Many years ago, I heard Bryan Stevenson, an American lawyer and social justice activist speak about the need for and value of proximity. Last year, as an honoree of The George H.W. Bush Points of Light Awards, he shared, “When you’re proximate, you hear things you won’t otherwise hear, you see things you won’t otherwise see. It’s in proximity that we begin to understand what people distant don’t understand.” His message continues to resonate with me.
We know that communication is both verbal and non-verbal. We communicate intent with tone, body language and micro gestures. Proximity provides space to understand what is not being said yet is being communicated. Proximity also provides space to observe one another when we are not directly communicating with each other and interpret non-verbal cues. These quiet observations allow us to assess, fill in the picture, deepen perspective and build trust.
Most people recognize the value of proximity when it comes to personal experiences. We want to be present for one another. It’s why we travel to see family and friends during the holidays, take summer vacations with loved ones, hop on planes or pack up for long drives to attend weddings or graduations or big birthdays.
But proximity is just as important in our work, community and civic engagement experiences.
I was recently in Madrid with many of our Points of Light Global Network affiliates. It was a great week where we talked about our impact and shared ideas on how to work more closely together.
One evening after dinner, I gathered with a group of leaders from Brazil, France, India, Peru and the Netherlands to discuss an idea they had. Even though we had met over Zoom throughout the past two years, our proximity to each other created space for a very special moment, and we spoke openly about our challenges and opportunities and made room for imagining new possibilities.
Over the past two years, we have found new ways of work, ways to be productive, more efficient with our time by avoiding long commutes and old morning and after work routines. Advances in technology allow us to log onto our computers, tick through agendas and sign off to jump to the next meeting with few breaks. Some of us are happier, and those who are must recognize that some of us are frustrated and lonelier.
I am all-in for listening to your workforce and adjusting to new ways of work. Also, I believe with equal passion, that being proximate, without structured time or an agenda, is imperative to building culture, leading to new discoveries, more complete experiences, and sustained and deeper connections with each other and the meaningful work we perform.
These ideals are true in volunteering and civic engagement as well. It’s easy to assume that we have the perfect solution for what’s needed in the communities we support. But being proximate to the communities we work with, listening and learning from them can bring new ideas and reveal different solutions and approaches to what might work best.
In just a few short weeks, we’ll be together at the Points of Light Conference in Walt Disney World’s Coronado Springs Resort. I am excited to be back together in person.
This year, the theme of our conference is “Reimagine. Revitalize. Recommit.” We hope to provide the space for you to do all of these things in relationship to yourself, each other and our collective work.
It was 2019 the last time we were together in person in a conference setting, exchanging ideas, networking, laughing and creating memories that inspire and fill us to continue our work in community.
I have appreciated the pivots to virtual experiences. Technology allowed us to be in multiple cities, time-zones and countries in one day. That technology will continue to help us reimagine and revitalize our work. But after three years, being with you in person, seeing your smiles, hearing your laughter and stories with passion and pain, and creating new memories is an experience that I look forward to.
That proximity to all of you is what refills my cup and makes me feel revitalized.
I hope you’ll join us at the Points of Light Conference, but if you can’t, please join me in finding a way to be proximate in your community, and share what you learn in the experience.
Natalye Paquin was the president and chief executive officer of Points of Light from 2017–2022. She is a visionary and results-oriented leader, with more than 20 years of experience providing strategic, operations and fiscal leadership in the nonprofit and public sectors.