In late August 2019 I was asked to speak at the Williamson, Inc.’s annual Women In Business Summit. It was an awe-inspiring ted-style talk where I shared how to discover, for some, and rediscover, for others, the mission within the (organization’s) mission.
I have included the script below though it is best heard and not read.
What is your I Am Here…mission statement?
Your Mission Within The Mission
I would define myself as a born entrepreneur. I came out of the womb - or rather i walked out of the womb - disrupting spaces and taking risks most of you are unwilling to take….like not having a steady paycheck or healthcare. Welcome to America.
I was given the name Kiss with a Fist by a colleague, it’s a super clever and catchy way of saying that I’m going to stand right beside you, walk the journey with such care, but I will also give you a kick in the butt to make sure you don’t get too comfortable.
I am the Agency Director for a boutique public relations firm where I work at the intersections of community, culture, crisis, and communication, challenging most people’s very linear thinking to my very circular approach.
But out of all of the titles that I answer to, at my core I AM A TEACHER.
I remember being in my parents basement with my green chalkboard and my workbooks all spread out. And ironically or tragically, i’m not sure which one, all of my students were named Tony and Michael. Maybe it was the precursor to a life standing up in a patriarchal society.
What I’ve gathered about being a teacher is that their responsibility is to guide us, mentor us, encourage us, and remind us how to stay disciplined in our mission - the journey that we are on and the assignment we are given.
My motto is to learn a lesson or teach a lesson. So today I want to share the lessons that my teachers imparted in me that helped me discover my personal mission. With the hope that it helps you discover you own.
Do you remember the first assignment you were ever given?
I can recall my Kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Burgess at Whitsett Elementary.
I remember that she was a really nice teacher that took a special interest in me and looked over me.
I remember that when I had chicken pox and they were no longer contagious, she would help put calamine lotion on my scars because I had scratched them so much.
She would leave me in charge when she’d step out of the class. So i was the name taker and resident tattler.
We would do quiet mouse, still mouse.
But I choose to think of it another way, I believe she saw something in me that I hadn’t yet seen in myself. She saw a leader. I was responsible and someone she could trust to maintain the order in her class.
We went through the rest of the year in much of the same fashion, with her teaching me, guiding me, and building with me. And maybe it shouldn’t have been a surprise but it was when I was chosen as student of the year.
If you looked ever so closely you would see my dad’s reflection. I couldn’t bring it today because it’s his trophy. He did a job well done.
She taught me a really great lesson, that my behavior, what could be described now as character and integrity, could be a model.
And by strengthening that character my role in the world would be amplified. Not just for me to covet but for others to see and experience.
Because it’s my belief that you can only be what you have access to see. So it’s important that we see images reflected around us that encourage the core tenants of a solid character.
Leading a mission-driven life requires that you go beyond the now-ness and physicality of where you are, and instead allow the moment to serve as a footstool to the journey.
Think about it like this. You can’t get up a smooth mountain. We have to rely on the jagged edges to help us along the way.
As I continue thinking about the lessons of my teachers: I think of those who journeyed up the rough side of the mountain.
There are two women who have been apart of shaping my life and also America’s fight for freedom.
On the walls of my bedroom at my parents house, still to this day, are the photos of these women.
One of them made a strategic decision not to move from her seat on a crowded bus in Montgomery Alabama so that a white man could take a seat. It wasn’t that she was in the wrong section, it was that she was the wrong complexion.
And the other suffered immeasurable pain from a head injury, also known as a metal object thrown by a slave master that hit her in the head, experiencing something between epilepsy and narcolepsy. She led hundreds of slaves to freedom over the course of nearly 20 trips South to North so that they could journey.
Rosa Parks and Harriet Tubman are my teachers. They taught me how to climb the movable ladder. Ladies, you know the movable ladder….
They encouraged me day in and day out as they looked over me, perched on my walls. They pushed me to build resilience and strength so that I could one day help others get to freedom. They taught me it was my responsibility to save room and space for someone else, giving them the opportunity to fight a little less and not climb nearly as far.
I would describe both of them as a light. They actively lived the blueprint for how we are to help others, fearlessly and without question. They showed us how we can navigate dark spaces like Harriet Tubman. Or, sit in moments of pressure like Rosa Parks.
Each day many of you walk into these dark and pressure filled bull pens but here’s where i get concerned because you’re without clear direction of how to get out.
Further, some of you are also aimlessly guiding the direction of other people. When your own light is dim.
And what happens when you have a dim light is that you begin to dim others peoples light.
Because that lack of self awareness and firm positioning allows ego to creep in.
That’s when you say it’s you or me versus it’s US and WE.
While ego is here to protect us, by encouraging us to have high self-esteem, it is also here to harm us by over inflating our sense of self, and telling us that we are more important than the mission.
Because we all have our role in ensuring the mission gets accomplished. It’s not just one of our jobs, it’s all of our jobs.
But teachers like Rosa Parks and Harriet Tubman give us a picture of what happens when you are so clear about your direction, your compass point, that even when you get off course, you’ll find your way back.
I think about that underground railroad. and the symbols and signs that told you where to go and where not to go. How scary it must have been to stumble into the wrong place.
All to benefit so many other people.
At that time, and I still believe it’s true today, it was unsafe for black people to read and write, to travel, to speak up, to do anything other than what the master allowed.
Or more plainly I’d say you would be killed - lynched, maimed, drug behind a horse.
But those symbols on houses and on trees in the dark of night, most unreachable, uncomfortable, and all instances, unbearable, those symbols got them back on track. Because they were the light. They served themselves as symbols.
Your mission is to be a lighthouse, it will shine even in the dark places.
When I think about that unending flame of action and service of a mission, there is only one organization that comes to mind.
I’ve been a member of Girl Scouts for 30 years. I am a lifetime member.
I have a long documented history with the organization.
And as a young girl Like most young girls, around middle school and then into high school there are clear moments where quitting seems like a good option. You’re over what I call the 3-c’s: cookies, crafts, and camping. Oh, and let’s not forget the ill-fitting uniform.
I began asserting myself into activities outside of what is traditionally known of girl scouts. I began speaking a lot more on behalf of the organization.
Around the same time, I met another great teacher in my life. She was on the board of what was then called Girl Scout Council of Cumberland Valley. She would commute in from Georgia for those meetings and she would talk to me, she took a genuine interest in me. She was so kind to impart wisdom into me. I remember at one point I asked her what I should do to strengthen my speaking skills. She said, “go to Toastmasters.” So, at 16. I drove myself to a Brentwood chapter of toastmasters.
I never spoke in those meetings. I was terrified. But I appreciated going, listening, and observing.
And now get paid to speak for a living.
Agenia Clark who is now the President and CEO of Girl Scouts of Middle Tennessee taught me to find the places where my voice could grow. By doing so, I can now provide a platform that unlocks others’ voices. The same way she did for me.
She taught me that my mission is only as strong as the legacy that I’m willing to leave behind.
And in particular, it’s only as strong as when I can make intention space for others and their voice, or use my voice on their behalf.
This is about more than an invitation to just take up space “at the table” but an opportunity to actually convene the table or lead the conversation.
This is about leveraging your privilege.
Many have said, but I remember first lady Michelle Obama said it last, “Send the elevator back down if you’re lucky enough to reach the top.” And I would go even further and say go back down on the elevator to get the person and take them to the top with you.
To continue the story of Agenia, I later went to work at the Girl Scout Council and one day Agenia said, why are you working here? Is your degree in early childhood education? I told her that it wasn’t but my degree is in business and I rattled off a list of things I enjoyed doing.
She said, that sounds like public relations.
She could’ve stopped there with a couple of email introductions but instead she arranged lunches with the top PR executives that she attended with me.
After the last meeting, I had an internship. And it was paid.
She came back down the elevator to make sure I could get to the top.
I am Agenia’s legacy.
I won’t let her legacy down.
So as a brief recap, here is my mission:
I am here to inspire others by modeling what I’d like to see in the world.
I am here to unlock the door and shine a light for someone coming behind me.
I am here to leverage my privilege and use my platform for voices to be heard, even if it is my voice on their behalf.
As i was going through these experiences, much like being on the side of that mountain, I was unaware of my next step. But like many teaching moments it requires that we complete assignments that sometimes might appear to be unimportant, unattainable, or even misunderstood.
Kinda like Pythagorean’s theorem.
So I taught you how I came to understand and discover my own mission and I want to make sure you can also leave with at least the beginning of your own mission statement.
A few years ago I developed a workshop called Your Mission Within the Mission.
The prompting for such a class was that for the 15 years when I’d ask leaders “why do you do this work.” there was almost never an answer.
and I know that you are here to do more than shuffle papers on your desk at work, get your daily swearing session in the car rider pick up, swipe right on tinder or meet people down in your DM’s, all before calling it a night at 9pm.
I know that your life’s work is more than that.
I want you to take a moment and think about when you received your first assignment. Think around 11 years old. Don’t make this about something overly profound. It wasn’t profound when i was realizing i was a bossy, demanding, assertive, tattling 5 year old. I had to do some self discovery and reengineering of my thinking to get here.
Make this personal and real for you.
There’s two reasons why this moment of discovery is important.
Because many of us have forgotten the innocence of who we were. We’ve forgotten the joy, the contentment, the days chasing rainbows after also splashing in the rain. We’ve forgotten.
And the second reason this is important is because that time that you remember receiving this assignment is likely also the time when you were able to articulate the experiences you were having between your head and your heart.
If you don’t remember, you may have to ask someone. I’d actually encourage you to ask someone who you were every 5 to 7 years. It’s easy to forget.
If you have parents like mine then you can take a visit to the museum of YOU, also known as your their home.
Have them tell you a story that helps you remember the reasons you were placed here. Because as you trace these stories and remember these teachers, the lessons you are going to find will begin to overlap. That’s where your mission lives.
Here’s my quick story.
Several years ago I visited with my dad and he pulled out a series of things. When he got to this article. I cried.
I cried because it was in that moment that I realized that all of the lessons meant something more than I knew in the moment, and all of the teachers who invested in me, didn’t do so in vain.
I realized in that moment that it was my responsibility to guide other people through their own jagged mountain, so that they could strengthen their character, shine a light in the dark places, and to build a legacy that sent the elevator back down to get someone.
As you head back to your work seemingly heavier than you were yesterday (because you’re going to learn some great stuff today), I encourage you to write down and place your personal mission statement on your door or on your desk, make a copy even for your car and stick it in your notes on your phone.
Because you can only really help someone else fulfill their mission when you are crystal clear of your own journey and the assignment you’ve been given.
I want you to complete the sentence…I am Here.
I am here…for him.