By Xiomara Padamsee
At Promise54, one of our most sacred guiding principles is the idea of being radically human. I’d like to share what it means to me, and where it came from.
I’ve spent most of my 20+ year career in organizational environments that held hard and fast rules about the sterile definitions of professionalism, which should be void of any vulnerability or emotion; where quantitative data displayed in polished percentages, charts, and graphs was considered the only credible source of information to fuel decision-making; where efficiency and urgency won over authentic relationships and engagement every time; where trust was regularly breached and transparency was a luxury only afforded to a lucky few at the top of a pyramid of power; where perfection was the expectation and the repercussions for imperfection were swift and career-limiting.
Within these environments, if I wanted to increase in agency and voice, to gain access to more autonomy and decision rights, to be in the rooms where plans were being laid in service of equity for our kids, families, and communities, then I needed to hide parts of myself that make me who I am: my Puerto Rican culture and Muslim heritage, my marriage to a woman, my weaknesses, insecurities, and fears. I was careful about pictures displayed on my desk or discussions about my weekend. I removed my big hoops and bright color clothing. I consciously slowed the pace of my speech, decreased the volume of my words, and tucked my hands in my pockets. I highlighted my elite academic background and formal credentials. I allowed colleagues to shorten my name to protect them from the discomfort of learning to pronounce it. When I was triggered by a microaggression related to my ethnicity, gender, sexuality, or my family’s socioeconomic or geographic background, I would let out my anger, sadness, frustration, and disappointment in a bathroom stall or bury it deep until I returned home to my wife and could let down my guard. This sort of covering and assimilation is what it took to succeed in these environments. In the end, I did succeed, but the personal cost was monumental. I was tired and raw and my reserves were drained.
So I came together with a small group of other fearless colleagues and we set out to create a new environment where each person could thrive, bringing as much of themselves as they are willing to generously and authentically share to our work every day in service of equity for kids, families, and communities.
But habits are hard to break. This became crystal clear to me in a training I was leading last year. I was in a familiar and usually comfortable facilitation posture with 100 eyes on me at the center of the room and we were deep in hard content. When I called on one of the participants, their contribution to the discussion hit a raw nerve in me and cut me deeply as a racialized microaggression. In that moment, I subtly moved my hands behind my back where I could wring them invisibly, I monitored my facial expressions, I replied slowly and thoughtfully in an even and calm tone despite the reality: my heart was racing, I had begun to sweat, I suddenly felt parched and nauseous, and I wished I were anywhere but in that room. I knew – or I thought I knew – that to continue to be respected as a leader in that moment, I needed to suppress emotion and seamlessly carry on guiding the group. I needed to prioritize the work over my own humanity. And that’s what I did, but I continued to feel unsettled by my choice.
Later, when I shared this experience with my coach, we talked about whether I had lived into my beliefs – fully – in that moment. We talked about why, given my beliefs, I reverted to a sterile definition of effective leadership that was void of authenticity, vulnerability, and emotion. She said, “it seems like you all are working to build a radically human* organization. How can you lead that organization without allowing yourself to be radically human?”
That’s where the notion of radical humanity was born at Promise54, and it has become one of our most sacred guiding principles. In the radically human world that we’re working to build together, we’re focused on prioritizing trusting, authentic relationships, and deep engagement. We are redefining professionalism to let emotion and vulnerability back in (even when facilitating, even for our leaders!). We seek to honor the history that brought us to this moment. We work hard to create space for deprogramming and healing from the pain and trauma that we have previously experienced in white dominant culture work environments. We believe in the innate brilliance of each human. We assume imperfection is the norm and extend the grace of second chances to each other knowing that lifelong learning is not only inevitable but it fuels experimentation, risk taking, growth, and innovation. We believe that process is as important as outcomes, and that good intentions don’t trump painful impact. Qualitative life experience gets acknowledged as valid and real data. And, perhaps most importantly, we are working to slow down and insert intentionality, planfulness, care, compassion, humor, and love back into our work.
This learning is done in real time and we are on a journey. We invite you to join us in that journey to live and work in a radically human way and to lead radically human organizations. In the video below, I challenge attendees at the 2019 NewSchools Venture Fund Summit to think about what it would look like for their organization to operate in a radically human way. We are each worthy of that and it makes our work better for kids, families, and communities.
*Enormous gratitude to my coach Laura Brewer for coining the term “radically human” and supporting our efforts to live up to it every day.