Late last week, I met with a group of nonprofit leaders to explore how we can best be of use to our communities in the aftermath of an intense, draining season. We asked, “How might your organization and community be impacted by civil unrest and intensified civic stress? What will your communities (clients, donors, neighbors) be looking for from you?”
This group has been meeting regularly under the leadership of the Montana Nonprofit Association since COVID-19 hit in the spring, and our trust has deepened as we’ve navigated uncertainty together. The conversation was a delicate conversation among colleagues who respect one another’s differences in experiences, political viewpoints and regions of the state.
We discussed our commitment to build bridges between people with unmet needs and those with resources to meet them; between our missions and new leadership in the state; between those who have no voice, and those who can elevate the voices of those with the deepest needs and most barriers.
Unspoken is a commitment that no matter who’s in the room, we can bring respect and we can anchor our work in community.
It reminded me of Graduation Matters Montana, an initiative of then-State Superintendent Denise Juneau. For six years, we travelled to over 50 Montana communities, braiding local networks of students, educators, nonprofit organizations and businesses to work together for all students to graduate from high school.
At no point in the hundreds of meetings we held did we talk about high school graduation as a partisan issue, despite Superintendent Juneau being a Democrat. I remember thinking after the 2016 election, “I bet more than half the people I worked with on GMM voted differently from me.”
And that was okay with me. It was, in fact, beautiful. That we could operate in a non-partisan, even post-partisan space where good, caring people come together, build common understanding, roll up their sleeves and do good work together.
That’s our work ahead, to move forward from this period of strife and divisiveness. To not just lean in, but to step into the gap that has widened between members of our communities. To help build a bridge that anchors us in what unites us, rather than reinforcing the ramparts that divide. Until we do that, it will be difficult to address what needs addressing, and to make our way forward as a people.
I believe the nonprofit sector is uniquely well-suited for the work of community healing, but we all have a role to play.
As Marge Piercy so eloquently writes in her poem, To Be of Use:
The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.