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How do we show up now?


April 22, 2020

by  Dr. Mark Gesner, '13, executive director, Stritch Hub for Innovation and Community Engaged Learning

At the end of a painful week of difficult pandemic related decision-making in her position as Vice President for Community Relations at Goodwill Industries of Southeast Wisconsin, my colleague, Angela Adams, asked me a compelling question. She wanted to know, “How do we show up now?”

Angela was concerned about how her organization would now show up with the people and places it had served for so long. She wondered how social distancing would impact all of the community engagement activities that Goodwill employees volunteered for each day, and how the larger social impact of her agency could be sustained. Angela was also acutely aware that her organization, like all nonprofits and businesses, needed to focus on financial sustainability in order to fulfill its purpose. In other words, if there was no margin, there would be no mission.

The ability to “show up” can take on many different meanings. Currently, as COVID-19 clouds our thoughts, one could understandably ponder new ways we all might need to be physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually engaged. Showing up often speaks to how we go about being present with others, and how we try to bring our full selves into the spaces and relationships where we live and work. Given our current context, how can we be present while being distant?

A really good question, like the one Angela asked, ordinarily doesn’t have easy answers. You have to think harder, pay attention in new ways, and then start making sense of your path forward. Fortunately, wise and even inspirational responses are usually easier to find when you’re looking for them. And so, I went looking for examples of how people are showing up personally and professionally. I wanted to know not only about what people were doing, but how they were being. What I found was the beginning of a “How To” guide of what to do and how to be now, and perhaps always.

Show Up by Being

Here’s the start of a “How To” Guide about How to Be:

1. Compassionate: A focus on being caring, considerate, and patient never seemed so needed, and in so much abundance. Individuals are buying groceries for elderly neighbors, acquaintances are offering words of support in online group chats, and kids are placing paper hearts in window panes. In organizations, executives are taking pay cuts, health benefits are being extended to furloughed workers, and latitude is being given on loan payments. Being compassionate is a capacity we can all access and expand.

2. Resourceful: Baking bread without yeast, cutting hair at home, and sharing Netflix (legally) with friends are among the ways people are making the most with what they have. Meanwhile, resources like the Paycheck Protection Program and new crisis funds from philanthropic foundations are being made available so that organizations can access support to survive and serve others. In being resourceful, many are learning to depend on themselves in new ways, while also depending on others in ways previously unimagined.

3. Fun-loving: When late-night talk show hosts started doing monologues from their basements, it became clear that a smile can help keep us sane. And so it goes, folks are laughing more when grandma puts her face close to the computer to see everyone, and kids are forgiving their dads for telling bad puns. At work, colleagues are smiling when dogs and cats are zooming around in the background, and when team members forget to press mute before bathroom breaks. A little less seriousness, a little more fun, surely yields more joy, less pain.

4. Innovative: Homemade apple cider gummies to help digestion, hands-free door openers, and toilet paper quota controllers have all been newly discovered twists to overcome unforeseen barriers. On a grander scale, making hand sanitizer in breweries, sewing surgical masks instead of dresses, and building ventilators instead of cars all demonstrate why “pivot” is becoming the buzzword of 2020. Innovation is often borne out of solving problems in ways no one imagined, and a reminder about the value of making lemonade out of lemons.

5. Collaborative: As dads vacuum with their daughters, walkers stroll safely apart, and shoppers share an extra pair of gloves to pick up a potato, there’s evidence that there are new ways of collaborating. The same has been true of professionals in the public and private sectors who are forging unexpected partnerships to create new products, and who are practicing open-sourcing with former competitors to address critical needs. Collaboration doesn’t mean you have to sing Kumbaya, but doing things that are mutually beneficial helps everyone grow the pie rather than fight over the pieces.

6. Communicative: It sure is nice to have old friends give a call just to see how you’re braving the storm. Similarly, it seems more grown-up kids are calling their mothers, and more neighbors are sharing a wave, helping us all to feel in touch and in the know, even when both are particularly elusive. On the organizational level, employers are finding new ways of communicating, striving to make work more effective and efficient. Ultimately, the ones really winning the day are doing what’s needed no matter the medium – communicating with authenticity, and building trust instead of fear.

7. Grateful: What a treat to have car horns honk as they drive by for birthdays, to see far-flung families come together virtually, and to have online talent shows featuring abilities rarely unveiled and not quite ready for prime time. People are also more readily and rightfully appreciating healthcare workers, first responders, janitorial professionals, service workers, delivery persons, and others doing the essential work to keep us safe and well. And, businesses are remembering to thank their customers who buy their products, make use of their services, and in so many ways, are their reason for being.

The list above is surely just a start, and admittedly, no compilation of good intentions can cure all the heartbreaking repercussions of a health crisis, or the deep sting of unemployment. Yet still, it seems each of us can create our own lists to embrace the values and actions we hold dear. Perhaps you would include examples of individuals and organizations being generous, being empathetic, or simply being present. Ultimately, as I think Angela would agree, there is really no shortage of solutions about how to show up now. We just need to keep looking for and learning the answers that will enable us to show up, and never give up.

Mark Gesner, Ph.D. is the Executive Director of Cardinal Stritch University’s Hub for Innovation and Community Engaged Learning. He is the co-founder and director of Mission Fuel, a business accelerator for nonprofit leaders, the host of the Mission-Driven Leaders Speaker Series, and the University’s lead in supporting Project Pitch It, a television show featuring Wisconsin entrepreneurs. He co-authored the recently published book, "Your Life is Your Message: Discovering the Core of Transformational Leadership (SAGE)."