At this moment, I’m flying to Chicago for the one year anniversary of the death of one of my best friends, Alex Okrent.
It’s a rough day, one which echoes back to this date in 2012 when Alex collapsed in the Obama campaign headquarters from heart failure after only 29 years of life. Alex was a dedicated member of the Obama senatorial and presidential campaigns, and he is often remembered for the compassion and advocacy for social change he brought to his work. After Alex died I was (am) devastated. However, my teachers have always told me that the quickest route to happiness is through thinking of others.
After Alex’s death, his co-workers roped me into a leadership position in the great state of Ohio, working on the campaign. I channeled all my grief into trying to carry on Alex’s work. Along the way, I discovered just how genuine and caring the Obama camp’s ground game truly was. The whole process of meeting with people in communities, hearing their stories, sharing your own and forging authentic relationships formed the basis for mobilizing these communities to create lasting change through voting and encouraging others to vote in an important election year.
Flash forward to January 23rd, 2013: Obama stands before 7000 people who worked on that campaign thanking them for their effort. He speaks about how these young people will go on to do great things. Then he folds up his notes. He takes a beat then says, “Alex was one of you—this incredibly thoughtful, talented, compassionate, caring young person who decided to get involved because he thought he could make a difference…And we know Alex made a difference. But in the same way that Alex left this indelible mark on my life and Michelle’s life, and many of your lives, you will leave an indelible mark as well, as long as you decide that you’re going to spend your life giving something back.”
I sobbed for ten minutes straight.
A funny thing happened when I stopped sobbing. The idea for the Institute for Compassionate Leadership fell into me. I say that because it’s like I didn’t think it up; it arose within a compassionate environment full of open-hearted individuals, from somewhere deep inside of me.
In that moment, I envisioned a leadership training for young people who want to give something back to society but don’t necessarily know how to do that work. I envisioned coaches who could help them identify their calling, a social issue that they could commit themselves to as a career, and mentors to support that endeavor. I envisioned a program based partly in the authentic relationship building popularized by the Obama campaign, partly in leadership techniques offered in MBA programs, and partly in mindfulness meditation practices. I envisioned these young people graduating and assisting them in finding meaningful work in the social change field of their choice.
Six months later, the Institute for Compassionate Leadership is on its feet. We’re accepting applications and the students that are looking to join our inaugural class are inspiring. A diverse group of young people are applying, ranging from college students to homeless youth to people looking to make a career change. Not everyone can afford tuition, and we’re lining up generous donors to invest in them as the leaders this world needs.
I know I can never get Alex back. I’m pretty sure I’ve tried everything in that regard already, and nothing panned out. However, he was a compassionate leader. And if I can play some small role in creating more people like that then I’ll give my all to that endeavor. At least, that’s what I plan on reporting back to him when we dedicate his gravesite in Chicago in the morning.
The applications for the institute’s first round of students are now available online at www.instituteforcompassionateleadership.org/apply. The Institute will be reviewing applications on a rolling basis starting July 15.
Photo: courtesy of Okrent family/Chris Sweda