Fighting Poverty with Passion
“It is better to lead from behind and to put others in front, especially when you celebrate victory when nice things occur. You take the front line when there is danger. Then people will appreciate your leadership.”- Nelson Mandela
In starting my new position as the VISTA Leader for the Tulane AmeriCorps VISTA Program, I felt that strange mixture of excitement and nervousness that usually accompanies a new job. In this particular case, that dualistic feeling seemed to have a few root causes. The excitement was partly a result of my familiarity with the Tulane Center for Public Service staff, many of whom I had come to know and appreciate as a Service Learning student during my undergraduate years at Tulane. Along with that familiarity was a sense of nervousness about living up to their expectations and asserting myself in my new role (no longer a student, but a colleague of sorts). Similarly, I was enthusiastic about meeting and building relationships with each of my VISTA’s, but I was equally apprehensive about falling short of their needs or expectations. I had been lucky enough to meet and spend time with Cassie, the VISTA Leader before me, so I knew I had her to call for any advice- but I also knew I had some big shoes to fill, as Cassie was loved dearly by all of the VISTA’s she worked with.
As an additional “plot twist”, I would be stepping into my role as VISTA Leader with many of the same VISTA’s that I had gone to Pre-Service Orientation with at the start of my first VISTA term. I had since built up friendships with many of them, which added to the sense of excitement- getting to spend more time with my good friends before their service ended- while also adding to the nervousness- could I still fulfill my role as a “VISTA Leader” amongst people who I identified with as peers? Would my prior relationships detract from my attempts to establish new relationships with the VISTA’s I hadn’t yet met?
So with the awareness of these underlying tensions, I did what I thought any persevering VISTA might do: find a way to turn a challenging situation into an opportunity. For starters, I knew that the best way to approach the situation was to be myself and utilize the sources of my excitement to help calm my fears and anxiousness. I approached the CPS staff members I was most familiar with to ask them questions, and they quickly helped facilitate introductions with staff members I hadn’t previously known. I talked candidly with my VISTA’s- those who I already knew and those I was just meeting for the first time- I asked for their thoughts, their advice, and their input. I tried to find out what aspects of the VISTA Program they loved, and what they struggled with. I explained to many of my VISTA’s that I struggled to see myself in the VISTA Leader role when I still viewed them as my peers, and when I knew how incredibly gifted each of them are as leaders in their own ways. That realization, however, became the basis for my approach to leadership in the VISTA Program.
Let me explain. Yes, I believe my unique struggles and successes as a VISTA over the past year have shaped and prepared me for this role as a VISTA Leader. Yes, I have confidence in my ability as a leader to help set a positive tone, to foster participation, and to nurture the individuals within a group, and hopefully, to empower the group to reach new heights. Yes, I think I am equipped with the organizational, interpersonal and intellectual faculties to address the unique challenges that I will surely face.
Still, for every resounding “Yes”, there is an equally important “No” that rightfully accompanies it. No, I am not the only VISTA whose experiences qualify them to address issues that may arise in during a VISTA term, to dispense meaningful advice and to help problem-solve. No, I am not the only VISTA in our cohort who can add value to the group dynamic, who can foster a positive outlook, who can further our collective mission. No, I am not the only VISTA in our group who is equipped with the tools and skill sets needed to address our collective goals and challenges over the course of the year.
These realizations, the resounding “Yes” and the undeniable “No”, have become the basis for my approach to being a VISTA Leader. My goals for the group are relatively straightforward: to establish and nurture a culture of positivity and learning, to foster collaboration and resource sharing, and to maximize our unique resources as Tulane VISTA’s to accomplish extraordinary acts of service. None of these goals can be accomplished by any one individual. None of these goals can be “implemented” from the top down, or enacted as a “decree” passed down from a leadership pedestal. These goals must be approached and achieved organically, with fits and starts, with blood sweat and tears, through hardships and successes, as individuals and as a team.
VISTA’s tend to share common attributes that may seem in competition at times, although they ultimately shape our service in a cohesive way. We are independent self-starters, yet we are team players. We are here to learn new skills and gain knowledge through our VISTA experiences, yet we bring a wealth of experience, knowledge and skills to the table from day one. We are here to better our communities, and yet, we are also committed to bettering ourselves in the process. In that sense, our Tulane VISTA group is full of leaders, each with different tools and skill sets to contribute, each with different personalities and gifts, each with different styles of leadership. It is now, in a sense, my role to foster the leader in each of our VISTA’s, to empower them as individuals, and to help unite them in a common purpose- building the capacity of our community to help fight poverty through diverse and sustainable efforts. John F. Kennedy once said that “leadership and learning are indispensable to each other”; and I think this idea resonates with me now more than ever. I look forward to serving in that capacity, to lead the best way I know how- to lead from behind.
-Ben Brubaker, VISTA Leader, Tulane Center for Public Service