Creating Space for All Voices to Belong
The hours following a Leadership Grand Rapids session are ones where I find myself outwardly silent and internally abuzz as I reflect on the voices from the day. At first, it’s a bit of a noisy reception in my mind as I’m eager to revisit each conversation. It is particularly fitting that I felt the need to sit in quiet to process, as our day repeatedly called us to draw in voices not our own to inform, challenge, and shape our actions.
Six leaders of the 40+ in the room shared leadership lessons this week that, while not preplanned, celebrated the indelible impressions of other voices in their lives. The marks of leadership, inspiration, and family were clear. These leaders honored sacrifices, sought to understand and be understood, and called out a continued journey. Each voice carried great weight as those stories will now influence the rest of us. We combat the danger of the single story when we ask, engage, and consider new orientation points to influence our own. I’m grateful for the legacies that shaped their lives because those impressions led each person to this class at this time.
Now that we are together as students in the months ahead, it’s clear we must push through the passive actions of welcoming to initiate conversations diverse in thought and lived experience while together in monthly sessions and while at work or play outside of them. We must pursue a brave space of belonging where we actively reach out to build trust and invite that investment from others. We must lead with empathy, create other leaders, and challenge systems and processes to erode past checked-box celebrations that do harm. We must listen to voices in pursuit of asset-based development. Our neighborhoods, our schools, our workplaces, and our integrity depend on it.
The day’s broad swath of speakers pulled data, analyzed surveys, and dissected damaging narratives. It was a “both/and” day that unveiled what true community development should look like and asked us to lay bare the realities of where our West Michigan community is doing well and where we must do better.
The afternoon’s bus tour throughout Grand Rapids pulled us back in time to emphasize this point. We peered at past eras to see how individuals and families came to our area. We discussed how they leaned on one another to create community when lines, red and otherwise, reinforced the narrative of the “other.” Within a small radius, our past neighbors would work, worship, play, and create community. The circles have broadened and blurred more now, but the need remains: we have a dire need to tell the story of who we are through many narratives. We stood at an intersection wishing we knew more of who stood in the same spot in the past. Who was invited to recollect and carry the stories? Whose voice is missing?
On my first day of Leadership Grand Rapids, I questioned where my voice would live among the incredible stories of my classmates and of this city, I like to call mine, too. I’m a woman from a small town in Minnesota who grew up around the coffee table with my grandparents and their siblings and descendants sharing stories of their lives. At the time, I did not see how their stories were about times they covered who they were and times when they shined as themselves. I only see now how those narratives depicted how they remembered the people who shaped them as they pursued a better life. They carried the voices forward to me. Sharing was a way to honor their past and an assignment for me to do the same.
The stories I’ve heard long ago and the stories I’m learning now are teaching me the beauty of messy authenticity. One of our presenters today said it impactfully when describing herself as a humble learner and practitioner on her own journey. I feel an insistent nudge to know better and do better. I, too, want to live in a world where we create the belonging that drives greater agency, more ideas, bolder positions, and more advances. How beautiful to think “we urgently need each other” and more voices in the room.