06/11/2012 06:21 pm ET Updated Aug 11, 2012

What Did You Want to Be When You Were 8 Years Old?: Learning to All Sit Together on the Carpet

When I taught first grade, my favorite part of the day was gathering my students around for morning meeting. I would sit them on the carpet, and would allow them each one minute to talk about whatever they wanted (it's ironic that I now play this "one-minute game" with adults). While they were talking about ANYTHING they wanted, the other students in the class could not interrupt, but could snap their fingers and say "ditto" if they agreed with something.

This allowed for each mini individual to share what was on their mind, and what made them feel a certain way before the rest of the day began, so that I was then able to incorporate all of their stories into the lessons that I would teach later that day. This created a trusting community where each student felt that they could be open with each other and share what was on their minds. I was able to learn that one student's parents were going through a divorce, while another student felt sad because she was bullied on the playground the day before, and rather than letting these feelings fester inside each individual, we were able to create an environment where we shared what was making us happy or sad that day with each other. As a young 21-year-old student teacher, I even shared stories about the way I felt that day, and we created a language between us that bound us together by our different and similar experiences.

This created an environment of lessons. Students were speaking the same language now, understanding where each other was coming from, why they acted a certain way and could respect and learn from each other as well as from me because we had created this trusting environment based on our own stories. The combination of all of these stories started making its way into all of my lessons, from math to science, to applying them to our classroom community and their understanding of the world. Yes, this may seem a little bit of an ideal situation. Even while writing this, it seems a bit "Kumbaya" to me, but I experienced it and it changed me as a person. Now as I go on this journey of figuring out who I am and helping others find themselves, I realize that I am pretty much just a first grader looking for answers and looking to tell my story, as well as a teacher listening to others and helping them tell their story. While I was able to bring all of my different learners together onto one carpet to make sure they treated each other with respect and love, who is doing that for us in real life?

Thinking about this first grade classroom school analogy brings me back to my days on the playground; when the boys would chase the girls, and while some students played dodgeball, others would watch on the sidelines or pretend to be power rangers or super heroes or princesses. It sometimes took a teacher to intervene to make sure that "everyone played nice." While students were able to click off to who they felt were their best friends that day during recess, it was the teacher's job to make sure that in the classroom, everyone felt like part of the community and that no one felt left out. Recess was the time to go after your hobbies on your own, make decisions about who you wanted to run around with, but when you got back into the classroom and sat on the carpet, you were brought back to this community of understanding and respect. In my day to day life, I try to surround myself with as many different people as possible. If I am an expert in anything, I am an expert in connecting people. I listen to people's stories and hear what they want and need and connect them to others I think would help them. Essentially, I am trying to bring all the children together on the carpet.

The only problem is in the bigger scheme of things, New York City is a playground filled with a lot of different children and no one is creating a "language of understanding." The bankers play on one side of the fence; the nonprofits play on the other; the startups are playing dodge ball while the hipsters are playing pretend. All of this different jargon in our everyday jobs and lives disconnect us from each other. We use words that are so specific to our fields and (net)work even while we are "playing" that we ostracize others from getting to know the real us. I came to this epiphany while speaking to this amazing woman, Sasha Fisher, who started this high-impact nonprofit, Spark Microgrants. She was about to go on an interview to win an award that was being offered by a major television network. We met because a friend of mine put us in touch and thought she could use some coaching before the interview. I started off the conversation by asking her what her story was in one minute. As a true genius who is on the grounds in Rwanda helping to support rural poor communities to design, implement and manage their own social impact projects, she spent 36 seconds of the minute telling me about what makes Spark Microgrants such an efficient and affective nonprofit and used a lot of jargon that I only knew because of my wonderful friends in the nonprofit space.

I looked at this beautiful, amazingly gifted individual and said, "yeah, you completely lost me, I asked you your personal story." "As someone who is watching you on an interview on a major television network, as a young donor who you are trying to connect with, I feel completely disengaged." The issue is that this is the type of person that SHOULD be someone we connect with. We should be supporting her and listening to the work she is doing on behalf of other individuals on the ground, and yet her story was completely lost in translation. Just because you are a good person doing real systematic change in the world does not mean you know how to market yourself. In fact, I have found it is usually the opposite. It is hard for individuals who have dedicated their lives giving to others to look into themselves and think about what defines them and how to express that to others.

I always ask people, "What did you want to be when you were 8 years old?" to help get them to think about what they feel defines them at their core. Sasha let me know she wanted to be a painter, and studied painting her whole life. We started discussing her love for abstract art because she loves the "imperfection of the perfection" and how all different shapes come together to create a masterpiece, and how there are so many different interpretations of why it is beautiful. AHA! This is what she loved about systems. She analyzes the individuals in the community, works with the colleges in that community and has them work together to decide the major need of the area and then provides Microgrants to help support them in those initiatives.

In other words, she puts all different pieces or "shapes" together to create a masterpiece. She does not go into the community and tell them what is perfect and what changes need to be made, but she works with the moving pieces and individuals, gives them the tools ("paintbrush/ canvas," if you will) and lets them create their own artwork. At the end of our conversation she said, "The other thing I was thinking is that you don't fall in love with the artist, you fall in love with the art. " This is exactly what she is doing in these communities. She is helping others create something life-changing for themselves, and supporting them in their journey to create masterpieces. She is bringing all the kids together on the playground and helping them speak the same language to create something amazing.

She let me know that this conversation got her thinking about herself deeper than ever before, and it made me realize that my marketing and branding background paired with my philanthropic/teacher side allows me to help translate to all the "different kids on the playground." Through helping individuals tell each other their stories without all of the jargon, bringing it back down to the way I used to listen to my first graders, and connecting different individuals to each other, I am doing my best to bring all the different learners together to speak the same language.

By cutting out all the jargon and looking deep into oneself, we can look back on who we wanted to be when we were 8 years old, before we had bills to pay, or broken hearts, or college loans to pay back; the days when we were running on the playground, playing pretend and could relate to each other. What's missing is having someone help us translate so that we understand each other and speak the same language. It is important to recognize that at the end of the day we are all just searching for the same thing; to sit next to each other on the carpet, feel listened to, supported and loved, and you never know, once you share your one minute story who will be snapping their fingers to "ditto."