Puy was a slender, forceful woman who could fold shipping boxes faster than anyone I’ve ever met. I would watch in awe as her long arms folded thick squares of cardboard like an elegant origami, neatly tucking the cubes into a pile before you even realized she was finished. Sometimes she would hum to herself while she worked, delighting in the rhythms of the repetitive motions and occasionally tapping the empty boxes to the beat. Every Thursday, Puy would fold these boxes for hours — volunteering her time in the back room to the most mundane of tasks and asking for nothing in return.
I met Puy in my time working for Democracy Now!, an independent media organization that is dedicated to advocate watchdog journalism. She had been volunteering for years, longer than some of the employees had been working there, and she would pitch in by helping the organization mail their merchandise to supporters who donated to the show. Every time I saw her work, I was in awe of the idea that she had managed to make this modest role into an art form. She never failed to find beauty and meaning in the simplicity of helping. One day when I was helping her during my lunch break, Puy told me that she moved to the United States in her 20s after growing up in Colombia. For every single day that she had spent in the United States, she had sent two seperate letters to the President: one expressing support for a policy that she believed in, and another criticizing a policy she found problematic. This engagement, she felt, was her civic duty — despite the fact that she was undocumented. She never received a letter back, never asked for recognition, never was legally seen as a citizen by the government that she was writing to like a pen pal: she did this simply because she felt a conviction.
Puy’s quiet persistence is the leadership that I believe in. So many times, when we speak of leadership, we often associate it with a powerful role. A president, a CEO, a person who asserts control over a room. We typically think of leadership as an organization of power that looks like a hierarchy, stripping some people of their agency in order to give it to those up the chain. But what does this definition of leadership say about humanity? What does it give to those who aren’t the CEO? More importantly, what does it take from those who aren’t the CEO?
The reason I’m telling you Puy’s story because it is a reminder of what leadership can look like. It is a reminder that there are people who simply want to be present in the world that they live in, allowing their participation to be an act of radical change in and of itself. Puy finds significance in even the smallest moments of engagement, like folding boxes in a mailroom or writing postcards on her commute to work. This is the form of leadership that everyone can find in themselves — it takes no formal training; no application process. It is simply a willingness to find hope in the mundane, the complicated, and the unfamiliar. It is something that we can all share.
The way that I see it, this kind of leadership is present in the most unexpected places, sometimes hidden underneath the strong-man narratives that are so dominant in our culture. The best way that I can help, that I can play my part in engaging to make the world better, is to share the very stories that inspire me. My own form of leadership is as a storyteller — I want to craft stories that can tether politics to humanity, questioning each in relation to the other. Stories like this one can be used to bring an educated criticism to the hierarchical power structures that create inequalities while finding hope in the human beings who are working to build a new future. My leadership, too, is a simple task that I believe in until it becomes an artform.