I’ve just completed a year-long program called Leadership Montgomery. Its aim is to create pathways that strengthen local leaders, their organizations and the Montgomery County community as a whole. Since I arrived at Olney Theatre Center in 2014, board members and friends of the Theatre told me I should participate in LM to learn more about the County, network and cultivate support for Olney Theatre. I put it off until now because of the huge time commitment (monthly classes, volunteer service hours, events, etc.), but this year I leaned in. And, I’m so glad.
I expected to make new friends and learn some things, but I didn’t expect to feel transformed and enriched by my peers and my community. I’m humbled by the work that so many are doing in this County for the homeless, the hungry, immigrants, marginalized populations, kids, babies, the elderly, the sick, and, well, all of us. I visited a correctional facility and met 18-24-year-olds who told me that going to jail saved their lives. I did a ride-along with an MCPD police officer and responded to 3 suicide attempts and 2 unsettling domestic disturbances within a 4-hour period. I went to the State House in Annapolis and met with legislators and watched bills be presented and argued and passed and thrown away. I spent the morning in a Women’s Homeless Shelter—the ONLY Women’s Homeless Shelter in the entire county—where 100% of the food is donated by volunteers. (If you want to help feed people, consider bringing meals to Interfaith Works).
I twice volunteered at the Greater DC Diaper Bank where I bundled diapers and stocked trucks for distribution. I met the residents of Tobytown, one of the County’s 24 historic kinship African-American communities and I learned about their important fight for long over-due respect and equal rights. I visited the recycling center where I encountered Latinx women who stand 8 hours a day on an assembly line sorting our trash. I learned that men don’t last on the line, it’s the women who have the stamina needed for the job.
I went to Red Wiggler Community Farm where people with and without mental disabilities come together to work, learn and grow healthy food for the rest of us to eat. I met an extraordinary 8th grade MCPS teacher who told me that “kids who have love at home come to school to learn, and kids who don’t, come to school to be loved.” We heard from leaders in the affordable housing and transportation sectors who presented all sides of these very sticky and complex issues. And we met individual artists who use their work to educate, rehabilitate, and inspire. I also finally toured the historically significant Woodlawn Manor Cultural Park, which I pass almost daily on my commute to OTC. Talk about not seeing what’s right in front of you.
In my class were: a police chief, a fire chief, a rabbi, the head of WSSC, entrepreneurs, doctors, educators, social workers, political leaders, social service professionals, lawyers, financial advisers, bankers, technology and engineering experts, retired military, home builders, and executives at major non-profit and for-profit companies. There were 57 of us, and each one accomplished in their own fields aspiring to do more to strengthen our communities.
We discussed sensitive issues like race, institutional bias, discrimination, gender roles, housing costs, public safety, health care, economics, education, politics, and religion. We had difficult conversations and there were tears, anger and laughter—often at the same time.
In the end, I’ve learned that strong and effective leadership is not possible without empathy and connection with each and every person we meet, interact with, and share space. Montgomery County is an incredible place full of complexities, contradictions, humanity, creativity, and promise. The past 9 months of getting to know new people and new communities was a gift, and I’m grateful to OTC’s board of directors for allowing me the opportunity and to my staff and artistic partner, Jason Loewith, for supporting me along the way.