Power of A Tribe

Well, I gave my first public speech last week.  I was asked to give a talk to a large group on "The Power Of A Tribe."  I was conflicted about agreeing to give a speech. 

First, because I don't like using the word "tribe" the way it's used today.  Second, because I have absolutely no experience giving speeches.

But I actually do have quite a lot to say about how I went from working as a lone wolf to belonging to some wonderful groups of people. And so I took the time to write out my story and tell it.

Now, I've worked  hard in my life to not to care whether people know my side of any story.  I have nothing to prove. But I have to admit: it was nice to get to wax extemporaneously about my trials.  Reader, I don't expect you to read any of this.  But if you wonder what I've been writing these past few weeks, it's below.  I'll see you for a normal blog next Monday.





Good afternoon.  Thank you very much for inviting me to talk with you today.  

My name is Emily Hurd. Most of you don’t know me. By trade, I am a singer/songwriter, which means I’ve spent the majority of my life writing music alone with a piano, a pen, and a notepad. If you had asked me six years ago to speak about the power of working in and leading a group, I wouldn’t have had much to say, beyond how much I don’t enjoy working with others. 

Today, I’m in a unique position to discuss it. Before I do, I need to explain how I went from suffering in isolation to belonging to some incredible groups of people that changed the way I think.  The first part of this talk will revolve around my background, but I’ll get to the point, I promise. 

In 2013, my father passed away very suddenly of a heart attack.  At that time, I was living alone in Chicago, writing and teaching music in my 300-square foot apartment in Andersonville.  My family has always been very important to me, and when dad died, it put me on my heels.  I decided shortly after his passing to move back to the west side of Rockford, where I’m from, to be closer to my mother. When I moved back, my old high school boyfriend and I got back together, I got married, and then pregnant. 

As strange as it is to say, I’ve never lived better than I did in the days following dad’s death.  Sometimes it takes a tragedy to make us realize just how short our time here really is. Armed with that bittersweet clarity, I could see what I should be doing with my life.  And it wasn’t just sitting alone with a piano, a pen, and a notepad. 

So I began my search for a building to open a “place.”  I’ve always wanted to bring people together in a physical space, and I’ve always loved making food and music. One day I was driving home through the North End, and I saw the building I knew I wanted. On February 5, 2015, while I was 4 months pregnant with my first child, I bought 1402 N Main Street in Rockford. It had been largely abandoned. The roof had collapsed.  Walls were crumbling.  Pipes had rotted.  And yet my heart went out to it.  The day I got the keys, I got to work.  I decided to turn the first floor into a restaurant and music venue called The Norwegian, and the second floor into rentable spaces for fellow creative types to make and teach art. 

I started my renovations upstairs, filling four 40-yard dumpsters with the remains the squatters had hoarded up there over the years.  I did the work alone, because I didn’t want anybody else to have to face the gruesome job. It took a few weeks of clearing out dead birds, rooms of trash, and thousands of mouse carcasses before I could even start the project.  I don’t know if it was all the hormones from being pregnant, but I got through it. 

Once I got the space clear, I started a one-woman mission of tearing up 4,000 square feet of carpet.  It was at that point, I hit asbestos tile.  I was told by an asbestos abatement company that I would need to tear out the entire floor, and it would cost $93,000.  I tried to get a loan with several banks and lending institutions. I felt alone and scared. No one was willing to help.  So I did a crowd-funding campaign through Kickstarter that became infamous around these parts. 

I told locals that for various levels of financial support, I would give them rewards at my new restaurant.  Everything from free coffee, to playing a house concert in their home, from cooking a 5-course meal for 25 people, to building them their own bar stools with their name on it.  For $50,000, I would even let someone name my unborn baby.  Thank god nobody took me up on that one. 

55 days after I started that campaign, I went into labor. 27 hours later, I had my first child.  A boy, who I named John, after my father.  5 days after he was born, the Kickstarter campaign came to a close. I raised more than $100,000 to keep the project going.   

Two weeks after that, I got back to work on the second floor of the building.  For the next six months, I spent most every weekday upstairs alone, scraping tar, plastering, and painting walls.   

 On the weekends, I devoted my entire time to fulfilling Kickstarter rewards.  I had to play 45 house concerts in the continental United States, most of which also came with dinner.  I remember staying up late cooking food on Friday nights, then on Saturday mornings, loading up my keyboard, my prepared food, and my son, and driving to whoever I had promised a concert.  I had a breast pump that was connected to the inverter of my car so that I could pump while I drove, then transfer the milk to a bottle and feed my son in his car seat. 

When I would show up to people’s houses to play, I would hide how exhausted I was; I kept a lot of under eye concealer in my glovebox. I’d cook and play and entertain as best I could.  Then I would pack up my keyboard and my son, and I would drive back home. I drove as far away as Cape Cod and Texas for these concerts.  I would wake up Monday mornings completely drained, suffering in isolation. 

When I was done with most of the ugly jobs upstairs at the building and had played the majority of the Kickstarter shows, I began getting down to the nitty gritty. At that point, I was feeling more nauseated than usual, vomiting on-site quite a bit.  I discovered that I was 2 months pregnant with my second child. So I scrambled to get the upstairs finished.  Almost entirely by myself, I stained, varnished, put in new plumbing, painted radiators, replaced ceiling tiles, added trim, and calked the trim. # One week after I finished renovating upstairs, I went into labor. 72 hours later, I had my second child.  A girl. I named her Johanna Ruth, after her two great grandmothers. 

Johanna was born with a very rare defect.  We didn’t catch it in utero.  The nurses at Swedish American noticed right away that she wasn’t breathing, and they kept her stable in the NICU with oxygen and feeding tubes.  # It wasn’t until six weeks later when she was taken to the Children’s Hospital in Madison that we discovered that she had a rare syndrome called SMMCI. She would need several surgeries to give her nasal passageways.  I felt alone and scared for her, but suppressed those feelings as most mothers do, suffering in isolation. 

I spent weeks at the Ronald McDonald house in Madison while she had her procedures. The project at 1402 N Main Street was necessarily put on hold.  After a few months, Johanna was stable.  Her team of doctors told us she was safe to stay at home and only needed to come up to Madison for check-ups.  For the first time, I was able to put both of my children in daycare, and I was ready to pour myself back into construction of The Norwegian. 

Except now it was October of 2017. And some of the people who had once believed in me were sending me what can only be described as hate mail.  They were frustrated with how long the project was taking.  They called me a fraud because they weren’t seeing work crews in the parking lot.  Even strangers were writing to tell me they were glad they didn’t support my crowd-funding campaign, or I would have wasted their money like I wasted everybody else’s. 

I felt shrunken. I felt embarrassed and afraid. Whatever steam I was running on was gone.  I had just spent years privately running myself into the ground.  Despite the sheer exhaustion, I decided to get a building permit with the City of Rockford, and I began renovating the first floor of the building.  I had made a promise to a lot of people, and as shriveled and alone as I felt, I was going to finish the project. 

I remember Tuesday, January 2nd, 2018, like it was yesterday.  I was tearing down walls, trying to salvage as much of the wood as I could so I wouldn’t have to buy new lumber.  And my Uncle Dave walked into the building.  He was wearing work gloves and had a crow bar in his hand.  He said, “I thought you might need a hand.”   

My initial thought was to refuse.  I knew how gruesome the work was going to be.  I knew I couldn’t pay him. But I was so tired. And I was genuinely happy not to be working alone, and so I said, “That would be great, thank you.” 

Uncle Dave came by to help me every day.  He let me pay him in Beef-a-Roo.  We tackled some truly terrible jobs together, tearing out old HVAC systems, and unearthing a century’s worth of grime. 

A month later, one of the neighbors popped his head in.  His name was Bob.  He was retired, and wondered if I needed help.  He brought his toolbox with him.  He said, “Just point me where you need me.”  My first thought was to refuse.  I wasn’t even related to this person.  Why would they embark on such a miserable journey with me?  Still, I pointed him toward the table saw, and gave him a job. From that day on, Bob was on-site almost every day until the project was over. 

Another month later, one of my dad’s old friends showed up at the door.  He took one look at how much work I had to do and said, “Oh Emily. What can I do?” I gave him a small job, not wanting to push my luck.  He completed it in a few hours and said, “I’ll be back tomorrow.”  

The next day, he showed up with most of my Dad’s retired friends.  They were in awe at what I had gotten myself into. I gave them jobs, and they started in. All for the low price of Beef-A-Roo. 

Everyday, I showed up to work nervous, not knowing what to expect.  And every time a volunteer walked in to help me, I felt myself become energized and more confident.  I noticed that they, too were becoming more energized.  We were all falling into patterns, into rhythms, into inside jokes, and friendships. I could physically feel our steps becoming more confident. I grew into the role of general contractor slowly, without even knowing it. I was inadvertently belonging to and leading a group that today I cannot imagine living without. 

A few days before we finished up our renovations, an inspector came in and loudly asked, “Who’s the guy in charge?” I can’t tell you how wonderful and comical it was to have 10 strong, male engineers point to me and say in unison, “She is.” 

Nine months later, the project was complete.  And all because I was surrounded by a group of people, working together for a common goal.  The feelings of pride and relief that we collectively felt cannot be adequately described with words. 

Now, I’m not an expert on what effects we all have on each other.  I only have my own experience to share with you.  And now that you’ve heard my story, I feel like I can tell you what a value it has been for me to belong to a group. 

First let me say, as a mammal: being in a group reduces fear.  Locking eyes with another human while you’re tearing down a wall or moving something heavy or facing any challenge takes away from the primal feeling that you can’t do it, or that you need to run away.  Not only because there are people who have your back, but also because there are people who depend on you to keep going. 

Second, let me say as a perfectionist: being in a group reduces stress. As an over-achieving only child, I get in my head and worry about most things, which generally leads to a downward spiral. But working with others allows you to be vulnerable, to be encouraged, and then to be brought back to reality by those who are thinking more clearly than you. There is a power to making light of things with friends. 

Third, let me say as a woman: being in a group reduces the feeling that you’re being a bitch. The older I get, the more I realize what a tightrope a woman walks because of the real and perceived expectations we have about encompassing the entire spectrum of humanity at once.  We must be firm, but still loving. Sweet, but sensual. Knowledgeable, but not know-it-alls. Motherly, but not overbearing. Feisty, but chill. Hard-working, but still beautiful. It’s not sustainable.  But working as part of a team takes the focus away from how well I’m behaving and how I appear, and puts more emphasis on how well I’m getting the job done. 

Fourth, let me say as a human: working in a group increases joy.  Being elated alone is great.  Being elated with a lot of other excited individuals is just tremendous.  What’s more, if you work in a group and achieve the group’s goal, you don’t want to celebrate alone anyway.  Cheering each other on and celebrating combined success is far more euphoric than rejoicing solo.  Case in point, last week Rockford voted us its best new restaurant, of course as soon as I found out, I celebrated with my 25 wonderful employees that make up the group I currently love to belong to.

Fifth, let me say as a mother: working in a group turns the gruesome into comedic fodder. In the past 4 years, I’ve seen more more filth than most of my fellow Americans.  I can tell you with certainty: when I was in that building facing the filth alone, things felt pretty bleak.  I was hiding my fear and frustration, as so many of us do. But for whatever reason, facing terrifying scenarios with others is almost easy because you’re too busy commiserating and making jokes to place stock in just how vial the job really is. 

Finally, let me say as a business owner, once you open yourself to being a part of a team, that mindset begins to spread. Since I bought the building, 3 more business owners bought derelict buildings on our block and began renovating them. We have become incredibly fast friends, helping each other with our projects, lifting each other up when we’re feeling discouraged, encouraging our customers to patronize each other’s businesses. Case in point, this Friday night, my restaurant is hosting a dinner with a theme that matches our neighboring theatre’s play.  And on December 14thand 15th, our entire strip of businesses is celebrating our one year anniversary w/ a giant winter snømarket in our shared parking lot. 

So now to recap.  I’ve learned that working in a group reduces fear, stress, and guilt. It also increases joy and laughter. Which is to say: belonging to groups progresses us along.  I would wager that working in close proximity with a team is how our species evolved to the place we’re at today.  Sadly, as we became more fearless, more civilized, that comradery and dependence on each other went away. 

I think a lot about how much of our lives is spent in physical isolation. It was bad enough when I was a kid, living in a house, leaving it in a car, exiting the car to be in another building, then inevitably ending up back in the car to drive home.  Now a-days, people have phones to distract them in public and to keep them from having to look, speak, or connect with each other at all. 

It’s funny to me now that I’ve been asked to give a talk about the power of a tribe (which is a word I don’t personally use in the way that it’s used today), and yet, our species has evolved beyond tribalism. We’ve evolved into a civilized life whereby our isolation has provided us with beautiful homes and cars and food, and yet we lack all the obvious benefits provided to us by being a part of small group dependent on each other.  The sense of belonging, the confidence, and most of all, the support.    

So how do we bring it back? 

If I’ve learned anything in this process of building and operating a restaurant, it’s that nobody really thinks that much anymore about where each of us have come from. We all know what’s “real” to us, and we operate in that reality.  I still have men coming into my bar and asking me to talk to the “guy” who installed my ceiling. Because to those men, women aren’t general contractors who are capable of installing a ceiling, much less leading a crew of grown men. 

I’ve tried many approaches to change the way those kinds of people think. I’ve called them out on their stereotypes. I’ve explained rationally why they’re incorrect in their assumptions. I’ve even gone so far as to insult them. The problem is, I’m fighting them in their reality.  And frankly, there’s no changing a person’s reality. 

To me, the only real way to make change of any kind, is to create the reality we want to live in, and to encourage others to meet us there.   

I know the reality I’m living in now, and I know what I need to do to encourage others to share in it. I need to create a safe restaurant space for my customers, one where they see clearly that there is a woman at the helm of a functioning business, one where they feel welcome to connect with others.  I need to be vulnerable and compassionate with my incredible team of employees so that they will trust our little work community and feel their own sense of belonging to it.  The more we all belong, the more energized each member of my team becomes. Finally, I need to pour myself fully and presently into my husband and kids when I come home, so that our little family will reap the benefits of belonging to our small group as well. 

What I hope comes out of this talk foremost is that I’ve accurately relayed how I’ve grown into the revelation that working in a team is much more beneficial than proving that I can do it all on my own.  My other goal is simply to connect with more of you who are also working to reshape reality, and to cheerlead you on so you’ll keep at it. The more of us who are confidently living a life that encourages women to belong to a team, to lean on a team, to also lead a team, the greater that reality will become and it will render the life of suffering in isolation obsolete.  Thank you.

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