Monday, November 7, 2011

A New Generation of Leaders

I am flying home after an intensive two weeks in Europe! I have enjoyed my brief stay in the Netherlands. I like its human-sized scale, the streets full of cyclists (the Dutch must be a healthy people!) and the trams. On my arrival I am even allowed to travel without paying the train fare to The Hague. The machine had not processed my credit card correctly but the kind ticket collector takes pity on this ignorant American.
I feel tired but satisfied after delivering eight talks and workshops in eleven days as well as taking part in numerous discussions and informal consultations in six cities. Whatever the differences between Europe and America, the focus on trust as an indispensable foundation for constructive change in community relations, economics, and politics resonates everywhere. As I write, relationships in the Euro zone are being severely tested.

I have been blessed with excellent co-facilitators and assistants during my sojourn. In The Hague, Tessa Calkhoven bravely steps up with less than 48 hours preparation to help me lead an intensive all-day workshop for a diverse group of mostly young professionals and community activists.

At a vocational college in Amsterdam we meet with students of international journalism. After a half-hour talk on "the power of stories to build or break trust" they jump in with insightful questions and comments and it turns into a real dialogue for the next hour. They are particularly interested in stories of how to engage with the “other” – dialogues with Muslims and evangelical Christians in Richmond and the interactions with our newspaper that encouraged a more inclusive and constructive approach to news coverage.

One student asks, "Are you an optimist or a realist?" I reply, “A bit of both. You have to hold up a vision of what life can be, but you also have to accept that change takes time, that there is such a thing as evil in the world, and that you need short and medium-term benchmarks as well as loftier goals.”

Despite the country's reputation for tolerance, there's unease about the difficulty of integrating an increasingly diverse national community and the extent to which right-wing parties control the political process. After a lecture in The Hague, one woman says, “I have lived here for thirty years but I still am not treated as fully Dutch.” This prompts considerable discussion among the audience and agreement that there is still much need for “honest conversation."

I’m impressed by the high quality of young leaders that I encounter in Holland and the UK. In Liverpool, a workshop at Liverpool Hope University is organized by graduate Charlotte Sawyer and Jonty Herman, vice president of the student union. We begin by asking the students to discuss: "Do I trust myself? And what do I do when trust is broken?" To encourage the conversations, Willemijn, my co-facilitator in the UK, tells a personal story of her response to broken trust in a relationship that seems to touch students and sets the tone for the afternoon.

Liverpool Hope is producing a potentially significant group of new leaders through its School for Changemakers program. The vice chancellor and rector, Gerald Pillay, says it aims to prepare students "not only for the world of work but the work of the world." Over lunch he introduces me to two of his faculty. He tells the new head of War and Peace Studies, "We must arrange for you to visit Richmond!"

It's clear that the approach of Initiatives of Change has enormous appeal for this Millennial generation that abounds in talented young people who are committed to making a difference in the world. My Dutch colleagues tell me that 150 people applied for the new IofC position of general coordinator and the selection process was difficult. Thirty-two year-old Maurits van den Wall Bake, who was selected for the job a few weeks ago, is responsible for arranging my program and we compare notes on our priorities in our respective national organizations.
Like the US, the Initiatives of Change teams in the UK and Netherlands are exploring new ways of operating. There are many outstanding young people who would love to work with IofC. The challenge is not how to attract the next generation but to find ways to enable them to make their best contribution both within the organization and as agents of change embedded in non-profit agencies, businesses, and governments.   

I step off the plane in Richmond's quiet airport. Europe suddenly seems far away. Susan is waiting at the gate. It's good to be home.

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