Near the end of my Coaching for Transformation training in 2007, Virginia Kellogg, one of the founders of Leadership that Works, taught a teleclass on giving back. That class touched a place deep inside of me and planted a seed that would soon become a passion. I quickly saw the coaching skills that were changing my life in such dramatic ways could also add value in poor and working-class communities of color like the ones I came from. I couldn't see how it would unfold at the time, but the vision for powerful community change that began to emerge soon after that class, still excites and drives me today.
The journey has been full of ups and downs—enriching volunteer work using coaching skills informally in prisons, in a homeless shelter, and coaching folks seeking employment through the Urban League; meaningful work teaching coaching skills in community settings in Battle Creek Michigan, in local schools, and in nonprofits in New York City; but also, frustrating times of wanting to spread the work further and hitting roadblocks. It’s so easy to miss the progress, when I focus on the obstacles.
And then, last February 2017, a somewhat different vision began taking root in me. One that startled, excited and scared me all at the same time. One that was full of promise for the community, and also transformed my anguish about the results of the US Presidential election and fear of what was to come, into possibility for empowered action. And while it is not coaching per se, coaching skills and the things I’ve learned as a coach are infused throughout it. I call it the Sankofa Project.
The word Sankofa refers to an Asante Adinkra symbol in Ghana. One of the representations of this symbol is a bird with its head turned backwards carrying an egg in its mouth. It was this symbol that frequently caught my attention during my trip to Ghana in 2008. When I asked our guide what it meant, I was told it means "Go back and fetch it." This symbol has special meaning for me as a coach of African descent committed to community change. For me it means go back and fetch the indigenous wisdom of our ancestors/our heritage and bring it into the present and the future in support of community change.
The Sankofa Project is a series of educational co-learning modules taught by members of the community who share their gifts with a gathered group and invite in the wisdom and experiences of the participants. Sankofa starts with the premise that each of us has unique gifts to share in community. When we come together we co-create a learning community that focuses on healing and wholeness for individuals, youth, families, and communities, and also supports engagement and action at the local level and beyond. While my part is to co-launch this locally, I see it as a movement that can and will spread to other communities in the US and around the world.
In many ways this project has followed a path similar to the ones I see in my clients and coaches-in-training. There was the exciting idea that called me forth, the fear and limiting beliefs about it, the naysayers and the cheerleaders, and my own journey through resistance, procrastination and delay tactics. The process has brought me to the current place where I say a resounding YES to launching this work that is calling me forth.
As coaches and as clients, we have visions that inspire us, and we also experience resistance at times to moving forward toward our true life calling and goals. Our clients also come into coaching with hopes, dreams, and visions partly or clearly formed. They also come with shadow parts and old stories that get in the way. Through coaching, we support clients to connect boldly with their visions and innate power, while also looking underneath at the things that get in the way—the fear, resistance, limiting beliefs and shadow parts.
For the past year, I’ve found endless reasons to delay the project launch. When I looked deeper, I easily saw my limiting beliefs that were blocking progress were tied to old stories and old wounds. The limiting beliefs: I don’t know how or where to start, I’m too old, the project will fail, no one will come, people will think it’s a terrible idea and won’t support it, it’s too big, it’s impossible, people will think I’m crazy. Maybe I am crazy to even think this is possible. Oh, and I don’t have time, I’m too busy. Endless variations on the same theme with an end result of “Don’t do it—at least not now!!”
When I began to shine light on the limiting beliefs, I discovered old stories. I have an old story of not belonging—of feeling different or odd or that I don’t fit in. When I look underneath the surface of this story I see it is a shadow part—a young child part that was teased for being smart at school, embarrassed by a gym teacher who commented publicly on my awkwardness, the kid who was picked last for softball because I couldn't hit the ball, and the kid who sensed and saw things that others seemed to not see and felt different as a result. And add to that the media messages and life experiences that conspired to have me believe that my skin color and my hair were impediments, not assets. That somehow, I was not smart enough or normal enough or right enough. These old beliefs and the emotions connected to them get entrenched, and even reinforced by internalized oppression related to racism.
Coaching skills reconnect us to our power. They help us see that the old stories do not still have to control us. That we don’t have to stay small to fit in the boxes of society's definitions of success or even of our own cultural norms. We are meant to bring our gifts fully into the world.
So lately, I’ve been sitting with the pure emotions and detaching them from the stories. When I set the stories aside, I sit with and notice anger or fear or resistance and where and how they live in my body. I can sit with and get curious about the judgment—mine and others’—and notice: how is it showing up in my cells? What does it look like, what color is it, how big is it really? I can sit with my young wounded little girl and let her know I hear her and see her, and also that I’ve got this. When I connect with the pure feelings separated from the story—noticing them without judgment—things shift and power returns.
When I look through this new lens, there is compassion and clarity of purpose, and also just clearer vision. Where my inner critic had me believe the world was conspiring against me, I now see love and partnership and commitment. I am discovering that my gifts are seen and valued, and that I see and value the gifts of others. And in this process, I’m discovering boldness and daring that is returning me to the unstoppable woman that I always believe I am at heart. And now finally, instead of focusing on the disempowering old stories and beliefs, I am connecting with others who also see the vision and say “Yes. Let’s do it!” I value the journey as a learning experience, and I know with every cell in my body that there are enough of us who are willing and ready to collaborate and co-create change! We’re doing it!
“The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.” —Alice Walker
About the author:
Sharon Y. Brown, MS, PCC is a Certified Professional Coach, who helps people achieve their professional and personal goals. Drawing on 25 years of corporate experience, she trains coaches and also teaches coaching skills in workplace, school and community settings that enhance communication and collaboration. Sharon is committed to coaching in support of social change and has developed a multicultural coaching curriculum. Learn more about Sharon at www.collaboratechange.com