LEAD Atlanta 2021: Personal connections at heart of program best served with postponement
By Guest Columnist MATT TERRELL, communications director for Dad’s Garage Theatre
The LEAD Atlanta class of 2021 has been postponed. Because of safety and health concerns surrounding COVID-19, the cohort of 50 rising young leaders will take a break this coming year.
For those unfamiliar with LEAD Atlanta, it is the junior version of Leadership Atlanta; and in this program, 50 rising Atlanta leaders are chosen to attend a monthly conference series on the issues important to our community. Even if parts of the program could be digitized, there was simply no way to replace the power of face-to-face interaction fostered through the program.
This is something COVID-19 won’t be able to change: the power of bringing bright minds into one room. While learning and meeting over Zoom works to some degree, networking and creating meaningful connections comes much easier with face-to-face interaction. Where I work, at Dad’s Garage, we call it “Group Mind” and we use improv exercises to help incubate its power. Some folks might simply call it “networking” – but there is no denying that the dynamic energy, the interpersonal possibilities, created by in-person interaction can’t be replicated digitally.
I was a participant in LEAD Atlanta Class of 2020 (AKA: The Most Visionary Class; AKA: The Most Committees Class; AKA: The Most Extra Class; AKA: The Class That Never Ends) and I can attest that what made this program so impactful were the personal connections. LEAD Atlanta was like becoming friends with 49 of the city’s most interesting movers and shakers.
In our monthly conference classes, we learned about housing and transportation issues in Atlanta, we heard from established leaders in government, business, nonprofit, and other industries. But it was the spaces in between the workshops and classes that seemed most impactful – the moments over lunch chatting and bonding, or the after-class cocktail hour. The impact of a program like LEAD Atlanta goes beyond the PowerPoint presentations on the issues – the power of these experiences is, for example, noticing a classmate reading a Carl Hiaasen novel on the breaks, and striking up a conversation about your favorite author. It’s in these spaces and moments that digital communication will never match in-person.
Last October, I created a piece of art called “The Hate Shield,” which was a mobile soundproof wall meant to block hate speech at Atlanta Pride. The first place I turned when I needed brave volunteers to help me hold this shield was my LEAD Atlanta classmates. They helped me pull off this huge project effortlessly. Of course, simple networking questions are always quickly fulfilled on our class WhatsApp chat – whenever someone needs a contact at Home Depot, or Coke, or APS, or Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta – a quick message into the LEAD Atlanta network and you can easily be personally connected with city leaders you might never meet otherwise. When it comes to professional development, the interpersonal trust, and the power fostered by thee connections, can only come if you first have in-person contact.
I have so many other stories of interpersonal connections fostered in LEAD Atlanta. One classmate and I happened to be in San Francisco at the same time in December, and we went hiking the day after Christmas. Another group of classmates organized a “Tour of Offices” and we got to see the swanky Mailchimp offices, followed by a less-swanky tour of Dad’s Garage. There have been reading groups, dinner clubs, volunteer excursions, gala invites, and a whole lot more generated by the connections of LEAD Atlanta. These connections, which are fostered by the program, are what truly build the next generation of leaders in our city, and these connections cannot be digitally duplicated.
As we reshape our world once we get out of this pandemic, I hope for two things: First, I hope that we can get rid of the handshake forever, because it is objectively gross and unnecessary for social interaction (I don’t need to check your wrist for hidden knives if all I want to do is open a checking account); and secondly, I hope that we have a renewed interest in in-person experiences and connections. Because it is in the moments of real, personal interaction that we create the connections that can last a lifetime. We’ve learned that we can do a lot of things digitally in our life; however, the deep bonds we are able to create by in-person interactions can never be digitized.
Note to readers: Matthew Terrell writes, photographs, and creates videos in the fine city of Atlanta. Terrell’s work can be found regularly on VICE, Slate, Huffington Post, and Mic.com, where he covers subjects such as the queer art in the South, media culture, and gay mens’ health issues. Previous works include “Atlanta’s HIV+ Population Now” at The National Center for Civil and Human Rights, and “We All Live With HIV,” which was a series of publicly displayed mirrors. Terrell currently works as the communications director for Dad’s Garage Theatre, where he helps to publicize a bunch of knucklehead improvisational actors. Visit his website here.