Monday, January 19, 2009

Acknowledging the past, creating the future

In November 2007, after the last gavel of the international Association for Research on Nonprofit Organizations and Voluntary Action (ARNOVA) conference fell, I joined a busload of colleagues on a tour of Atlanta’s civil rights landmarks.

I knew it would be a brush with history that I had experienced from afar as a child. What I underestimated was the personal impact that that experience would have on me that afternoon.

I was a child of the ‘60s, not quite 10 years old in the spring and summer of 1968. I was a working-class white girl from Cheyenne, Wyoming, far from the true struggles that so many had endured over the decades preceding and the violent conflict that had grown and taken the lives of two giants – Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.
I do not pretend to know the personal sacrifice of those great men and so many others who have fought for rights that I have taken for granted over the years. But in those days so long ago, the seeds were planted for a concern of social justice that helped to shape my view of the world, my personal values, and the choices that led me here. Even with more than a quarter-century of adult service in the nonprofit sector, I feel I am only beginning to connect how living in those times shaped who I am and how that led me to the work that I love. That fall afternoon in Atlanta helped to fill in some of the gaps of understanding.
The tour bus pulled up in front of the MLK Center, just up the street from Ebenezer Baptist Church. Of all of the stops we would make that day, walking up to that door was the most powerful experience I had had in a very long time. I cannot begin to describe – or even comprehend – the impact that brief encounter with history had on me. But it did.

As we walked the streets of the neighborhood, a different kind of power washed over me: the power of collective action. Through sheer will, hard work, and a vision of what was possible, community organizers had helped to return the area from a broken-down shell to a vibrant space where families and friends could live and work together. That neighborhood is a visual reminder of the potential that can be fulfilled when people gather for a common purpose.

I took away two messages that day: the historic significance of the events signified there, and the triumph of the spirit for a common good. I will never experience personally the kind of sacrifices represented on those streets, but walking them affirmed for me what I know to be true and what has driven my adult service and activism in the past 25+ years: great things are possible when we all work together.

On this Martin Luther King Day/National Day of Service, I celebrate those who choose to serve as nonprofit leaders – specifically, as members of nonprofit boards. You provide the vision of a better future, through your organizational missions, and the leadership to bring life to that vision. So much focus leading up to today has been on working in the trenches and on the front lines in service to others. It goes without saying that I honor that critical work. But I also want to celebrate the unique contributions that our board leaders make to creating the better future that we all desire.

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