January 5th, 2017
David Williams, Leadership Memphis President/CEO, recently asked past participants to share their experiences in the program – what was memorable to them, even transformative – what was meaningful to them, even redemptive.
I thought about a story I’ve told before about skinny-dipping. Then I thought of another about people from housing projects and suburban neighborhoods, very different people from very different places.
Then I realized that all of that is the same story about the same place.
David shared it in the recent Leadership Memphis newsletter, and I’m sharing it here to begin a new year in a very real city.
As published in The Memphis Daily News, January 6, 2017, and The Memphis News, January 7-13, 2017
NAKED, AND UP TO SOMETHING.
Of the occasions I’ve been skinny-dipping, only one had any class to it. I reprise that story as a reminder that this city truly values reality over pretense, and that is the measure of our worth.
My 1982 Leadership Memphis class held their closing retreat at Pickwick. After I shared a friend’s story about a previous retreat ending in late night skinny-dipping, the entire class headed for the dock to continue the tradition. Leaving our clothes in a quick pile, two of us – she will remain nameless – were in the lake immediately. As it turns out, the other 48 remained ashore; content to have us represent the class and, judging from their laughter, quite happy about it. We swam to a lonelier, darker dock and eased out of the water with a wide-eyed fisherman’s help – his jacket, and those wide eyes, went to her and all I got was an oily tarp.
While leading by example doesn’t necessarily cause everyone to follow, I was elected alumni president and we both went on the board. After all, we had nothing to hide.
The point – beyond jumping naked into lakes – is the freedom, awareness, and empowerment that come from loss of pretense, from knowing exactly who and what you’re dealing with, and knowing they know that about you, too.
That Leadership Memphis class began clothed in their respective colors and attitudes, dressed to the nines in custom-fit roles and tailored assumptions. By the closing retreat, all of that had changed because our view had changed, all of us able to see past the surface trappings.
A couple of folks in that class come to mind, on the surface as superficially different as our predetermined boundaries. One was a neighborhood organizer, a struggling African-American mother living in the projects trying to make sense out of that life, to make something more. She was black, loud and proud. Really. One was a bright white suburbanite all the way up to his starched white shirt and at least as stiff, president of his neighborhood association, politically connected, astute. He was right. Very.
When the class got started these two had already marked each other for a tussle or two over the coming months and, sure enough, when the class ended they had broken out into a knockdown, drag-out, no-holds-barred … hug.
She had something she needed to propose to city council, something to get passed, but she didn’t have a clue how to proceed. He took it on, not taking it over, but taking both of them somewhere together. With him, she got it written, proposed and passed. With her, he found a larger Memphis, larger reasons to be involved.
At the end of that Leadership Memphis class, all of us could see the whole city, warts and all, and we could see us in it together. By then, while just two jumped in the lake, all of us were metaphorically skinny-dipping.
I’m a Memphian, and you haven’t seen Memphis until you’ve seen it all.