A Note to Say Farewell and Thank You: Tributaries July 2022
As this chapter in my life comes to a close, I have been reflecting on my path to Headwaters and my work over the past eight years. I am filled with mixed emotions of joy, sadness, and gratitude. So, as I transition out of my role as President, I want to share some of my reflections and lessons learned with you—friends, colleagues, and supporters who make up this beloved community.
I have been a part of the Headwaters community since 2008. Before joining the staff, I worked for three grantee organizations. Every interaction with the Foundation and the staff and leaders with whom I worked was incredibly meaningful to me. Headwaters was the only funder who treated us like people, and like experts in our own lives and communities. Because of my experiences as a grantee, I knew that I wanted to work at Headwaters.
I finally got my chance in 2014, when I became the Foundation’s Development Director. Early on, Executive Director David Nicholson asked me where I saw myself in five years. My response: “Leading Headwaters.” He didn’t flinch at my answer. Instead, David asked: “How can I support you to achieve that goal?”
For the next five years, David invested in me. He was generous with his support, encouragement, and coaching. David put me in leadership roles, allowed me to take chances, and was there when I stumbled. Then in 2018, David announced his plans to depart the Foundation.
I knew that every role in my professional life had prepared me for this next opportunity: to lead Headwaters. I believed that I was the right person at the right time. I believed in the mission and the people who made up Headwaters. I wanted to live into my purpose of creating fertile ground where people and ideas could thrive.
I spent the next few years doing just that. I helped the staff prioritize and focus their work on the most mission critical strategies and tactics. I distributed leadership and decision-making across the staff and helped people take on new roles and challenges. Together, we fostered an environment where people could care for themselves and their loved ones, regardless of the chaos in the world. I am proud of what my team and I accomplished together.
I have also learned many valuable lessons about what it means to be a leader along the way. Some of the lessons were painful and others brought me so much joy. Here is just a bit of what I’ve learned, and what is sitting with me today.
Peer mentorship matters. I am incredibly grateful for the people I have met throughout my career in the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors. One particular person comes to mind because I could call her out of the blue to seek advice, vent, or simply laugh. Peers like her who are generous with her time and experience are invaluable. Seek out your people, buoy each other through your shared challenges, and celebrate each other’s wins.
The role of President is a lonely one—support, boundaries, and rest are essential. I remember telling a board member in 2019 that I had heard so much from other executives about how lonely it is to be the sole leader at the helm of an organization. I am fortunate to have a fantastic support system. I have a great family, wonderful friends, incredible board members, and supportive colleagues. Even with all that I still felt incredibly lonely at times. The reality is that the job of President is often too big for any one person. Especially if you want to lead a balanced life, setting boundaries around work, asking for help both professionally and personally, and knowing when it’s time to take a step back are key to sustaining yourself and your organization.
Leadership weighs heavy on women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ people. In a recent piece for Nonprofit News, Minnesota Council of Nonprofits Executive Director Nonoko Sato wrote, “We are supposed to be bold, brave, and single-handedly solve all systemic inequities while we navigate systems that are already set up for us to fail.” This is particularly true for leaders of color, who are expected to simultaneously dismantle white supremacy culture in the workplace and flawlessly achieve ambitious fundraising goals and programmatic outputs. As a result, many of us are burning out. Leaders of color I know are exhausted and their stress levels are high. For many of us, we are not just fighting for communities we care about; we are also fighting for our own lives.
Leadership is not about being the boss. It is not about being in charge. Leadership is a humbling experience where one is asked each day to bring their best self to the work. Leadership is knowing that failure is possible but having the courage to try anyway. Leadership is a chance to support people to grow and learn. Leadership is about guiding, mentoring, and coaching. Leadership is knowing that your colleagues and community are there to guide you as much as you are there to guide them. It is knowing that the best results come when a group dreams together and co-creates a future together.
Changing the world is heart work. My work at Headwaters taught me how to soften my heart and stand in my power. What I learned is that leading heart-first is difficult yet necessary. It means that my heart gets broken often by the murders of Black people; the kidnapping and killing of Indigenous women; the stripping of people’s reproductive rights and access to safe abortions; the threats against queer and trans people; and more. A soft heart is a gift, and a broken heart is a call to action—listen, take care, and take heart.
Strong community builds strong leaders and organizations. For 38 years, we have relied on our incredible network of people across the state of Minnesota and beyond to make Headwaters a strong and grounded social justice community foundation. Over the past eight years you shaped who I am and how we do our work. I am grateful for all that we have learned and achieved together. It is people like you—grantees, donors, volunteers, and friends—who make me believe that our collective liberation is possible. Thank you.
In my October 2021 Tributaries post entitled “On Stress, Sabbaticals, and Systems Change” I wrote: “I believe that shifting culture is necessary for systems change. Rest results in strength. Healing creates energy. Joy sparks creativity. Connection creates community. Dreaming leads to transformation. This is where the potential lies.”
As I step out of my role as President and into the role of community member, I take those words with me as a reminder of what is possible in this next phase of my life and in this next phase of Headwaters. Thank you for being on this journey with me.