Lead with Love: Reflections from the Aspen Institute

By Juan Carlos Linares

Lead with Love.  That was the mantra repeated in Aspen, Colorado by Michael Sorrell, a native son of Chicago’s South Shore neighborhood.  Through the devoted support of his community, the tenacious encouragement of his mom and grandparents, and his own stubborn will to succeed, Sorrell rose to become the President of one on America’s most innovative Historically-Black Colleges.  Along the way, he struggled through law school, practiced law at one of Dallas’ most venerated firms, and he even led a delegation to purchase an NBA franchise.  But through his candid sharing of struggles and inspiring successes, what stuck with me the most was that he was unapologetically black, and boldly in service to the black community.

What am I, a Latino in nonprofit leadership, striving to make an impact for this city, this state and for the globe, how can I avail myself of this inspiring wisdom of black achievement?  Sylvia Puente at the Latino Policy Forum is creating a pathway of understanding for us in Chicago through the Multicultural Leadership Academy, guiding black and brown leaders alike to mutually thrive through compassion, support, and shared responsibilities.

Not unlike the Forum’s Latino Leadership Academy, where I participated in its sixth and final cohort a few years back, the Forum’s Multicultural Academy forces us to ask fundamental questions like what is our authentic self, and is there a such thing as “authentically American?” Leaning intensely into our stereotypes, our struggles and our pursuit for a better Chicago, I was comforted through the training of experts like Sylvia and Patty Novick– who with her late husband organized with Dr. King during his 1968 south side sojourn– through literature, legal discourse and adapted rituals spoke from the soul and led us with love.  Having met some amazing Chicago nonprofit leaders, I emerged from the Academy knowing myself better and leading in my community as boldly Latino, Chicagoan and American.

So it was with delight that I received a call from Sylvia earlier this year to be a candidate for the Aspen Institute 2.0 Nonprofit Fellowship, which like the Forum’s Leadership Academy is funded by Amex and puts participants through rigorous academic training.  The Aspen Institute is a Master’s class in the humanities: a meticulous study of the philosophies of the far east and of the ancient west.  In Aspen, we asked ourselves questions that are fundamental to human understanding, even if the answers may change by time, place or circumstance.

What does this have anything to do with nonprofit leadership or solving Chicago’s intractable problems?  I would soon learn.

I was unaware until much later how competitive selection was for the Aspen Fellowship.  But its selectivity was luminously evident in the 14 individuals with whom I had the privilege of sharing the week with.  From the young Canadian veteran from Toronto, of Chinese decent and acquainted with Queen Elizabeth, inspired to run for his city council to achieve “peace, order and good government;” to the doctor from Uganda, the first in her village to graduate from college and entrusted to run one of that nation’s integral health programs; to the young woman from Albania who while completing a fellowship in D.C. is still mulling law school or a PhD, yet awed us with her every utterance as though holding a mirror of truth up to our rugged individualist view of our American selves—these were among a few of the amazingly talented and ambitious young professionals from around the country and the world that broke bread together, shared lived experiences and imparted wisdom garnered in their leadership journeys.

After dining on locally sourced delicacies and networking over wine, there was no time to waste.  From the first night, we lost ourselves in collective thought and discourse in the classics as they were intended and as applied to our lived experiences.  Socrates, Plato and Aristotle started the arguments in the west: does the pursuit of individual excellence bring ultimate happiness to you and to others?  Is there a natural relationship between master and slave, were women regarded as slaves?  We were repulsed.

In the east, Confucius taught that learning is not a destination but rather a lifelong journey.  His acolyte Mencius further instructed that human nature is like the water of a stream, always flowing downward in the direction of the good.  So it is that our rulers must rule with a compassionate heart.  We dreamed of the promise.

The days fused into each other as we advanced our understandings through millennia of reasoned thought.  We encountered Niccolo Machiavelli, who proffered to his ruler that the goal should be gaining and maintaining political power, let the ends justify the means, and that fear is better than love, until it turns to hatred.  Let the ruler beware in that case.  We sighed, lamenting our Trump realities.

Like Alexis de Tocqueville visiting the early U.S.A., we questioned whether liberty is more important than equality, and how there can emerge a tyranny of the majority.  And in the rhythmic poetry of Walt Whitman, we found ourselves speaking from the soul, the soul which is not the body but that which awakens us to see our true realities.

Over a roasting campfire in a pitch-black valley of aspens and pines, perspectives from black and brown, Asian and white, foreign and domestic voices disputed the Hobbesian, and perhaps American notion of private property and contracts.  Do we give up our rights to our government simply to have government enforce our contracts?  Or in the mold of Hayek (a University of Chicago scholar), is our society merely an amalgam of our individual transactions?  Our foreign friends fretted over this possibility, us Americans in denial.

I admit that throughout this journey, I harbored guilt over the excesses of the location.  Aspen.  The Institute encouraged participants to bring along their families, and I didn’t hesitate to.  Along with our fellows, my family and I hiked the neighboring mountains, window-shopped the luxury boutiques and marveled at the highway engineering that sustains an exclusive village deep in the mountains.  My wife Monica called it an “ambiance” that eased our edginess coming from the big city and instead ascended our spirits up the verdant towers of the Rocky Mountains, which made her, us, feel so small.

At the supermarket, I gravitated toward the Latino workers whom I chatted up.  The man who furiously scrubbed the soup station had immigrated from El Salvador.  Was he happy in Aspen?  Absolutely!  He made more money than he ever had in Metapán and his daughters attended good schools here.  Did he live nearby? Que no!  It was way too expensive in Aspen; he drove the 25 minutes each way from Carbondale over the next mountain.  The teenager manning the self-checkout aisles reminded me of myself at that age, working to advance well above the rungs of the ladder reached by his immigrant parents.  I hope college is in his near future.  The housekeeping staff back at the hotel room (a luxury apartment really) was no less shy about sharing her experience.  Another Salvadoreña, she tidied up our messes to send back money to her mother and sisters in Santa Ana.

It wasn’t lost on me that my wife, kids and I seemed like the only Latinos in all of Aspen that weren’t service employees.  Indeed, one of the Fellows joked that the highest concentration of plastic surgery in the world could be found at the Aspen gate of her LAX layover.  Aspen is as much an idea as it is a place.  It’s an idea that if the ultra-wealthy can constrain the supply of housing to a village and its nearby hills, and control pricing so that an affordable one-bedroom condo on the outskirts of town runs an economical $1 million, then they can guarantee that the rulers of Hollywood, Wall Street and Wacker Drive aren’t just well-represented, but are the only representation in town.  Of course, there were also plenty of young transplants who worked the pizza joints, the ski lifts and the guided hikes.  I’m pretty sure that they lived in Carbondale too.

We walked back to the resort from Main Street, a 25-minute neighborhood stroll with my kids complaining each second why we weren’t calling for the resort limo.  The night before, I had made the walk in the dark with our learned professors Leigh and Carol who recounted the short history of attempts at affordable housing in Aspen.  “You should bring LUCHA to Aspen!” Carol concluded.  My pride was boosted.  Meanwhile, we kept a watchful eye and a jittery smartphone light out for black bears and cougars.

On my family’s walk, I scanned the QR codes on the “for sale” signs of house after manicured house.  $5 million for the two bedroom that needed work, $7 million for the ranch style that came with its own totem pole, $15 million for the half built five-bedroom, eight-bathroom modern adjacent to the resort.  That was nothing, the house overlooking the resort on the hill ran a hefty $35 million.  It read somewhere that Kevin Costner would be your neighbor.

Through the town of Aspen and beyond, the Roaring Fork River babbled serenely in some turns, and roared from the whitewater over smoothed rocks along others.  I remembered Chicago, with tranquil, prosperous, manicured blocks throughout the north side and in a few enclaves like Hyde Park, my home base where residents go about their business with dreams and aspirations uninterrupted.  In others, gun violence, property crimes and interminable fear rage through neighborhoods where no one wants to be, including the good people that live there.  It wasn’t hard to return because Chicago is home, but it was taxing on my spirit to be shocked back into the observable reality that people of color have been lied to and deceived for a very long time.  America has not lived up to its promise that self-evidently, “all men are created equal.”

For all the Aspens and the north sides and the Hyde Parks, the doors have been closed to the poor, especially those of color.  But in neighborhoods that truly struggle, the West Humboldt Parks and Garfield Parks, the Austins and Englewoods, the exit doors have been nailed shut.  This menacing feedback loop began with disinvestment from government and the private sector, which begot poverty and despair, which begot crime and violence, and which further begets disinvestment.  The common refrain from our clients in these neighborhoods is “I gotta get out of Chicago!” and our declining census figures respond in the affirmative.  The exit door is broken down, and the potential for greater resources, investments and innovations follows them out.

So what is a Chicago Latino who has descended from Aspen to do, armed with these insights from the ages, with such daunting challenges that faces us in this, the lovely city with a broken nose?  In short, lead with love.  Sure, we have auditors, and planners and political fundraisers aplenty (perhaps too many of the latter) to guide us through the mechanics of city managing and textbook democracy.  But where can we find the virtuous practices of core values that this city truly seeks to turn the corner of its profoundly destructive moral condition?  To truly grasp for Socrates’ ideal guardian, the one who lives for the people, or for Mencius’ leader who is naturally good, we need look no further than to the deep bench of Chicago’s nonprofit leaders who grind away daily through the fog of uncertainty, but who lead persistently with cariño from wherever they are.

Who else to look to?  When the way forward for the inner recesses of City Hall’s 5th floor, or behind city council chambers has been for as long as anyone can remember a ritual of fist pounding, screaming and despotic threats, does this call to mind the babbling stream of Mencius’ ideals, flowing always toward the good in others? Or do we recall Machiavelli’s Prince, living for the Prince, ruling by fear to maintain absolute political power?  Judging by the regular protests that go down at city hall or the state building, it seems that love might be in short supply in our governments.

When press conferences with local leaders are prearranged for a disadvantaged neighborhood location, the people eagerly awaiting a commissioner or a mayor, a governor or a Secretary to shake hands with and to plead for help to, the spotlight comes and goes as quickly as the dignitary’s chauffeured car, in and out in a flash of 10 or 15 minutes, the mere presentation of happiness becoming a planned 15 second spot on the evening news.  Vaclev Havel professed that we become more empathetic as we interact we each other, but if never given the chance to interact, our leaders fearing even showing up, a neighborhood’s goodwill atrophies like an unworked muscle, and the aggregated consequences are vividly reported to us in the nightly murder tallies.

When a Lucas Museum is chased for its promise of tourism, an Amazon HQ2 courted as the savior of a city, and even a beloved and eagerly awaited Presidential Library pitched as one that should be so trusted that a community benefits agreement is not needed (say it ain’t so, Mr President!), we must ask, whom are our leaders in service of?  To whom are we in service of?

Chicago, we have a nature for good, but it is slumbering.  A nonprofit leader, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote from his jail cell in Birmingham during the darkest of hours that we must become extremists: extremists for love and extremists for justice in ways no different from the paths chosen by Jesus, Luther, and Lincoln.  Add Jane Addams, Rosa Parks and Dolores Huerta to that list.  They live in our labors today.

Among Chicago’s nonprofits, we are kindred spirits doing the difficult work that not otherwise gets done.  There are a multitude of heroes performing selfless acts in housing, in health care, in education and in workforce development.  We toil in urban policy and child advocacy, organizing and environmentalism, social enterprise, disability access, LGBTQ rights, free speech, immigration, and criminal justice reform, among countless other significant societal issues.  Even if the results are mixed, our work is executed with persistent love of the common man and woman, of community and of Chicago.  The people come to us with fundamental needs, and we walk together with conviction, trust and aspirations for a better tomorrow.

Chicago, our best day is tomorrow.  And to get there, the examples have already been set: we need to lead with love.

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