I am sitting on the floor in a circle with six high school students who are debriefing a recent trip into Boston to participate in CityReach, an urban homeless outreach program for young people. The participating youth spent two days learning about homelessness, handing out sandwiches, underwear and socks, and interacting with the people who are experiencing homelessness or dedicating their time to work with the homeless.
“This whole experience can be boiled down to one thing,” declares Jason, reticent yet resolute. “Connection.” When asked to say more, he fumbles for the right words, but manages to explain his meaning. “I don’t know, I guess… its like… looking people in the eye, listening to them, treating them like people, this seemed more important to them than the socks and food we were handing out. They just wanted to connect!”
I feel the truth of this statement in my body— they just wanted to connect! Don’t we all just want to connect, to be seen, to feel a part of something, to belong! Even hungry and cold, that yearning for connection is not lost; for many it may even be intensified.
I remember a recent newsletter from Pegasus Communications, an excerpt from a presentation by renowned systems thinker Peter Senge, entitled The Power is in the Connections. The article began, “Connection means so much, because we are so connected on so many levels and in so many different ways to so many different phenomena. Obviously, our connection to one another is the starting point. It is the ground from which we learn about relationships.”
I realize these youth are learning a valuable leadership lesson that holds true at any age—connecting and creating opportunities for connection is a leadership imperative. It is vital, universal, and indispensible. It is how we cultivate the relationships we need to get through the challenges and changes we face. In the words of James Kouzes and Barry Posner, “The best way to lead people into the future is to connect with them deeply in the present.”
In our work with groups, we always start with connecting and reinforcing relationships, for it is from this foundation that the group can start to see the greater whole and their individual and collective relationship to that whole— the “many connections” that Senge references. When groups can recognize a collective, connected clarity about the issues before them, true problem solving can begin.
I realize these youth are not thinking about groups and collective problem solving, as I am. They are trying to make sense of an experience that has taught them about the power of their connections – of what makes a difference. They are exploring the role they can play in a systemic challenge quite beyond their power to fix — homelessness. And they have discovered something important that we can all stand to be reminded of. In the words of one youth, referencing a conversation he had with a man he met during the CityReach mission, “It was not the details of his story that really mattered. It was the look on his face and the twinkle in his eye when he shared a joke with me, or a funny experience he had. He made me realize that you can give out all the socks and hot meals in the world to the homeless, but until you start handing out some joy and laughter, you can't really make their lives any better.”
May 2013 bring many opportunities for you to connect—at many levels and in many ways—with what matters most!