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A birthday tribute to Janet Harris

“I arise every morning torn between the desire to save the world and the desire to savor the world. It makes it hard to plan my day.”  ~ E. B. White

These words are on the email signature of Janet Harris, a member of Digital Democracy‘s Board of Directors (and last year’s Board president) a mentor, a role model, an advisor and ally to Digital Democracy since our early days, and a person who radiates integrity with her every action and interaction. Hers is one of the few email signatures I’ve ever bothered to read more than once. Every time I receive an email from her, I take the time to reread those words, because they are a reminder of the joy and paradox of living an engaged life.

Today is Janet’s birthday, and as I contemplated what I might write about in my daily blog post (number 14/31 in the Moon Cycle series) it seemed most fitting that I use the occasion of her birthday to reflect a little on what I have learned (and continue to learn!) from Janet.

By day, Janet is the Chief Development Officer at California Academy of the Sciences, a wonderful institution housed in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park that connects people and science in enriching and whimsical ways. She is also the mother of two (including my friend Gabe Hopkins, one of the founding members of the Digital Democracy team), a mentor to many, a sign language interpreter, artist and arts patron, excellent cook, succulent aficionado, hiker, dancer and so so much more.

In 2012, the Dd staff and our newly formed board of directors took a retreat to Port-au-Prince, Haiti. The trip was rewarding and offered the chance to dig deep on our work. One night, though, the enormity of what we were trying to do – and the weight of working to make it happen for so many years on such limited resources – really caught up with me. Janet sensed my fatigue, and sat with me on a wooden bench upstairs at the iconic Hotel Oloffson while a band played below. She helped me take a deep breath and acknowledged that my role – as executive director – is rewarding, and a blessing, but also difficult. She gave me wise counsel that night that I often return to in times of questioning or doubting my ability. It was only one of many times she has given me wise counsel, but that moment in particularly resides in my memory.

Much of what I’ve learned from Janet is relevant more universally. Here are some of the gifts that I believe Janet embodies:

  • Listening. How can we understand a situation, build a strong partnership, find a point of connection? All of these take good listening skills, first and foremost. The fundraising part of my job as executive director didn’t come easily to me at first; Janet helped me realize that my listening skills (honed through years of journalism!) were an asset, and gave me the peace of mind to remember that listening is the first step to building relationships, which is the foundation of effective fundraising.
  • Asking questions. Key to listening is asking good questions. Janet’s ability to ask smart and thoughtful questions about our work has been such a valuable contribution to our board conversations over the years, and of course this curiosity is valuable far beyond the board convos.
  • Knowing when to say no. This is a harder one for me than listening and asking questions, but Janet has really helped me understand that saying no to the not-quite-right things makes us stronger for all the things we say yes to. In the resource-poor mindset that it’s all too easy to fall into, I see many non-profits say yes to things (especially from funders) that aren’t quite right. Janet’s helped us know when to say no, and I think this discipline has fundamentally changed our trajectory for the better.
  • Thinking strategically. Of course, how can you know what to say yes or no to without thinking strategically? Action without strategic thought behind it can just be busy work, and Janet’s helped us hone in on what to prioritize.
  • The magical power of bridging science and faith. Janet’s work is rooted in science inquiry, and even in previous work (like at International Rescue Committee) has done incredible work supporting the very real circumstances we find ourselves in on this planet – from supporting diverse ecosystems to aleviating humanitarian disasters. But her work in the world is informed by her spiritual practices and her faith in the deeper meaning in life. On my own journey I’ve come to belief that this deeper search for meaning is one of the most critical components we can carry with us through life, and Janet is one of my role models for how to bridge science and faith in a way that enriches life.

Those of you who’ve had the pleasure to meet Janet know there is much more that can be said, but I’ll pause here. Janet, thank you for being a part of my life, and for playing such a critical role in helping Digital Democracy bring its mission into the world. Happy happy birthday!

Filed under: Moon Cycle

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A traveler, a listener, a gleaner of stories.

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