For years, I figured I'd like to go through Leadership Greater Jackson, but it "wasn't the year" for me—not enough time to commit or money or both—but this year, when I learned someone was willing to nominate me, I asked around and got good feedback from former participants, so I took the plunge.
LGJ is something I've been hearing about for the 15 years I've been in Jackson. The program is designed to expand the horizon of business professionals, business owners, attorneys, lobbyists, and a few present or future political types by building camaraderie within the class. It exposes class members to leadership training and then educates them on different aspects of public life in metro Jackson, from the economy to race relations to criminal justice and entrepreneurship.
So, I'm in Leadership for 2016-17. And as part of that, I hopped on a bus with 40 fellow classmates this past Friday and, once loaded up, we headed for Memphis and our opening retreat.
I waited long enough to try LGJ that I imagine I'm now one of the older members of the group, which is populated mostly by 20- and 30-something professionals from throughout the metro.
Over the course of our retreat, we had opportunities to get to know one another—the "ice breakers" on the bus, some communications sessions in the retreat conference space, fun times at the Itta Bena restaurant and the hotel's roof-top bar—and I already stand in awe of some of the folks I got to meet and have conversations with.
Many of these people are engaged and committed to serious work both in the metro and on their own improvement—I've probably encountered more MBA-seekers and multi-organization office-holders in the past two days than I have in any 48-hour period previous to it.
One part of the retreat included a structured "sharing" exercise about the hardships and privileges that each of us felt had gotten us to the place we are today.
While those stories are confidential (and were shared in a "safe place"—a place that more people should spend time in around metro Jackson to discuss race, privilege, communication and to address conflict), I can say that, broadly speaking, it was really surprising to realize how many people have faced and are overcoming immense hardship. Likewise, it was liberating for some others to recognize the privileges they've had in life and, once acknowledged, realize that others are deserving of similar opportunities.
Something that the Leadership Greater Jackson retreat brought home for me personally is to realize that—regardless of the things that I worry over as a business owner like the state of the bank accounts, the happiness of the team, struggles with sales, or revenue or product launches—I've been very privileged in my life and career.
Yes, my parents divorced when I was at a young age, and there was some strife and struggle and insecurity. But I never personally worried about the roof over my head or the food on the table—in some ways I grew up too quickly, but in most respects I got to be a kid.
When it was my turn to talk during Leadership (I can violate my own confidence, right?), I told the story of something I've come to realize was an extraordinary privilege in my education. As I was finishing third grade, I was invited to attend an academic magnet school for fourth through sixth grade. I'd been pegged as "bright" (a fortunate thing for me) and "restless" (accurate), and the solution was stronger academics.
I would be bussed to K.B. Polk, an elementary school about 20 minutes away over in northwest Dallas, seemingly far, far from my neighborhood school and most of my friends. Polk, in a majority-African American neighborhood near Love Field, surprised me when I rode up to in the bus that first day. Coming from well-manicured north Dallas, I can still remember seeing my first shotgun house, not to mention houses with boards up or cars in the yard. To the extent that a 10-year-old can wonder about such things, I was a little apprehensive about where this bus was headed.
Looking back, there are many things I treasure about the experience—and a few fights, slights and other mistakes I still regret. But the thing that I most appreciate from the experience was the privilege I had in experiencing leadership from people of different backgrounds, ethnicities and experiences.
The administration of K.B. Polk was largely black, the librarians I remember were black, the hall proctors and coaches and kitchen staff were largely black or Latino. I had black and Latino teachers, as well as white teachers, and they worked together to craft a challenging curriculum that kept me busy and engaged. I still think back on that education and thank them for it.
Why? Aside from exciting academics and the opportunity to work creatively on projects and papers at an early age, my experience in grade school fundamentally taught me that people who didn't look exactly like me could be tremendous leaders.
It was reinforced to me at an early age that it really was about the character and capacity of the individual that you're dealing with, and not the color of their skin or their ethnic or national background, or the area where they grew up.
But then there was that drive through Polk's neighborhood every day. That's where I came viscerally to understand that, for some of us, privilege gives us access to a playing field—level or not—that some folks can't even get up onto.
And that equity of access is a critical issue in today's America and a direct product of our history.
Yes, success and leadership are about individual grit and character—but equity is about making sure that historical impediments to success are overcome as a community so that everyone with that grit, determination and character gets their chance on the dance floor.
We need both an equity focus and better leadership in Jackson, something I have a feeling we'll be exploring throughout the year in our 30th Anniversary Leadership Greater Jackson class.
Through our public events and by supporting individual members of the class, I encourage you to participate and, if we're lucky, we'll all get some better leadership—and equitable thinking—for metro Jackson in the near future.
Todd Stauffer is the president and publisher of the Jackson Free Press. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.