There is a brilliant radiance about Cathy Parrill.
Upon meeting her last year at Opportunity Collaboration, a global conference focused on poverty-alleviation, I sensed her wisdom and sought her out to learn more about her journey in social change. I knew her development work was focused in Haiti, a country plagued by natural disasters, poverty, racial discord, and political instability throughout its history. I was curious, how she, a brilliant woman, a member of MENSA, with a basketful of graduate courses and a master’s degree in education, doctoral studies in choral conducting and MFA studies in Creative Writing, had come to dedicate her life to a nation she knew little of until she arrived there in early 1990. The anecdotes that Parrill shared with me about her life's work, now serve me as practical, thoughtful reminders within my own growing social enterprise. I find her insights concerning service especially important for my peers: young, motivated, Millennial change makers with ideas and energy.
From the first few words Parrill and I exchanged at the conference, I sensed her deep authenticity and dedication to her vocation. Her story of arriving in Haiti in 1990, began with the most glorious statement. "Haiti took hold of me when I arrived and has never let me go," she says. She went on to share her focus on education there as a means of liberation: "My initial work was training teachers, then expanded to teaching students as well when I lived in Haiti from 1996-98. Then I brought eight Haitians to the States and was in residence with them at University, where they pursued various degrees and I was awarded a doctoral fellowship."
It's clear that Parrill's passion for organic and purposeful learning has guided so much of her work. As a mentor to young social entrepreneurs, she inspires them to bring focus to the forefront of their work. A focus, she defines, as a tool for discovery and not the other way around. This presents an interesting opportunity for those first stepping into social change, to explore how they let themselves be found by a mission versus self-define it. "Focus is a point of convergence. That’s sort of who I am. It’s who I am, what I do, and how I do it. For me, I don’t so much find a focus, as I am found by it," she says. "I don’t necessarily set out to specifically seek what I will focus on. I go out and soak up the world in all the ways I can and, as I do, I find that if I’m fully receptive, some things invariably speak loudly to me. These things that speak to me are what I focus on. I’m relentless, I suppose you could say. Not saying that’s a good thing, just saying that how I am."
Parrill's confidence and honesty are to be admired and, if one were to think of her boldness in the context of the recent Millennial Impact Report, it seems mentors such as she are critical to ensuring a fearlessness is inspired in the next generation of change-makers.
According to the 2017 findings of the Millennial Impact Report, Millennials are showing significantly increased interest in causes that impact minority, marginalized or disenfranchised groups or people, such as those Parrill has long collaborated within Haiti. This, in addition to Millennials keen interest in causes that promote equity, equality, and opportunity, indicates that the time is right to set best practices for how one can focus and create change at the grassroots, whether that happens via efforts in the for-profit sector or not-for-profit sector.
With experience in both sectors, Parrill shares two key insight for the socially-conscious next generation.
Be A Hub
"Be a hub. As people, places, ideas, needs, problems, challenges, and other experiences come into your life, be open to them. Try not to compartmentalize anything, but, rather, to allow it all to converge. It’s messy at first. It seems chaotic at times, and you may often feel as though you’ll never bring it all into focus in a meaningful way. For example, when I first started working in Haiti in 1990, it was during the time when nonprofits were beginning what would become an enormous flow into Haiti to build schools and clinics, and do short-term work trips. I soon began to realize that projects like most of them were starting weren’t successfully addressing a fundamental aspect: Relationships. Make healthy, authentic relationships your focus."
"I’m blessed to have a mind that pulls diverse threads together and sees how they connect, sometimes in unusual ways. I am intellectually curious about far more topics than I’ll ever be able to adequately explore in just one lifetime. I invite Millennials to love to learn and bring a lot of focus to situations or ideas as you seek to learn from them. But enduring focus—the kind that prompted me to start a nonprofit and gave me the drive not only to found it, but to launch it almost overnight, from a handful of cultural exchange programs to full-fledged disaster recovery and long-term development work—must also have a “heart” aspect. Care about equality. Deeply. Believe from the bottom of your heart that each voice has a right to be heard. Everything you do in your work should be driven by, and measured by, that principle."