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Stories from the Road. From Jamaica to Brooklyn to Miami.

3 min read

In order to connect with the hearts and minds of others, a leader must be willing to share their core values. The who-I-am story showcases these values in action.

During my time teaching Storytelling for Business, it’s become clear to me that a fundamental narrative a leader needs to be able to tell is the who-I-am story.

In order to connect with the hearts and minds of others, a leader must be willing to share their core values.

The who-I-am story showcases these values in action. People will only go to bat for someone they trust. The who-I-am story engenders loyalty, engagement and commitment.

With this thought in mind, I’d like to introduce you to Dr. Cheryl Holder. She has dedicated her entire medical career to improving access and care in underserved populations.

When you read her who-I-am story, you’ll understand why:

I came to this country from Jamaica. We moved to Brooklyn, to a very poor neighborhood. It was mostly black, Caribbean and Puerto Rican. I was a little kid. I never knew Puerto Ricans existed before I came to America and it was scary to meet people I couldn’t talk to. They only spoke this language my mother told me was called Spanish. I didn’t understand a word.

So I’d just sit on the stoop of my porch at the bottom of the street and watch them play.

They played, possessed by an energy that would never have been allowed in my house. They darted between cars. They talked and laughed loudly. All my ears heard were “Plaka, plaka, plaka,” punctuated by “Mira! Mira!” I would sit on the stoop and enviously watch them play.

Back then everyone roller-skated. Remember those skates with 4 wheels and a key attached to your shoe? That’s the kind they had. A bunch of the kids would play this game where they’d hitch onto the back of a city bus. They’d jump onto the back and get a ride to the bottom of the street. I thought it was pretty wild stuff.

One day, when I was 10 years old, I was sitting on my stoop at the bottom of the street watching them skate and a girl jumped off the bus she’d hitched a ride onto and she fell and hit her head.

She just lay there on the ground. Unconscious. Bleeding. I didn’t know what to do.

People came running from everywhere onto the street. They called 911.

The police came and told everyone to stand back. A neighbor had brought a towel to rest under the girl’s head, but the police shouted, “Don’t touch her, wait for the ambulance!”

So we waited. And we waited and we waited. And we waited some more.

And after almost an hour the people on the block started getting restless. I heard someone say: “Man, you know ain’t no ambulance gonna come.”

“He’s right,” said another woman, “You know ain’t no ambulance coming down here.”

Even then I understood what that meant. It meant no ambulance was coming down to a poor neighborhood.

As the darkness approached the police finally knelt down, scooped her up, put her in their car and sped off. To this day I don’t if she died or not.

In that neighborhood, back then, people did die. We didn’t get services. We were poor and black and Puerto Rican and we just didn’t get services. And people died.

I just knew, even at 10 years old, that that was so wrong. That’s when I knew I wanted to be the person who could make the ambulance come.

This is the story Dr. Holder tells when she meets new groups of people.

It’s the story she told when she went from being a primary care physician to becoming the medical director of a community health facility in Miami, Florida. And it’s the story she told most recently at the Women on the Move program at Florida International University where we met.

After hearing her story I knew who she was. I knew what she stood for.

What’s your who-I-am story? And who needs to hear it? As a leader, your people want to know you. Take a risk and let them in.

Dr. Holder understands the power of stories – so much so that her current efforts are to improve literacy in the communities she serves. She is on a mission to get books and stories into the hands of the poor, especially into the hands of immigrants.

In fact, Dr. Holder is so passionate about the power of stories to unlock health that she’s written a book herself: Pumpkin Soup is for Sunday.

Her biggest point of pride is that the cover of the book features a strong young black girl just like the one who used to sit on the stoop at the bottom of the street. This girl will know that pumpkin soup is healthy, that her family loves her, and that the ambulance will always come.

Read more about Pumpkin Soup is for Sunday on its official Facebook page and in this great article from CBS Miami.


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