A Letter: Learning from the Board
I have always loved encouraging people to think. In the mid-80's, I was on the Bangor Rotary speakers committee and had done my best to present a varied and progressive palate. I had speakers on the environment, policing, gay rights, nuclear war, chaos theory all the hot button issues of the time to stimulate creative thought. But then there was culture slighted out of ignorance. How to approach the topic creatively?
|Geoffrey Gratwick, a rheumatologist in Bangor, has been on the board of the Maine Humanities Council from 1993 to 2004 and served as chair 2000-2003.|
I had just joined a Maine Humanities Council reading group and seized on the idea of discussing a short story over lunch. This had never been done before. I handed out a short story and Esther Rauch and Ruth Nadelhaft (two Council board members at the time) led the discussion. Perhaps 15 or 20 of the one hundred Rotarians present participated.
The discussion was lively, thoughtful, engaging, provocative in a word, wonderful, everything you want a book discussion group to be. Two remarks remain in my memory: one banker wanted to know at the end "So what's the answer, the right interpretation?" And another ancient soul said that he had never read a short story before or known that fiction could have so many layers of meaning.
I was hooked on the Council and its mission. Although I had never been on a board before, when Esther and Ruth asked me to join the Council, I accepted, full of curiosity about what would come next. Immediately my troubles began. I was at sea in a world of NEH-funded grants, each with a different vocabulary and each treading on a territory of delicate sensibilities. Meetings were endless and rather confusing. Had I made the right choice?
Then I began to know people, initially the staff. They provided a safe space in which new, interesting, or sometimes just quirky ideas could flourish. Other board members, initially formidable and imposing, began to assume human dimensions. They were lively, thoughtful, given to dazzling insight, funny, and possessed of ordinary human foibles. I looked forward to our thrice-yearly meetings with pleasure.
The board became, and continues to be, an arena in which I grew personally. Along the way, I learned humility. At one meeting shortly after I became chair I made an ironic reference to one grantee and was quickly scotched by an outspoken member. "Geoffrey, if that's the kind of leadership you are going to provide, I quit!" I changed; he stayed. Listening and impartiality have great value.
I also learned about the complex tasks of leadership, when to push and when not to push, and about the importance of taking a chance. The Council had long outgrown its headquarters, a dilapidated rabbit warren on Cumberland Street in Portland. I spent a long afternoon looking at a number of different places in Portland with the staff, each of which had something to recommend it. I feared that such deliberations could absorb endless amounts of our group's energy. One site (our current location) seemed close to ideal given our budget. That night I called all the board members and with almost complete unanimity we made a decision. Then and there. We still had to work out details aplenty, but we could move on.
My experience on the Council board has changed my view of the world and my place in it. I have had the great satisfaction of knowing that I have strengthened an organization I care deeply about by articulating my ideas in a way that has been new for me.