It Starts With People

Recently, I was asked to prepare a shorty essay that describes my leadership role and how that roles has enabled me to "drive collaboration to achieve transformative impact." This felt (and still feels) like such a daunting prompt. I procrastinated for several weeks before finally putting pen to paper. It was helpful for me to reflect on past experiences to begin exploring how those opportunities have informed my path and prepared me for the job I've been invited into today.


For the past decade, my professional journey has been marked by a desire to work alongside people shaping better futures for the places they call home. From classrooms in Detroit, to catfish farms in Alabama, to the evolving neighborhoods of Cincinnati, this path has afforded me countless opportunities to use my design sensibilities to bring community-supported ideas to life. Today, I find myself in the wild and wonderful world of philanthropy. Four years ago, my colleagues and I launched People's Liberty, a first of its kind philanthropic lab that invests directly in people with bold ideas to impact Greater Cincinnati. An outpost of the Haile Foundation, we offer citizens three distinct grant opportunities ranging from 6-month $10,000 project grants to full-year $100,000 fellowships. This five-year experiment seeks to explore how philanthropy can change a community by uncovering and investing in great people. Today, we’ve we’ve awarded grants to 72 Cincinnatians, hired 31 early-career storytellers, hosted 21,000 people for 315 unique events and connected with 56 peer organizations to compare notes and share our model. It’s been quite the adventure.

My work centers on helping folks bring their bold ideas to life. Lisa, a dietician, wants to figure out how to feed our city’s most vulnerable neighborhoods. So we help Lisa develop a way to do that. Nina wants to use her gifts as a photographer to help ensure black men see their value. So we support Nina as she accomplishes that goal. April, a veteran, knows that many returning vets struggle to regain and maintain their self-worth outside the military. So we lift up April as she lifts up others. In short, we’ve built People’s Liberty from the belief that every human being has the creative capacity to make a significant impact in the world, and we feel honored to walk alongside folks as they uncover their passions and put their skills to work for good. Tom Kelley, author and partner at the lauded design firm IDEO, calls this finding one’s “creative confidence.” I just call it being human. Far too many people are unclear about how their hard work benefits the world. We try to remind them.

Nothing we do is possible without an honest ethos of collaboration. In fact, when I reflect on the past ten years, every project I deem successful has only been so because of the people invited to the table. Our friend Tracy—a recovering addict who received a $100K Haile Fellowship last year to launch a newspaper that connects incarcerated individuals with invaluable resources—uses a phrase we really. She points to a number of well-meaning agencies who are designing seemingly impactful solutions “about us, without us.” It goes without saying that when we design “for” not “with,” the projects that develop are mediocre at best. We end up with addiction-prevention apps proposed to benefit folks who don’t carry smartphones; parking meters that collect change for the homeless while preventing the giver from ever connecting with the person whom she seeks to support; and storefront developments that fail because legacy neighbors can’t afford $14.00 rib tips. I could go on. You get it.

I don’t claim to be an expert collaborator. In fact, I lose sleep nights before I’m scheduled to facilitate a group conversation or project. Though I continue to find myself in positions of leadership, being the driver in the room still makes my stomach flutter. But I’m learning. And work that enables me to learn day after day seems like work worth doing.

To My Design Professors:

"Education should be the process of helping everyone to discover their uniqueness, to teach them how to develop that uniqueness, and then to show them how to share it because that's the only reason for having anything." —Dr. Leo Buscaglia

I'm fortunate to be in a position today where I get to play a small role in shaping the hearts, hands and minds of many talented young creatives. But from this privileged position, I sometimes worry about what I see. I worry that many of these emerging leaders are trading their creative curiosities for the promise of a job certainty that doesn't even exist. I worry that the designers of tomorrow have lost their desire to look backward as a way of moving forward. (My how few students know their design history!) I worry that our perception of "good design" is becoming nothing more than what's popular on Pinterest. (Eek!) Most of all, I'm worried about the health and wellness of the talented young folks trying to make their way through rigorous design programs where professors lionize competition, confuse critique with coercion and glorify exertion to an extreme degree. (I know an architecture "teacher" who brings a golf club to class on model critique day). 

It's with all this in mind, that I write this note to my dear design professors in Detroit. Sue. Liisa. Chad. Doug. Matt. Michelle. Nelson. And there are others. Thank you. Thank you for teaching me how to see. Thank you for sharpening my senses, heightening my awareness and training me to ask "why?". Thank you for gently molding my critical mind. Thank you for teaching me that the role of the designer is foremost to solve problems and create beauty, though not always in that order.

When the career counselors said "get a job," you invited me to learn about the world from a worm's perspective. When the career counselors said "raise your GPA," you invited me to read books that interested me. When the career counselors said "four years left," you reminded me that school is only the beginning. So thank you. Thank you for showing me how to get lost in the library stacks. Thank you for teaching me how to draw inspiration from the sidewalk. Thank you for reminding me that the computer is simply a tool. Thank you for prompting me to dream bigger and for suggesting that my aspirations should stretch far beyond graduation or my first promotion. Thank you for being supportive influencers at the beginning of my journey.

With gratitude. 


Dear Mary,

Sending and receiving letters has always been a source of great joy for me. Recently, I've found letter-writing to be a helpful tool for sifting through complex ideas and reflecting on confounding lived experiences—regardless of whether or not the letter actually gets mailed. Here's one I recently wrote to a friend who's processing through some big, bold spiritual questions. I share it here not to impose a belief structure on you, dear reader, but rather to suggest the way in which writing often has the power to help us discover and expand what's most alive within us—spaces we may not have been aware before we started to write. As the beloved Henri Nouwen states: "To write is to embark on a journey whose final destination we do not know." Here's to unknowing.

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Dear Mary,

It was great seeing you yesterday even though the time together was entirely too brief! Be that as it may, I'm always encouraged when friendships with certain people seem to pick back up just where they left off as if no time has passed. It was lovely to discover that our friendship is one like that. As I was lying in bed late this morning, something came over me that I feel prompted to share. I admit I was surprised and somewhat saddened to hear you've been wrestling with your faith. I've been there too and I know it can often feel like a dark and lonely place. I hope that you continue to surround yourself with good, compassionate people who are open to sharing their wisdom while letting you be in this foggy space without judgment. I'm sure those people will continue to emerge for you, but if they don't it's really no matter because questions of faith are between you and god anyway.

Your longing for deeper, more meaningful answers to the question, "Why follow Jesus?" prompted me to think about that question more myself. If you'll allow me, I'd like to share some of that with you now: I want to believe in a god who gets low; a god who meets us where we are despite how messed up, whiney, and impossible we humans can sometimes (all the time?!) be. I want to know a god who, like the Dad of the Year, offers endless love, invitation and encouragement even when we keep getting it wrong. I want to celebrate a god who declares, "It is finished!" A god who says, "It's done, stop striving, stop worrying, stop struggling, you are good, you don't have to be perfect, I love you, just be." Above all else, I want to know this god who says every human life is beautiful and valuable. I want to know this god who proclaims all creation to be deeply sacred and interdependent. I want to know this god who assures us that beneath the pain of this life—with all it's heartbreak, cancer and acne—that there's a bigger story of restoration unfolding. And finally, I want to know this god who longs to know us right back and longs for us to enjoy this life and this relationship with him. This is a god who gives us sunsets on Easter—not to shame us back to church, but just because sunsets are one of the most perfect and beautiful things are eyes can see. I don't understand it, but I want it. I want to be united with this divine creator in a way that is supremely relational, not intellectual.

I don't share this to convince you of any belief structure or to coax you back into a box you don't desire to belong. I share it because I believe, like it or not, that this god used our conversations at a wedding banquet in Nashville to remind me why I believe what I believe and to strengthen that belief even more. He used you friend! It makes no sense. But that's a god I want to know and follow—a god who flips logic upside down to accomplish giant things in seemingly small ways. What a divine mystery.

Sending love.