January 11, 2017:
It was around 12:40 PM and I had just left work. I was heading southwest on the Mopac expressway in Austin, Texas as I was off campus for a lunch meeting. It was my 4th day on the job and I was very much drinking from a firehose.
Suddenly my phone rang over the Bluetooth in my car. My display lit up, it was our security director, who informed me that he would never call unless it was urgent. I answered the phone. The conversation was brief, as expected from a former secret service agent. “There have been 15 bomb threats this morning at JCC’s across the country, starting on the east coast and moving west, we very well could be next.” I told him I’m on my way back and that I would see him in 5 minutes. As I quasi-legally sped down the highway, I thought to myself, “what did I sign up for…”
When you think about career trajectory, and best practices to personal and professional development, I am not exactly the poster child for traditional tactics. At age 32, I have made a career out of not being quite ready to take on “x role” yet, boom, suddenly I am sitting in the chair that is most often occupied by people much older and more professionally seasoned than me. A trend that started back during my Sophomore year at JMU.
In the fall of 2003 I started volunteering for the University Program Board. I thought to myself, attend free concerts, load in ridiculously heavy sound equipment at the Convo without consideration to my own safety or liability – where can I sign up! What felt suddenly, within a few months’ fellow volunteers and staff started asking me to apply to be on the UPB board. Sure, why not? Maybe I will be the director of music, cultural arts, or technical services, all things I knew very little about.
Then it happened. I was approached by several people within the organization with one specific question, “Corey, would you consider applying to be our student executive director, you are so great at bringing people together.” I was dumbfounded. I didn’t even know what “build community” meant.
Low and behold, miraculously I was voted in as the new Executive Director for the University Program Board for my junior year. A seat, in all honesty, I had no business filling.
For anyone that has ever sat in a leadership capacity, especially in the nonprofit or education world, you know all too well that you are simply a human being tasked with doing the work of a superhero. For certain, I was no superhero. But I have never backed down from a challenge.
Prior to this opportunity, I frequently filtered my life with the mentality of “how does this impact me.” However, somewhere during my junior year I began to analyze my life through a lens of “how does this impact others, the people I surround myself with, my community.”
During my tenure at JMU there was a lot of tension between the city of Harrisonburg, VA and JMU students. Those not associated with the university were viewed at “townies” or any other degrading classification you could think of at the time. Harrisonburg residents not affiliated with JMU viewed JMU students as individuals that just got drunk, trashed their town, and gave the city a bad reputation. Hatred on a variety of levels existed deeply between these cohabitating populations. Clearly something needed to change, and it needed to happen soon.
During my tenure as the Executive Director of UPB, I had a great relationship with our student government association (SGA) president Tom Culligan. Our two organizations needed to collaborate and work together to truly build community within the JMU campus. However, the issue described above transcended beyond just our campus. This was a community issue. This was OUR community’s issue.
We knew there was no place for hatred. Not on our campus, not in our community, no amongst ourselves. The only way we were going to combat hatred was through the infusion of hope.
Tom and I decided to reach out to Dr. Warner to share our vision of change in hopes of some guidance or direction. Dr. Warner, being the incredible man who Dr. Warner is, told Tom and I he supports us 100% and will do whatever he can to help us gather resources necessary to “start the conversation.”
Through the evolution of our discussion, an event called jMuBilee was born. It was a carnival/family festival designed to bring the JMU campus and Harrisonburg community together to start dialogue, sharing, and capacity building through supporting one another. Outside marrying my wife Jennifer, this event was the most meaningful thing I have done with my life. One that I again had no business being in the driver seat. Nevertheless, our community needed hope; hope to build community and community to combat hatred. One campus, one community, all together one.
Over the years, the seed that Tom, myself, and our tremendous group of volunteers planted has grown and transformed into what is now Madison Week. Through this experience, I learned that one of the most humbling things you can do in life is to create a vision in which other future leaders can mold to ensure we are constantly meeting the needs of the community, bringing people together, and inspiring hope.
Since graduating from JMU, I have been on an incredible career journey. A trajectory path that has no resemblance of normalcy or tradition. One that I am incredibly humbled by and proud of at the same time.
At age 25 I sat in front of First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” team, consulting on best practices for increasing physical activity and healthy eating in children, through my work at Nemours. When I was 27 I appeared on national TV and NPR as an “expert” in health and fitness. Before even making it to my 30th birthday, I oversaw one of the largest corporate wellness programs in the country for a Fortune 200 company.
Now, at age 32, I am the proud COO for a large Jewish community nonprofit in Austin, Texas. A Jewish community nationally that is experiencing hatred at a level that has not been seen since World War II. A community, nonetheless, that continues to grow stronger and stronger everyday as we stare at the face of hatred and adversity.
The capital T truth here is that no one truly “signs up” for a job filled with combatting hate. However, we all have an obligation to ourselves, our family and friends, and the communities we serve to meet that hatred head on with hope. To challenge hatred with the strength of perseverance and resiliency, regardless of what we face. Because there is no more powerful of a mechanism in the world than a community that is ignited by hope.
Without a doubt, I would not be where I am today, or who I am today, if it wasn’t for the culture that exists at JMU that allows every student the opportunity to find, identify with, or create their own community. More importantly, a culture that empowers all staff and employees to ignite the spirit of community in the hearts and minds of every JMU Duke.
Beyond the degree(s), the friendships and memories, the late nights, early mornings, the homecomings and causes, the most important thing every JMU student receives is a sense of community. More importantly, who we stand for and what we do, is much greater and more meaningful than any one accomplishment.
As of March 20th, as I finish writing this article, JCC’s and other Jewish affiliated organizations have received over 150 threats and several shameless acts of vandalism across our country. When it’s very easy to feel alone, isolated, and demoralized by hate and an intent to disrupt, I feel empowered. Empowered in a way I felt at JMU, where it was never about the “can’t” or “wont,” but the how.
Over the last three months I have participated in interfaith discussions about support, cohesiveness, and a need to come together. I have stood toe-to-toe with law enforcement of all agencies who above everything else, infuse hope into a disruptive and bleak situation. But most importantly, through making a career out of building community, I have found that the only way you can combat hatred is through hope. Something that JMU ignited 15 years ago.
I leave you with an African proverb that sits on my desk:
“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go with others.”
Together, we’re better.
Corey is a graduate of James Madison University (’06). He founded RemixYourHealth and provides consulting services through Millennial Mindset Consulting, his consulting firm focused on empowering you, to inspire others. Through Corey’s expertise, he helps others define and tell their story through career coaching and development, personal health and wellbeing, and strengthening communication. Corey is currently the Chief Operating Officer (COO) for Shalom Austin in Austin, Texas. Corey is happy to accept new clients. For more information on Millennial Mindset Consulting, please check out www.millennialmindsetconsulting.com.
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The Powerful 7
Presented By: Corey Schwartz (’06)
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