Growing whole together: Leadership evolution at CSS
Dear friends and colleagues,
I’m writing to let you know that I will be transitioning out of my role as Executive Director by the end of 2018.
Reflecting on years of training memories, I understand now just how similar the realization that it is time to move forward and make space for new leadership is to the same realization that seems to come up during our intensive week-long Advanced Trainings.
It’s that moment when your brain is simultaneously mushed and shooting in 20 different directions. The one when you’ve mulled the 500 flip charts of all of the tools you’ve tried: Battle of the Story, Drama Triangle, Cornerstones, and many others. Paper, ideas, and people are scattered all over — on the tables, sofas, and the floor.
You’re standing up next to the latest flip chart, marker held in ink-stained hands, with what looks like either the Celestine Prophecy or a secret map of Wakanda. You’ve been facilitating during the slot you signed up to lead the group. The marker tip floats above the paper, and you look out at the group.
Suddenly, someone pops up into the brief pause. “I think I have an idea! How about we go like this...?” You thankfully hand her the marker and plop down to rejoin the circle, ready for the next step together.
Passing the Marker
My transition will cap almost six years here at CSS. In those five and change years, I’ve been most proud of:
immediately diving into the deep end and directing the CSS training program;
shepherding the organization through a founder transition and honing the incredible work that came before with a sharpened Theory of Change;
and helping grow the next generation of story-based strategists.
It has been a long and fulfilling journey in the front of the room, and now I am ready to rejoin the circle as a network trainer, and pass the marker on to the next person ready for the next 500 flip charts and diagrams and narrative power analyses.
Who’s up next?
I’m excited to tell you that Bernice Julie Shaw is stepping into one of two new Co-Director positions. Bernice’s tenure at CSS has stretched from operations to her current role as Strategic Partnerships Director, where she’s held critical relationships and partnerships across our movements.
I have been lucky enough to learn from Bernice’s unparalleled relationship-building skills, her business acumen, and incredible ability to accurately assess and implement solutions that develop the organization and organizational culture.
Bernice's trust and our partnership over the years has been one of the greatest gifts of this work. She is the right leader for the work ahead — the next phase of scale and impact for story-based strategy. Bernice will be joined by a second Co-Director who we are in the process of recruiting. We are excited to see who pops up from our community to join her.
Transition is inevitable
Transition, while inevitable, healthy, and normal can still be hard. We have worked together to make it just and regenerative for me, Bernice, and the whole team here at CSS. This is the right moment and the right community to grow the org and scale the work.
Doing that also means right-sizing the work, creating space for all of the team to step into their leadership potential more fully. It means slowing down enough to respond to a political moment characterized by so much power-over with our power-together by living our values around deep democracy and collective liberation.
Thank you for growing me here at CSS. Thank you for trusting me with all the markers, literally and figuratively.
I have never felt this connected, challenged, or aligned. I look forward to more brain-breaking strategy work, joy-filled imagination prototyping sessions, and power-building for our people.
So much love and respect,
Dear fellow imagineers, story-nerds, and powerful community,
The belief that imagination builds power, is at the core of CSS’s mission to change the story. If you’re reading this, you probably believe this too.
If you had asked me 6 years ago, I never imagined I’d become CSS’s Co-Director. The “truth” is, story-based strategy didn’t come easy for me. But over the years, this work and the beloved community taught me how I can, in fact, change the story.
I recall how nervous I was in 2012 when I started as the Operations Manager. My first assignment was participating in our 5-day Advanced Training. I met the directors, my peers, and incredibly important movement-leaders — all at the same time, on my very first day. Oh, and I had to tell a story for our opening activity. I remember lying in my bed the night before, anxious and sleepless. ::gulping:: Here we go...
Five years later, I returned to lead the space that once made me so nervous. It’s the 2017 Advanced Training and this time is different. As Strategic Partnerships Director, it’s now my job to build the team and the room. I am grounded by the brilliance of the community around me.
It’s time to introduce the team. My fellow trainers, many whom I’ve developed alongside, are dedicated organizers and practitioners of this work.
Cue the music. One-by-one we take the floor and share our story-based strategy “special sauce”:
organizing poor people in rural Washington… racial justice in education... migrant support at the border...supporting black workers... father of two whip-smart teenagers… teacher poet...designer, artist, filmmaker, chef...
Matchmaker, I say.
I hear the laughter and cheers from the room. My eyes and heart lift. I look up and see so many energized leaders from the partner organizations I’ve worked with over the years. I am humbled. The joy builds. It’s my turn now to settle the room, and make them feel confident in our team and each other.
I speak what is to come in this training and for CSS:
“Together, we are building a political home over the next 5 days, and for many days, months, and years after. How do we want to be together? How do we want to grow together?”
There is no nervousness this time, only excitement. My experience has become my expertise. And I could feel it: the room drops and lands. I know we’re ready to change the story together.
Evolution of leadership
Since I started in 2012, I’ve seen firsthand how individuals and the relationships between us are at the heart of this work for social justice. Story lives in me and in each of us. What are often seen as individual skills, leadership, and expertise are actually expressions of our collective mutual support — a shared narrative, if you will — of courage, mentorship, democracy, solidarity, trust, and love built over time. Together.
My own story, probably like yours, is the accumulation of the chapters of wisdom and strength that I’ve gained from those around me. Particularly from Christine Cordero, who has led this organization with a fierce vision for narrative power. Christine, who instilled in all of us, the importance of creativity, abundance, and imagination. Christine, who has generously shared her dreams with us, so that we can all dream bigger. Thank you for reminding us that we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.
Where do we go now?
As we talk about leadership evolution in the organization, I’m excited to share that the work of story-based strategy is evolving and expanding in parallel. This evolution is particularly thanks to the leadership of Felicia Perez, Angus Maguire, Ratema Uch, Nadia Mohamed, Megan Swoboda, Hannah Jones, our Board, and network of rockstar trainers and associates like Kiara, Erin, Lawrence, Nadia, Danielle. We are reinvesting our learnings from the past years into a new plan for the future. I can’t wait for the new Co-Director from our community to join me in shaping this work.
While we understand that the rapid devolution of our political and ecological conditions are surfacing some big questions about short and long-term intervention, we at CSS are doubling down on our commitment to building grassroots power and the leadership of everyday people. We hear you and see you. We’re working hard to bring imagination and narrative power to more people than ever. We know it’s needed.
I couldn’t imagine this before, but now I can. I’m ready to pick up the marker and lead.
Let’s dream and imagine like we never have before,
This isn't our first time around the block
In 2015 we worked together to transform the organization in its first stage post our amazing founders transitioning off of staff. We have learned so much since then. We have seen the demand for the work grow exponentially: from turning away almost 100 groups each year, to our staff and network experimenting and evolving the methodology, and our partners’ growing need for long-term ongoing collaboration. This political moment is challenging all of us to get more strategic and more creative. To scale in depth and breadth.
We are asking ourselves the hard questions: How do we meaningfully scale our narrative and organizing work so that it is proportional to our vision and imagination? How do we build power in increasingly hostile and oppressive conditions? How do we do this work so we can sustain for the long haul battle? We invite you to join us in finding the answers together. We will continue evolving CSS’s particular role in our movement ecosystem. We will keep cueing the music and bringing out the special sauces, to support our collective radical imagination to build power.
Hello from #TeamCSS
We know all too well, if we aren’t telling our own story, someone else will. You will continue hearing directly from us and the broader team what we are learning and what is happening as we make this transition. While we believe at CSS that transition is inevitable, we also know that it takes intention and work to make transition just and regenerative. Our team is adaptive and committed to practicing what we preach, staying playful and creative, and taking care of each other. We are meeting the moment grounded in our commitment to the work and each other, and our collective strength and creativity.
We know you probably still have a ton of questions. Please feel free to reach out to any of us. We are all ready to take the call.
More to come,
Monet, Megan, Ratema, Nadia, Hannah, Felicia, Christine, Bernice and Angus