Well hi there! This week I’m bringing to you both the topic and the voice that are near and dear to my heart. For two decades I have been a social advocate for fundamental change, in a way that we as a society recognize and embrace vulnerable youth. From governmental policy to police strategy, homelessness support to healthcare services, I have witnessed firsthand the Houdini chains that all of us well intended players have become caught in as we struggle to meaningfully understand the true nature of what places our youth including my children at risk.
Conventional wisdom has done more to undermine us as parents, providers, professionals, politicians, you name it, in our attempts to truly make a difference in the lives of our young people and those who are coming behind them. You know i’m not gonna take up precious time on-air to quote you to startling statistics. You can read about them in my post this week. What I do wish to do is introduce you to Sarah MacLaren, the originator and Executive Director of the Novia Scotian chapter of Love “Leave out violence everywhere.” You can read about the origin of this not for profit organization and their innovative programming located in New York, Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver and Halifax at leaveoutviolence.org.
Love’s mission is to enable youth who have been affected by violence, either as a perpetrator or as a victim in order to create positive change in their lives and become leaders among their peers and in their communities. Now this is an extremely tall order particularly given the vulnerability of the youth population that Love serves. It takes a quality of leadership that is rare in this world, and yet one that all of us could learn from, regardless of the organization in which we provide leadership. Sarah MacLaren has been highly recognized for her outstanding contribution to the Love community in both Canada and the U.S.
Her humility however would never allow her to say anything about this. As a true leader, she places success firmly in the hands of those she leads and those she serves. Now Sarah’s leadership voice is as unique as the people she supports and the approaches that she uses. She will not bullet-point her strategies to make it easy for us, but she will leave a lasting impression on your heart and soul.
Lesley: Sarah MacLaren, how are you doing?
Sarah: I’m great Lesley Southwick-Trask, how are you?
Lesley: I’m good and I just want to find out from your perspective when I say the term “Women who lead”, what comes to your mind?
Sarah: Uhm, well I guess the first thing that comes to my mind is myself I guess in my own experience of being a leader and being a woman, and sort of how that’s contextualize differently possibly than uh… You know, if we’re talking about women who lead then the contrast to that would probably be men who lead. And you know I’m 43, so I would say I was certainly raised in a world where…when you think about leadership or leaders, the first connotation for me growing up certainly would’ve been men not women.
Lesley: And so in your recollection of what that meant, what was it that men who lead look and feel like?
Sarah: You know they’re wearing a suit, they’re making money, they’re making decisions, they’re uh…you know the headmaster in school is a man. So, you know the principle of it is all women and then suddenly the top position was held by a man.
Lesley: Yeah, and what was the behavior that you are most aware of?
Sarah: If it would so much be a behavior as it would be a perception of you’re in charge, you know what I mean? I’d say that would be the piece that would kind of stick with me from my childhood.
Lesley: So being in-charge and doing what you do now as the Head of Love, how has that notion of being in charged shifted as you have done your own work in being in charge of this organization?
Sarah: Um, I mean I guess for me, part of being in charge is being in charged of being in people’s well-being or one of the things that that I felt like I’m in charge of. So I’m not necessarily in charge of you. You’re your own human being, I believe you to be confident, I don’t really need to be on top of you all the time but I do think as your leader, I’m kind of in charge of making sure you are okay in order that you’re fully competent in your performing kind of at a peak level. So in sort of my standard I want you…I don’t really care what your level is. If you’re more junior I don’t expect you to have the same confidences my senior person, but I do want you to be performing at your peak. And part of the way I think you do that is you be okay, If you’re not okay it’s highly unlikely and yet get a peak performance of you.
Lesley: So, tell me a little bit about the people that you are leading at this point in your life.
Sarah: Um, well I’d say I got a staff of five or six folks – two of them are African Nova Scotian, three of whom are Mid Marvinson and one nice straight white lady like myself. And then I’ve got a group of young people who help running leadership program for who were young people from the ages of probably 16 or 17 up to 22 or 23. And those young people have probably…how would I say this? They would’ve faced significant challenges in their lives, challenges around mental health, addictions, violence, racism, oppression, homophobia, those kinds of things. And so they’re really beautiful, gifted with a lot of experience that they bring to the table.
Lesley: So what you’re saying is that the people that are in leadership are people that are seeking to have some kind of experience where another person understands where they’re coming from?
Sarah: That’s kind of the goal. If you’re gonna work as a team is there has to be some experience of the context that the other person is coming from. Otherwise your ability, the work as a team with that other person is I think limited.
Lesley: So Sarah just for the audience to understand, what are the types of circumstances that these people have faced that we have to understand in terms of their leadership potential?
Sarah: Well are talking about my kids or my staff now?
Lesley: Let’s talk about your kids.
Sarah: Okay. Um, my kids are…you know, i’ll just put it in perspect…I’ll think of certain kids in this kind of age. So a kid who’s kicked out of home at age 13 for coming out of the closet, drops out of school spends probably four years, not in homelessness as we would’ve traditionally describe it but never in the same home for more than three weeks of the time. You know, finds this friend, finds some coach, finds some meanwhile due to a variety of circumstances starts taking a huge amount of drugs and numbing themselves from their lives. A bright kid, a totally capable kid but when thrown at circumstances at such a young age…you know, made some decisions that were about as informed that’s a 13 or 14 year old is, or young men grown up without necessarily a dad. So without a strong male figure in the home, young people who know because our rates of incarceration in the first nations and African Nova Scotian community are so highly disproportional to the population based who know whose love ones are incarcerated, who is not at normal for them to have loved ones currently…
Lesley: And of those statistics Sarah that I think that a lot of the audience like I think about, but I don’t think they understand the true nature of what the impact is.
Sarah: Well, I mean the impact is…you know, many fold but one of the impacts is that that becomes normal.
Lesley: Right it’s the norm.
Sarah: You don’t necessarily think that that’s really out there, and you don’t necessarily always think about the injustice of that until you’re older and then it hits you like a brick wall.
Lesley: So what happened for you to all of a sudden understand the injustice that had to be addressed?
Sarah: Well, what happen form me is I got a job that are not for profit where I always say not for profits have to hire on potential, because they don’t have the money to hire the skills that they would like you to have. I was 26 years old I got hired to start this thing in Nova Scotia.
The think that happened for me basically is I fell in love with a whole group of young people who had grown up in circumstances very different from my own. I grew up in a very privileged situation. Two parents, a brother, a dog, a house, a roof, and you knew about bills, just a different set of circumstances and for whatever reason those kids were patient enough with me. And with my ignorance that they stuck with me so i could learn. That’s what happened.
Lesley: They staff with you but in the meantime you were advocating for them.
Sarah: Yeah absolutely.
Lesley: So it was kind of a mutual exploration of the relationship in terms of what you could do with them and what they could do with you but you were both learning in a very different way.
Sarah: Yeah. And for whatever reason and I think it’s because of relationship, we had the patience with each other to totally mess up.
Lesley: So this is really important… In a exploration of this relationship, you have the potential of not knowing the answer but of just understanding where you’re each coming from.
Sarah: And of making fundamental errors.
Lesley: Oh! So can you give me example of one of those? Like is there a…
Sarah: An example is I’m driving two of my kids home…and I’ve just started my trauma I’m driving them home, and I’m asking them where their big brother is right now. And they’re like, “Oh our big brother is away.” Well “away” to me means you are backpacking in Europe. That’s what away means… And then I’m like, “Oh! Wait! Where’s the exploring the world?” “Oh! Away in Spring Hill which is a federal detention facility.” And I’m like, “Oh that kind of away.” And my kids want to be like, “Oh my God!” Stupid, stupid white lady who doesn’t know about my reality don’t come get me on Tuesday.” They would kind of stick with me, or my kid could call me up and say, “Hey, I made a really bad decision last night and I took ten hits of acid, and I need you to talk to me now for 45 minutes. And I wouldn’t go, “Well, you know better than to take ten hits of acid, why would you do that?” I was going like, “Okay little buddy I will talk to you.” So there’s something would stay in relationship through our mistakes. And I think that’s sort of the key in certainly our youth tell us that that’s one of the things that has been transforming it for them is a relationship with an adult who isn’t going to quit on them, you know.
Lesley: I’m not sure that’s just about youth. I have a feeling…
Sarah: I think it’s true of all but mine is important influential relationships happen to be with youth, but I think you can put at in a broader context of the only way. It’s like conflict, you know. The idea that conflict is a positive thing because group conflict we achieve change, but we only achieve change if we sustain our relationship through that conflict. There’s not a lot of change if we just have the conflict when we both go old while your big asshole and we walk away.
Lesley: Right. So in the concept of that, how have you taken what you’ve learned from these engagements with some phenomenal human beings and allowed that you inform your own approach to leadership?
Sarah: Well I think one of the big things for me has probably been around or big learning for me is around sort of having that same patience with myself. So I think there’s a lot of…certainly a lot of people in the caring profession and potentially not to be sexist or anything but as women and as nurturers were quick to put other’s needs ahead of our own. And so a big learning for me has been…okay so if I can be that patient with everyone else, and if I can understand my leadership in the context of not I don’t have the 80 examples to go to. I don’t have any 80 mentors, I don’t have a whole system that raised me up and taught me how to be a leader, most of it I just sort of discovered again but making errors and then trying to address them. Yeah, so I think that point in that now is more “Okay easy, easy with myself.” And having sustained something in a field…you know, it’s kind of like the restaurant business you’re opening up for profit, it has high odds of dying in the first five years. At this point we’re at 16th year so beaten those odds, so I have to know that in some way I’ve been successful and those errors maybe weren’t that large. And maybe how i’m leading with my herd I’m trying to be in relationship, I’m trying to be caring with people isn’t a mistake even though folks would’ve maybe…you know, say “Oh that’s sort of flaky, Sarah.” Or “Oh that’s not necessarily….” You know that nice way of leading…
Lesley: Right. So in some respects what you’re saying is is that there are particular formats that people put out in terms of leadership that we think are interesting to follow. But in all fairness there are so many others that we just develop from our own sense of sensibility.
Sarah: Yeah… This summer, I was running a leadership training camp for youth accross all…we have a branch in British Columbia, one in Toronto, one in Quebec, and one in New York city and one in Halifax Nova Scotia. And so, I had design this whole model and it was brand new. And one of the elements there was a competition element to it, and our kids pushed back in that competition element and we’re having a little staff meeting. And the staff were all looking at me, and they’re like, “Okay, well the kids are pushing back on this thing.” And you know, it was basically looking at you, you’re the leader. What are you going to do? I just looked at everyone and I was like, “Okay guys, i feel like everyone’s looking at me right now, as if I magically have some answer for you. And just so you know, I don’t. I am discovering this at the same time that you are discovering this, and we’re gonna have to figure out together what that answer is. And what I’m not to stay here five minutes to after discovering this information make a decision and tell you I know what to do.” Where is I think a lot of models of leadership are…when people come to you with a problem and you’re the head of the ship or you’re the leader you’re supposed to know, you’re supposed to answer and you’re supposed to be decisive, and then people frankly whined up making some poor decisions. Because they weren’t very well informed, they were kind of rushed and they were doing it more out of an ego thing of, “I need to look like I know what’s going on.” Otherwise in that moment I didn’t feel like a great leader. You know, part of me felt like, “Oh geez! I should know the answer to this.” Even though my logical mind goes, how are you suppose to know an answer for a process you designed three months ago is being implemented for the first time and you received information five minutes ago? You know, hmm. When I look at it now it’s like, “Oh no! Someone shouldn’t have necessarily have an answer to that if you take those factors and the consideration.” But in that moment part of me felt a little bit, “Oh, I’m a bit of a failure, I should have the answer for you and be this strong like I know what we’re gonna do.” And I just said, “I don’t know what I’m gonna do but I am gonna go away, I’m gonna think about it and gonna come back to those of you who have some insight and information for me and in the morning I’m gonna tell you what we’re gonna do.”
Lesley: And so what happened?
Sarah: Oh it went really well. I just removed the element that the kids pushed back on. And then I explained to the youth that we believe in being responsive to our youth, then that changes or processes in our designs while we’re in them. That’s what being responsive means. Some of you are gonna like this decision, and some of you are not gonna like this decision and that’s okay. But what I’m showing you is sometimes as a leader and if you’re all here as leaders in leadership training. So nice thing about running leadership training things is you can contextualize most things as leadership, right? And so it’s like, “I’m gonna change this on the fly.” And you know, as a leader sort to be that motivated, excited, “This is cool, and this is wicked, and we’re gonna hear all your ideas and we’re not gonna decide who’s is better or who’s is worse.”
Lesley: Sarah, I’ve got to say something here about the fact that they trust you. I mean, I don’t think that anybody can come in and do that kind of slot specific reality check unless they trust you.
Sarah: Yeah and I think that’s one of the things…I mean you built that some of those people I would’ve known for years, some of those people I would’ve met yesterday. But if you’re genuine and real in which are things for whatever reason I’m very blessed to be able to feel like i can be myself in most circumstances. I don’t know how that happened, thanks for mom and dad. But in general, I have a level of confidence where I feel like even with my flaws I’m comfortable presenting myself as myself. In my experience of being me as a human being, people trust that quickly and you can…you know, as a facilitator or someone who works with a group of people on a more kind of strategic level, you start to be able to assess very quickly who’s gonna sync your process.
Lesley: Yeah, just to that point for a second. Just as they trust you, what are the ingredients that you’re looking in someone else that you can trust them?
Sarah: Really the same thing, that genuine…being genuine is really the first thing, and then what I like is someone who is willing to work. So if you’re genuine and you’re willing to work…
Lesley: Then what is work mean?
Sarah: Work means work, work means not play, work means not avoid the difficult conversation, work means when I need a little soldier beside me you step up instead of run away and go take a break. You know, when you’re in large scale processes with human beings you spot your workers quickly, because they’re just doing things naturally without you telling them to and because they like to work.
That’s a personal standard. And I find once I spot that personal standard in someone then that makes it much easier for me to trust them.
Lesley: You know what, you have answered all of my questions… I’m about to have many more, but for now it’s been a wonderful dialogue. Thanks Sarah!
Sarah: Thanks for having me, Lesley!
Wow! I often find myself having to sit quietly to reflect on the beauty of Sarah’s wisdom. You know what she’s saying is, is that if you and I are not deeply aware of our own state of well being as well as in the active pursuit of what it means to be truly comfortable in our skin, then we can’t look after the well-being of others. And if we can’t look out for their well-being then we are directly impeding their potential. Oh yes you might say that’s a pretty basic formula, but you know it’s not one that I witness on a day-to-day basis. In fact I’d go so far as to say that many of the leaders whose performance I have observed and/or worked with, have not even been aware of what their own state of well-being is. Let alone actively attempting to develop it further. You know, more often or not these leaders relegate the notion of well-being to the human resources department, to create a policy or a program to administer. This i believe is not only a cop-out but a serious flaw in leadership judgment and practice. Stay tuned this week to my posts as I provide more information on the “Leave out violence organization” as well as on “Youth at risk.” I think we have a lot to learn from this area of leadership that can be applied across the board. I also want you to respond in conversation with me. You can find me at www.womenwholead.co, as well as @womenwholeadradioshow on Facebook. Come on get involed, tell me what you think! Because remember this is your show, I am your host Lesley Southwick-Trask. See you next time.