Welcome to the I Am A Leader blog series, featuring leaders who make a difference. Today’s guest blogger is Beth Hannon Penny. Beth is an educator, activist, leader and learner. Her passion is helping at-risk youth actualize their potential through service, access to positive leadership, and workplace/life readiness training. She is the Program Manager for the GoodFutures Program with Goodwill Industries of Southern Arizona, a program dedicated to assisting formerly incarcerated youth through service-learning and skills training.
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“May you experience each day as a sacred gift woven around the heart of wonder.” John O’Donohue
Leaders stay curious. This is the defining characteristic that drives them; it is also the golden thread that weaves through their ability to impact others. Leaders look around them and see only open space, future opportunities, and ways to heal the fractures and cracks. They let others become their best selves, because they are never afraid to keep asking questions – the really tough questions. This continued curiosity brings about the sacred in a world of stagnancy, old ideas and blame.
“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I’ll meet you there. When the soul lies down in that grass the world is too full to talk about.” ― Rumi
I am a leader because I still cry myself to sleep some nights. I am a leader because the broken promises in our society cannot outnumber the ones I have left to keep – today and in the years of activism ahead. I am a leader because I refuse to believe there are two parts to any story. I dress every morning in a business casual outfit and a clear headdress of curiosity. We are leaders because we keep going when the political gridlock, religious shaming, and naysayer rhetoric clog the radio waves and block our networking in small communities.
When I was just 7 years old my dad put me in charge of stocking horse medicine on the shelves in his veterinary office. I looked down at my unformed chest and saw a blinking, neon light that read “LEADER.” Counting bottles, tallying, and changing tags – this request created my first rush, a type of high, leaving my heart fluttering and my mind racing. My first questions were – He trusts me enough to do this? What if I let him down? Why did Dad give me this amazing job? The shelf was small, dusted over from lack of use, and it was a pointless, unnecessary request. Dad did it only to keep me occupied and prevent me from asking the one-millionth “why” question of the day. I could tell you that I became a leader because someone put me “in charge,” but after years of reflection, I know I my metamorphosis occurred because I got curious in a brand new way.
I didn’t wonder, “How did the secretary stock this shelf before?” I started thinking about how many bottles I could fit in the small space. I took great care in figuring out how to catch the eye of the old farmer who might stop to shop on his ride home to the corn fields. Amidst it all I knew I had only 20 minutes to complete the task and I wanted to optimize every second. My questions targeted efficacy, creating a meaningful experience for the audience, and doing all I could in a short period of time.
In the world of working with at-risk youth, these same specific concerns are what have marked my career. The world is broken and there is no time to lose – 14 year old chicas (girls) struggle to become mothers too soon, homeless men chase away pain with drug and drink, little boys sell rock for their older cuz just so they can have “family” to belong to, and single moms chase away exhaustion to keep their child reading at the end of a long day. With all the pain, suffering, and lack of compassionate nurturing in the world, is it any wonder that life feels so broken? There is no room for inefficiency in service delivery to at-risk youth (or anyone). We have no time for programming that is irrelevant, culturally misguided, or at constant risk of being de-funded. Today’s community leaders stay curious because it is the only way to keep up with the game and bring about positive change.
One of the most important leadership roles for me started as a Special Education teacher with Teach for America in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. There, as a white, farm-raised, low to middle class female, I learned how to be in the minority. I learned the pain that comes from being an outsider and the anger that emerges when racism, lack of education, and fear collide in a small closet, turned classroom, in the heat of a Louisiana Bayou August. My first day helped me realize that I was the first and only white educator my 17 students had ever met, let alone spent time with. We stumbled together, that class and I, through tears, angry words, misunderstanding, and much of my own regret. I thought I could “change them” and help them see that book learning and big dreams would help lift them out of the poverty, aggression, and historical racism that plagues some neighborhoods today. In truth, I got knocked on my back side so many times that I finally realized I didn’t know it all. I was running with blinders on, trying to do so much so quickly that I wasn’t staying open to the opportunities at hand. So, in order to heal, and in the hopes of actually bringing about change, I got curious. I let them lead the way while I stood as a witness, not a savior, to their growth.
“Leaders don’t force people to follow – they invite them on a journey.” Charles S. Lauer
I want my legacy to be the questions that we ask together. I want the youth I work with to reform broken neighborhoods from within, using their own good ideas for prison reform, community policing, and public schooling to bring about change. I want my sisters and brothers in the United States to pause and ask, “What brings about my own good without doing harm for my global community?” I believe change is created when there is wonder bubbling up from our souls and out across our lips as we tip-toe quietly on our journey together. I believe leaders are those who will keep asking questions, even when answers aren’t apparent and time is running short. I believe promise lies in staying curious, opening to the possibility at hand and the sacredness that is still relevant today.
A special thank you to Beth Hannon Penny for sharing her insights about leadership with us today! Stay tuned every Friday as the I Am A Leader blog series continues. Please share this blog post via Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. Let’s continue the conversation on Twitter using the #iamaLEADER hash tag! You can connect with SOS Leadership on Twitter here.
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