Leadership Development: #ChangeFromWithin

Over the next several weeks we’re posting a series of blogs from our current Greenlining Fellows, exploring their own personal transformation and #ChangeFromWithin, and what that means for leadership development. You can read the series here. Here at Greenlining’s Leadership Academy, we’ve been on a journey. We invite you to join us.

“You will be seen and you will be heard.” I vividly remember Patrick Brown, the director of the Leadership Academy, saying these words on the second day of my fellowship at The Greenlining Institute. I recall thinking: this must be that liberal bay area language that people warned me about before I moved here; the sort of language that sounds nice, but doesn’t mean much. (Spoiler alert: I was wrong!)

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However, while I didn’t admit this to myself at the time, I recognized later that those words also scared me. Why? As the daughter of immigrant parents from India, I grew up hearing stories about how tirelessly my parents worked to leave the impoverished conditions they grew up in, and move to the U.S. to provide a better life for my sisters and me. Sometimes I felt that speaking up, standing out, or being “seen” and “heard” might threaten everything my parents sacrificed to come to the U.S. and make a life here.

Growing up, my parents prioritized ensuring that my sisters and I had access to the best education opportunities. They firmly believed that a strong education could lead to a lucrative career, and more importantly, they viewed education as a way to get out of the cycle of hardships they faced to make a life for themselves.

Given how much my parents stressed education, everything else took a backseat. I could partake in social events and extracurricular activities so long as they didn’t take too much time away from school. My family perceived any sort of political activism as radical, too risky and potentially violent — so I stayed away from it. While my family was well informed about politics, we were not politicized. So, even though at times I wanted to speak up and join activists in the streets fighting for environmental justice and other causes I felt passionate about, I believed it was not my place to do so. I felt as though I might risk all that my parents fought to achieve when they moved to the U.S.

When I came to Greenlining as a fellow, I had no idea how much my life was about to change. I could immediately feel the dedication, motivation and passion that every Greenliner possessed. So many of my colleagues had spent years advocating for environmental equity, economic equity, access to healthcare and other issues. Within a few days of starting my fellowship, I felt like I did not belong here. I recall thinking, “I’ve stayed silent for so many years, what right do I have to work here and join this team of fierce advocates and leaders?” These thoughts bothered me. I noticed a dissonance in my feelings. On the one hand, I felt like I did not belong, and yet, on the other hand, I knew I wanted to challenge myself to feel more confident, find my voice and speak up. How could I ease the tension I was feeling?

“You will be seen and you will be heard.” Those words came back to my mind a few months into my fellowship. But this time, they carried much more weight. During my first months as a fellow, the Leadership Academy played a critical role in helping me address the self-doubt I felt inside and develop into a more confident advocate.

Sona Mohnot

Although the Academy offers many professional and personal skills trainings to help fellows grow, the coaching sessions and public speaking workshops impacted me the most. The individual coaching sessions helped deconstruct much of the self-doubt I felt. I learned how to explore my life goals, reduce stress, maximize my potential in my policy work, recognize challenges and address them, and exercise active listening skills. Coaching gave me a chance to be introspective and explore the root causes of some of my insecurities. While the coaching provided me with tools to feel confident from within, the public speaking workshops taught me how to maintain that confidence in front of others. Through the public speaking workshops, I learned strategies for effective and confident speaking, and ways to reduce anxiety and nervousness, such as by using breathing exercises.

In short, the Academy really did hear me and see me. I shared some of my deepest vulnerabilities and insecurities through our workshops, which truly felt scary at times, but also liberating. I slowly began changing my attitude and perspective towards my policy work and how I interacted with other people. Rather than doubting myself or questioning my ability to succeed, I recognized that my opinion matters and that I possess agency to facilitate change. I felt empowered. I appreciated how completely comfortable and safe I felt speaking my mind and knowing that people around me would listen.

Most importantly, the Leadership Academy taught me that I didn’t need to hold on to who I was in the past — or feel chained to it. Even if I grew up afraid to speak up, I learned that my past does not define who I am now. During my fellowship, I came across a quote that I keep in mind whenever I find my past holding me back: “You are under no obligation to be the same person you were a year, month, or even 15 minutes ago. You have the right to grow. No apologies.” I have the right to change. I have the right to grow. I have the right to be the author of my own life – and to create whatever possibilities I want for myself.

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