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Focus on Manatee: Building a better, stronger Florida starts here. Here’s how you can help

Why do people donate and volunteer in Manatee County?

Susie Bowie, executive director of the Manatee Community Foundation, shares her experience during Spirit of Manatee on Wednesday afternoon.
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Susie Bowie, executive director of the Manatee Community Foundation, shares her experience during Spirit of Manatee on Wednesday afternoon.

A week ago, I joined the ranks of other colleagues in Manatee County who completed the Cornerstone Class of Leadership Florida.

The year-long experience pulls leaders from around Florida to engage in conversation and learning about the conditions and challenges that face our state. Our diverse class included 55 trailblazers from every corner of the peninsula.

They work in business, government, politics and the social sector. All are community connectors and bridge builders.

The 16 days we spent together in different locations included segments that only our group would consider unforgettable, but also numerous takeaways that I hope to share here at home.

Here are just a few.

Sometimes we need to get outside of ourselves

Manatee County’s history, works in progress, neighborhoods, special places and genuine care for our fellow citizens make us proud. We’re unique in many ways, but in others, not so much. Communities can be remarkably similar in their struggles.

Susie Bowie mug.jpg
Susie Bowie is the executive director of the Manatee Community Foundation.

Over the last seven months, I learned how West Palm Beach tackled its opioid and heroin epidemic with innovative approaches to specialized health care. I learned how our colleagues in Hillsborough County are addressing early learning and brain development through data. I learned how farmers near the Everglades are implementing environmentally sensitive agricultural practices. And I learned how the Wynwood Arts District in Miami has built economic development success around street art.

It’s true that our local leaders are doing amazing work in each of these focused areas through efforts created by and for our communities. But inspiration, expertise and connections from around our state can only strengthen and inform new possibilities right here. There is a real and granular benefit to stepping outside of ourselves to bring a fresh look at our own community.

Assuming the best in people will take you far

When former Gov. Jeb Bush addressed our Leadership Florida class, a few words had the strongest impact on me, and they are so apropos to today. He said, “You have to assume that people who have a different opinion from you aren’t bad people.”

It goes without saying that today many of us are too quick to judge, dismiss or talk over people with different viewpoints. Worse, we simply assume they are not good.

In Leadership Florida, it was clear from the beginning that, though we may have dissimilar ideas about the “right way” to address a statewide problem, we want the same result — high-paying jobs, access to health care, healthy waterways, equitable education and opportunity for all.

With an atmosphere of respect established from the beginning, we talked with each other, listening to understand. The fundamental principal of looking at the human being instead of their politics was formative in establishing lasting relationships. They will enable us to call on each other as resources and advocates instead of adversaries.

Investing in personal and professional development is worth the time

I am fortunate that the Manatee Community Foundation is a learning organization. We expand our knowledge through case studies, industry connections and benchmarking ourselves against others.

The Leadership Florida experience was one that strayed from the norm — it fell outside of the traditional philanthropic learning we would choose to further our business goals. Without a board of directors that supports expanding horizons as a mark of excellence, my participation would not be possible.

For readers who have the luxury of making decisions about your own professional development or lifelong learning, take a leap outside of your typical choices of conferences and workshops. If you choose well, it will pay off for you, your business and our community.

Our state and its future are being led by people who care

As some of my classmates also reflected, my Leadership Florida experience restored hope that our state is being shaped by leaders who not only are incredibly smart and innovative, but who also are kind. They care about people and our quality of life.

Each one of them is engaged in meaningful and time intensive work to build a stronger future for Florida, both within their professional careers and in volunteer positions shaped by genuine personal interests.

Manatee County is connected to an expanding network of individuals around our state with expertise in foster care, early learning, community organizing, business strategy, sustainability, workforce development, health care management, law enforcement and so much more.

We are experts, too, and it’s our job to get out there and share what we know. If we want all of our voices heard, we need to do our part by participating in the conversations. And we also need to be active listeners, perhaps making some concessions along the way.

Building a better, stronger state starts here, but how invigorating to know that we do not have to go it alone.

Susie Bowie is the executive director of Manatee Community Foundation. Founded in 1998, the foundation has awarded more than $28 million in grants and scholarships through the generosity of donors who live and give in Manatee County and beyond.

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