Reflections on "emPOWER: Inspiring the Next Generation of Leaders"

What does it mean to weave your work and your passion together? We are excited to share thoughtful reflections from an EPIP Michigan Chapter summer event - emPOWER: Inspiring the Next Generation of Leaders - that asked those questions.

Held at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the event included a keynote and interactive sessions with Shannon Polk. Shannon Polk: lawyer, theologian, advocate, facilitator, and co-founder of EPIP Michigan, posed the question "Does the work you do align with who you are?" - as Mackezie highlights below. 

Thank you to Katie Van Dusen and Mackenzie Price for bringing us into the experience!


Katie Van Dusen reflects on emPOWER:

One of my biggest fears upon entering the field of philanthropy was that the conversations about social justice that I was used to having on a consistent basis while in school/volunteering would no longer have a natural place in my day-to-day life. This was especially worrisome to me because the work of foundations and philanthropy is so connected to the concepts of power and privilege – how could I stay connected to my values if these concepts weren’t acknowledged, openly discussed, and taken into account as we do our work?  

What I love about events like the EPIP “emPOWER: Inspiring the Next Generation of Leaders” is that they re-center me around those big ideas. This gives your professional self a chance to exhale and say, “Oh yeah, here are some really compelling reasons why I feel called to this work, and some great ideas about how to be more effective.” In order for that kind of exhale to happen, however, the space we are in has to feel conducive to a certain degree of openness and vulnerability from participants in the room.

Our facilitator for the day, Shannon Polk, got right down to it by having each of us stand up if we belonged to categories of social identities that she named, i.e. “Stand up if you identify as a man. Stand up if you identify as a person of color. Stand up if you identify as non-heterosexual.” After collectively acknowledging the diversity of social identities in the room, we were then pushed to think about ways in which those identities interacted with our work in philanthropy: what “—isms,” (i.e. racism, sexism, ageism) prevent us from being our authentic selves in the workplace. The interconnectedness of a socially just workplace environment and socially just work revealed itself more and more clearly as we worked through these exercises.

One of Shannon’s many amazing qualities was how deftly she was able to weave together a compelling case for a personal brand with social justice principles. We all bring our social identities with us into the workplace and those affect not only how we do the work that we do, but also how others perceive us and the work we are doing. What does it mean to be young in your career, seeking influence and “power,” while at the same time having the personal values of wanting to speak truth to power as well as leverage resources to those who are marginalized? This can feel like a Catch 22, and these are often the Big Questions haunting your life path – not the place I would have expected the concept of a personal brand to be particularly relevant.

Shannon drew the connection between the implicit categorization we are placed into by our social identities (and the subsequent ideas others have about us as a result) and the instantaneous associations we all have with a particular “brand.” How much more effective and powerful can you be if you are able to get out in front of your brand, and be in complete control of the narrative surrounding you? How do you most effectively use the tools of social media, work relationships, and professional resources to create and perfect that brand? These questions are still turning over in my mind almost two weeks later, and will continue to inform how I think about my professional development in the future.

Now that I am a couple years in at the community foundation and have begun to find my stride, it can be easy to get a little task-oriented – mired in the day-to-day logistical elements of making an organization function. Did I put everything in the mail that I needed to? Am I behind on contacting any grantees? Did I get that report to the controller? Is a 4th cup of coffee really necessary? This constant stream of questions can take our hearts and minds a little far afield from the purpose and passion that drive the work that we do. As young people in philanthropy, as well, feelings of isolation can creep in from time to time in our work; that makes me all the more grateful for events like EPIP Michigan just hosted – truly an opportunity to feel emPOWERed and connected.

and Mackenzie Price shares her reflections on the event:

"One social identity that hinders my ability to always be my authentic self is (my)..." 

Over 40 emerging practitioners, standing in pairs, excited to hear from Shannon Polk were faced with this question in the introductory ice-breaker. This question set the tone for the entire program. This question allowed us to be open and honest with ourselves about who we were, what was important to us, and how others perceive us. This question was what the day was all about. 

Shannon Polk: lawyer, theologian, advocate, facilitator, and co-founder of EPIP Michigan, posed the question "Does the work you do align with who you are?" In order to answer this, we, as participants, had to honestly evaluate not only the work we do, but who we are as complete people. Images of the Starbucks logo and Donald Trump were flashed on the screen. Without any explanation, the group was able to identify the company or individual and explain the "brand" associated with that entity. Shannon then challenged us to do this for our authentic selves. To create a personal brand and own it. Own it on the internet with a personal website, LinkedIn, Twitter, and own it in the workplace by finding alignment between your brand and your employment. 

The most powerful activity of the day for me was creating lists of things that were important to me. These lists consisted of material things, people, places, memories that shaped me, and future goals. Slowly, Shannon asked us to begin to eliminate things that weren't as important. By the end of the activity, I had three things left on my lists, my Mother, my hometown of Waldron, and the memory of the first time someone told me "You can't do that, you're from Waldron." Those three things created my core values of forming close personal relationships, a focus on rural and love of 'local' everything, and the desire to be a mentor for those who have their goals scoffed at daily.

The final part of the day was learning how to connect our core values and our authentic selves to our work. Circling back to our original question of the day, Shannon stated that most of the time, the part of your authentic self that you're NOT sharing is what's most beneficial to your organization. She continued by telling us that it's time for us to honor our authentic selves and our company by bringing our whole selves to work every day. 

The EPIP Michigan Steering Committee promised “empower” would, "Inspire the Next Generation of Leaders" and I will attest to its success. Bringing in Shannon to facilitate a discussion on how to give your whole self, your values, your talents, and your authenticity to your work sparked conversation amongst colleagues that continued after we departed the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. I made sure to look around the room as we answered one final question "Despite ________ I can be my authentic self because ______." The look of true empowerment graced every face in the room as we boldly declared that being true to our authentic self makes us better colleagues, employees, and philanthropists. I look forward to seeing where our authenticity takes us!


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