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.

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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.