Where there’s breath there is life, where there’s life there is hope.

Where there’s breath there is life, where there’s life there is hope.

Greetings beloved community,

I was quite ambivalent about sharing my blog with the world. For me it is sharing, in real time, a piece of my personal growth and development that I am still figuring out. It is an intimate process of rewiring my internal dialogue that eventually will have me believing that, I am enough, I cant do it alone and others will show up because they have my back and because our struggles are intertwined.

Our second convening at Rockwood Transformational Leadership was a gift of spaciousness to practice Rockwoods Five Leadership practices of Purpose, Vision, Partnership, Resilience, and Performance. My job at this training was to go through the full arch and stretch myself to try the suggested strategies. Contributing to the opening prayer was the spiritual lift I needed as I started on my journey. Roberto Vargas, Rockwood facilitator, led the prayer circle and invited me to read the south point prayer,

Turning to the south, the direction of the children, youth, vitality and health, we give thanks for all the children and our health; and ask that we do our work considering them and the seven generations to come.

This prayer served as a reminder that my personal and professional purpose is intertwined in the simplest and most complex ways.

As a first generation Haitian American, I always saw my purpose tied to creating a foundation in America that would help improve the quality of life for future generations within my family.Yet, 14 years ago I moved away from my family (mother, sisters, nieces and nephew) in Maryland (MD) to start my adult life in New York. For the last 10 years I worked tirelessly to build Girls for Gender Equity, an organization committed to intentional advocacy and direct service practice that betters the lives of women and girls.In the meantime, my nieces and nephew were growing up in MD and displaying the same needs that the youth I worked for had. My sense of efficacy was shaken in June 2010 when my 20-year-old niece told the family she was pregnant, keeping the baby, and putting college on hold. At the same time that she was coming to terms with being a mother, I was writing my first book about my agencies best practices, and preparing for agency expansion. Upon hearing the news, initially the vision that I had of myself as a leader within my family was shattered. I thought I was leading by example for my family and working hard so that when I did better we all benefited as a family, especially the younger generation.My connection to my maternal grandmother Mama Ninives story, whos name I carry as my middle name, is about her sacrifice for the family, bravery to migrate from Haiti to NY alone, and resilience to work hard, buy a home, and send for her 5 kids and 2 friends to begin their American dream. Her story is one of survival, faith, and endurance that I still feel indebted to. In honor of her sacrifice and the selflessness of generations before me, I have worked to build our family legacy in America and encourage the next generation to do the same.When my niece shared her pregnancy with me in June 2010, I thought I failed. Initially I was angry with myself about the choices I made to leave Maryland. Feeling way too self important, my mental dialogue was, If I were there with her she would have made different choices. I could have started GGE in Maryland. My family needs me and Im here with my intentional community.In July of 2010, I attended Lead the Way Executive Retreat with the Women of Color policy network and was taught by a brilliant sister, Inca Mohammad. She explained that the GGE family I put my whole self into was NOT my family but my intentional community a community that chooses to be there and is accountable to the movement because of that choice. I was rocked by those words but despite my silence, in true Inca fashion, she went on to teach me that regardless of the self and baggage I bring to this work, my role as Executive Director is to move GGE closer to its mission. This meant cultivating staff that will get the work done that moves the agency closer to its mission. If I could not fulfill this role, I needed to get out of the way.My visceral experience with her words had me wailing on the inside Haitian down, Haitian down.As beautiful as it was to know I cultivated an amazing intentional community through GGE, my family came first, and while my niece needed me, I was serving others. This pain was the threshold of consciousness I needed to begin deliberately untangling my personal purpose from professional purpose as the founder of Girls for Gender Equity. This experience allowed me to move from a place of self-pity to love and support my niece, along with any of the babies she brings into this world. Our relationship has never been better.Would I do what it takes to move our agency closer to its mission? Or was it time to get out of the way? Ms. Mohammads words permeated every agency decision-making and staff coaching process I have gone through. Her merciless explanation of my role was my Call to Action. Im a fighter with a lot of fight left, I decided to stay and do the work it took to lead well in this movement to end violence against women and girls. I vowed to myself and my team that the next ten years would be better than the last and began doing the work it takes to heal. The experience at Lead the Way, over a year ago, is what led me to Move to End Violence and eventually the Rockwood Transformational Leadership retreat in September 2011.This is a glimpse into where I was, as a woman of color, committed to my role, and showing up for my journey to Rockwood Transformational Leadership retreat in Sonoma, California. Wearing my leadership cap, I worked to enter Rockwood with an undefended heart. It was such a gift to know that I had a community of people from the past and present invested in my personal growth and leadership development. Amidst the anxiety I felt about reading the 360-evaluation results, I kept reminding myself that this process was necessary if I was to prepare for a lifetime of social change and prevent burnout.Helen Kim, Roberto Vargas, and Norma Wong facilitated our process, leading us through Rockwoods Five Practices of Leadership:

  • Purpose – To live and lead from that which gives our life meaning.
  • Vision – To create and articulate a clear and compelling picture of our desired future.
  • Partnership – To build strong interdependent relationships that advance our vision. 
  • Resilience – To shift from reactivity to a state of resourcefulness in moments of stress and crisis.
  • Performance – To enhance our capacity to produce results that further our vision.
  • Our facilitators enforced and created space for us to experience each practice. While I deeply value all five leadership practices and can write in depth about my Rockwood experience with each one, purpose and performance were the two areas that had the greatest impact on me. The 360-evaluation process was transformational because this was my very first thorough evaluation in 10 years. Sure, in the past, I received performance feedback from staff but I believed they held back for various reasons. In my mind, the lack of thorough feedback from staff could have come from the fear of being honest, belief that it wouldn’t be well received, that nothing would change, a desire to be nice, or maybe lack of evaluation experience, etc. all thoughts that may have been true at some point. Therefore, Rockwood was my place, with my beloved Move to End Violence community, to reflect on where I have been, where I am today, and where I strive to be as a leader. And that it did.
    It was a sunny Tuesday afternoon, we already spent the entire Monday and most of Tuesday waiting for our individual evaluation results that would eventually be handed to us in a manila envelop. I remember getting mine and feeling like it was an early Christmas present. Yay! I opened my evaluation to be greeted with scores that reflected what past and present colleagues and staff thought of my leadership in a number of areas. I read their accolades of my leadership style and their input on areas for improvement. I was relieved, nothing was shared with me that I had not already heard or thought. Partly because we just did staff evaluation and feedback over the summer, moreover because we were in a great place as a staff and I asked for candid feedback from anyone who wants to see me doing well. My team delivered, which I took to mean they trusted me and I was doing something right as a leader. I thought, this is what evolution feels like; it felt great. This was my chance to forgive myself for not always being the best coach or mentor, for not always asking for the help I needed, and for expecting more from us than was humanly possible. The two areas of the evaluation process I wasn’t prepared for were 1) being measured against the entire 3000 members of former Rockwood attendees, and 2) seeing in black and white that I am my toughest critic.
    Cohort members answered the same questions that our evaluators did and within my personal answers, I consistently undervalued my qualifications. Yet, I was heated that I did not consistently score in the highest quartile compared to other Rockwood leaders.  How could I devalue my expertise so much and still be disappointed that I’m not measuring up to 3000 Rockwood leaders in the field?  Thank God, we are NOT our performance.
    For the next few days, the cohort collectively delved into activities, homework, wine tasting, reflection, POP, breathing and more. Even when all we really needed were bio breaks, we were doing our job to go through the full arch of Rockwood. I was privy to conversations about fears, dreams, and personal testimonies that characterized the group. We cried together, laughed together and put in 12 hours of work per day together (tell me when I start lying). Betty may have said it best during her feedback; “this was a pivot point for us as a cohort”. Practicing critical conversations, sharing our vision for a just world, and going deep within to peel back layers of self-deprecating leadership, while hearing voices of self-doubt, requires bravery. Leadership requires bravery. Then it came from someone or somewhere inside,“Take a chance and silence the voices rather than entertain them. You’ll find your voice is often what’s in your way.”
    This was the answer to my question of how I could hold two opposing “truths” to describe my performance. Although I strive to be many things to many people and hope that I measure up with the best, leadership is about being present. It is about accepting where I am in the moment and bringing what I have to the experience. It is about owning that my leadership is part of my personal evolution and there is more great than bad that I have to offer my community.  Together we are powerful beyond belief. Leadership is about knowing that I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be and my life’s work thus far is not an accident.  The voices of self-doubt are that of fear. As long as I remain grounded in the purpose of my Personal life, Organization, and Life Demands the closer I’ll get to being the optimal person God’s put me on earth to be and the more valuable I become to this movement. Leadership cultivation requires Practice, Practice, Practice.
    Since this convening, I’ve absolutely struggled with allowing the untruths I’ve held as truths for so long to trip me up. My first experience of, “I can’t do it alone” was reinforced when I returned home and tried to hang up my 6 x 4 ft – 45lb mirror on my wall alone and in dramatic fashion broke the bottom frame sending glass crashing to the floor. All I could do was look at it shaking my head and say “point well taken” the mirror’s bottom frame will never be the same – especially since the back of the chipped pieces revealed that it was plated in 1961 – whoopsie – I hung the damn thing anyway. The mirror is my reminder that I cannot do it alone, if I want the best results.
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    My lesson of being enough came the day I met a number of gender justice warriors and hero’s at the historical Sex, Power and Speaking Truth: Anita Hill 20 Years Later conference.  The second panel of the day was full of women whose work I’ve admired for years (including Ai-Jen Poo of National Domestic Workers Alliance). I sat like a student in a college class as Professor Melissa Harris-Perry brilliantly and seamlessly answered questions about where society is 20 years after the Hill/Thomas testimony.  When I caught myself sitting back like an audience member I realized, holy crap I’m on this panel with Melissa Harris-Perry and I’m enough.  Together, it was the best panel of the day! However, I am NOT my performance – I am still working on this one.
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    Fortunately, my staff, my peer coach Corrine, Becky, Norma, Shakira, Aimee, Helen, Ted, Pua, Jackie, Lan, Elsa and so many more from my beloved community, remind me that  “Others will show up because they have my back and because our struggles are intertwined.”
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    For me, coming to Rockwood was loaded with challenging my notion of what it means to be a leader while taking care of my personal and professional needs. I agree with Rockwood’s definition of leadership as “The ability to inspire and align others to achieve common goals” and add to that “while simultaneously nurturing your purpose” or something like that. As I move forward with my Leading Forward plan to nurture my personal well-being and build my leadership capacity, I will develop balance within the work and rewire my internal dialogue. I continue to pray with my bestie to win this war against the internal dialogue that I wrestle with.
     “For our wrestling is not against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world-rulers of this darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” Ephesians 6:12.
    I know it sounds extra but to maintain an unwavering sense of urgency to fight for justice while I heal myself; I need EXTRA. This scary process and personal journey has my attention like never before and I assure you there’s hope for me. Where there’s breath there is life, where there’s life there is hope.
    To my beloved and “intentional” GGE community, I’m grateful that y’all hold it down while I’m away doing this work and MEV, thank you for this gift of spaciousness so I can figure all this out.
      
    Joanne Smith
    Joanne Smith
    Founder and Executive Director
    Girls for Gender Equity

    A staunch human rights advocate Joanne N. Smith, founder and executive director, is responsible for moving Girls for Gender Equity closer to its mission through strategic advocacy, development, and leadership cultivation. Learn More

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