The Courage to Go First

Jennifer Simpson
4 min readJan 8, 2024

When You Don’t Have a Map, Find Fellow Travelers

These portraits by Meg, The Film Artist, hang behind my desk. I call them “The Ladies Who Have My Back”

I grew up moving back and forth between cultures, in a world that was always bigger than me. Human hopes, dreams, wants, and needs looked remarkably similar the world over, but our ways of helping, healing, hating, and harming one another wore many faces. We all had our own crossroads to contend with. In my early adulthood, Gloria Anzaldúa’s poem “Borderlands” captured this spirit for me:

To survive the Borderlands you must live sin fronteras, be a crossroads.

My coming-of-age years included attending Civil Rights rallies and marching to Take Back the Night. I wrote my first letter to the editor opposing racism when I was 18 and was hosting interracial dialogue groups soon thereafter. I worked in group homes with young women who’d been court-removed from their families for being poor, or for not having a community of support, or because they were from the “wrong part of town.”

I saw how deeply all manner of institutions drew those divisions even more starkly along racial lines. I witnessed how systems were skewed in ways that could swallow people whole. My commitment to building more just systems was born early and has deep roots.

I’ve spent a lot of my life working to solve problems without easy answers and seeking out others who were also “in the work.” Long before the COVID-19 pandemic made video-conferencing commonplace, I already met virtually with clients all over the world and handpicked the portraits you see above to adorn the wall behind me as a reminder that none of my “sheros” had it easy. I call these women “The Ladies Who Have My Back” because they remind me, daily, that none of the progress we experience happens automatically, none of us gets here alone, and we all have a responsibility to “hold the door” for those coming next.

Doing the hard work of social change takes time and is often as attributable to resilience and perseverance in the face of setbacks as it is to luck or good fortune. When we stick our necks out to “go first” in building something new, for which there are no maps and little guidance, I have found that finding kindred spirits makes a world of difference.

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Jennifer Simpson

An artist, poet, leader, lover, daughter, sister, and mother living in Boulder, Colorado. Owner and CEO at Integrated Work. Author of the KOAN method.