In my opinion, an effective leader isn’t “born to lead”. An effective leader doesn’t wake up one day to say and do all the right things. An effective leader has said the WRONG things at times, made the WRONG decisions or acted the WRONG way. I know, because that’s the story of my life as a leader and I’m certain I’m not the only one.
Moving to Richmond from my hometown of Pittsburgh in 1998, I remember the first time we explored the city. We drove down Monument Avenue and looked at the beautiful southern style mansions, landscaping and cobblestone streets. We slowed down at each traffic circle to study the monuments and quite frankly, we couldn’t help but chuckle. Our northern sensitivities, and sense of humor, came about pretty quickly.
“I don’t understand. Why are there monuments for losers? This is stupid, “ my husband said. “For goodness sake, these southern folks are hanging on tight, “ I snarked back.
To me, those monuments are the butt of our family jokes. They are the source of flippant comments about living in the “real” South, and our constant eye rolling when we talk about them. I’ve never felt a moment of fear, of oppression, of frustration when talking about them or driving by them. I dismissed them as nothing special because those statues were never part of my story.
My parents are children of European immigrants. My childhood was filled with Italian and Romanian traditions and language. Our life lessons were stories of poverty, sacrifice, hard work, the importance of education and how to accomplish the American Dream. Those lessons were my roadmap to privilege. And like many of my cousins (over 50 of them), I followed that map and I accomplished it. My husband and I have owned and operated a successful film/video production company in Shockoe Bottom for 18 years. We live in a comfortable house in the far west end of Richmond and our kids go to a blue ribbon high school.
On Sunday morning, May 31, I panicked that something may have happened to the historic building we own in Shockoe Bottom after the first night of protests. I was worried and frustrated that someone who didn’t know me, or the work I’ve done for the community, might break through the windows and take all of the equipment we’ve worked so hard to acquire for our business. It took about four hours that morning to reconcile those feelings and turn the corner. And then I broke down and cried. My privilege had become a blind spot in my leadership.
My friends, my clients, my co-workers, my LMR classmates are hurting. I didn’t understand the rage-filled protests at first because those monuments held no position in my life. But then, I stopped worrying, I stopped talking and I started listening. Really listening. I asked questions, I read articles, I talked directly with two black women who I trust and who trust me about how I could best be a part of the solution. I was reminded by one of them that I have a certain set of skills that I could use to make a difference. So, I contacted local nonprofits who I’ve worked with in the past and offered my services if they wanted to make digital content to bring their constituency together in this moment. I called my contacts at VPM PBS/NPR and pitched interview content of local leaders in the Black community who I’ve come to know over the years so that their voices could be amplified in the media. Last week, I produced my first VPM NPR radio feature about the significance of the protests. It included interviews with journalist Brian Palmer, historian Julian Hayter and Senator Jennifer McClellan. During production, we talked about the plight of the East End cemetery (of which I had never set foot in until that day), the long complicated history of institutional racism in Richmond and the importance of female voices in high levels of government. This week I started production on a documentary with Hamilton Glass and other street artists about the Mending Walls RVA project that will air on VPM and hopefully nationwide on PBS. I’m intentionally putting myself in a position to learn more, empathize often and lead better by doing what I know how to do right now.
Leadership is complicated. There are high highs and low lows. At times, there are more questions than answers, more doubts than successes. I don’t know where I am in that mix right now but I now understand my place. I’m not the type of leader that would light the fire of protest but will gladly hand over my matchbook for others to do it. And that’s my plan moving forward.
LMR Class of 2018
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