Beyond 26.2: Life’s Marathon

I had planned to run the NY Marathon Sunday afternoon.  I’d looked forward to riding the bus to the start with my dear friend Alison Boyd Gelles, and running the race with my wonderful sister, Kafi (with Ali running six and seven minute splits, there was no way we could hope to actually keep up with her!).  The marathon represented something bigger to me personally than a foot race….it represented a chance to test myself body and mind….and the ultimate opportunity to prove the resilience of the human spirit–mine in particular.
During a grave illness and the recovery that followed, I lost some part of myself and for the first time began to experience real fear–fear especially of my mortality, the finiteness of life.  I felt powerless in the face of a life threatening health crisis, and a recovery that competed with my capacity (and desire) to make a contribution….to effect positive change in the world.  Angry that my body had failed me–I felt like I could no longer trust myself.  I lost confidence, and was suddenly and constantly hesitant, tepid, nervous–all traits completely out of character…. my light blew out ushering in an exceptionally difficult and dark period for me, my family and my closest friends.  
Since recovering, I have zealously pursued life, meanwhile rebuilding my spirit, regaining my confidence….my surefootedness; having become intimately familiar with the crippling, demotivating, life sucking nature of fear, I’ve consciously chosen to be governed not by that menace, but rather faith, hope, love and charity.  Running the marathon alongside my sister–who was also at my side throughout my hospitalizations in Colorado and New York–for me, it represented the culmination of three years of really hard work to be healthy, live fully, put love in the world with every effort, every gesture…. and to assure myself that in fact, I have overcome the most personally difficult period in my life so far….
I trained, and I trained, first attempting shorter races, testing myself, building up to half marathons….and training most of this summer, in order to do nothing more than finish on Sunday.  No matter how hard I was working, or where in the world I was, I managed to get my runs in….including 20 miles in San Francisco one morning, immediately preceding what ended up being 12 straight hours of business meetings.  During all of this I began to truly grasp, with every heartbeat, every pulse, every foot strike, that I am alive and free again, in much the same way I’d felt in the years preceding the day my blood stopped flowing.  Indeed I felt not only alive, but that life is the ultimate gift, and with that come many responsibilities.  
Then a mean girl named Sandy blew into town attempting to drown our joie de vivre and darkening, albeit temporarily, our spirits.  And what was once an exercise in proving my own resilience and humanity….suddenly felt like a foolhardy, selfish, wrong pursuit…my sister and I felt very deeply that we should be spending our time helping others, those without power, those without food….those who lost everything and have zero shot of getting it back anytime soon.  We were shaken by videos of the ravaged Staten Island, where the race was to begin–and of the Jersey Shore, where I’ve spent many weekends with generous friends (and where many friends continue to live).  Our hearts broke for the people of Breezy Point–their homes and possessions burnt to ashes–and all of those throughout New York and New Jersey who unlike us, didn’t have friends, or resources, to get through the aftermath of Sandy easily.  
We’d wondered how our beloved adopted city was going to pull this off….whether it would be safe, whether it was fair to already exhausted first responders, whether it was an appropriate use of resources….it seemed unfair also to the thousands of runners who withdrew from the race because of Sandy, and to the many New York based runners who’d gone through a week of personal hell, powerless, displaced, uncertain….to say nothing of the hundreds, if not thousands of households who’d lost everything.  
We began to challenge our assumption that our run might serve as inspiration to those suffering….there is one thing I am sure of….when suffering is acute, and just experienced, there is very little that’s inspirational.  And without a doubt, we knew there would be few people cheering (and perhaps many people jeering) along the sidelines; an event that typically brings the whole of the city together and is the ultimate show of will, had become a source of bitter division, at a time when we need to work together.  We should be so lucky to run, while so many suffered. At once a test of our perseverant humanity, running was suddenly beginning to feel like an exercise of arrogant, frivolous inhumanity. 
Still, I am disappointed I won’t get to run on Sunday.  I put my heart into training….because it meant so very much to me.  But I’m also deeply saddened by the devastation experienced by my city, my neighbors, my friends.  And so I support the decision to cancel the race.  It is the right thing to do.   
Prior to the race’s cancellation, I had privately committed myself to a minimum of 50 hours of service to help Sandy victims (and that does not include the refugee population who’ve been in and out of my apartment this week powering and showering)….and what I’m very glad about, notwithstanding my considerable disappointment over the event’s cancellation, is that I can begin that service on Sunday morning.  I hope other would be marathoners will join me; and that those of us who’d already picked up our race packets will proudly wear our orange “MARATHONER” shirts whilst volunteering….because one thing I’ve learned is that you don’t have to complete the race to show you’re a survivor…..and for me personally,  the fact of survival means I have certain responsibilities….right now, the responsibility to help ensure the survival and prosperity of those weakened by the storm–of those experiencing the very same despair I felt when I thought I’d lost everything.   
This is an amazing city.  There is zero doubt that as we recovered from 9/11, the 2003 blackout, and so many other challenges over the last fifteen years, that New York and the people of New York will rebound again, stronger, wiser, with greater communal purpose….I am but one survivor in a city of survivors.  New York’s story is mine and my story is New York.

Powerhouses of Awesome: Womensphere Summit 2012 Remarks, as prepared September 27, 2012

Good morning everybody!

Critical to the evolution of our global society, is the full and complete participation of women in every sector, in every sphere.  Indeed, since society can only be so great as the sum of all of its parts, we have no choice but to unleash the productive capacity and potential of every part of society, in particular, the power of women.

There is much good news—more women than ever are in the workforce, earning graduate degrees, rising to positions of leadership within their firms and their businesses, there are increasing numbers of women breadwinners, women entrepreneurs and investors entering the marketplace—and we are helping to change the way business is conceived and executed, reminding the world that capitalism should be about the prosperity of humanity, as opposed to merely a tool of greed and consumption…

We have achieved so much, but as some have pointed out, there are prospective fault lines in our progress.  I think we can, and must, work more closely together, if we are to unleash our individual and collective potential. Critically, we must endeavor to develop stronger relationships with each other and commit to nurturing and supporting our respective pursuits–to building an extraordinary, genuine community.

Consider that the inclusion of women and minorities in positions of power and leadership, while a net positive for society, is also one of the greatest disruptions we’ve ever experienced in the social order.  As we know, prior to the fuller inclusion of women and minorities in leadership positions, power had been held and shared, be it in corporations or government, among white men, who, for the most part, knew each other.

They went to the same schools, participated in the same fraternities, eating clubs and societies, lived together in the same residential colleges, golfed at the same clubs, talked shop with one another in the bathroom, even.  They easily met for nightcaps over which they discussed deals, or critical pieces of legislation.

By the time they started ascending to positions of responsibility, authority and leadership, they had the kinds of relationships that generated trust, loyalty; they had intimate knowledge of one another that fostered mutual respect, and made it possible to work together, to get deals done, to compromise where compromise might have been needed.

But those cozy, exclusive relationships were meant to be disrupted; and surely they have been with the entrance of women and minorities into positions of power and leadership….the difficulty though is that the newest leaders do not yet know each other well enough, we have not yet had the time to build a genuine community, to develop deep meaningful relationships with each other, or even with the previous generations of leadership, some of whom might approach the newest leaders with some amount of skepticism and suspicion.

And complicating matters further, the world has grown infinitely more complex, and the increasingly diverse occupants of power, who may no longer even live within proximity of one another though being called to work together, have not had the time to cultivate relationships that eliminate fear, and generate productive trust.

It is both poetic and ironic, that one of the greatest leadership challenges of the modern world, is overcoming the inadvertent cost of one of our society’s greatest successes, namely the increased, though not yet perfect, degree of inclusiveness that has record numbers of women running for Congress this cycle, that has enabled women like me to be and become partners in global law firms, a pregnant Marissa Mayer to get tapped as the Chief Yahoo!, for Hillary Clinton to be not the first, but the third woman to become Secretary of State….and so on…

The complexity of today’s world however, is not an insurmountable obstacle.  With that complexity there are a number of tools, some based in technology, some based in our humanity, on which we can rely to build stronger, more productive relationships among one another.

For example, we should engage with the power of the social web.  Social media, of course, cannot solve all of our problems, it cannot itself integrate women fully into businesses, law firms, banks, institutions of higher learning, government…and so forth….and of course it is no substitute for real, in person, engagement when that it is possible.

But social media is an exceptionally useful tool….a time saver, when used correctly, it allows for and enables a level of advocacy, interaction, and the possibility of relationship building in ways never before imagined.  Indeed, the once pervasive anonymity of the internet is rapidly dissipating….the barriers to social interaction have dropped dramatically, facilitating a kind of inescapable openness and with that, a prospect for vulnerability and responsible sharing that enables stronger relationships, dramatically increased trust levels, and the opportunity for coalition building and collaboration among people who may otherwise not have had the same opportunity for relationship building without it.

The social web enables busy professionals who may not live or work near each other, to continue to develop their relationships between meetings, conferences and events, to develop that essential trust, and to maintain the ties that are so incredibly important to critical problem solving and the achievement of business, social and legislative objectives…. No matter where they live, or where they are located.

Similarly, social media allows younger women to get to know me, and me to get to know them—this dramatically enhances my ability to successfully mentor and advise young women—and by using skype, google hangouts, and a variety of other tools, I’m able to spend more time, more effectively, when needed, with more young women mentees who are counting on us–looking to us–to help navigate their futures, to stand by and support them as they figure out who they are, and what they are capable of becoming.

And lastly social media allows us to share information about opportunities with a broader cross section of women than may be immediately available to us in our contact lists.  To wit, every single time I hear about a job opportunity, which frankly appears to be more than a few times a week, I post and share it….last May, when many student mentees were looking for jobs, I was able to help countless women connect with employers for positions they love, by the way, but would no doubt not have known about, had it not been for sharing.

We’ve got to make a commitment to bring other women along with us.  We might not always be able to say “yes”….but our answer does not have to be simply “no.”  When I first started gaining public recognition for my work, showing up on a list here, obtaining a small honor there, suddenly, my once quiet phone was always and constantly ringing off the hook: “Binta, can you speak here, can you serve on my board, can you be on my committee, on my commission….”  Binta, Binta, Binta, can you, can you, will you, will you….It was as if I was the only woman, the only young woman, the only young black woman, anyone had ever heard of….

I won’t lie.  At first, the invitations were flattering.  But then I realized, I could not possibly say “yes” to all of the opportunities crossing my desk.  Ah, the complexity…and perversity, of choice… especially when confronted with the obvious limitations of our individual humanity.  We have to, as Barnard College President Debora Spar so persuasively wrote in a piece published by the Daily Beast earlier this week….we have to get comfortable with being imperfect, with saying no…and moving on.

But it wasn’t just that I couldn’t possibly say “yes” to everything—I was also mildly annoyed by some of the overtures, it simply could not be that I was the only qualified, young woman capable of fulfilling various demands and needs.

So my answer became “No, I cannot….but….my friend Stephanie can, Sarah can, Valerie might, Jennifer would be interested, Julie is amazing….”  We all have powerful networks of qualified friends, who might not yet be on people’s lists, but who are extraordinary and capable and ready for the challenge….and whether we’re aware of various opportunities or not, we have a responsibility, I think, to help other women out, to bring them along with us.

As former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright is so oft quoted, there is indeed a special place in hell for women who do not help other women…. And in a world that I believe is requiring us to move away from models of zero-sum, non-productive, jarring, destructive competition, towards collaboration and cooperation, we have no choice BUT to help our sisters get to where they are capable of going.  One thing I know with certainty?  There is space, indeed there is the need, for multiple women at every table—be it in the kitchen, or the boardroom.  Today, we know better than to subscribe to the obvious fallacy of scarcity, that might have once caused us to bitterly compete against one another—thinking there was space for only one woman to succeed.

We must also avoid the habits of mind that sometimes cause us to think we are not capable, that we are not good enough—habits of mind that diffuse our individual and collective power, that allow us to doubt and question ourselves to the point of paralysis.  The math is in our favor, the time is ripe, the ascendance of women as full participants in every sector of society all but certain…but that doesn’t mean it’s just going to happen….no, on the contrary….the forward progress of women requires, in addition to helping and supporting one another, that we never ever allow ourselves to give up or to give in to those fears and insecurities that can plague even the most confident and resilient of us….the forward progress of women, and achieving parity where parity is needed and optimal, requires us to have the confidence to assert ourselves, defeating obstacles when they emerge.

The world needs, and is desperate for our collective ingenuity, talent and energy.  We don’t have to ask that the odds be in our favor, because one thing is certain—they are.  Let’s continue to use today and everyday to build coalitions of amazing women, nurturing, supporting, helping one another, breaking down barriers together, carrying each other on our shoulders, and lifting one another as we climb—let’s each of us, in our own way be “powerhouses of awesome,” working together to weave a web so strong that when we fall, we bounce back achieving even greater heights, empowered by the strength and the prevalence of our extraordinary selves, by the strength of our humanity…because then, I have no doubt, we will have achieved that remarkable project of creating the needed, positive change the evolution our global society so urgently demands.

Thank you. Enjoy lunch!