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Guest Commentary: “Give Yourself Permission”

One year after the death of civic leader Jeremy Nowak, a trio of urban innovators he inspired remembers his advice—and work to live it

Before his untimely death a year ago, Jeremy Nowak was an advisor to Drexel University’s Lindy Institute Urban Innovation Fellowship, which selected three emerging leaders working to solve critical problems in the City of Philadelphia. Their work had barely begun, but Nowak’s energy, encouragement and wisdom was already embedded into the lives of the three fellows. 

Each of them wrote a brief remembrance of Nowak. You can find out more about their work, which he helped to shape, at the Lindy Institute

Priya E. Mammen, Emergency Physician and Public Health Specialist

I stood in front of a room full of people—ranging from students to professionals, academics to consultants, public and private sectors and everything in between. Behind me was the screen of slides illustrating my ideas, to my left was a panel of experts who were primed to chime in and guide. This was the culmination of a two day summit for the Lindy Institute Urban Innovation Fellowship. Three of us were selected as Fellows based on our ideas to tackle unique urban issues in Philadelphia. My proposal focused on capitalizing on the role and reach of the urban Emergency Department as a tool of health equity and urban resilience. With the example of the opioid crisis in our midst, I made the argument for EDs to be seen as critical partners in addressing the needs of a community and city as a whole. 

I finished my presentation to applause and some blank stares, including from the panel of experts. The questions and comments that followed further clarified the fundamental error I made in assuming that anyone could imagine what we see and do in Emergency Departments every day. It was clear few, if any, in the room had any idea of the basic context of my idea and yet felt compelled and secure in the judgments they passed and the questions they posed. 

Except for one. Sitting front and center, Jeremy Nowak vigorously shook his head in affirmation, clapped, and gave me an emphatic thumbs up sign as final punctuation. Unlike the others, Jeremy joined my discussion group earlier that day with the simple “I don’t know anything about your area of expertise, so thought I’d come and try and learn a little bit.” This is how our time together began. 

He was revered, but always found time to share with and educate the many who reached out. He may not have been perfectly diplomatic at times, but he was always authentic.

I am embarrassed to admit that I didn’t know who Jeremy Nowak was before the Fellowship began. I had heard his name, but did not realize that despite not sitting on the panel to my left, he was the expert in the room. He had dedicated his career and life to civic engagement, urban development, reinvestment and advocating for issues that would ultimately benefit our city as a whole. He had advised mayors and gone head to head with powerful men and women for what he believed was right. He was revered, but always found time to share with and educate the many who reached out. He may not have been perfectly diplomatic at times, but he was always authentic.

Being a physician and spending the bulk of my career in the world of academic medicine, I have been surrounded by titles preceding names and letters following them. It is a world of hierarchy, where one’s titles, rank and letters allow others to quickly determine one’s level of importance. They allow for posturing. They permit the disregard and dismissal of those who may think and act differently. Academic medicine is the epitome of what Jeremy called “slow changing incumbent institutions.” But Jeremy was different. I never knew his titles or letters; he did not care about mine. He had the ability to listen and immediately highlight the most important voice  and words in the room no matter who uttered them. Jeremy would intently observe and effortlessly identify where great potential lie. He would mark it with a thumbs up.

It was fitting that The New Localism was published just weeks after I first met Jeremy. I was feeling the constraints of academic medicine closing in on the missions that drove me, where resource allocation was not directed to those with greatest need, but instead to greatest profit or visibility. I questioned how I could best contribute and where I could actually move the needle on the health of vulnerable populations in my city. Together with Bruce Katz, Jeremy and The New Localism helped me see my space, my efforts, my work in a different paradigm. It described me to me.

    • The ability to get things done has shifted from command-and-control systems to collective efforts… that are characterized by multidisciplinary and multisectoral networks rather than by narrow, specialized silos. They can craft and deliver better solutions to hard challenges since they match problem solving to the way the world works – integrated, holistic, entrepreneurial rather than compartmentalized and bureaucratic.
    • New sets of leaders are upending conventional wisdom about what solves problems… (they) embrace diversity rather than ethnocentrism and are curious rather than closed.. are guided by pragmatism rather than ideological fervor.
    • In sum, power increasingly belongs to the problem solvers. And these problem solvers now congregate disproportionately at the local level.

Over the next several months, Jeremy became my mentor and friend. He led the way by being curious to learn more about my sector. He was quick to share his experiences and insights, but also selfless in sharing his resources and the connections of his network. Jeremy pushed me forward in every way—he forced me out of my comfort zone and allowed me to grow and develop in different planes. 

Jeremy was also quick to come to my side after traumatic events shook my very foundation and dropped me to my knees. His usual pit bull demeanor and furrowed brow gave way to warmth, kindness and empathy. “Priya, you have to give yourself some time to heal. But then move on. I know you’re going to do great things ahead. I believe in you.” His confidence in me allowed me to stand up again. He helped me develop a framework for how I wanted my work and life to be—where functionality and intentionality meet and lead to meaning and impact. He helped me regain hope in a future that had lost its crisp outlines “in the era of Trump.” 

To me on that first day, Jeremy was the guy who walked into my group, admitted his lack of knowledge, sat quietly to listen and understand, and immediately grasped the context, message and missions I was trying to describe. He immediately set about to help me achieve my goals. He went on to show me a new world and a new way of thinking. He gave me not only the permission but the command to use my voice to bring change and advocate for those I represented. He reminded me that I was strong and showed me where my power was. To me, since that day, Jeremy Nowak is the illustration of what a mentor and sponsor is, what a true disrupter can be, and what the best leaders should be. I carry these lessons with me in his absence. 

Chris Spahr,  Executive Director of the Centennial Parkside CDC

Jeremy Nowak, an inspirational force in the city of Philadelphia, also became an inspirational force in my life during the short time that I knew him. As a Lindy Institute Urban Innovation Fellow, I had the great honor of calling Jeremy my mentor for nine months. My meetings with Jeremy were a practice in determining how to be in the same room with my strongest critic and biggest champion at the same time. Jeremy had a knack for questioning my thought process. While he always respected my opinion, he also knew that there were multiple ways to address the critical urban challenges of our day. Coming from someone for whom creativity is not natural, Jeremy’s ability to force out of the box thinking is the quality I most appreciated.

As I adjusted to Jeremy’s style of mentorship, I also became one of his biggest fans.  I could usually be found in the audience at his speaking engagements when on a promotional tour for The New Localism with Bruce Katz. During these times, I learned a lot, but mostly I laughed my sides out. Jeremy’s speaking style, a mix of stand-up comedy and professorial teaching, was so candid and peppered with humor that I often did not realize how much knowledge I was consuming. 

Now when I encounter a problem that I feel is too large to tackle, I think of Jeremy and what he would challenge me to do. And then I get that uncomfortable feeling of Jeremy putting me on the same plane as himself and asking me to be more than a mediocre thinker and problem solver.

Jeremy’s passing broke my heart. Not because I knew him for many years but because I hoped to know him for many years. I had in my mind that I was going to grow as an innovative thinker under the long tutelage of Jeremy Nowak. A sense of loss and sense of overwhelming gratitude washed over me as I sat at his memorial service and heard each prominent person praise the intellect of this great man. At that moment I realized I had just spent nine short months wrestling with one of the greatest minds in Philadelphia and now had the responsibility of applying all I had learned to become a stronger leader in tackling the critical urban challenges of our day.  

So now when I encounter a problem that I feel is too large to tackle, I think of Jeremy and what he would challenge me to do. And then I get that uncomfortable feeling of Jeremy putting me on the same plane as himself and asking me to be more than a mediocre thinker and problem solver. I only hope that I can continue to have the strength to channel his energy to address some of the greatest challenges facing our great city of Philadelphia and to encourage others to carry on the legacy of the great Jeremy Nowak.

Michael O’Bryan, Director of Youth and Young Adult Programs at The Village of Arts and Humanities. 

“Give yourself permission.” Those are words from Jeremy Nowak that have echoed like chimes in my soul ever since he first shared them with me. He would use that phrase many more times over our nine months together, each time getting more and more specific. “Give yourself permission to be…” successful, to make money, to be wrong, to increase your impact….

My project focused on workforce development and the seemingly intractable issue of income access for the city’s most economically marginalized populations. I approached the subject matter as a novice researcher with a considerable amount of on the ground work, both within and alongside communities impacted by the poverty epidemic and years of planned disinvestment. In October of 2017, the kickoff for the inaugural Urban Innovation Fellowship, I delivered a presentation to a room of experts from varying disciplines relevant to my subjects of interest. Only one expert in the room, though, had chaired the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia and literally scared the daylights out of me. Not because his presence was intimidating or mean but because I knew he’d be able to sniff out any fraudulent or half-baked ideas. 

To my surprise, and delight, within minutes Jeremy became my biggest supporter in the space and politely demanded that I not focus on research and get to productizing. In fact, his direct words were, “We’ve got to take all of the stuff up there in your head and get it out into the world.” He began using language like “finding the shortest and most efficient way to get to market” immediately and admonished me to not get lost in what I would naturally and informally do without prompting: research, read, study, talk to people, and keep myself informed.

Sometimes life hands us the very gifts that it knows we lack the wisdom to request or seek out. Other times, life delivers gifts that we don’t even know we need. In this case, I received both and am eternally grateful for it.

In 20 minutes, he had read me pretty quickly and thwarted whatever plans I had come into this process with. He wanted me to “do”…to create impact in the world with the skills I already had. His belief that I could be making an immediate impact in that very moment, sparked something new in me and terrified the hell out of me at the same time. Indeed, I had to give myself permission to fail and to be great all at the same time.

Over the next nine months Jeremy would share stories with me about his beginnings as a child; stories of his home life as he grew older and his journey into manhood and figuring out who he was and how he wanted to impact the world. We would also spend time talking about the beginnings of the Reinvestment Fund, as he was around my age (at the time of the fellowship) when he started the Reinvestment Fund with a grant not too much bigger than the one I received. We found commonalities in our stories and beginnings, an array of experiences and beliefs I didn’t think we’d share. That commonality would be both a source of comfort and strength for me. Jeremy wasn’t just nurturing the budding “business man” in me, he was investing in my development and sharing how he gave himself permission to be exactly what Philadelphia, and the world, needed …flaws, brilliance, and all.

Sometimes life hands us the very gifts that it knows we lack the wisdom to request or seek out. Other times, life delivers gifts that we don’t even know we need. In this case, I received both and am eternally grateful for it. Long live Jeremy Nowak, may his memory be a blessing.

Photo via Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia

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