By Suntrana Allen
I was an army veteran without an assignment, who decided to become a barber and take up residency in a place where I had not grown up and to which I had no attachments. After years of not knowing why God placed me here in Syracuse, NY, I began to see I had a unique viewpoint. That viewpoint came from both my different career paths as well as other people’s perspective of who they thought I was. This has given me access to conversation, and complaints. I now see deteriorating infrastructures and organizations from a boots on the ground perspective.
Along with this access also came what I would like to call my 18th floor AXA building viewpoint. The place where everything looked nice, the views were breathtaking and the echoes of discontentment were barely heard so high up. When you live two paychecks from poverty, you’re actually considered to be the “working class;” quite often it doesn’t seem like there’s much of a difference. But when others seem to think that you are in the middle class, and they see you as a beacon of hope simply because in their eyes you are a thriving business owner, your perspective can shift.
So when asked to be a part of the Gifford Foundation board, I of course responded with a yes. I was honored – the board seemed to be the perfect fit and I admired the work that they had done. But there was just one problem. I had never served on a board before. Why me? What was the knowledge and perspective that I was expected to bring?
That’s why I participated in Nourishing Tomorrow’s Leaders. NTL wasn’t just a 2.5 hours, one day a week for eight weeks, class on nonprofit boards. Yes, I learned about my position, responsibility and role on a board. But NTL also created a space to be vulnerable, to understand that even the seemingly perfect board or board member might be unsuccessful or need tweaking.
What I mean is that we have a tendency to overlook other perspectives, or we focus so much on equality that we forget to create equity. NTL offers an opportunity to move from the 18th floor of seeing a problem distantly to more up close empathizing. The program’s tools identify the importance of sharing lenses and understanding the importance of different perspectives. For me, it carved out the importance of what I brought to the table. Just because I didn’t or couldn’t bring a $200 bottle of Joseph Phelps Insignia Cabernet to a cookout, the napkins and forks were just as important (if not more so.)
Even though we all like a good cookout someone has to foot the bill, and that was another thing that NTL taught me: financial responsibility as well as legal obligation. I now not only understand these duties, but can also ask the right questions. It illuminates the different lifecycles of local community organizations. Each speaker, drawn from the community, brings his or her experience which reinforces NTL’s goals, and enables them to see each participant individually.
NTL brings together people from different walks of life who reflect a variety of mindsets, cultures, experiences, backgrounds, and classes. As different as you might be from your fellow classmates, you will all learn the same lessons. By the time eight weeks is up you will gain a better sense of community and board responsibility. It will be up to you to apply it or return to your old self.