I sit on the plane flying north from Oaxaca, Mexico, the place I called home for 5 years. The place where I began my career, became an adult, built something from the ground up, and began my own journey of finding truth. I peer out the window to the west, with views of the vast Oaxacan valley, of Monte Albán, the ruins from where the Zapotec people protected this valley for hundreds of years, and am reminded, once again, of the wisdom that exists in this place, the warmth, the invitation, the ancient history of a people so proud.
I have been on a journey since leaving Oaxaca in 2006, one filled with peaks and valleys, one that can be best described as a journey of finding my heart. We started an organization 11 years ago, an organization that continues to grow and prosper, that continues to inspire and to challenge all of us involved. We are working in a deeply entrenched system trying to do our part in addressing the myriad challenges of poverty, oppression, individualism, greed. We are interested in choice and opportunity, in dignity.
Co-founding Puente was my first intentional experience as a person with goals to positively impact the world. I had a core, a center, but in reflecting on the experience after leaving, my feelings were feelings of scarcity, the feeling that I didn’t do enough. In that moment, however, I didn’t even know what enough was.
And so the journey began…
In the recent years, I have come to understand the power of leading from the heart, of dialogue and collaboration, of opening to possibility and emergence, of following that which truly inspires me and digging into those ripe opportunities that offer growth, inspiration, and continual learning. Of treating work as a part of life, a place that is alive, just as we are, whose multiple parts and people need constant caring.
Since leaving Oaxaca in 2006, I have served in a leadership role on the board of directors. Over the past few years, however, I have been deeply challenged with my own leadership. I have wanted to create space for deeper engagement and more strategic thinking and dialogue, I just didn’t know how.
Work has never been only about developing skills for me. It has also been about developing understanding, personal transformation, a deeper connection with what we feel called to do in this world. This piece has evolved organically, and recently I have put that which I call authentic leadership at front and center.
Every February, I come to Oaxaca for our annual on-site board meeting. In the fall of 2013, I started talking with our executive director, Pete, about what we could do with this board meeting to shift the way we operated as a board towards one of deeper and more strategic engagement. At the same time, Pete was beginning to think about our strategic planning process. Between my conversations with Pete about the board, our values around a participatory approach, and the need for a strategic plan, the synergies started to occur.
I was already intent on designing at least a few sessions during this visit that would aim towards deeper board engagement. I hosted a design session with some wise souls who contributed amazing insight and guidance on how to trust my own intuition of the present challenges, and how to navigate through the DNA of the organization to arrive at change.
Immediately after returning from the design session, I learned that we (Puente) had contracted with two Art of Hosting practitioners, Aerin and Sergio, to lead the strategic planning process. I immediately wrote an email to Pete, Aerin, Sergio, and to my co-founder Katherine, that spoke from deep within addressing what I felt our needs were, what I wanted to explore with them, and the opportunities that I felt present in the current moment. The response that I received came with an unexpected level of excitement and encouragement. From there, the work of designing the meeting began. What guided us was our purpose for the meeting.
We always had this present. We had skype calls, developed working google docs that we would comment on from our respective places in the world (we had extensive conversations in these google docs about everything from large-scale purpose and outcome statements, to tiny details on the importance of having amaranth, the powerful plant that we work with at Puente, as a part of the centerpiece in our circle conversations. I have never worked like this before, and it was incredible). We went deep, for 6 weeks, designing the days.
The piece that I think is important to hold central in this conversation, is the connection that Aerin and Sergio (who I worked most closely with on this design) and I felt with this work. We all held it as deeply important time, a tipping point with the organization, ripe, and full of potential to increase our impact as an organization and perhaps more importantly, HOW we achieve that impact. And it was with those beliefs and leading from our hearts that led to the success of the day.
The details of each session of the meeting feel less important, as they were designed especially with our purpose in mind, however, a few other things arise as key learnings from the process.
1) It is important to cultivate and feel trust with your co-hosts. With that trust present, Aerin, Sergio, Pete and I were able to put ideas out there, push back on each other with powerful questions and suggestions, and we were able to iterate and dialogue with each other until we came to conclusions that felt good for all of us.
2) A part of that trust is having conversations about why this work matters to us. The people who show up to whatever work is needed are exactly the right people to be there, and it’s important to connect on what those reasons are. Both in our design process, but also more largely within the organization—being able to connect on that level of joining personal and organizational purpose is extremely fruitful.
3) Design is extremely important. The more time you spend on design, the more successful a gathering will be. Punto (period). That’s it. Design is extremely important.
4) Trust in myself was important, and at times hard. This kind of leadership is new to our board, new to me. This whole process has not been free of doubt, anxiety, nor fear, but I have felt supported in my own process and have been able to navigate those waters. But I haven’t done it alone. Through community and conviction I have learned to trust myself in a new way. For this I am forever grateful and forever transformed.
This last point deserves a bit of attention. When I have felt unconfident before, my response has been to hide. Finding this conviction and finding this community have both led me to open and to ask for support. In the design session, a dear soul told me, when I expressed my fear to her, “if you feel the need for this change, then you must trust that you are not the only one, that the need is felt more greatly in the larger system. Trust that, and stand in your power.” And when I expressed to Aerin my fear around using methodologies that are ‘different’ than those we’re used to as a board, she sent me motivational and inspirational clips that were testimonials of the kind of change these methodologies can inspire. And so, I am reminded that when we feel a connection to our community, and a conviction to change things, we are not alone.
So many of us live in resignation, no matter how unbeknownst to us. The systems we are a part of are entrenched, it is hard to change them, it’s true. But it’s also true that if we fundamentally shift the way we operate in the world and follow the threads that bring us the most meaning, the most inspiration, the most desire to continue to try to move forward, that we will begin to engage in a new way, both with the work and with the people around us. We will create new systems that support the change that we want to see in the world. We will become a part of something so much bigger.
With these kinds of shifts, we can start to live in the world of possibility, the world of abundance. The future is unknown, and we can’t control it, and so, why not live in this world and open to what is unfolding before us?
I feel so peaceful sitting on this plane right now. Like everything that has come before has gotten me to be exactly where I am right now. Like the future is completely open for me to follow these threads, to live with a full heart, to exist in eternal possibility. With the trust that if I continue to cultivate this kind of openness, to follow the synergies and the inspiration, that I will never cease to be inspired and in turn powerful.
Kate Seely has worked with EPIP in many forms over the past five years. She was a chapter leader, a chapter co-chair, and most recently has served as a part of the core EPIP team. She is currently pursuing a Master’s in Strategic Leadership towards Sustainability in Sweden. This post originally appeared on Kate’s blog.