UMBC Mic'd Up

The Grace to Learn - A Community Leadership Perspective

July 12, 2021 UMBC Mic'd Up with special guest Michele Conner Season 1 Episode 12
UMBC Mic'd Up
The Grace to Learn - A Community Leadership Perspective
Show Notes Transcript

One of the crucial things that community leadership does is it brings people from a lot of different lenses together. It opens up and makes possible conversations and allows for communities to find that common space where problems are addressed, understood, and can come closer to being solved. UMBC graduate student, Michele Conner shared this deeply important insight with us in a recent interview, as well as many more.

Tune in to hear how community leadership has given her a new perspective - the grace to learn and to do work that matters.

About UMBC's Graduate Program in Community Leadership
The Community Leadership programs at UMBC prepare aspiring and practicing leaders with the skills and experience needed to generate transformative social change. The interdisciplinary program emphasizes highly applied coursework, relationship building, and hands-on practical experiences which are essential components for developing strong leadership skills. 


Dennise Cardona  0:00  
Welcome to this episode of UMBC mic'd up. My name is Dennise Cardona from the Office of professional programs. We're joined by community leadership graduate student, Michele Connor. We hope you enjoy this episode. Thank you so much for being here with us today. Michelle, really appreciate you taking the time. 

Michele Conner  0:19  
My pleasure. 

Dennise Cardona  0:21  
So if you could just talk a little bit about why did you choose to apply to the community leadership program? Start with that first, why did you Why did you decide to apply?

Michele Conner  0:34  
Well, I always enjoyed learning. So I always thought that advanced degrees would be a part of my life. But things happen, and I made some choices. I was home with my children when they were little, I have two undergraduate degrees, but didn't at that time move on to advanced degrees, though I was always doing something. So my first official paid job was a farm labor for my father, that was my official first paid job. And then there were lots of volunteer jobs that I did fundraising for various community. Organizations, I would run fundraising events, I did talks for historical societies, there were lots of volunteer things I did when I wasn't getting paid. But my paying jobs include supervisory jobs, I worked at the Applied Physics Lab. In the early early stages of my career, I did retail management. Most recently, before coming to UMBC, I managed children's programs at a church. So I was trying to think of what would take all of that background? And what can I take that whole background, my undergrad degrees are in psychology and economics. So how do I take all of that, wrap it into something? What could be useful at UMBC, you know, to further you mbcs mission. And then let's be honest, I'm a non traditional student. So at 58, I'm not looking at another 30 years of a career, I'm looking at maybe another 1520 years, and then I'm gonna go back to my, my volunteer portion of my life. So I was looking for skills that would carry even past the paid career, what could I take into the next phase of my volunteering. And when I looked at all of that past, present, and future, community leadership just jumped out? at me,

Dennise Cardona  2:36  
that is really powerful. First of all, I'm also a non traditional students, I'm right there with you. 51. Yeah, but there's something about being in that learning mode isn't that young and fresh, and it keeps you your finger on the pulse of your career, but also, your your other outlets outside of your career, which I think are so applicable, and so important to be able to bring that that level of learning that level of expertise to those to those areas in our life that actually there really matter that matter just as much as our jobs matter now. And beyond that, I think that you put that so perfectly. It's such a great goal to be able to take what you're learning now apply it to bring it to your job that you have at UMBC. But also look beyond that and see how else can I bring what I'm learning to these other places and make the world a better place?

Unknown Speaker  3:31  
And it keeps your mind sharp? I don't think you ever and I think one of the things as well, that's been intriguing, because I am a little older, probably the oldest in the two classes. But there's a beauty of that age diversity. Youth bring with youth brings with it a certain unbridled optimism. You know, they don't have the jaded attitudes that we sometimes have, and the cynicism You know, we've lost a little hope ever, for our time. But there's that optimism. There's the fresh eyes of youth, the enthusiasm of youth. And then I think I can also bring something to the table in my wisdom, because I have those years of being able to say, well, I've seen this happen before, in 20 years ago, this is the way this was the wave and now we're in this different wave. No, nothing there really isn't anything new under the sun. It's sort of So I love that diversity of age and what everyone brings to the table in a graduate class like this because we have people right out of undergrad people in the middle of their career. People mean more toward the what we like to call the Twilight or you know, there's the everyone brings something to the table.

Dennise Cardona  4:57  
I agree it's at someone's like there's a different lens that We that we all look through, depending on your level of experience with life. And so you come from, like you said, People fresh out of undergrad studies, they have a certain lens and untarnished in a way, if you will. And then there's also people who have that, like, the wisdom of being in a career and having that experience, I would think that that really brings a lot of fresh perspective, and a lot of dynamic conversation and dialogue to the assignments, and especially the group participation part. So it's really, it really creates a rich environment to learn.

Unknown Speaker  5:34  
Right, everyone has different experiences, and I particularly like people who have had experiences with other cultures. Yes, to be able to work that into your learning in your world and not just look at it through the lens of, of the US or the West. I think that is also really particularly important. Absolutely.

Dennise Cardona  5:56  
What did you expect to get out of the program? Or I should say, you're still in the program? So I am sorry, let me rephrase that. What did you What do you expect to gain from studying the Community Leadership Program here at UMBC? 

Michele Conner  6:13  
Well, I will tell you that already, perspectives have changed. I told you that I grew up on a farm, a rural area outside of Baltimore, my impression of Baltimore, sort of formed when I was eight. And I went into a bakery with my mother and witnessed a purse snatching, and I swore I would never go back.

Unknown Speaker  6:38  
Like, oh, this little girl came from the farm, and she's never going into the city again.

Unknown Speaker  6:45  
But, you know, over time, I've spent time in Philadelphia, as my son is studying in Memphis, I spent a lot of time in different cities over over the course of my life, and my view has changed, but particularly where it where it applies to Baltimore, that me we've had meetings in Baltimore, so we've been in Baltimore, in Patterson Park, and other places, the harbor where we federal hill where we got to look and understand the history of Baltimore history that I really never knew. And it's fascinating to hear it, and to see how all the working pieces go together. In addition, from just working with my community partner, you have sort of a partner that you work with in the community. Ask I asked her once, what is the Baltimore that you work with the same Baltimore you see in the media? And she emphatically said, No, it's nothing. There's a resilience. There's something unique about Baltimore, there's beauty. Even in the impoverished neighborhoods, you can see the beauty in the architecture, the beauty in the people the beauty in the resilience, the beauty in the connections and the way that they pull together to make a difference for their city. The she's the media doesn't capture that. And therefore us outsiders don't capture that. So we don't see that part of the city, we don't see what's really there. And so to follow that, when you work in a lot of the things that I worked on a lot of the the nonprofit's that I worked with, were because I had a vested interest in that organization, and whatever they were doing and their mission, that sometimes in community leadership, you are not going to have that vested interest. I'm working with a community organization that I don't live in, in this area, but I want to matter. So then you shift from being sort of an insider to being an ally, or an outsider to being an ally, you're now an ally. So most of us who have worked and particularly worked in leadership positions in our career, we're very much used to being a boss, we're very much leading from that angle, not leading from ally ship. And so for me, at least in the no two courses that I've sort of acted with so far, I think one of the big things that will matter is being able to make that shift from outsider to ally, and from boss, leader to ally leader, those are different, and they're not always easy to make. Yeah, but I think look at it different. You know, your perspective changes, the skills, you're learning changes, and that and you you grow differently as a person. So I think there's kind of this intersection of your academic knowledge, practical skills, and personal change. In moving that

Dennise Cardona  9:50  
There's always something to learn. There, especially like when you come at it from an ally point of view, like you were talking about, an openness to To learn is where that real progress can happen. And that's why that that ally, ship as you put it, right, right, right, that ally ship is so crucial, especially when you're talking about serving communities and serving the world and serving, serving people in general, it's really important to come into it with that openness and that open heart and that willingness to learn and grow along with what you're experiencing. So that's, that's a wonderful, wonderful thing you're doing. What challenged you or surprised you once you started the program?

Unknown Speaker  10:39  
Hmm, well, I think I shared a little bit about just my how much my perceptions of life were challenged. I really lived in a little bit of a bubble. But it wasn't the first time that my perceptions were challenged. I hope that at 50, I mean, I can tell you at 50, I'm not the same person, I was at 40 at 30 2010. When I'm, I hope I'm not the same person I'm going to be it's 70 or 80. I hope that it's and I hope it's getting better. That's, that's the case. So I think really just my perceptions of the world, what we tend to think that everyone has the people have and leaders have everyone's best interest at heart. And it's a little disheartening at times to find that not everyone does. You know, for example, a class I'm in right now we just read a case study on the Flint, Michigan water poisoning. It's harrowing, it just breaks your heart. Think how could decisions have been made, that put profit and money so far above human life? It boggles the brain. But at the same time, before I throw stones, I told you that I also did children's ministries at a church. And while we were asked several parishioners and members, and people who attended the church, very reasons, asked to meet with the staff, one day, and we all sat in a room. And we found out that there were people in our church who were treating others, people who had come in people of color who had come into our church had been treated in a way that truly hurt our hearts. I mean, there were there were tears just flowing, because we had no idea that this was going on under our noses, that someone had looked at someone of color and said, Well, I, I don't think you'll fit in here, you should go somewhere else. And that was a genuine story that someone told us. So it's easy to live life with blinders on, and not look at what's happening. Even if you're trying you might not see. I think the key is when someone brings it to your attention. When you see it when the blinders are taken off. What are you gonna do about it? I can't fix that. I didn't know what's going on before. I can't go back. But now that I know, what can be my part in the solution?

Dennise Cardona  13:24  
Yeah, it brings me to that point of ignorance is not bliss.

Unknown Speaker  13:28  
It's not, it's not. And sometimes it's really it is.

Unknown Speaker  13:33  
It is scary. What we don't know sometimes. So I think once we know, okay, I didn't know before, but I know now. What can I do? And even if we do something, success is never final. You know, we What? We never want to be done looking and saying is there something I'm missing? So I think we're I've missed perspectives personally before. I think this class, this program gives me a broader spectrum, a broader perspective of what's being missed. And what little piece I may be not, I can't fix everything. But is there a little piece that I can work on that I can matter that I can make a difference? And it might just be one person might just be the one person? Yeah, but that's okay. That's one person whose life you know, I made a difference in.

Dennise Cardona  14:29  
Absolutely. It's different today than yesterday. So if you can make a difference in one person's life, isn't that what really matters? Mm hmm. Michelle, what did you learn from your fellow students so far? And and then also from your community partner? So it's kind of a two fold question. But let's start with your fellow students. What have you learned so far from the engagement in the class?

Unknown Speaker  14:52  
Well, I shared with you the beauty of the age difference, the different things that I've learned in that way and I shared with you community partner, that perspective that she was able to provide for me. One of the things that I think I told I shared with you also has been really difficult is the tension of living in the tension of my upbringing versus what I'm learning. And I'm learning that other people didn't have that upbringing, they didn't live in a bucolic, you know, 100 acre farm in the middle of Baltimore,

Unknown Speaker  15:30  
free rein to go wherever they wanted, that wasn't their world.

Unknown Speaker  15:35  
And one of the things that has been really difficult for me is that tension of what I grew up with, and not everyone grew up with that same opportunity, those same privileges, those same advantages. And during the first, this is more of a specific thing. But one of the first, during that my first class in this semester in this program, our family had been granted the status of century farm. Because it had been in my family Maryland does has a century farm designation, if land has been in the same family for 100 years, so. And I was really struggling with that. And I shared it with an African American colleague, we were talking after class, and I was sharing, I don't know how to process I don't know how to process we just had a lesson on land and how so many African Americans were denied land ownership through so many ways. And yet, my family on the same land for 100 years, those are hard to balance. And I said, I don't know how to make sense of it. And she looked at me and said, you cannot let our struggles diminish your joy. They both get to exist. Together. Wow. And that was from the 22 year old. Okay. I think one of the things that I've gotten, as I've shared honestly, is I've been given grace to learn.

Dennise Cardona  17:22  
Like, that's kind of a beautiful thing. That's a beautiful statement. I've been given grace to learn so crazy to learn. Wow, that's a beautiful way to put it. And wow, you know, guilt and shame and those feelings. They're human feeling. So it's part of the human experience. And I think we all feel them to some degree to a certain extent. And that very wise, 22 year old, here, yeah, of yours. Right really puts it into perspective. It kind of reminds me of that survivor guilt in a way, this is a little different, but that that's helped the context, I can understand it is that survivor guilt of being the one who's still alive when somebody else had to suffer and die. And I feel like that person would always say, you cannot die too, because I died. Right? honoring me. That's a known thing. It's not.

Unknown Speaker  18:18  
Yeah, and I think my experience is not. For example, I took a lesson at UMBC, just the other day on language. And I learned that there's a whole new set of pronouns, I didn't even know existed, z 's are endorsed, I didn't even know I had not even heard of them before. So the chance of me making a mistake of calling up using language that I simply am unaware is, is offensive, or I simply am unaware that exists not using something that would be more appropriate. Those are things I simply might not know because of my experience. And because of my age, I'm not in the hip generation that gets all this. And so that grace to learn is really important to me. It matters, it means something. Yeah. And the beauty and I might say a wrong thing. But you're gonna let me be there anyway.

Dennise Cardona  19:17  
The beauty of that, Michele, is that when you get the younger generations who give you the grace, to learn that, to teach us to be able to understand, that's where that real beauty comes in is when there's that connection between one generation and another who one generation understands, hey, you know, you don't, you don't know that. So that is ignorance in a way that is it's not our fault. And they understand that and when, when you can come together and teach each other things. Isn't that beautiful?

Unknown Speaker  19:47  
It is it is. So I think that is really what I've gotten out of the classroom and the community partnership, we've at least kept up a company recession past the semester. So I said to her, I am not meeting with you just to have a fulfilling assignment. If there are things that I can support or help you with afterwards, let me know. So what I'm hoping I got where I'm getting out of the community partnership is a relationship that goes a little beyond just a semester of learning. You know, I, we may not always be able to connect, but at least there there's conversations that are continuing. And if I can be supportive, you know, I certainly will,

Dennise Cardona  20:38  
Can you share who the community partnership with?

Unknown Speaker  20:41  
The No Boundaries Coalition in West Baltimore, they are a coalition of I think it's seven, but I might be wrong, different neighborhoods, but a real diverse group of neighborhoods. And the goal is to bring together to make the connections, part of the reason they started is because you had seven different communities vying for resources, and either wasn't enough resources to go around. But if we banned our self together, and we banned our resources, and Okay, we're all close enough the boundaries, we were close enough that if we all go together for this particular grant, or this particular resource, there will be enough that we can all benefit. You know, even if the if the final product lands in x neighborhood, why neighborhood can benefit? Because it's only three blocks away? Yeah. Do you see what i'm saying instead of every person. So. So it's been really was really interesting to be a part of that. And I think unfortunately, with COVID, there wasn't as much opportunity for me to be there in the middle. But I think what I was able to provide was useful to them. And they have some grants and other things that they need some just some back work on. So I'm hoping I might be able to support them.

Dennise Cardona  22:12  
That's great. Those community partnerships for the community leadership graduate program, are really unique and special, and give students and the community partners, a great opportunity to network together and build something beautiful out of that. I've spoken with a few students, and also community leaders, community partners, and about their stories. And my mind is blown. I just think it's so amazing what's going on in this program. It's just such a deep, deeply rooted experience. That's what it sounds like to me. Could you talk about how you approached your reflection assignments? If you could speak about the reflection assignment? Sure.

Unknown Speaker  22:51  
Well, I shared a bit before that they were honest, I, I viewed them as a personal journal, something that would be read by me and the professors. And I didn't hold back because I felt that if they were only being read by the professors who wasn't likely to offend them. So I was honest. And sometimes they came back with Wow, that's powerful. Sometimes they came back with, you know what, I think you missed something here, or you're missing a piece of the puzzle. You're not seeing the whole piece of the puzzle. So maybe you are looking at it from a perspective, that may not be the best for the population you're trying to serve. Okay, great. I can, I can refocus, I can do that. Again, that's that lifelong learning. But for me, they were very cathartic, because they did allow me to help make sense of what I was learning help make sense of that tension of my past and my present, help make sense of the fact that I was learning that not everyone is nice, and not everyone seeks the good of the whole. So being able to write really, honestly. And you know, being able to just pour feelings out. I took the much more personal level than just reflecting on whether something was true or not true. I took it as a true personal reflection. What How does this matter in my life? What experience do I have in the past that relates to this? What experience do I have in the past that I might have done differently by something new that I learned in this week? What experience do I have the potential to have in the future that this could matter to so that's sort of how I approached them. And that's when. So that's what I'm looking at kind of curating and saying, Well, is there anything here that might have a broader interest than just my world? And I don't know the answer to that.

Dennise Cardona  25:17  
Yeah. It sounds like the, the learning how it supported the learning process is by making it a very applied situation, where it's you're really applying what you've learned in the past what you've experienced in the past, reflecting on that, and then bringing that forward now into, right, your current world,

Unknown Speaker  25:40  
right, it's that intersection of personal growth, academic leadership, and practical skills, that those intersection of those three things to move forward into matter.

Dennise Cardona  25:55  
That's powerful, from a learning perspective, is very powerful. Michelle, what are your views on the importance of personal growth in the community leadership program alongside academic knowledge and practical skills?

Unknown Speaker  26:10  
Well, I think that's that intersection that I just talked about, what beliefs do I hold, that may or may not be true? You know, I do hold that there is truth in the world. If I throw a brick out of a second storey window, it's falling down, it's not falling up. I'm not going to alter that truth. That is truth. But I've learned in this that truth can be there can be absolute truth, and there can be personal truth. Everyone has a narrative, everyone has a different lens, they look at life through my lens has been really idyllic I've had, I just have had a lot of idyllic experiences in my life. I have, I grew up on a farm. I, I our family was tight, we all lived on the farm, we all spent time together. I have lifelong friends and communities that I've lived in that we've stuck together through thick and thin. and knock on wood, not a lot of tragedy be fallen. But not everyone has that lens. And I think the personal growth, particularly from the community leadership program, is the ability to say I'm willing to see your lens, I'm willing to acknowledge that your lens is different than mine. And how can we work together through our different lenses to matter to make a difference, to improve the quality of life for our society, and that, I think is huge. And, and if you take anything away from our recent politicals, hurricane, tornado, whatever it is that somehow we have got to be able to understand someone else's perspective and find the middle ground find the balance to acknowledge I I get that your lens is different. I get that my lens is different. But is there not something of commonality. And even if I look at someone, and this is sort of something I've learned over my lifetime, in dealing with people, particularly in families, and in crisis situations, someone may tell you something. And you may think every bit of it is completely false. But I guarantee you, you can find 5% even if it's just 5% You can find to, to, to, you know, pull a conversation off of to pull something out and say oh, okay, I, I understand that I there's you have to find that 5% you can not focus on the 95. That's different.

Dennise Cardona  29:17  
God, that's great advice. Finding that common ground is what it's really all about.

Unknown Speaker  29:21  
But I think in a community in a one on one conversation with someone, it's not that hard, you can find it if you look for it. You really can. Yeah, and I think that's one of the really crucial things that community leadership does is it brings people from a lot of different lenses together to say what I want to understand your lens. Let me understand your lens and let's find that common space.

Dennise Cardona  29:47  
I can't think of a better statement to close out our conversation this really enlightening, and I've enjoyed it. You've opened my mind and you've got me thinking on so many different new tangents, and I really am grateful to you for that. It's you've brought up some amazing points.

Unknown Speaker  30:07  
Now let's be clear. I'm not always I'm not always successful at all of those.

Unknown Speaker  30:15  
And we all have to one time or another have to go I missed. Absolutely missed.

Dennise Cardona  30:21  
Look, there is nothing wrong with missing the mark and learning from that mistake and learning from that and say No way. Okay, let me try over here. And that's what that's where growth happens. So,

Unknown Speaker  30:31  
but if we can focus on the mark, I think it's, I think it's a good thing. And I think the community leadership program gives us good marks to focus on.

Dennise Cardona  30:41  
So Michele, thank you so much for sharing your story with us here today. Thank you for taking the time to listen to this episode of UMBC Mic'd Up. We hope you enjoyed it. If you'd like to learn more about UMBC's graduate program in community leadership, please visit us at

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