacher, Kat Kempe, and Carl Atiya Swanson, served as a microcosm for MCN’s Leadership Summit as a whole. Hundreds of professionals from around the state, from organizations of every stripe and every sector, coming together out of a mutually understood need. Several central questions anchored the Summit’s keynote, its breakout sessions, and even its lunchtime Improv break (From the wisdom of Professor Knowitall, “The biggest change that we can expect in the next year is…that…death…will…come.”).

Questions of consequence, including: 

  • Where is the nonprofit sector now?
  • What momentum can we harness for the future?
  • What tendencies and expectations belong in the past?
  • How and who are we failing and what can we do to change?

Dr. MayKao Hang, CEO of the Wilder Foundation, spoke to these questions in her keynote address “Knowledge and Privilege Disrupted: Wake Up and Act Up.” Her presentation, with full throated authority, reaffirmed the necessity of this work, its historically disruptive roots, and the problems that often go unspoken (attributable to the veneer of MN nice).  Here are some pulled quotes from her remarks, synthesized with content from other sessions.

“We are permission seeking and we shouldn’t be”

Creating a space, a service, a microphone, a spotlight for the forgotten and the disenfranchised is a radical thing. This work is comprised of small acts of creation with radical intention. Being a pioneer is something that requires risk, requires discomfort, and little more than “bubblegum, steam, and a great idea.” Having the fortitude to say things out loud — about race, about class, about whom and how we serve — is crucial to the survival of our sector and the vibrancy of our state.

“When you have a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail”

There is an imperative to find alternatives to our current solutions. The demographics of Minnesota are changing, bringing a shift in our needs and forcing us to shift our tactics. Social equity needs must look different today than it did ten years ago. “Cross-sector athletes” (you can read more about them in Jennifer Nicklay’s blog from the conference) will help to stem this tide, as they bring new sensibilities and perspectives to the challenges we face from the gaps in the safety net. Not that nonprofits need to act more like business (that is a myth and an insidious one), but cross-pollination will benefit business, the government, and nonprofits while adding more tools to our toolbox.

“Leadership is an everyday act”

There is not a seminal moment of Leadership (with a capital ‘L’). Leadership unfolds constantly and at every level. Where does change come from, and how can you enact it where you live and work? Old models may not suit the needs of new constituents.  It is important to find safe spaces to fail, to connect, and to learn as a professional, as a CEO, as an ally, and a change agent. We need to direct our own development, our own learning. There are libraries of books written about the challenges we face and new ways to face them. Find some and read them. Find a network, folks who want to opt-in and build something a little bigger than themselves.

An energy of possibility permeated the Summit. A lot of good work is being done, and that good work is a signpost of all that there is left to do. There is complacency, the doughnut making of social justice, and this was part of our call to action.  We are shaping our state’s future with every step we take. Change isn’t linear, but looking forward is essential. 

A special thanks to YNPN-Twin Cities for making my attendance at the MCN Leadership Summit possible. It was a great and formative experience.

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