The close of 2019 brought changes to the Whidbey Institute board as four board members completed their terms and new board officers were elected. Larisa Benson was elected Board President, stepping into a role formerly held by Kate Snider. Joining Larisa on our executive committee are Vice President Mark Forman and Treasurer Casey Dilloway. Kate continues to serve as a board member-at-large with a special focus on our ongoing Whidbey Institute 2020 Capacity-Building Initiative.
President Larisa Benson hosts the Government Joy Network, a network of civic designers and social leadership entrepreneurs working to humanize government from the inside out. A three-time national award winner for innovation in the public sector, she taught leadership for over a decade at the University of Washington’s Evans School of Public Policy and Governance and launched the Executive MPA program in 2003. She once served as director of former Washington State Governor Gregoire’s performance improvement initiative and now teaches with Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute, a compassion-based training program born inside Google and expanded to serve global audiences.
In February, Kate and Larisa came together to reflect on succession, leadership, and the through lines from past to future. The conversation started with acknowledgment of the powerful leadership of outgoing board members Barbara Schaetti, Sheryl Harmer, Cole Hoover, and Hilary Wilson. These four were with the Whidbey Institute through some of our most joyous, challenging, and transformative years, and each made a lasting impression that continues to affect the trajectory of our organization. “They’ve played such integral roles in these powerful years,” Kate said. “Their dedication has been stunning, and with their partnership we’ve achieved tremendous growth in our organizational structure and our fundraising approach. The results we’re seeing with our capital campaign are a testament to their work.”
As our former Vice President, Larisa worked closely with Kate over the past year. “My guiding principle has been about transition with continuity,” Kate said, “and I will continue to be a resource for all our team members as we move forward.” Kate reflected that she believes she’ll stay involved long after her current term ends in late 2020. “This work is at my heart-center, and after my formal board service is complete I plan to stay actively involved.” Along these lines, board member Debra Baker is currently leading an effort to understand the energy, desires, and needs within our Board Emeritus community as we formalize pathways for former board members to engage as they feel called. This may be through operational role-filling, as demonstrated by Barbara who continues to hold roles in our Integration and General circles.
“This work is at my heart-center, and after my formal board service is complete I plan to stay actively involved.” —Kate Snider
“I’m inspired by the way this organization weaves things from the past into the future,” Larisa said. “We’re challenging presumptions about beginnings and endings fitting into a square block. In reality, we’re all in this together all the time. The structure, with these formal roles and accountabilities, provides muscularity for us as we orchestrate our movements together.”
The last few years have brought a focus on transitions: in leadership, in operational structure, and from vision to implementation of our Whidbey Institute 2020 Initiative. “I was the right person to lead the board during this time,” Kate said. “With the transition of the Executive Director, the adoption of self-organization, and above all our decision to step into the audacious 2020 campaign to increase our capacity to serve the world, my personal skill set applied. My experience in site engineering, planning, and project management for construction came into play, and these were things that I could really sing on.” Kate also reflected that where we are today—with the ability to serve many more people and programs—calls for a new kind of leadership.
“Larisa, you’re the perfect leader for us as we grow our ways of serving the world,” Kate said. “With your programmatic emphasis, you can partner with staff to lead an exploration of who we serve, how we serve with an equity lens, and how we grow the health of our internal organization and our connections to the outer world.” Both Kate and Larisa acknowledge that the organization seemed to call to them at the moment when their gifts would be most useful here. “The Institute brought us,” Kate said, “when we could be most effective in these leadership roles.”
Larisa said she felt welcomed by the land the moment she arrived, and deeply inspired by the potential of self-organization. “I had great ambitions about making this place so much more welcoming,” she said. “It takes work, and it has to be done artfully. In order to throw the doors open in the way we’ve imagined we might, we must work on the inner structure. We also have to have the infrastructure in place: to ensure that people have a place to lay their heads at night, a place to get away and reflect, and a place to gather together.” She said that the capacity-building work, under Kate’s leadership, has helped put that outer structure in place. “Now, with an ongoing commitment to self-organization and equity, we can make a deeper expression of our purpose.”
“We must do our own work if we are to hold programming in a way that supports collective healing.” —Larisa Benson
As part of a personal commitment to inner work, Larisa is participating with five other Whidbey Institute staff and board members and two other women in a 30-week learning group based on Layla Saad’s Me & White Supremacy Workbook. Through this work, she’s moving from theory to embodied presence with anti-racism. “This isn’t a sand castle,” she said. “It’s a real place, filled with real people. We must do our own work if we are to hold programming in a way that supports collective healing.”
In reflecting on what make’s Larisa the right leader for the Whidbey Institute board today, Kate noted her passion for youth engagement—she fell in love with this land through her daughter’s Power of Hope Camp experience—and her commitment to understanding the programmatic life of the Whidbey Institute and its program partners. “Over the last couple of years you’ve just thrown yourself into all things Institute and participated in so many programs,” Kate told Larisa. “I’ve never seen anyone invest so much in getting to know the spirit of the place and the people who come here.”
“When I’m in these programs, I’m listening into who’s already here and what’s trying to be born,” Larisa said. “Because the infrastructure has changed, something new can emerge. Kate, as you’ve been paying attention to the roots and the physical context, I’ve been attending to the energy. What’s already present, and what’s being brought in?” She said that for her, leadership means being vulnerable, being connected, and letting something come through her. “The world needs this new kind of leadership, and this is a place for people who want to come here and learn that.”
“We’re in a network,” Larisa said. “Things that may seem far away are deeply interconnected. The creatures, beings, and peoples of different continents are connected with us, and the delusion that we are far apart is simply not true. Their purpose is my purpose, their health is my health, and their suffering is my suffering. Understanding that and learning to alchemize it into something I can do—that’s my work.”
This summer, Larisa is collaborating with Anthony Back to bring Igniting Change to the Whidbey Institute. This program leverages mindfulness practices and the psychology of social change to develop the embodied, connected leaders that the world needs today.
“In politics, at all levels, and on all of our nonprofit boards, there are these standards for four, six, or sometimes eight-year terms. We need different ways of holding transitions.” —Kate Snider
The world as we know it is changing, and leadership must change with it. One of the stories we’re challenging is that leadership transitions are like the passing of a baton. “Larisa and I have been walking hand-in-hand since she joined the board,” Kate said. “Almost everywhere else in our colonized structure, the world is made up of measured terms for leadership. In politics, at all levels, and on all of our nonprofit boards, there are these standards for four, six, or sometimes eight-year terms. We need different ways of holding transitions. We have to figure out how to hold a spiral of evolution.” The pattern at the Whidbey Institute, with leadership overlap, continuity, and opportunities for involvement both before and after formal board service, softens the hard edges of leadership terms and provides room for the human experiences of relationship, learning, and legacy.
“Our organizations must figure out how to engage the memory and wisdom of our elders, the fresh perspectives and energy of our youth, and the contributions of all who share our purpose along the way,” Kate added. “In this way, we weave community.”