When I served as the Executive Director of an LGBTQ non-profit, it was one of the most incredible experiences of my life. I’d never had such an incredible opportunity to see our collective humanity in such a positive light. For the first time in my life, most of my daily interactions were with people working to be the best versions of themselves in those moments. Whether it be a client rallying courage, strength and bravery to take a new step forward in their lives or a community volunteer or donor seeking to make a positive difference. I like to embrace the practice of acknowledging the ripples of individuals who profoundly impact my life in positive ways. Sometimes the ripple is profound because it helps us heal. I want to share with you one of those positive ripples in my life from this experience.
To best explain and contextualize the experience, I need to share the following. I came into the professional position with my own personal baggage around asking others for help. Because of how I’d experienced the world, I learned and internalized a self-preservation understanding that I needed to be as self-sufficient as possible. There’s a great monologue Harvey Fierstein’s character delivers to his mother (Ann Bancroft) in the movie, ‘Torch Song Trilogy’. His monologue went, “There's one more thing you better understand. I have taught myself to sew, cook, fix plumbing, build furniture - I can even pat myself on the back when necessary - all so I don't have to ask anyone for anything. There's nothing I need from anyone except for love and respect and anyone who can't give me those two things has no place in my life.” I had this defense mechanism in spades…
The non-profit was entirely a volunteer-driven agency and I was the only employee. By natural design, I had to step into my discomforts, overcome personal barriers and fears and put myself out there in hopes of strengthening the organization and team. I could no longer protect myself by hunkering down and just pushing my workload forward. This time I had to let people into the process. This time I had to ask for help, repeatedly and ask it of a lot of people. This time I had to be emotionally vulnerable without anyone having a clue it was a barrier I was trying to overcome.
I’ve had a great many opportunities to reflect on this life lesson the last few months and there is one person whom I will always hold a tremendous level of gratitude for helping me through it.
Early with the organization, a local advertising agency generously stepped forward to help us update our logo and visual presence. When it came time to talk about the website, we learned a member of their consulting team stepped forward to build the website for us pro-bono.
I met Bob at the first meeting to talk about the website. He’s a white, straight guy with a wife and two kids, who at the time didn’t know a lot about the LGBTQ community. He just had a big heart and seemed to want to be part of things that eased people’s suffering.
After a few meetings, Bob seemed to deeply get the vision and direction we were trying to build for the organization. After only a few weeks, I was elated and surprised when he inquired about serving on our Board of Directors. He found an organization in dire need of his skills and strengths and jumped in feet first.
Now a lot of amazing people do this in every non-profit organization. It’s the only way most healthy non-profit organization functions. But I’m writing this today, not because what Bob did for that organization or the community, but the positive ripples he created in my life.
If not for Bob, I don’t know what my accomplishment list would have looked like at the end of my time there. Bob became a member of a personal team of people in my life who became an incredible support system to me. At some point I’ll be able to find a way to both say thank you, and… I’m sorry for that.
Bob gave an incredible amount of time and energy to the organization, but at the same time I recognize I was personally benefitting. Due to the configuration of my position, it often felt incredibly lonely building some of the bigger organizational pieces. Bob started showing up to conversations and then kept showing up. Without my realizing it, over time he became a teammate, my sounding board, the voice who would push back on me when I need to hear a different perspective and quickly he became my friend. Bob showed up and kept showing up until one day I realized he created a rare space for me to embrace relying on his presence in my world. It was a new thing relaxing into this profound sense of support. I can’t even tell you when it happened, but he stepped up and somehow helped me feel the load was not 100% on my shoulders. It was an incredible gift I didn’t know possible. He taught me a bit about my vulnerability by creating a space to experience it professionally. Then over time, he became a rarely found safe space to be human, pained, frustrated, and at times even feeling profoundly broken. He created a space that allowed me moments of healing, and for that I’m grateful.
Most important, he taught me what it is to feel supported and was an ally in every sense of the word. When he showed up to support us, he was often one of the first ones there and the last one to leave. He’s a walking embodiment of service and always lead with action, not lip-service. Each of those actions allowed me to relax a bit more, trust a bit more. The ripple effect of that was that I knew someone had my back and that knowledge alone can help someone tackle climbing a mountain. He made a lot of personal sacrifices to serve the organization. I know my benefit comes on the back of that sacrifice and I’ll be forever grateful for its ripple in my life.
Bob, I’m grateful to you for all the work you did in service to that vision. However, it pales in comparison to my gratitude for the ways you’ve impacted who I am today. In my community, we talk about the word Ally as an identity. Often people think that it’s an identity that we hold just by claiming the space, with only memory of past action or intent of the future action. Often people wear their Ally identity proud, yet when real help or support is needed, they get stuck in their comfort zones, scared or fearful and do not speak up or engage any supportive action. You’ve helped me think and talk about it differently. Allies are not an identity, but an ongoing investment in action. Allies step out of their comfort zones and find ways to engage in healing efforts. Anyone can just slap a sticker on their window to claim to be a safe space or ally. However, without the courage of action in the moments they are the most needed by another human being, we can never claim the embodiment of an ally.
At every turn you step up in action, at every turn I’ve seen you use your voice and at every turn I needed one, you consistently embodied the word ally.
Throughout my life, most of the crappy moments happened when no one was around to help or step up. The experience allowed me a greater understanding what it means to be truly supported by an ally’s actions and what that feels like when all is said and done. Ultimately the blessing in all of this is that I now can say with certainty, that I know what it feels like to really have an ally have my back in moments I needed it most. Now that I understand that, it will inform and inspire me to engage as a better ally to others.
Thank you for the positive ripple. I'm blessed to call you a friend.