It began early, this urge to witness and spur on what buds and grows. My older brother, Jim, led the way when a high school teacher encouraged him to sign up for a horticulture class and learn about growing plants, part of our semi-rural school’s many agriculture offerings. Jim framed a backyard greenhouse from scrap lumber, scrounging enough thick plastic sheeting to staple on the outside and make the structure relatively airtight. I became his dutiful assistant, watering, keeping the space clean, tending newly rooted cuttings and potting seedlings. Jim and I made our little enterprise a modest success, reaping from our labors some spending money and enough to replenish our supplies by selling what we had grown to local nurseries eager to pay a dime for each healthy plant we could supply.
I was hooked.
Fast forward to a rainy November night in 1990. Attorney Al Rodriguez had invited me to his house for a glass of wine and a conversation about a continual challenge he faced in his tax-exempt practice at the law firm Latham & Watkins. We knew one another because Al was general counsel to the California Community Foundation, where I had recently served as executive vice president. The way Al put it, every request for pro bono formation of a new nonprofit that came to his firm landed on his desk. While most of the causes he was asked to help launch seemed worthy, Al knew that only a few had the infrastructure to survive, and fewer still would thrive.
“How am I supposed to allocate the limited pro bono hours the firm has to give?” he asked. “There’s got to be a better way to do this,” Al said to me.
And out of that conversation, Community Partners began to bud and grow.
Fast forward again to today, more than 30 years later. I’m just days from stepping down as president and CEO of Community Partners and about to hand off the organization’s reins to Alicia Lara, a gifted professional whose been a leader in Los Angeles for decades. She’ll helm a different kind of ‘bud and grow’ enterprise, one that nurtures social entrepreneurs willing to stake their prestige on testing new ideas aimed at improving community life. Alicia is understandably excited about what the future has in store. She’s taking the reins of an exemplary organization in superb financial shape with a top-notch senior leadership team and national stature. Moreover, every day she’ll have the pleasure of greeting people at the door – as we have for nearly three decades – who show up at their best with the desire to do good better.
The chief pleasure of running Community Partners all these years has been meeting, advising and lending practical administrative, financial and technical support to people with a penchant for stirring up the status quo. They’ve got ‘bud and grow’ minds and souls—sharp as steel to cut through ambiguities and instincts as finely tuned as a harpist’s strings. Often, I imagine an angel on their shoulder strumming out the best in them. Most of all, these social entrepreneurs have a knack for drawing others into the vision of a nascent effort burgeoning into on-the-ground virtue.
That I could kickstart Community Partners for so many years with the brotherly board-level partnership of Al Rodriguez made everything better. In a strange way, Al kind of stood in for my brother Jim, lost too soon to the ravages of the Vietnam War. When Al died in 2009, it shook me badly with the echoes of the profound personal and familial loss I experienced forty years earlier.
The recognition we’ve conferred every year since Al’s passing – officially called the Civic Legacy Honors and awarded in Al’s name – speaks to those who believe in the power of things that bud and who energetically work to bring them into full flourish. I think of the honors as standing for all things that thrive and for the people who make it happen.
As I step away from my leadership duties and look to the future, I’ve begun a long-delayed personal project in my backyard at home—I’m building a greenhouse. In my heart, it’s dedicated to Jim, to Al, and to anyone with the moxie and moral heft to pour themselves into an enterprise they love that will make the world around them a more nourishing place for all.
This is the last of these messages I’ll write for the Community Partners newsletter. As I finish up this final one, I seal it and send it off with a full and constant heart. I forward it to you with a fierce, grateful warmth that so many of you have repaid scores of times over for 30 of my life’s most stimulating years. Thank you. You know who you are. Farewell, and on to other adventures.
May you forever bud and grow.
The title of this piece comes from the opening line of “Saint Francis and the Sow” by the American poet Galway Kinnell.