By Kelly Nowlin, Surdna Board of Directors

October 2011

Surdna's New Orleans Fund seeks to advance New Orleans long-term rebuilding and resiliency efforts by supporting civic engagement in multiple issue areas, including economic development, education, arts and culture, coastal restoration, and worker's rights.  The fund is overseen by staff from across our program areas in partnership with a liaison from our board of directors.  From time to time board liaisons travel with staff to New Orleans to meet with grantees, thought partners, and colleagues in the city.  Kelly Nowlin recently completed her first year as liaison to the New Orleans Fund and traveled to the city last spring for her first taste of its irrepressible spirit.  Kelly reflects on her time in New Orleans in the commentary that follows.

kelly knowlinI had never been to New Orleans before.  As the current board liaison to Surdna's New Orleans Fund, I had the great opportunity to make this trek last April with a group of program staff.  After meeting with over thirty people from ten different organizations in just two days, I was left with a mix of sadness, hope and true admiration.  Sadness for those families that never returned or who still struggle to rebuild their lives.  Sadness for the hundreds of lost cypress trees in the bayou.  Sadness for the disappearance of coastal wildlife and for the distressed environment.  At the same time, a strong feeling of hope lingered.  Why?  Because of the neighborhoods.  There is a bond like no other that exists in these communities that is palpable.  Organizations such as the Lower 9th Ward Center for Sustainable Engagement and Development (CSED) put the power of those bonds to work by engaging local residents in processes that, with critical work by other Coalition members, reach up to the state legislature and seek to protect and restore the neighborhood and coastline.  Because of the youth.  There are groups like the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana, Vietnamese American Young Leaders Association (VAYLA), Rethink New Orleans, and the Fyre Youth Squad, all members of the Power of a Million Minds (POMM) youth organizing collaborative, who are developing relationships with city officials to ensure they have a voice in rebuilding their future.  Because of the leaders.  There are community and nonprofit leaders across the city who continue to persevere with limited resources, their unyielding commitment stemming simply from passion and strength of will.  The people of New Orleans are special.

At a recent Surdna board meeting, we spent time deepening our understanding of leadership.  Experts in this field discussed that there is a shift today towards collaborative leadership in which leaders seek out other leaders to work together to accomplish goals.  This approach resonates with me and with what I observed in the civic leaders in New Orleans.  When I asked many of our grantees what keeps them going, they answered that a big part of it is their connection to colleagues and partners at different organizations.  When you meet someone like Tracy Nelson, Executive Director of CSED, or Timolynn Sams, Executive Director of Neighborhoods Partnership Network, their passion and collaborative spirit is apparent.

In today's world of technology and social media networks, opportunities to connect with leaders from disparate fields are greatly enhanced.  Whether you're building a business or rebuilding a community, collaboration is a necessity.  I have spent the last few years building my own online business and had much to learn.  I spent a majority of my time reaching out to experts, asking questions, and sharing stories, struggles and ideas.  One leader I connected with was marketing guru Seth Godin.  Seth has written more than a dozen worldwide bestsellers that have been translated into more than thirty languages.  He believes that we all have the potential to be leaders...that we all create our own form of "art."  Seth is passionate about helping people to spread ideas and create movements.  In his book, Tribes, he defines a tribe as "any group of people, large or small, who are connected to one another, a leader, and an idea."  According to Seth, "tribes can change our world not because you force [people] to do something against their will, but because they wanted to connect."  It's about connecting with people who have similar passions and values and who have stories to tell.  This approach has been evident with leaders in New Orleans following each devastating event of the last six years and it remains evident today.  It's the groups we belong to -- these "connections" -- that keep us all going.

The six-year anniversary of hurricanes Katrina and Rita passed not long ago and while much work remains to be done I am honored to have connected with so many leaders in New Orleans as they continue to rebuild and inspire.

Godin, Seth. Tribes: we need you to lead us. New York: Portfolio, c2008.

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