News & Views

Inspiration, information, and perspectives from the LeadersTrust team and our partners

Theo Rigby

Jeanne Bell: Lightning in a Bottle

Jun 16, 2021 | News

In this inspiring interview, Sidney R. Hargro, CEO of LeadersTrust, shares his journey of self-discovery and transformation, from overcoming burnout to embracing his creativity and authenticity. Discover how Sidney’s passion for photography shapes his philanthropic vision, inspiring others to imagine and create a more liberated world. 

Sidney, let’s start with something fun! How do you describe yourself in one word?

Imagineer. 

What about your parents? How would they describe you in a word?

Smart

And your kids?

Funny or annoying. It depends.

What’s bringing you joy these days?

I’m finding my greatest joy from the opportunity to imagine. To combine my creativity and my engineering background in pursuit of justice. I love being in a place where there is no delusion of things being binary. Understanding that shades of gray are okay. There is something about molding, creating, dreaming, and testing boundaries and the status quo that I really love. Another part is focusing on my inner work. 

Do you have a personal practice for your inner work?

You know, everything fell apart in June of 2020. I didn’t know I fell apart, but I knew I was in a place that I had never been before. I was broken at the intersection of dual pandemics, COVID 19 and the intensity of racial injustice in America. I remember saying, change is coming. I can’t do what I’ve done in the past. Work, pandemic, two parents with deteriorating health, everything. 

I was really burned out. During the last 14 weeks of 2021, I lost my mom and dad. I placed all of this in my coping box. Well that box broke open, and everything fell out in full view, and all at once.

I took time off and I started doing some inner work. I needed to do something. I began to go for short walks in the morning.  Then, repeat affirmations for 1 minute and meditate for a minute a day. That turned into 5 minutes, 10 minutes each. Over time I added journaling to the mix. This increased so much over time so much so that I started getting up at 5 am to have enough time for my practice. After being consistent with these little experiments for a year, I began to understand what works best for me. It’s usually meditation and some combination of walking, journaling, reading, or affirmation, while centering an acknowledgement of my good ancestors. 

What did you un-earth and uncover during that process?

The main thing was that I thought that I was living authentically. But all these years of being in philanthropy for social good, I really wasn’t. I was walking around with a big mask. I came across a quote from James Baldwin that articulates it best – “Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.” 

It made me realize that I need to love what was being masked. It’s been this slow process of self-love. It’s changed everything. I’m more likely to stand up for myself. And I will leave the room if you are steeped in negativity.  

I like it, and I want more of it.  But the battle is ongoing. The mask is still sitting on the table, but now I can see when I’m reaching for it. 

What do you love most about yourself?

My creativity. If I were not doing what I’m doing now, I would be a documentary photographer, a storyteller spotlighting people, passion, and places across the globe. I would be behind a camera. 

 What pulls you to photography?

Photography is not about the camera equipment or some new or complicated technique–it’s really all about seeing. It’s about noticing, slowing down to pay attention. There is so much you don’t see if you’re not looking to notice.

 Do you have a favorite photo that you’ve taken?

Yes. It’s a photo of a young, black boy playing in a water fountain all by himself in Charleston, South Carolina. It was during the last total eclipse in 2017. The totality had just passed, and after the dark lifted, it started to rain, so my family and I started to walk back to our rental. I was stopped in my tracks, when I saw this boy who was in his element enjoying the spray of a public water fountain. I suddenly realized there was a time not so long ago, he couldn’t do that, not down South. The sight of it stunned me. It was unforgettable. I titled it, “Freedom Fountain.”

Wow, so beautiful.  Thank you for sharing. 

Now let’s talk about the philanthropy you dream of.

I am always struck by hearing philanthropy defined as the love of humanity with a strictly charitable tone, when it originates the story of Prometheus in Greek mythology. Etymologically, ‘philanthropy’ comes from the term ‘philanthropos tropos’ which means ‘humanity loving character.’ In the story, Zeus, the leader of the Olympian gods, kept fire from humanity because he didn’t want them to have equal standings with the gods. But, Prometheus, whose name means “foresight, or forward-thinking” defied  Zeus by stealing fire from Zeus and giving it to fire to humans. Because of his “philanthropos tropos”, he faced persecution as Zeus had him chained to a rock in the mountains so an eagle would peck at him daily. 

To me, this story is all about having character, about sharing power and standing in solidarity with marginalized humans, even if it leads to our own discomfort or pain. Charity is commendable, but this is far bigger than charity.

I guess the bigger question is– “What are we willing to risk through our philanthropy to share power and stand in solidarity with folks on the margins due to historical and systemic white supremacist oppression?” I dream of philanthropy that does that!

 Is that the essence of what you’re doing at LeadersTrust?

Yes, that’s why we’re here. The opportunity to center and stand in solidarity with leaders on the frontlines of change by imagining and creating ways to share power in pursuit of liberation. Through accompaniment, we walk with them, supporting them to do their most transformative work and to do so with agency. 

Right now, most grassroots leaders don’t have the flexible, long term support they need to thrive. Instead they have to pick and choose how to keep the lights on, instead of really feeling free to imagine and build a new world. 

At LeadersTrust, we offer the space, resources, and the coaching to really seed transformation. They have the full power to define the timeline and how and what they actually need. We help create that space, the time for dreaming, reflecting, and healing. 

Our work is about liberation. There’s no scientific formula, no cookie cutter way to get there. We don’t aspire to check boxes. Just like in photography, there’s so much power in our ability to notice and hear what they say they need. To stand with leaders as they bring their genius to bear for a world we have yet to see. 

 What gives you hope?

My ancestors give me hope. What I aspire to do today, is what they did for me. They stood in the midst of daunting, seemingly insurmountable oppressive circumstances, and had the courage to dream me into existence. I want to be a good ancestor, a good imagineer.

 I love how you talk about imagineering. Tell me more! 

Although the term is given to creatives who imagine, design, and create theme parks, attractions, and resorts for Disney, it reminds me of a kinetic sculptor, Theo Jansen. I love how he talks about his creations. He says that a part of him is an engineer, who wants to map the progress of mobility. Another part is an artist who wants to sculpt the world that surrounds us and give it shape. 

That resonates with me and articulates my personal approach to change, and my belief that creativity, design, and systems change do not exist in silos. If we have the courage to imagine it, we can design and create the change we want to see with love and in solidarity.

 And the invitation?

Come participate in a grand liberatory experiment! Bring your moral compass and an openness to your own transformation. We want to join with values-aligned co-conspirators (funders, practitioners, and leaders) who have a common vision and pursuit of justice and freedom! Let’s imagineer. 

 

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NPQ contributor Jeanne Bell covers Lightning in a Bottle, which includes case studies and practical guidance for seizing and thriving through a viral movement moment. The report’s primary author, Adela de la Torre, calls it a love letter of sorts to the often-unsung staff working behind the scenes who position organizations to capture “lightning in a bottle” and come out stronger on the other side.

This article builds on the LeadersTrust Lightning in a Bottle report, with interviews from leaders of other social justice movements experiencing similar dynamics.  

“Over the course of days in 2017, the National Immigration Law Center (NILC) went from having 15,000 Twitter followers to nearly 50,000. Their email list quadrupled from 20,000 to 80,000. Soon, their individual donor base went from several hundred supporters to more than 16,000. NILC had filed the first lawsuit against Donald Trump’s Muslim ban, and they were having what a new report commissioned by the Evelyn & Walter Haas, Jr. Fund calls a “lightning in a bottle” moment. This phenomenon of viral organizational growth is increasingly common as people are activated quickly and urgently by the fast-paced news cycle reverberating over social media. It fundamentally challenges traditional, more measured strategies for base-building and donor cultivation.

Adela de la Torre, who was the communications director at NILC during that explosive surge in attention and support surrounding the Muslim ban, is the lead author of the new report. She explains that the “lightning in a bottle” metaphor is more multifaceted than it appears at first blush.

“We came up with it initially because it really did feel like this out-of-the-blue thing that happened, and we had a following and the funding to really sort of fulfill our wildest dreams.” But as she and her coauthors, consultants Rachel Baker, Robert Bray, and Marjorie Fine, dug deeper into these experiences, she says they realized the bottle was even more important than the lightning. “It’s about the cultures and practices and systems that are in place that allow you to build a bottle strong enough to withstand that lightning moment and then utilize that energy moving forward.”

The report details the growth experiences of two immigrants’ rights organizations, NILC and a grassroots group in southern California called Inland Coalition for Immigrant Justice (ICIJ). The racist, xenophobic discourse and policy that defined the Trump presidency thrust immigrants’ groups further into the limelight. The #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo movements were, of course, also generating participation in unprecedented numbers. What this report lifts up and helps the reader consider is the nature of these viral “lightning in a bottle” moments, characterized by sudden, large-scale influxes to organizations of media attention, digital engagement, and financial support. The tireless activism, organizational, and coalition-building work that makes them possible happens over many years…and then, bam! An event or a policy shift—nearly always of violence or oppression—sets off a massive reaction. 

Viral Movement Moments

Last year saw a confluence of such events. The health and economic disparities of the COVID-19 pandemic for Black and Brown communities and the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, to name two significant concurrent forces, set off “lightning in a bottle” moments for racial justice organizations. Mireaya Medina is the data and grants manager at Imagine Black, a grassroots organization that builds political participation and leadership in Portland, Oregon’s Black community. Medina says the organization saw large influxes of energy and support around two of their 2020 campaigns, addressing COVID and policing respectively. Imagine Black, at the time called the Portland African American Leadership Forum, was part of a coalition that successfully advocated for the Oregon Cares Fund, $62,000,000 in cash grants to Black individuals, Black-owned businesses, and Black-led nonprofit organizations that experienced financial adversity due to COVID-19. And in the wake of Floyd’s murder, their “Defund. Reinvest. Protect.” campaign made a series of demands of the Portland City Council to comprehensively reimagine community safety. Now, Medina says, “we are going to be able to grow and expand with a lot of support that we haven’t had before.” This includes adding key staff positions focused on engaging even more people. “We haven’t had a person working full-time on donor development. Now we have a person that’s able to do that. We haven’t had a communications person, and now we do. We have different positions and opportunities that we haven’t had previously. So, we know that in our movement building journey, things are only going to go up from here.”