Lessons in Leadership: How to Say Goodbye
After seven amazing years, I'm leaving Citizen Action of New York
Seven years ago, I was in the final weeks of my 20s, working as the Communications Director at an organization I wasn’t a good fit at. I joined their team as a bushy tailed and bright eyed twenty-seven year old who thought he could save the world. The organization was looking for a seasoned veteran who could turn water into wine, and make them a national force. I thought I could deliver on these lofty expectations through hard work and enthusiasm; unfortunately that was not the case. By my second year it was clear that this relationship was not going to work, and it was time for me to leave. It was during this time that a former colleague invited me to “Justice Works”, a conference for Progressive activists convened by Citizen Action of New York.
After spending three days at the Desmond Hotel, with Citizen Action staff, members and leaders, and listening to Alicia Garza talk about the fight for racial justice, I knew this was the organization I wanted to build power with. Three months later, I took the biggest professional risk of my life, and accepted a temp position as Communications Associate. Today, I am saying goodbye as the Statewide Movement Politics Director, after seven years of hard fought political battles, countless life lessons, life-long new friendships, losses, wins, tears, and joy. I am saying good-bye to the organization that gave me a political home.
When I joined this team, I was at a personal and political crossroads. I knew I wanted to help people, but I didn’t know how, and I wasn’t sure if movement work was for me. I accepted the temp role knowing that if things didn’t work out, I was going to give-up on organizing and apply for a city job–at least then I would have good benefits and a pension. It didn’t take long to realize this was the place for me.
As I prepare to leave, I can say with confidence that coming here is easily one of the best decisions I have ever made. Citizen Action wasn’t just a job, it was the first place I worked at where the people in leadership took an interest in and were invested in my personal and professional growth. Were things always perfect? Absolutely not, but I felt cared for and supported, at a time when I needed it the most. Whether it was the Legislative and Campaigns Director (now Co-Executive Director), Jessica Wisneski, traveling from the Hudson Valley to NYC so she could teach me how to use a strategy chart, our Organizing Director (now Executive Director) Rosemary Rivera, taking me out for lunch and offering mentorship and support on how to navigate a new space as a person of color on my first day of work, or the former Deputy Director, Charlie Albanetti, signing me up for trainings and encouraging me to utilize my “gifts” helped me to rediscover my love for the movement.
The best thing about my experience was that it wasn’t just lip service; I was constantly given new opportunities to test and grow my skills. For example, in 2018, six Democrats chose to conference with the Republican party, blocking the entire progressive agenda. This group called itself the “Independent Democratic Conference” or IDC. That summer, urged by my supervisor, Jessica Wisneski, I joined the Biaggi Senate Campaign as a Field Director in the Riverdale neighborhood of the district. Using the skills I learned at Citizen Action, and our coalition partners at the New York Civic Engagement Table, I was able to support a phenomenal progressive candidate in defeating their leader, Jeff Klein. His defeat led to the fall of the IDC, and opened a path to pass legislation that would improve the lives of everyday New Yorkers.
After the Biaggi race, I returned to Citizen Action and helped to get a Public Finance System passed at the state level, and played a small role in helping to pass the 2019 pre-trial reforms (Bail, Discovery, and Speedy Trial Reform). There was a time when I thought I would spend the rest of my professional life here. I even fantasized about one day becoming the Executive Director. But no matter how beautiful the journey, all good things must come to an end.
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Before I go, I would like to share a few things I have learned through these experiences:
When I’m effective, I am low-ego, high-impact. In practice that means not making the work about myself. I have a role to play and it is important, but it's about the communities we fight for and with, and whether together we change those people's lives, even if it’s in small ways.
Strategy is built with community, not alone at my desk. When we build teams with people who have different knowledge and experiences, the result is smarter ideas, broader buy-in and pathways to winning. This requires that we are collectively committed to making the time to build strategy together.
I have learned to slow down to speed up. There are so many things that I want to change in the world. I have learned the hard way to slow down to assess, collaborate and plan so that I can focus my energy in a collective effort to win.
There are no such things as losses, just lessons. As much as it sucks to hear, failure is inevitable, you will not always win. The steps forward are often smaller and more incremental than we fight for. It is important to mark progress and to invest in the new opportunities that progress gives you. Falling short of a goal is an opportunity, I’ve learned to debrief, do some analysis and take the lessons learned seriously. They have provided me with the best opportunities to grow.
Today is my last day, it's been a long windy road, and now it ends. I pray that I made a difference, I hope that my contribution mattered, and I am forever grateful for everything the organization, its leadership, our allies and the community has done for me. I have found a home in the movement, and as I move forward I hope to continue to collaborate and contribute to our collective liberation. I’ll be seeing you soon.
What a beautiful tribute to Citizen Action. I know you will see success in all your future endeavors. I am sure you left hard shoes to fill and will be greatly missed. Diane Torstrup
Thank you so much for sharing your experiences with us, Stanley...I am honored to know you and have worked with you previously :-) Continued blessings and all the best on this new road you're taking...