Growing Gracefully: Reflections from a StartingBloc Institute
From May 17 to May 21, I attended the StartingBloc New Orleans Institute. As summarized by another Fellow in the cohort, Krystal Beachum, “The institute is focused on cultivating leadership that is more courageous, inclusive, and connected. I’m so honored that I’ll be connected to over 2,800 other StartingBloc Fellows across 56 countries who are changemakers, social entrepreneurs, community activists, artists, and educators!”
I needed to get to this moment. I am right where I am supposed to be.
For much of my life, I have felt overly focused on traditional American ideas of success. I thrived on being too busy, on networking, on many “happy hour” friends rather than fewer, closely held ones. I said yes to any and all opportunities and social invitations. I sought prestige when possible. I worked hard at everything, and didn’t know how to rest or prioritize it at all. I over-committed, and kept starting things. I had so much FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) that by the time the acronym FOMO came out, I had FOMO for not coming up with it. I would go out of my way to get coffee with a stranger, yet I couldn’t find time to call my mom.
About four years ago, I was in a storm, one that had been brewing for years. It hit the coast of my life full-force. I encountered Death twice within 3 months: a close friend, unexpectedly, and a dear relative, gracefully and sadly. This wasn’t the first time I had met Death, but it was the first time it had pulled me into an inescapable undertow, an intensity of feeling that seeped into every facet of my life. I felt so confused about my priorities. How could I NOT emphasize spending time on the loved ones in my life when time is so fleeting, and life is so precious? My grief was compounded with other factors. I was not happy with my work. Many of my friends moved far away. New York experienced one of its heaviest snowfall winters, a literal perfect storm to keep me isolated in my sad studio apartment. I was watching our country fall into a deep depression of gun violence, particularly around the unjust killings of Black Americans, that continues today. The cultural fad at the time was the podcast “Serial,” which, while interesting to listen to for its narrative elements, was at its core about an unsolved, violent murder of a young Asian-American woman.
As you could probably guess, I was not handling all of this very well.
I felt like I was observing a shadow-realm version of myself: someone who drank pretty consistently, didn’t read books, had panic attacks on the subway, made jokes that were too dark, and slept too much. I couldn’t even call my parents, with whom I am very close, because I felt guilty and afraid to tell them how unhappy I was, despite how hard they had worked to give me a good life and a good education.
Over the past few years, I have worked hard to look at the way that I felt I was unraveling, despite it being a time when I felt I was supposed to feel successful and cool and young. Don’t get me wrong -- there have been times when I had been happy, when I felt I thrived. But more often than not, I felt overwhelming sadness. I did not feel I was adding value to the world and others in the way I wanted to, nor to myself.
I did not realize it at the time, but what I began was a process of internal healing. I started to prioritize mental health. At first I was scared to talk to a therapist, and now I have immense gratitude first for being brave enough to ask, and second to have found a wonderful, empathetic psychologist. That process taught me how to speak genuinely with others but particularly with myself -- to break down WHY I thought or felt something, and to reflect on what that really meant.
I learned how to stop saying “I should,” and relish in the opportunity to say, “I could.”
This was a monumental piece of power in and of itself.
This is all still a work-in-progress for me. Some days, I remember that I bought an annual subscription to Headspace, and I meditate and I feel great. Some days are not so good, and I tell myself, “I’ll try again tomorrow.” My friends often ask me for advice, and I text them long threads of compassion and support. I journal intermittently. I did a life audit. I call my mom. I go for long walks with my partner. Some days I just sit in the sun and don’t think about anything.
So - even with my intense love of New York, which had become my first "hometown," I decided to take some time away from that city. I applied for a fellowship that promised new cities and new startup opportunities, which ultimately brought me to both Providence, RI and New Orleans, LA. I worked really f**king hard, learning how to roll with the startup punches and allowing myself to consider the realm of job possibilities when I was not tied to large, traditionally powerful businesses. I honed my craft. I learned to focus my energies into discrete, intentionally chosen side projects, powered by what I wanted and not what I thought I was supposed to want. I learned what was important to me in the workplace, what I was willing to stand for, and how to find a professional voice that was both powerful and authentic to myself. In my years away from New York, I have worked to reflect, appreciate, and build on the relationships I find valuable and loving. I have tried to find power in extricating myself from toxic situations and relationships. I have accepted that we don’t always get to live near the people we love. I have learned to be present and excited when I do have the privilege to be in-person, and that connections can be real and beautiful and sustained, no matter if for a day or a few months or years.
I am still learning how to own my greatness.
So this brings me to now. You may be thinking, “So far, this post has literally said almost nothing about StartingBloc.” And I think that’s part of the power of my experience with my StartingBloc Institute. It was deeply personal for me, and many others have told me they feel similarly. So, please bear with me so that I may tell you about these incredible five days and why I decided to get super personal in this blog post.
People keep asking me what StartingBloc is. The phrase that came to me from some website or tweet was along the lines of: “a personal and professional leadership development over a 5-day Institute with a cohort of other socially minded, passionate individuals.” That sentiment is correct, but in retrospect, very lackluster. The truth is, I came to this Institute without tons of context. I knew of a few people who spoke highly of it, but in vague terms. I had exchanged emails with the StartingBloc leadership team on ways for Camelback to partner with and send diverse leaders who had applied to our Fellowship to their program (thank you, Melina, for ideating and creating a discount for Camelback referrals). Conveniently, they were having an Institute in my city, New Orleans.
So, I brought with me the emotional baggage I’ve just shared with you here (and more not described! Because people are complicated) combined with my aspirations for who I could be, while also aware I would be entering the space as Camelback’s Director of Creative & Marketing. I went in preparing to have “professional” development.
What I came out with was an intense massage of my soul.
Experiences matter because of the people you are with, their own journeys to that moment, and what you make together.
It should not surprise you that the other 40 StartingBloc Fellows there also had hard stories, many harder than my own (not that pain or oppression is any kind of competition). Every person I had the privilege of meeting brought me joy. I loved their smiles. I cried in front of strangers. I watched strangers cry in front of me, and I held them. I was inspired by their varied passions: sustainable housing projects, agriculture, food justice, community empowerment, international relations, and more. I heard their stories, laughed their laughs. I learned what a “listening circle” is, and practiced one on religion and identity (guided by the healing, inspiring Michelina Ferrara). Facilitated by Nafessa Kassim, a condensed version of “36 Questions to Make Anyone Fall in Love” definitely made me love my partner. I danced. People held my hands and told me that I was good and great and warm and kind and that they loved me. I cried some more.
I grappled with my own privileges of being an American, the regularly unacknowledged power of holding a U.S. passport. I grappled with being a cisgender woman, and had conversations in gender identity I don’t often have. I wrestled with my own prejudices and unconscious biases. Furthermore, I continued to reflect on the complicated experience I have of living in New Orleans as I try to be an active citizen (voting, working in, and engaging the community), but also definitely not being from here. And not only that, but to be a gentrifying, “well-intentioned” millennial. I will not pretend to be an expert on this city; however, I appreciated being able to share the beautiful and hard parts of what I knew with many others who were not from here. I regularly admire the resilience of the people of New Orleans, as well as their enthusiasm for life and its joys -- despite and because of the hardships.
[If you are interested in learning more about this city, I encourage you to consider these five sources as an introduction: 1) visit the Lower Ninth Ward Living Museum, 2) watch the documentary We Won’t Bow Down (trailer) on Mardi Gras Indians, 3) read this report from the Vera Institute of Justice on bail corruption and criminal justice in New Orleans, 4) watch the documentary Big Charity on what happened to the city’s public hospital after Katrina, and/or 5) read CityLab’s “How New Orleans Has Failed Its Workers Since Katrina”.]
I was part of several profound moments. To name a few:
Throughout the Institute, we had an extended conversation about race and ethnicity, and both the complexions and power gained through intersectionality. I was part of a project group that did not get to learn a new skill-set (human-centered design) because we had to pull back to discuss some very real race and power dynamics at play. Black women in the group shared with the entire cohort their continued labor in this country of surviving so that others may learn from them. I was sad that my team did not get the opportunity to learn the intended lesson, but felt invigorated by my group’s commitment to each other throughout the rest of the programming. We checked in on each other, debriefed, and discussed ideas and recommendations for the Institute to consider incorporating moving forward. (If we want to jump back to the “professional development” lens for a moment; this is all of course part of a larger conversation, and how our society fails to empower most of its population on a regular basis by perpetuating systemic racism -- and all the other awful -isms. From a purely economical standpoint, think of how much productivity, much less excellence, that we lose on a regular basis by not creating spaces that enable team members to bring their full selves? Which ties back into some of the reasons that Camelback Ventures even exists: the reality that while genius is equally distributed, access is not.)
Each StartingBloc program features “breakout groups,” groups of about six Fellows that meet throughout the Institute, led by a mentor, to reflect and discuss. Going into the week, I had no idea what to expect. By the end of the Institute, one of them, a man from Nigeria, let me sit on the ground by his feet and affectionately braided my hair and rubbed my shoulders while I cried in front of the entire cohort as I expressed gratitude. We had a quirky team nickname (Team Hands!!!), and we regularly sought each other out to support and grow together.
Hot dogs and beer with women who are working hard to live their “best lives” while also working to gracefully balance the love and pressures of having significant others, families, professions, passions, and independence.
That programs and program creators are not perfect; recognize that they do strive to make something excellent (at Camelback, we work to reconcile this as well). To make a better world through better work, we must be comfortable with being uncomfortable. We must apologize, learn, and do better next time. We are all just humans, capable of great failures and great victories. At this Institute, I felt us all eager to engage in the practice of making the space more just -- and extending that commitment to our communities, regions, and world.
Give and receive the permission to learn and love, without apology.
StartingBloc’s ability to bring together passionate people who dream for a better world is incredible. Throughout the five-day Institute, I was overwhelmed by the sheer excellence of humanity that I was experiencing. I never once felt self-conscious about being my authentic self, and felt affirmed at every juncture. I did my best to include and affirm others in that extended love and learning.
Every day was exhausting, but I did not mind it. In fact, I craved it.
One of the more actionable learnings from the Institute was a workshop built around what they call “polarities.” Essentially, it is an analysis of the self - to recognize 1) what we think we are “too” much of, 2) what we wish we could be more of, 3) what we fear will happen if we try too hard to be the second, and 4) the values that we hold that lead us to enact the first. This mental model of interrogating the self, our strengths and the struggles, to forgive ourselves for the constant movement between these poles, and to frame them with positivity was powerful.
I wrote the majority of what became the final draft of this post within two hours, and during review, I felt myself experiencing one such polarity. Even now, I am torn between the tension of wanting to be authentic and share my experiences in the hopes that they resonate with others, while also holding a deep sense of privacy and intimacy. I questioned my comfort with sharing. Was I being “too” much? Sharing too much? Would I regret allowing myself to express what was real to me? Would people judge me? Would I judge myself? But this writing is catharsis, and as we know, catharsis is part of healing. This essay is also part of my StartingBloc experience; I knew I needed to articulate this transformation I was feeling in some way, to share with others and to reread myself lest I regress. My courage to maintain the integrity of this piece was maintained by my editors*, a volunteer group of others from the Institute. Their support was effusive and tangible. Their strength gives me strength.
One Fellow (thank you) shared the Nigerian concept of “ubuntu” - “I am because we are.”
Throughout my life, I have worked to add goodness and value in my world. I learned at StartingBloc that it is okay for me to ask myself for that same kindness and generosity. I was unprepared for the added lesson that if I ask others for that as well, I will be received. I felt a similar rush of realizations and growth of the 40 other people in the room. For the first time in a long while, I felt sincere, delightfully overwhelming kinship. I found a new home, and a new people. I have a long list of things to do and individuals to follow up with, but for now, I wanted to take the chance to share this experience in writing.
The first session of the Institute was by a StartingBloc Fellow: the real, the beautiful, the energizing Shantae J. Her question: “What heals you?”
NOTES OF GRATITUDE
*I would like to give a huge shout-out to my editors on this piece, a group of fellows from my cohort who volunteered after I sent an ask out to our cohort-wide WhatsApp group. This effort was led by the excellent and generous editing of Amrita Bajwa, who still liked me even after I introduced myself to her with an excited: “You’re my biography page twin!!!” (Referring to the manual's index of Fellows with two bios per page.) Additional gratitude to the great edits and support provided by Sarah Boison, Zara Cadoux, Joyell Arvella, and Rachel Zalupski.
Thank you also to members of the Camelback team that enabled me to pursue this incredible opportunity, Ami Magunia and Aaron Walker. Thank you to my StartingBloc mentor, Kenny Andejeski, for your generosity, reflection, and patience. Thank you to Melina Martinez and Kristine Sloan for empowering the new partnership with Camelback and seeking to support diverse leaders from our network, as well as to the rest of the StartingBloc team, mentors, and community.
Thank you to the passionate locals who engaged with the Institute and others’ respectful patronage of our city. Love and gratitude to all participants of the New Orleans StartingBloc 2018 Institute -- it is my honor and joy to know you.
A few technical notes: I purposefully linked a few of the excellent facilitators -- hire them! I intentionally omitted Fellow names in the body of the piece with the hope to protect their privacy, and with the hope that those who know, know. Thank you to everyone who built this experience with me. All photos are from the New Orleans 2018 Institute; minor color editing on photos provided by myself and from StartingBloc volunteers and mentors. This post is not sponsored in any way.
StartingBloc is currently accepting applications to its Institutes in Raleigh-Durham (June 2018), New York (August 2018), D.C. (October 2018), and L.A. (February 2019): http://startingbloc.org/institute/ Friends, please let us know if you're considering applying so we can be sure to recommend you!