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My (Authentic) Nonprofit Resolution

I should begin by mentioning that my overall New Year’s resolution is to be more authentic. I’m not even sure if I have a deep enough understanding of what I mean by that to explain it, but I think a lot of it has to do with behaving more like the introvert I am and less like the extrovert I want to be. Maybe it’s as simple as really feeling how exhausted social interactions make me, without passing judgement on the feeling or trying to push through it. Or maybe it’s as complicated as forcing myself to write again – not blog, but write. Blogging has an affected nature to it, because you’re always thinking about what people might want to read, what information would be useful, what’s going to keep people coming back. Writing, which is much more vulnerable and much, much more frightening, is something I probably haven’t done in years.

So bearing that in mind, here’s a resolution related to the Great Exchange that feels authentic to me: Lead like a teacher.

Some of my favorite people in the world are teachers. They’re the ones who noticed my good qualities before I did and unraveled them so subtly and magically that I didn’t even realize they were doing it. I did my work well in school not because I cared about being a good student, but because I wanted to make my teachers happy. To this day, I can sum up the feeling of receiving praise and how good it felt; it’s a content, warm ripple in my mind that moves to my hands and encourages me to keep doing whatever I was doing to warrant that kind of encouragement. And it never, ever had anything to do with turning in work or receiving a grade.

I even started keeping a notebook in high school about things I wanted to do for my students if I became a teacher, often shamelessly ripping off the tactics of some of my own favorites. I had an English teacher, for example, who kept an old, faded, and weirdly comfortable armchair in the corner of the room that he called the “Ugly Red Chair of Reflection.” If a student was having a bad day or even just needed some time to think, he or she could tune out of class for the day, sit in the chair, and write. No questions asked. And the teacher never needed to see what the student was writing. How amazing is that? It’s such an understated but powerful way to tell your students that you’re there to teach and they’re there to learn but you get it; they have a life, and it can get hard sometimes. And sometimes, because students are human beings who exist in a world that’s much bigger than a classroom, they just need some time to untangle their thoughts. To sit with themselves and push through their discomfort without interruption, and grow.

I don’t want to be a teacher anymore but the inclination to understand learning styles, and people in general, is still there. Beautifully enough, all of the qualities that I’ve admired in my teachers can be translated to any leadership role, be it a business owner or a person who’s trying to mobilize a very small nonprofit. I don’t think it’s patronizing at all to consider employees as students, to view office time classroom time, and to hunt down and encourage exceptional qualities the same way a teacher would. I don’t think it’s unrealistic to assume that positive interactions will lead to great work in the same way that mutual respect will lead to a good grade. And I don’t think it would be unreasonable to have an Ugly Red Chair of Reflection in the workplace.

So I’m done reading leadership books and I’ve moved on to teaching manuals. Neurology books. Mindfulness practices. Anything that can more authentically get to the heart of how people operate and how we can create something beautiful together. Great work isn’t the goal; it’s the bi-product. The goal is happiness, which means doing for people what my teachers did for me: really seeing them.



I am convinced that everything good in this world exists in the mind.

If I could sum up the goal that isn’t on the list of the Great Exchange’s official goals, it’s to train people to bump up against the quirks that exist in the brain and forgive them. The more extreme cognitive differences are the easiest to notice and accept, and once you pull back from there, the subtle differences between all of us are easier to accept too. My sister, for example, does some frustrating things because her impulse control isn’t wired like the rest of ours. And by that, I mean I’m not entirely sure if it’s there. Literally. It could have been tied to the part of her brain that was removed.

One of her classmates is overtly blunt and comes across as quirky and rude. That’s because he’s Autistic and his brain’s rubric for social interaction isn’t the same as that of a non-Autistic person’s. Another classmate can’t contain himself when he gets excited. He’ll scream and shout and bang on the chairs. It’s perfectly natural, but the rest of us react to situations more quietly. We may be in the majority, but at the end of the day the rules that govern the “right” behaviors and interactions are pretty arbitrary.

Do you see where I’m going with this? If you can boil a behavioral, social, or intellectual difference down to something like brain wiring, then you are less quick to judge. There’s more than the brain, of course – the way people were raised, the experiences that line their faces, the mantras they’ve been repeating to themselves – but once you’re trained to start looking, you can build from there. The ultimate goal is that no matter who you interact with, friend or  coworker or stranger, you’ll be able to say, “The way in which your brain allows you to look at the world is fundamentally different from the way mine does, and that’s okay.”

Most of us aren’t there – I certainly am not – but at least I’ve had the privilege of growing up with someone who could teach me to start looking. I think she could teach a lot of other people to start looking, too, if only she had the chance to meet them. She’s my brain sage.

This was supposed to be a post about something I read in a Muhammad Yunus article, but I’ m really tired; and when I’m tired, I default to the mind. I find it incredibly soothing, like a bedtime story or a prayer.

News From the Home Front

I can’t decide if I’ve been in Portland for just over a week, or just over two weeks. It feels like it has been months. This is a blog about nonprofits, so I’m going to do my best to tie that in somewhere, but it does feel good to take a moment, breathe, and write. First and foremost, Mom is doing great. Her physical and mental status reflects the best possible outcome of a terrible situation. Every time I think about strokes I recall details from one of my favorite books, so I know that now that we’re out of the danger zone, we have an exciting opportunity to rebuild positive neural connections.

I have a general tendency to put a positive spin on most things, but honestly, this hasn’t been easy, and not just for the reasons you’d think. Tough family moments have a way of stripping people down to their most honest and vulnerable selves, and while I’ve always been that way around my dearest friends, I’ve never quite shared that side of myself with my family. Until this week, I would have said with confidence that my best friends have seen my cry more than my family has. Reversing the trend has felt more than a little uncomfortable.

So there’s this profound sense of concurrent strength and weakness, now, because I can’t quite hold it together enough to pretend that I don’t worry, that brain issues haven’t kept me up at night (my grandma’s aneurysm, Martha’s epilepsy, my central apnea, and now this), and that my reaction to this latest medical problem doesn’t mirror what I went through growing up with Martha. I’ve done my utmost to be as supportive and helpful as possible, but on a selfish level, I would give anything to just see a friend or my boyfriend or even set foot outside the house. Writing this blog and knowing someone may read it is the first cathartic experience I’ve had. I can’t believe how much being back home in the midst of another medical problem is causing me to re-live my childhood.

And now to relate this to the Great Exchange. The Great Exchange exists because Martha has had a profound impact on my ability to empathize and feel joy and compassion for all types of people, and I want other people to experience that too. It’s also an oversimplification. For the purposes of the organization’s story, that oversimplification will stand. But on a personal level it feels a bit flat, like a painting that contains no shadow, like a romantic comedy, like a book without subtext.

From a purely developmental perspective, thinking about who I was as a child, for every positive experience there was a negative. For every insight gained, there was a tough lesson. For every award-winning piece of poetry I ever wrote, there was a child who sat in her room and wrote poetry, trying to be quiet and good. Behind my decision to attend Smith was a desire to go to the same school as my favorite children’s author, whose books I would read as a kid until the pages literally fell out because reading is all I ever did, and I was convinced those books were “rescuing” me. For every disabled child who has grown up happy and loved, there is a sibling who has quietly set their own needs aside.

The reason people grow up and move on and smile and laugh and build relationships and start nonprofits and become healthy is because it’s nobody’s fault. I’d venture to guess the majority of people who found nonprofits do so for personal reasons, and those reasons are probably laced with a hint of pain. That’s okay. But coming home and dealing with my own pain means I’d really like the Great Exchange to embark on an initiative that helps siblings, that puts them in the spotlight, that makes them feel special and loved even as their family is forced to prioritize the special needs child.

It’s going to be important to focus on the main goal of the Great Exchange before expanding, but as I recruit our Core Members I’m no doubt going to encounter the siblings who get lost in the trenches, and it would be great to funnel them somewhere. I’m going to do some research on my own, but if anyone knows of any sibling support networks in the Austin area, I’d love to build a partnership. Just email me; I’m always open to brainstorming.

A Healthy Family

The Huffington Post’s article about abuse towards disabled adults hit me hard in the stomach. Before citing some absolutely appalling stories and details, the article reports that disabled adults are at a much higher risk of being physically and sexually abused than non-disabled adults.

This hurts. It hurts every single one of us. Our health as a family, a society, and a planet is directly tied  to the way we treat our vulnerable or misunderstood community members. If a person is fragile physically, mentally or socially, the healthiest possible human grouping will take the best possible care of them. The weakest possible human grouping will take advantage of them. If someone mistreats a disabled person, it’s not just a problem; it’s a symptom of societal disease.

I truly believe that speaking to a person with a social or cognitive disability, then becoming their friend, then learning to love them as a contributing member of society will impact so much more than the rights of the disabled. Once your brain is open to compassionate understanding, it will affect the way you treat everyone else in your network, disabled or not. A person with a disability is one of the best possible candidates for instilling this sense of compassion.

The tenet that increased interaction with cognitively disabled people will lead to greater societal compassion is one of the more idealistic or “visionary” philosophies behind The Great Exchange (as opposed to “practical”), but it runs deep. It will be a long time before something like that can be measured. But there it is, tucked away, driving the more practical in’s and out’s. I guess I just take this one on faith.

A Labor of Love

I spent awhile thinking about how this should begin. Should I just start spilling out all of the ideas that are scattered like constellations throughout my Google Docs? Should I list my heros in the Social Entrepreneurship Hall of Fame (Mary Gordon, founder of Roots of Empathy, and Muhammad Yunus, in case you’re wondering) and fade into the ways in which I think my ideas could ultimately multiply and take off like theirs did? Should I just hit you with the mission statement of my nascent little startup, The Great Exchange? Let’s be honest; I’ve thought about that mission statement a lot, and I’d love to share it.

But I probably shouldn’t do any of those things. I think all organizations, causes, art projects and entrepreneurial endeavors begin with a narrative that’s a lot simpler than that. So here’s mine:

Hi. I’m Meg, and that’s my little sister Martha wearing the blue overalls. I’m a little older now, and so is she. Here are some things you can tell from this photograph: in many respects, we display the sisterly dynamic you would expect to encounter. We adore each other, and I’m fiercely protective of her. In fact, “protective” is an understatement; at many points throughout my life, Martha has shown me glimpses of what it must be like to have children, an encounter with thick and nearly tangible love combined with a selfless but frantic sense of anxiety. It’s a truly profound feeling–not happy or sad, but just big.

Here are some things the picture doesn’t reveal: a few months after this photograph, Martha will be in a hospital bed, head shaved, scar crawling across her scalp like one of those giant centipedes in the Amazon Rain Forest. For the next 17 years after that, she will encounter a system of special education programs and classes that vary wildly in quality. And today, she’ll be 20, and my Mom, Dad, older brother and I will be initiating a series of conversations about how to plan for her future. Martha grew up brain-damaged and cognitively disabled, and because of this, she will never be alone.

And because of this–well, this combined with a fiery passion for entrepreneurship, an aversion to having a boss, and a creative drive that is best funneled into building large projects and systems–I’m starting a nonprofit called The Great Exchange. So here, then, what I’ve been waiting for, the mission statement:

The Great Exchange promotes self-advocacy among intellectually disabled adults by setting up pathways for them to network with nonprofits around Austin. In exchange for team-based volunteer work at each nonprofit, the host site will provide a list of ways they plan on fostering inclusion in their workplace or community. 

I just felt a little thrill, after pasting that from my web site. So what makes me qualified to run a nonprofit when I’m only 26 but, moreover, when it seems that everyone and their brother is taking advantage of the troubled economy by starting up well-intentioned but barely functioning organizations and duplicating one another’s efforts in the sloppiest of fashions? Well, hopefully this blog will get to that someday, but I think my most important credential is this one:

I absolutely adore making mistakes.

I’m hoping to use this blog as a means of documenting these mistakes, the lessons I learn, the triumphs the Great Exchange experiences, and to make my thought process as transparent as possible as I carefully determine how to move forward. I hope anyone following this journey can use the ensuing ups and downs as a resource as they build their own projects and write their own love stories.

So without further delay, my love story.