Finding the Way to Go Forward Again

The first time I met the person who taught me about chasing dreams beyond the sports world, I realized she wasn't normal. Nearly 30 years ago, so forgive me if I don't recall the exact details, but I will never forget how this woman just didn't take no for an answer. She headed a tiny non-profit that paired low-income youth at risk of not graduating from high school with adult mentors with the goal of shifting the students onto a track that would give them a better future than their predictable one.

She never let her students' present obstacles obscure their future possibilities. Never. She talked a good game of transformation, but she also walked her talk. She found solutions. A bushwhacker, that's what she was, clearing paths for students to find the way from a messy present to a more hopeful future, largely under their own steam.

A few years later, in 1992, I started Washington Works, but not without this person's help. (Briefly, WW supported women on public assistance to kick their dependence on the system). Correction, she didn't help me. First she challenged me: to think creatively when my attempts to obtain funding for the idea I had formulated failed; and to listen to my heart, which longed to get in there and fix a wrong that not only wounded my sense of justice, but pissed me off, as a woman and a mom.

Next, she convinced me that my lack of experience was no barrier. I knew absolutely nothing about women on welfare; come on, I was an upper middle class girl who grew up on Park Avenue and attended a posh boarding school and an ivy league university. I had no background in social services, my master's degree was in business, not people. I was comfortable with numbers and logical solutions, not with stories and messy circumstances.

Finally, she joined me in launching this non-profit dedicated to helping women transform their lives from dependence on government subsidies to self-reliance. Talk about support. She was incredible, indefatigable, creative, endlessly resourceful. Oh, and did I mention fun? She was fun. She knew how to laugh, how to transform tough problems into growth opportunities, but she didn't just direct, she dove in and made shit happen.

Together, we launched an amazing organization, bringing some new approaches and new energy to attempt a solution to the huge and intractable social problem of welfare dependency.
We developed a program that started with training our participants in job skills and ended with their landing livable wage jobs and keeping them, but in between, we performed magic. And this person stood at the center of the magic. In fact, she was the magician.

I can't describe exactly what she did, except to say the women she worked with found parts of themselves they had lost along the way to growing up. When they found those parts and put themselves back together, the vast majority of them changed, to the point that they took charge of their lives and began creating their futures, instead of letting life just happen to them. They started dreaming. And she helped them figure out how to pursue their dreams.

No wonder I loved, admired, and respected her.

And then one day, I had to say no to her. She wanted to give one of our trainers a raise. Of course the staffer deserved it. But the organization was growing quickly, we didn't have enough money, and we had other staff, too, who deserved raises. We were no longer able to decide one person's salary without considering the rest of the staff too. I had never denied my co-founder any request. Until now. It wasn't about her, or me, but our organization's new reality. Paralyzed by fear that she would leave the organization if I denied her, or once she realized it had grown beyond her reach, and unable to accede, I was completely over my head.

Have you ever found yourself in a similar circumstance, where you're tongue-tied when it comes to talking to someone who really matters to you about a challenge that cuts across both personal and professional domains? One that triggers your concern that your business partner and close friend will misunderstand your intent, accuse you of betrayal, and everything will go to hell from there?

My co-founder and I let anger and fear rule, rather than trusting our love for each other to help us transition. We both ended up leaving WW. Within a matter of weeks, the organization lost its magic; within a few years, it merged with another organization and disappeared.

If you lost a relationship as a result of mishandling your situation, I hope you found your way back to that person and were quicker to acknowledge your mistakes, the pain you caused, and your gratitude for all the good in that connection than I was. Seventeen years is too long.

My co-founder, who continues to practice her magic half-way across the world, emailed me out of the blue yesterday and inspired me to write this post. There's nothing like the lightness and the love that flows from cleaning up past sorrows and expressing gratitude.