In the course of giving more than 100 speeches this year for my book, Everyone Leads, I met countless people who reinforced my belief about the incredible leadership talent often left untapped in our communities. Two who most inspired me were Monte Allen and Bob Littman from Cincinnati, Ohio. Their story offers a parable about the sometimes unexpected rewards of diversity and inclusion.
Monte Allen has Coprolalia, a form of Tourette's Syndrome that includes involuntary utterance of obscene words or socially inappropriate and derogatory remarks. His twitching, outbursts and cussing were not understood growing up. He was punished a lot, and people often thought he was crazy or on drugs. Although quite smart, he was destined for a career in, at best, isolated manual labor.
Then one day a shop teacher at his vocational school, Robert Powell, asked him a shocking question: "What college are you going to?" Monte had never considered college an option, and he had no college graduates in his extended family.
Mr. Powell went the extra mile for Monte, helping him believe in himself, finding a police officer with Tourette's to mentor Monte, and coaching his success in school. "Mr. Powell found skills and talents hidden in me that I didn't even know existed," explains Monte. "Like that I'm a great storyteller and orator when not cursing. I pay attention to details and can disseminate what I know." Mr. Powell invited Monte to lead his class a few times, and entered him in a state vocational education competition where he had to teach a panel of judges. Monte placed third in the state. "I learned I had the gift of teaching."
Monte enrolled at a major university, majoring in education, but harsh realities set in. They did not know how to address Monte's condition in the college classroom or the classrooms he would teach in. They made it clear they did not know what to do with him and Monte felt unwanted. He filed a grievance over his treatment with the ombudsman and he felt lost.
One day he was sitting at school crying in discouragement when a criminal justice professor, Paula Smith, asked him if he was OK. He tartly said "yes" and brushed her off, but she sat next to him and silently waited. After 20 minutes, he opened up and told her his story. She took him to meet her dean, Edward Latessa, who was outraged by the story and promised, "We can fix this."
The dean spoke to his faculty, explaining Monte's condition and the tough time he'd experienced. He said: "If he is a horrible student, stick it to him, but you will not discriminate against him because of his Tourette's." The dean asked if any professors would be uncomfortable working with him, and three admitted so. For those who taught mandatory courses, he found work-arounds. Monte transferred to criminal justice.
His first semester did not go well. He was embarrassed that he had Cs and Ds, and apologized to everyone. But people like the school's accommodations coordinator, Matthew Sauer, and others stood by him and continued to encourage him, and by next semester he was on the Dean's List. He became more socially active at school, too, and his self-esteem, confidence and grades rose.
When he graduated in 2007, harsh realities set in again. He often cussed in interviews and had to explain his Tourette's to potential employers. He did not receive many call-backs. "You'd think you get used to rejection," he admits, "but you don't."
He began a series of diminishing jobs to get by: data entry for a university researcher, nightshift stocking shelves at a drug store, hotel housekeeper, dishwasher. Social Security and disability filled the gaps, but he wanted to support himself. He spoke at a workforce diversity fair at his university and a major corporation recruited him, expressing their commitment to diversity. He was hopeful, but was rejected again. The experience was bittersweet. "Most employers lied and made excuses. They respected me enough to tell me they saw my skills, but it would be too burdensome to explain my Tourette's to customers."
Monte returned to see his college advisor, who suggested Public Allies. "He said they were committed to developing diverse young leaders, but I had heard that before," Monte says.
Monte was excited when Public Allies selected him, but then he had to get selected by a nonprofit organization where Public Allies would place him to serve for 10 months. One organization made excuses and canceled the interview; another didn't want him even though he was most qualified so they dropped out of the program. Then there was Free Store Food Bank.
The interview with Bob Littman at Freestore Food Bank didn't go well. "I cussed him out and it went racial! Then they called me back for a second interview with the human resources woman who was attractive, and I called her everything under the sun. Despite that, they asked Public Allies if they could take me on a trial basis, and I was down with that."
Bob Littman says: "He was very bright, funny and a really good guy. He said he'd love to come work with us. We didn't hire him as a charity case. We hired him because he had the skills. We decided to accommodate him, isolate him a bit, and have a little less contact with people. After one month, he became very comfortable and we had him start working with clients."
Monte would explain his condition to clients and tell them they could work with someone else if his cussing made them uncomfortable. "Very few people wanted to work with others, and many preferred to work with Monte," says Bob. "They thought he would be more understanding of their situation. He turned a negative into an asset. He does a lot of work with homeless individuals. These people have all kinds of different situations and disabilities. Monte has the ability to not judge people but accept them."
Monte says his training at Public Allies helped him do that better. He got to understand different viewpoints and learned the difference between accepting and tolerating something. "Everyone has biases. I didn't realize I had biases I wasn't proud of. I'm black, Republican and poor. I'm very opinionated and I got a lot of grief. I learned to see things from different perspectives. I learned how be a better advocate for myself and the clients I serve."
Monte has been promoted over the three years he has been at Free Store Food Bank, and he now helps people navigate public benefits, something he had experience doing himself. "I'm able to reach a population that Freestore tried to reach better for years," says Monte, who began working full-time even though it meant losing his monthly disability check. "I have severe disabilities and people request to work with me because they know I won't judge them."
This experience makes a real difference. Last year, Monte was serving a client with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder who couldn't control his own twitching and had seizures. "I told him about my Tourette's and he started pouring his heart out to me about what happened to him," recounts Monte. "I shared with him some of my coping skills, took him to his doctor's appointment and helped him apply for benefits. He started to get his life on track.
"I have story after story like that of helping people, so when Freestore says they value me, I don't think they're lying," says Monte. "Not everyone is understanding and tolerating, but that's the way of life."
Monte's and Bob's story offer many lessons for those working for community and social change:
1. There is great untapped talent in our communities, and our organizations have to commit to change our policies and practices to make extra efforts to build the diverse leadership we need. As I wrote in a previous blog, diversity and inclusion are not ideals one believes in, but actions one demonstrates.
2. Relevance is a core capacity for organizations. When someone has direct experience on an issue or with a community, that is an asset that organizations should value and recognize will help them serve better.
3. Relationships and mentors matter. Services help, but real caring, committed relationships that exist beyond the confines of a program or service are transformative.
4. Sometimes when people fail, we should be more careful not to just jettison them. Not everyone deserves more chances, but zero tolerance is an opportunity killer.
5. For those who invested in Monte, the return on that investment is exponential as that investment in his leadership not only helped him, but all those he continues to serve.
6. You can't pull yourself up by your bootstraps if you have bare feet. Monte was a determined young man who wanted to be independent and support himself, but without support, he would not be contributing to our society the way he is. In the fiscal cliff negotiations, cuts to many programs that help the vulnerable get a leg up are on the table. We should not close off paths of opportunity in our zeal to balance the budget.