By Garrett Mayberry
Voice shaking, I begin asking the first interview question, “This region is a laboratory for the—”
“You’re mistaken,” interrupts Valerie, the local director for a large Brazilian foundation. “Our region is not a ‘laboratory’ that exists for outsiders like you to come, make assumptions, try to fix things, and leave. It is a place with people, with animals, with trees where you can find experiences, initiatives, dreams—it is like anywhere.”
Taken aback by her reaction, I freeze. Just moments into my first interview, I have offended our interview subject. Luckily, my local colleague Leo intervenes and smoothes things over. The meeting ends on a positive note, but I have re-learned a valuable lesson: Leadership begins with listening.
The summer after my freshman year of college, I traveled to Bahia, Brazil to conduct research alongside my brother Colin, my professor, and a local student named Leo. After a sleepless first night which included chasing—and subsequently losing track of—a tarantula somewhere under my bed, groggy, I traveled the next day to meet with local nonprofit leaders to define the research our team would conduct over the next eight weeks. As we sat down for our first meeting, I expected my professor to explain some of our research interests. However, the very first question she asked the local nonprofit leaders around the table defined my summer and changed my life: “What can we offer you?”
For the next eight weeks, I helped interview local nonprofits, with the assurance that our research was needed by and valuable to the local community. That first conversation with Valerie stayed with me throughout the trip. Her criticism had been entirely valid: I made a mistake because I tried to serve without listening first. She helped me understand that when I arrived, I was an outsider, a person who, despite having research tools to offer, had no right to make assumptions without first developing relationships. Over the course of my eight weeks in the Atlantic Rainforest of Brazil, I didn’t always take the correct approach, but the challenge of each new day and conversation presented plenty of unique opportunities to improve. The moments to listen first extended beyond interviews to discussing politics in a candle-lit rainforest cabin with my new friend Leo, tutoring local elementary students in English, and trying to find a woman named Patricia and ending up with a car trunk full of coconuts (that’s a long story for another time). The point is that eight weeks in Brazil profoundly changed my life.
This epiphany not only led me to connect with other people, but also made me curious to pursue a Fellowship at El Pomar and a potential career path in the nonprofit/philanthropy sector.
In my first year as a Fellow at El Pomar Foundation, I’ve seen the lessons of Brazil exemplified in the mission of the Foundation. When the Penrose family created El Pomar to operate in perpetuity, their promise was not only to respond to the needs of the community of the time, but to meet the needs of future Coloradans. How has the Foundation managed to adapt to the changing needs of our state while staying true to its mission for nearly a century? Listening. This commitment to listening to the needs of Coloradans is one of the most exciting aspects of my role in the El Pomar Fellowship, and something I strive to improve upon every day.
As Fellows, we are often prompted to think about our next steps after the Fellowship. My genuine (and somewhat ambiguous) goal is to inspire and promote the potential I see within the communities and people around me. I have witnessed how leadership grounded in listening and service can illuminate such opportunities in Colorado and beyond. Wherever my next steps take me, I know that asking “What I can offer?” will ensure I’m serving in the right place, with open ears and an open heart.