Executive Director Fellowship Reflection: Niles Brooks
I consider myself a pioneer — I’m oftentimes the first to do everything in my family — go to college, move out of the city, live abroad, the list runs long — I’m slowly tearing down generational curses rooted in structural oppression each day and it’s a very, very arduous and lonely journey. I didn’t have anyone in my circle to give me the answers to the test, but I grew up in an environment that taught me to how to learn fast — and that’s how I survived. I had to learn for myself how to maneuver in these kinds of spaces, to finagle through systems that weren’t really cut out for me. Blue Future offered me my first real opportunity to show who I was and what I brought to the table and why that was unique — to be in a position of authority where I move in whatever direction I feel best — not bend towards the will of others.
Rather than taking the money and bumping their salaries, Morgan and Nick put their money where their mouth was, carving out an opportunity for 2 young organizers to exercise their leadership skills. It’s one of the many reasons why I took this job so seriously — opportunity. I hail from a place where opportunity is scarce — we’re too busy surviving. I’ve never had any “real leadership” practice, which in turn, made me feel like I had no authority or voice in these spaces. Coming in, I knew I had all the prerequisites to be an outstanding leader — grit, determination, a compelling story — I never had the opportunity to polish those skills and more importantly — mesh them together and apply it in a real world setting.
I learned a lot over the course of my time here. Listed are some of the more important lessons, ones which I’ll be taking with me in the next chapter of my professional career — and passing it forward, so others can relish in the opportunity too:
When at first you don’t succeed at piloting a new program, try, try again.
When looking to expand our alumni membership program, I was too quick to shift gears. I learned that there needs to be at least 4 points of communication before shifting gears and trying something new. In a world that lauds creativity and experimentation, this was a valuable lesson learned.
Test different work environments!
My six months at Blue Future provided me the unique opportunity to test different workspaces. On some occasions, I’d be at home. Other times, I’d be at my grandparents’, or Starbucks, even at friends’ places when out of town. Having this kind of variety gave me a sense of what to look for in a virtual working space. It was also a nice introduction into the new age of “virtual organizing”. I’m glad I got a chance to experience this now (as opposed to later in life).
Finding small breaks in between calls to rest and relax.
Breaks are very important in this work. Oftentimes, I found myself taking a quick recharge nap in between projects and meetings each day. Turns out, this is super healthy and a model that many successful companies have adopted in the workplace. I remember hearing from friends who interned at Microsoft about having beds and an Xbox in the break room for relax time — must be nice.
Being able to rest is one of the unspoken benefits of working from home. It can also be a curse. Sometimes, it was tempting to lie in bed, especially after long days but I exercised great discipline and found spaces that were not a bedroom to resume work — even the kitchen sometimes. After a few weeks at Blue Future, it became second nature to insert breaks in between work. Snack break here, grocery store visit here, World Cup watching there, etc. These breaks were vital — they not only kept me fresh and engaged, but also emphasized the importance of intentionally planning them throughout my day. Burnout culture is real.
How do you lead meetings where partners are interested in you rather than vice versa?
Ahh, the psychology of meetings in the nonprofit world. It was a fascinating experience being in a position where WE were the ones being lobbied. It was a balancing act for sure — how do we incorporate what others want without compromising our well-being and goals? Honestly, I feel like I failed (which is not a bad thing and makes for a great learning lesson). I wish I would’ve been more direct in communicating our goals before even taking a meeting. That would’ve made the conversations more transparent. I felt pressured into taking a meeting with potential partners, even though they needed to send out more information and directly communicate their needs first. I held two meetings with one partner, one of which lasted over an hour and a half, and nothing came of it. When being lobbied by a potential partner, be direct with what you want. Don’t take a meeting unless you’re absolutely interested and want clarification on the minutia. After every meeting, have a few takeaways that can be shared with the potential partner, so both parties leave on the same page and are not left wondering.
Learning Sendgrid code.
This is a tool that I added to my repertoire that wasn’t expected, but needed. Sendgrid helped us send out newsletters and emails in mass. In order to do this, though, you had to learn a few coding tricks. I learned the basic principles of taking code from one software (Sendgrid) and transferring it into another (Airtable). I also learned how to do this efficiently (Command A,C, and V were my BFFs). I didn’t grow up with a lot of technology, so maybe this sounds dumb to the average person, but this rudimentary experience proved tremendous to my growth. I always counted myself out when it came to learning code or excel. This was a nice reminder that I can accomplish just about anything with practice, patience, and a little perseverance. Towards the end of my tenure at Blue Future, I could easily Sendgrid a few emails — no problem! Most importantly, though, I learned about the intersection of politics and computer science and why it’s salient in this day and age. In order to be an effective leader in progressive politics nowadays, you must be competent in both (to a certain extent).
Failing many times before finally finding the right system and infrastructure.
My duties required a lot of second and third order thinking — ruminating and planning around the consequences of our actions in a deep way so that we’re prepared for what’s to come beyond the initial outcome. I practiced this so many times I lost count. I found it strange how it seeped into my personal life too — especially when making arrangements with others. One of the more important takeaways from this lesson was striving towards creating a “sustainable system”. Can I not only anticipate the obstacles that I will face, but others who follow in my footsteps too? It took almost 2 weeks of plugging away before we were able to finally decide on a concrete system to adopt for the creation (and dissemination) of our newsletter. I’ve been doing the same, especially as of late, for our alumni membership and cohort programs. The big question — how do we build programs sustainably with sound infrastructure, so others can pick up where we left off?
Managing projects and delegating tasks is hard.
Sounds easy, right? Nope. As a leader, I think you have to be a psychologist — what makes a certain individual tick and what doesn’t? Our podcast editor may respond differently to instruction than that of our graphic designer or intern. How do I create a nurturing environment where they feel comfortable sharing their ideas and concerns? How do I eliminate the sense of power and establish a little healthier “equals” dynamic? Can I find a balance between having structure and not capping the creative abilities of the intern and graphic designer? I felt like I had to wear different hats depending on the setting I was in. I’d play “Robin” when helping support a member of the leadership team. When leading the podcast and creating programs that support our alum, I evolve until “Batman”. When meeting with alumni, I’m following their lead and listening to what they have to say. In leaderships discussions on Thursday, I’m a pupil one moment, and the next, a facilitator. I learned that a lot of leadership boils down to knowing when to step up and lead, and also knowing when to take a step back and follow. There’s a fine line between the two sometimes — there are moments when I wish I would’ve stepped up and other times when I should’ve deferred!
Launched in the summer of 2022, Blue Future’s Executive Director Fellowship was a six-month program for two leaders to serve as Executive Directors while participating in expert-led, community-focused leadership training and coaching on a variety of topics. Some topics we focused on were strategic planning, strength assessments, conflict resolution, civil resistance, second-order thinking, critical race theory, and organizational behavior. To continue fulfilling our core mission of developing progressive political leadership, we intend to continue this fellowship in the future!