By Terri Lee Freeman
President of The Community Foundation for the National Capital Region
Where is the leadership we need to solve our most pressing community problems? It’s all around us, argues Paul Schmitz, the CEO of Public Allies who was the keynote speaker at the recent 20th anniversary celebration of Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers (WRAG). The theme of WRAG’s event was “Leadership Matters.”
(If Schmitz’s organization sounds familiar, it may be because a woman named Michelle Obama left a prestigious legal career to found Public Allies Chicago.)
His remarks to Washington area grantmakers were both inspiring and entertaining but what made the strongest impression on me was his new definition of leadership:
(1) It is an action everyone can take, not a position few hold.
(2) It is about taking personal and social responsibility to work with others on common goals.
(3) It is about practicing values that engage diverse individuals and groups in collaboration.
In other words, not everyone can lead in every context, but everyone has the capacity to step up, take responsibility and work with others on shared goals, he told us. Leadership is in fact a verb, not a noun.
As he shared with us lessons that Public Allies has learned from two decades of finding and developing thousands of young leaders across the country, my thoughts turned to The Community Foundation’s Linowes Leadership Awards. Since 1997, the Linowes Awards have recognized “unsung heroes” who exercise their leadership in a variety of roles and across multiple sectors – as volunteers, faith leaders, activists, students, nonprofit staff or executives, public sector officials, or business persons. These are extraordinary people of all ages with compelling stories of courage and commitment and no expectations of reward or recognition. I think Paul Schmitz would approve of our 2012 winners, who are being honored at our Gala this week.
As the founder of BloomBars, John Chambers works to inspire and create compassionate and purposeful communities through the arts. He has been instrumental in building community by cultivating a legion of artists to be catalysts for community transformation. Through BloomBars, John has redefined the perception of a “bar” by providing opportunities for diverse, multi-generational communities to form meaningful relationships and gather in a culturally rich and alcohol-free environment. The unique programming offered at BloomBars spans from daily early-childhood development, to movie nights designed to keep drunk drivers off the streets. The impact of these programs on the community cannot be overstated. The Artist in Bloom residency program at BloomBars has spawned two Grammy nominees in the last two years, and has been able to connect artists with grassroots organizations and causes, while serving as mentors and instructors to local youth.
Tara Libert is the Executive Director and Co-Founder of Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop, an organization that provides incarcerated youth with access to educational programs that motivate them to pursue positive life paths. Free Minds has served more than 550 teenage boys charged and incarcerated as adults in the DC Department of Corrections providing three successive phases of growth and opportunity – Book Club at the DC Jail, Continuing Support in federal prisons, and Reentry Support upon release. These programs have helped D.C. youth learn and improve their reading and writing skills, become blossoming writers and poets, and most importantly, help them gain valuable life skills. Through her tireless work, Tara proves to these young people that there is hope for the future – and helps them envision and reach for a better life.
Despite losing her mother at a young age and having a father who was incarcerated most of her life, Yasmine Arrington chooses to channel her energy on positive issues and uses her personal challenges to inspire others to overcome their own difficulties. She is the founder of ScholarCHIPS (Children of Incarcerated Parents), an organization that helps alleviate the cost of college tuition for students who have a parent who is incarcerated. Her organization has raised an impressive $15,000, and has been able to award eight scholarships. Yasmine is currently a sophomore in college at Elon University and is excelling with a 3.4 GPA.
For years, educators Siham Eldadah and Irene Coleman have been creating opportunities for young people to achieve success, and have worked tirelessly to recognize the achievements of Montgomery County Public middle school students through the establishment of two county-wide awards programs, Understanding Diversity through the Arts and Celebrating Diversity through Creative Writing. Their ability to gain the support of school administrators for these projects is particularly noteworthy, primarily because arts education often takes a backseat to science and technology. Both women are active, civic-minded community members with vastly different backgrounds: Siham is a major supporter and patron of the arts and founder of Muslim Women in the Arts and Irene is an advocate for public education, and an upstanding member of her church and community. This unlikely pair has crossed cultural, ethnic, and racial boundaries to make great accomplishments that benefit the community.
I left the Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers’ luncheon feeling inspired and full of hope about the future. It’s the same feeling I have every year when I meet our Linowes honorees.
Terri Lee Freeman is the current Chair of the Board of Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers.