How experiences can change your worldview
As a career firefighter, Ryan McLean has experienced almost anything you can imagine. Whether that be stressful, life-or-death emergencies, saving animals, or rushing people out of burning buildings, he has most likely done it.
Born and raised in Colorado, Ryan attended Aims Community College in Greeley, Colorado, during the early 1990’s to complete the Fire Science program.
Shortly after completion of the program, Ryan began his firefighting career in Laramie, Wyoming. Working as a firefighter-EMT-intermediate, he was able to experience a variety of scenarios.
After five years of working in Laramie, Ryan set his course back to Colorado, getting accepted for a position at Poudre Fire Authority (PFA) in Fort Collins. Over the next 20 years, McLean would establish himself as a leader in the service and in the community.
Beginning at the bottom, McLean was promoted multiple times throughout his fire service at PFA; promoting to driver in 2003, Captain in 2006, Battalion Chief in 2012 and Division Chief in 2016.
But as a lifelong learner, McLean wanted to continue his academic studies and continue pushing himself. Ryan completed his undergraduate degree in Fire and Emergency Services Administration through Colorado State University in 2018.
Upon graduation, he then enrolled at Gonzaga University to obtain his Master’s in Organizational Leadership. His time spent through the graduate program at Gonzaga would quickly change his world view and desire for personal growth, leadership and community engagement.
This is where a new experience, far different than what McLean had done in the fire service, can show the immense change it can instill in someone. As seen in the video and podcast, Ryan spent time on an academic-immersion experience in Cali, Colombia, as a part of his graduate program.
The experience of a new culture and what it holds touched McLean at his core. Overwhelmed with emotion, he struggled to grasp how such amazing, selfless people can live in such destitute conditions. Individuals who are impacted by institutional challenges outside of their control.
“I was shocked,” said McLean. “These were some of the best people I have ever met in my life. They care deeply. They want to help each other. They want to give you the world.”
In the surrounding areas of Cali, Colombia, hundreds of thousands of misplaced people live in impoverished communities. In the podcast episode, McLean mentioned these are commonly referred too as “Shanty-towns” or “Favelas”.
Many people in the “western” world may take for granted the level of comfort that we live with on a daily basis. The ease and access to a multitude of benefits and resources.
What started as a mapping project through McLean’s graduate trip soon turned into a feeling; and later a vision.
“As we were mapping these communities to see where services such as parks, schools, hospitals and other things were, it was quickly apparent that these misplaced people live without access to almost all of those things,” McLean said. “And when those services are within a reasonable distance, they are drastically lacking.”
In what McLean called a humbling and overwhelming moment, it seemed as if everything that he thought and knew about the world changed. “In our bubbles that we live in, we do not tend to think of how underprivileged some people live,” McLean said. “Of course we see the problems of our own country on the news, especially things like racial inequality.”
The career firefighter from Colorado was immediately changed by this experience in a foreign land. The difference between everything had known, and what he had experienced in Colombia, was major.
Struck by emotion and a desire to help in any way he could, Ryan started to think of ways in which he could contribute. But this “savior-mentality” that many westerners inherently have did not help.
“After the emersion experience, I was just thinking, ‘I want to help in any way. What can I do,” said McLean. “So I contacted one of the community leaders down there and just asked what I could do. ‘Can I give money? Can I just help do projects?”
McLean soon found out that many people in these situations do not want outside help from the wealthy or well off. The savior mentality makes us think that because we are from “better off” countries, we can use our wealth and money to help solve problems. It’s not that simple.
The next experience also greatly impacted McLean. Being told no. “It was such a humbling experience, being told ‘No thank you’. Because of what I had thought, that I could just be on the outside and send either financial contributions or help, I could do something,” said McLean. “But that’s not what it’s about. They don’t want someone sending assistance without knowing the whole picture.”
So McLean took a step back. After the humbling encounter with denial, he began thinking of what else he could do. This was a crucial step in his lifelong learning.
Ryan then took a different approach. He kept thinking about what the emersion experience had taught him, what they learned through the mapping projects, and how outside factors impact these communities.
Then the idea for The L.E.O. (Leadership Engagement Opportunity) Fund was born. Instead of merely sending money as a means to impact the community, he, and later others from the emersion trip, would work in conjunction with the local community leaders.
The L.E.O. Fund partners with these leaders to develop plans and projects that these communities can complete and take pride in. The organizations mission is to “transform communities through cooperation, empowerment, participation and relationships that create opportunities in the most vulnerable areas of Colombia.”
Rather than having the previously mentioned “savior mentality”, the fund stands in solidarity with those community leaders, and community members, to help in any way possible. They don’t interfere by taking credit for projects, implementing rules to follow, or demanding something in return.
Haley Stupasky, a fellow graduate student on the Colombian trip with McLean, now works voluntarily as the Media and Marketing director for the fund.
Stupasky had previously studied abroad in other countries, such as Germany, but her experience in Colombia also greatly impacted her. “My experience did much more than provide me with memories of successful intercultural interactions,” said Stupasky. “It helped me understand how growth exists in conflict.”
She too wanted to help in any way she could. As she learned about the factors that affect these communities, she realized something important. “Our group discussed at length the importance of listening before telling.”
I find this short sentence powerful. We often forget to listen. To understand where people are coming from, what they struggle with, what they feel.
“The people that were a part of this program and have played parts in its design have pushed me to question and reassess my actions when interacting inter-culturally,” said Stupasky. “And to understand how to appropriately navigate situations when my privilege may cloud my judgement.”
This is how experiences can change your entire world view. It may be hard for many people to realize, or admit, that privilege exists, and that they have it. And just because we come from “well-off” countries and have the means to send money, doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do.
“The small size of the organization allows for lots of personal connection and collaboration between LEO volunteers and the community groups it supports,” said Stupasky. “The LEO fund is all about trust and communication as a foundation for positive change. It’s an amazing thing to be a part of.”
This is what makes The L.E.O. Fund so special. It isn’t about profit. It isn’t about getting tax-deductions or something in return. It isn’t about having power.
The fund is about standing together. Learning and growing and supporting and building a better future. “It is important for me, that it doesn’t matter if the people being helped know about the LEO fund or not,” said McLean.
“What I care about is the people, not the image,” said McLean. “I want the community leaders to feel engaged. I want the people to take pride in the projects they are completing. I want to work with them to build a better future. And I want to continue learning from these amazing people.”
To learn more about The L.E.O. Fund, visit theleofund.org, or follow their social media accounts at @the.leo.fund.