Explore the Woods: Lessons from American Express – Aspen Institute Academy 2.0


elliefinalBy Ellie Canter, 2014 Management Fellow

“To anticipate, not the sunrise and dawn merely, but, if possible, Nature herself! How many mornings, summer and winter, before yet any neighbor was stirring about his business, have I been about mine! So many autumn, ay, and winter days, spent outside the town, trying to hear what was in the wind, to hear and carry it express! I well nigh sunk all my capital in it, and lost my own breath into the bargain, running in the face of it.”
-Henry David Thoreau, Walden, “Economy,” selection

Ellie Canter in Aspen, CO

Ellie Canter in Aspen, CO

Too often, I find that I ignore Thoreau’s urge to “sink my capital” in the wind and in Nature herself. The American Express – Aspen Institute Academy 2.0 reminded me to explore the “woods” – or opportunities for reflection – that are neglected in the face of deadlines and obligations of the everyday. I spent a week in August with fourteen amazing leaders of nonprofits and social enterprises that expanded my conception of our sector as a powerful space with untapped potential. As part of this fellowship for emerging nonprofit leaders, we used core texts to drive our discussion – and the relevance of each perspective, from Aristotle to Chimamanda Adichie, surfaced through our dialogue.

Lessons I gained from the experience continue to emerge as I return to work on family engagement with D.C. Public Schools as Director of Programs at Turning the Page. There are moments of questioning that particularly struck me as gateways to conversation and vehicles to promote understanding across our various missions.

Power of Storytelling
One such moment was embedded in our discussion of storytelling, both its power and its capacity for harm. I wrestled with the reality that the stories we choose to tell as nonprofits either empower or disempower the communities we support. We are sometimes challenged by the portrait of need desired by funders that justifies our mission’s existence by showcasing the challenges that communities are facing. This “double speak” constructs a conflicting narrative – one that sheds light on the unrealistic expectations of a sector that seeks to meet needs that strengthen communities while gathering information that portrays their unraveling. Aspen’s gift to me and my peers was more than its beauty and thought provoking conversations, it was the emphasis on our potential as a sector to craft empowering narratives that highlight our authentic partnerships with communities.

Aspen ViewExplore the Woods
In addition to our exploration of stories, we reflected on the importance of the space we created – or the literal and figurative “woods” we were permitted to visit while in Aspen. When provided the opportunity to reflect and engage with one another about the values that drive our work, I was struck by how greatly our leadership differed from one organization to the next, and how the underpinnings of our beliefs shape how we manage our teams. Yet over the course of our discussions we were open to exploring different approaches – those of us who scoffed at the thought of employing Machiavellian principles in leadership came to see the value through the practices of colleagues. We breathed life into centuries-old texts by connecting their principles with practice – a process that brought me closer to an understanding of my own tendencies and definitions of concepts like efficiency, ethics, and community.

Continued Reflections
I’m forever grateful to ProInspire, American Express, the Aspen Institute, and my cohort for urging me to unpack not just what I choose to do as a nonprofit leader, but why and how I choose to lead. The questions that surfaced over the week together will continue to guide my reflections on the sector and will inspire me to engage in more frequent dialogue with my colleagues and with our community.

2014 Managing for Success Fellow Ellie Canter serves as the Director of Programs for Turning the Page, an education nonprofit committed to building more pathways for engaging parents as partners in their children’s education. Ellie received her B.A. from the University of Virginia and a Master’s in Educational Policy and Leadership Studies from the University of Washington. Follow Turning the Page on twitter @TTPageDC

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