I Heart Pittsburgh! (The Final Installment)

(Part 6: Community-Driven Tour 2008. To read these posts from the beginning of this 2+ month tour, click here.)

Friday, October 24
It is Friday morning. Raining. Rush hour traffic from the North Hills into downtown Pittsburgh. My voice is gone. None of this bodes well.

All omens vanish as we approach Community Radio Station WYEP, the venue for the morning’s events. More than thirty people will be attending as part of the NLI’s normal day-long Leadership Academy. Almost fifty more have signed up just to hear my talk. The room barely holds 60 comfortably. It will now hold 80 uncomfortably.

Michael and I are on the stage, and he is beginning his over-the-top introduction of me. He tells of how he first found me, and of the influence my work has had on the very being of the NLI. As he is about to hand the microphone over to me, a woman quietly enters the room, seeking a seat. “Oh look,” Michael says, as if an announcement to the group but really as a cue to me, “Yinka is here!”

Dr. Yinka Aganga-Williams was a student in the class we taught for Duquesne – Creating the Future of Your Community. The organization she founded – AJAPO – helps ensure a smooth transition to American life for refugees and immigrants from the African Diaspora.  AJAPO is well known throughout the Pittsburgh area for getting more done on a shoestring than many organizations can do with million-dollar budgets. And that is all because of Yinka.

Through our time together over all the distance-learning miles of that semester, Dimitri and I have grown to cherish the wisdom we have found in Yinka. We have never met in person, and yet have learned so much from each other.

And so, with Michael’s words, my heart leaps from my chest, and I forget I am on a stage in front of 80 strangers.  As Michael is about to hand the proceedings over to me, I have already left the stage, and am now hugging the fabulous Nigerian woman I have grown to admire so much.

(Yinka later tells Dimitri and me that when she completes her degree, she is considering taking her new-found leadership skills back to the African continent, to help build community there. She shares that the  emphasis in our class on the “community” part of the phrase “community leadership” had a profound impact on her current work and her future plans.  Wow!)

The day is taking its shape from such moments. Liz Nilsen is here – a colleague, client and friend whom we last saw (and worked with) in Danville, Virginia. She has moved to Pittsburgh, and it is wonderful to reconnect after almost 4 years since our time in Danville. “I love it here,” she whispers, almost afraid to tempt the gods. “We love it here, too,” I whisper back to her. “The energy in Pittsburgh is palpable!”

Then there is the amazing conversation with a gentleman who listened to my morning talk about the role of vision and values, both in Building an Energized Board and accomplishing great community results. He has approached me with a smile that covers his whole face. “We always feel as if our board is the strange one. But as I am listening to you, I am realizing, we are doing exactly what you talked about!”

I am excited to hear more. “How is it working?” I ask him.

“So so well!  The organization’s results are incredible. But to be honest, as I was listening to all the board problems everyone else was talking about in the session, I could not believe that’s what being a board was like for them.  Our board may feel like we are the odd ones, but we are actually the ones who are on the right track!  Listening to everyone in that room bemoaning their inability to find people to serve – and yet we have a waiting list of people who want to join our board!

I am thrilled at his words, as we know this is the case. When boards are doing Community-Driven work, people want to be riding that train!!

One after another, I am spending the morning talking with folks. If I did not have a voice before the first session, I have lost that voice entirely by lunch. We are breaking bread at a great middle eastern restaurant, joined by a small band of consultants assembled by Michael to hear my talk. Among them is Cindy Shapira, with whom we had lunched two days prior. And Cindy is excited!

“Last night I began planning work with one of the groups I was telling you about the other day. And it worked! It worked so well!” She is beaming.

“At first they told me they already have a vision. But I got them to appease me and discuss the questions you suggested. And you cannot believe the vision they came to – it was comprehensive, and community-focused, and – well – visionary! They stretched beyond just their narrow mission to include a real picture of community health that will begin to inform their mission and their programs in all kinds of ways. It was unbelievable!”

The more she talks, the more we cannot wait to get the Community-Driven Consultant education program up and running next year. Cindy has already committed to be one of the first in attendance. She cannot wait to learn more.

The afternoon session will be an exclusive event, just for the grantees of PACE – Pittsburgh’s Program to Aid Citizen Enterprise. PACE assists community-based organizations that work with economically disadvantaged communities, and today is the first meeting of this round of grantees. They were part of the group who heard my talk in the morning, but this afternoon, it is just me and them – no larger group to get lost in.

The talk this afternoon is Building Engaged Support for Your Mission. We arrive and find they are still eating lunch. As any afternoon speaker will tell you, this is not good news – I can almost guarantee folks will be nodding off during my talk. Small group, speaker with virtually no voice left, food still heavy on their stomachs… I am doomed.

To top it off, there is no microphone.  We have learned, though, that Michael’s staff – and in particular, Elaine Franks, who I have come to believe is also single-handedly responsible for keeping the earth spinning on its axis – never sees obstacles.  They see only possibilities.

And so, while we were eating lunch, Elaine had gone to a nearby music store, where she had shelled out $50 for a cheap guitar amp (“We needed this anyway – good to have, when you do as many workshops as the NLI does!”).  She ran back to the radio station to borrow the wireless transmitter I had used that morning.  And by the time I am 10 minutes into virtually whispering my talk to this room full of community leaders, Dimitri has hooked up this system and I am at least whispering into a mic!

Given all that, the group is lively, and the talk is fun, with lots of laughing and even more aha moments. Afterward, folks respond in earnest, awakening from their post-lunch lull and hugging me, thanking me.

One woman shared, “It was inspiring. We do indeed have so much to build upon. Thank you so much for that message!”

And then she adds the icing on the cake: “But it’s not just your message – your phrasing is like poetry.” Wow!

Saturday, October 25
And with that, we are packing up our boxes and bags, stuffing the car with everything we own, and moving on – as quick as we showed up, we are gone. We are on our way to Washington DC.

In DC, we will spend time catching up on weeks’ worth of work piled so high we cannot see. We will do a workshop in Baltimore that has been sold out since just 2 hours after it was announced. We will have lunch with a man I have worked with closely under the extreme circumstances of plagiarism, and who has become both a colleague and a friend – Glenn Cook, the editor-in-chief of the American School Board Journal.

And best of all, we will get to spend time with my daughter, not sightseeing, but even better – just hanging out, discussing and watching the campaign, cooking, doing laundry, and just being together.

In the afterglow of this intense, stimulating, inspiring, energizing week at Duquesne University, we are ready to rest and recover. We are quite sure, as our time in DC passes, that every few hours we will remind ourselves of the marvelous encounters we had in our visit to Pittsburgh.

And who knows what next week will bring?

The next installment along this amazing journey is here.

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