‘You cannot build power without community’

Nate with his daughter Clara, partner Kathryn, and brother Josh hanging out at the garden.

One thing that can’t be debated:
Power never changed on its own, you got to make it.
That’s why community is so sacred
That’s the symbol that we make when we raise fists

~Brother Ali, Letter to My Countrymen

These lyrics are from a song that moves and centers me, personally and professionally. Brother Ali, one of my favorite hip-hop artists and intellectuals, vividly describes two things that are the lifeblood of our country: community and power.

As a farm kid from Iowa now living in the heart of Kansas City, I’ve gotten some perspective on community. From the smallest town — and trust me, my hometown is small (search Ringsted, IA) — to metros like KC, there are shared values that transcend population numbers: belonging, inclusion, comfort, building power, and community joy. 

Every act, no matter how small, has an impact. I’m an avid gardener and when I share what I grow with my neighbors, it feels like we get stronger as a community. I see each interaction between individuals as a connection, and as those connections increase, our community network grows stronger.

I firmly believe that the cumulative impact of connection in all the small ways leads to more resiliency in the face of bigger challenges. This moves relationships from transactional to transformational. The act of connection helps solve little problems like covering child care for an hour or two and big ones like ensuring people have safe, affordable, and healthy places to live.

One thing that I know to be true in my lived experience is this: you cannot build power without community.

I have spent my career learning about politics, policy, and ultimately power. Starting off in Kansas doing budget and tax policy advocacy for Kansas Action for Children, I saw firsthand how policy is made and power is flexed. When I moved to the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, I learned about philanthropy and the intersection of power, people, and resources. 

One thing that I know to be true in my lived experience is this: you cannot build power without community.

Ultimately, this is what drew me to Health Forward. I get to live my values in my career as we work with and for communities to help them build power — all while centering racial justice, antiracism, and economic inclusion. Through my role with Health Forward, , I am honored to share my experiences, journey, and learning about how to build power and community between people who have had different experiences in life. I’m also excited to further my advocacy knowledge by interacting with our communities.

Self-reflection is the first, most essential step toward being a good advocate. Before advocating for equitable policies, I needed to look inward and examine my own identities and proximity to privilege.

Introspection is an ongoing journey, one that is never finished and will always offer avenues for improvement. I know I’ve hurt people based on their race, sexuality, nativity, gender, and other intersecting dimensions, even if it came from the best of intentions.

By recognizing and healing from these past shortcomings, I understand myself better —my flaws and my strengths. It has been integral in my goal to serve others. Knowledge of self helps you be more authentic as you weave together smaller acts with those around you into a strong fabric of community power.  

Self-reflection is the first, most essential step toward being a good advocate. Before advocating for equitable policies, I needed to look inward and examine my own identities and proximity to privilege.

Ultimately, the introspective work my colleagues and I are doing at Health Forward is about joy. We check our biases so we are better prepared to support our communities. Hearing stories about people accessing health care makes us happy! Seeing that tenants in Kansas City will have representation during eviction hearings is fulfilling. Working with organizations to advocate for more community health workers in rural Kansas is amazing. These community wins are a joy to witness, a joy to celebrate.

To paraphrase the late Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone, not separating the life we live from the words we speak is what makes this work so impactful and wonderful.

I’d like to leave an open invitation to you to reach out to me at any time. I’d like to get to know you and your own journey. Because you and your story are worth knowing.

Editor’s note: If you’d like to contact Nate, he can be reached at nmadden@healthforward.org.

Also, Nate vigorously encourages you to take 4 minutes and 4 seconds out of your day to listen and absorb the message of the song referenced, Letter to My Countrymen by Brother Ali (feat. Dr. Cornel West).


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