The following speech was delivered by Monique Priestley, Chair, Vital Communities Board of Directors, at the Leadership Upper Valley Graduation on June 9, 2021, at the  Vermont Institute of Natural Science in Quechee, VT.

Hi, everyone! It is such an incredible honor to be here with you today.

Leadership Upper Valley was an amazing experience. I always go into leadership programs completely skeptical. Like brat-level cynical.

But LUV surprised me. It took me in and unexpectedly launched me into a completely new level of organizations, state boards, and Vermont Leadership Institute.

Even if I wanted to go back, I would never be able to unsee layers of myself that I have uncovered.

Leadership is a funny thing. It creeps up on you when you least expect it.

It delivers an addictive rush of adrenaline when you completely transform a person’s life. It can result in magical moments that make you feel an instant sense of electric connection to all of humanity.

At the same time, it can feel like the hardest, loneliest thing you have ever attempted. It can be something you do without even realizing it. Or it can be very intentional and come with a sense of carrying the weight of the entire world on your shoulders.

It can feel like the most pointless exercise in the world. But when you experience that moment when it all clicks, it can feel like you figured out the meaning of life.

I wanted to come here today with a speech full of nothing but rainbows and unicorns, but I have to be real with you. This work is hard. It is also the most grounding, inspiring, fulfilling path you could pursue.

For the longest time, leadership is not something I actively pursued. I just said yes. A lot. Like A LOT.

For me, exposure to leadership has come not from career settings, but from volunteering and civic service. And I have learned more from volunteering than I have from any job.

I was asked to join my first board when I was 23, if for no other reason than I was an approachable young person who just happened to have spent high school afternoons house-cleaning for a super aggressive Conservation Commission chair.

Little did I know that first “yes” would completely change my life.

A decade—and more than two dozen boards later—I started to connect the dots. I started to identify opportunities for collaboration, redundancy, and gaps in service areas. I found my voice, I found a sense of purpose, and I finally developed the ability to say no. Although I haven’t learned how to say no to Rob yet. Just kidding, Rob!

I am guessing there is a group of you who have been leading all along, and used this program to add another couple of tools to your tool belt. There is probably another group of you that are all hyped up and ready to dive headfirst into any project, no matter what pops up. I am guessing there is a group of you that is like, “Well this is great, but I really don’t need extra headaches right now.” And perhaps a final group of you that has no idea what the hell you are supposed to do with everything you just spent the better part of a year learning.

All of that is okay. The next steps are something you need to do at your own pace, but do me a favor.

Have a frank conversation with yourself. Do a solid gut check. If you are in this program, YOU are not your average disengaged person. If you are in this program it is because YOU have a story to tell, a talent to share, and a difference to make. YOU are here because someone supported you and because YOU were CHOSEN to be here.

The world needs YOU.

It may not feel like you have the power to do much. You may have imposter syndrome. I hear you.

But I have also seen what the smallest actions can do.

The library board you serve on where the librarian serves a child patron an after-school snack when that snack is the only food he will eat that day. The chamber board that supports the executive director who helps secure recovery funding for husband-and-wife business owners who are at risk of losing an entire life’s work. The community action board that helps a veteran experiencing homelessness find a warm, safe, stable place to live. The youth program that teaches an elementary school child living in poverty to use a screwdriver for the first time in her life, inspiring her to pursue a career in mechanical engineering.

Board meetings, community programming, and activism can feel like a dreadful slog, but those countless hours of service add up. They mean something.

And those collective hours contribute to a world that feels good to live in. One where you actively choose to give back. One where you are able to make someone else’s life just a little bit better. How different would the world be if each of us decided to dedicate some of our spare time to actively make someone else’s life better?

You have that choice.

I am so excited for each of you. You have choices to make. Work to do. And lives to change.

I cannot wait to see where you go and what you do.

And when you run into struggles, know that we are here to lend an ear, share a connection, and to support you in your journey. On that same note, do not forget the people who came to support you today. And do not forget your classmates. The bond you have formed with your cohort is real and when you experience moments you think no one else can understand, reach out to your peers. Grab a coffee. Share a hug. And get back at it.

The world needs you.

YOU just need to decide whether or not you are going to step up and accept the charge.

Just say yes.