We live in “Mi ami”

Not “Mi amigo” or “Mon ami.” But “Mi ami.”

About a month ago, I found myself sitting in Carl Juste’s studio in Little Haiti. I was there on a walking tour of the neighborhood to plan an upcoming community-based project. Carl, who captures Miami’s stories as a photographer for the Miami Herald, explained how our city’s name is the representation of us at our best.

Mi” for “my” in Spanish and “ami” for “friend” in French.

Our name is the representation of the beautiful coming together of difference – distinct cultures, languages and customs – living together as friends. (For more on that story, I encourage you to visit HistoryMiami museum and check out their collections and walking tours.)

Miami means inclusion. Miami means acceptance of difference. Miami means standing next to someone who may look, act, think or talk differently than you and embracing them as a friend. Miami embraced me, a five-foot tall, half-Syrian, half-English girl with Michigan roots but Tarheel breeding, who moved here to teach 5th grade in Liberty City and Overtown through Teach for America. Having studied international relations, I wanted to immerse myself in as diverse of a community as possible. Miami couldn’t have been a better choice and, in 2006, the city welcomed me.

Pictured above: Foundation president and CEO Javier Alberto Soto hugs Michelle Abbs after she finishes speaking at the Miami Fellows Class IX closing reception.

Like our city’s name, my experience in The Miami Foundation’s Miami Fellows leadership program was also a coming together of difference. The Fellows program takes community leaders who share a love and passion for helping Miami become the best representation of our namesake. The program welcomed me into Class IX. We were a group of 17 individuals from all walks of life, a variety of industries and cultural roots. Some of us identified with the Spanish origin of our city’s name, some with the French side and others, like myself, with a bit of everything.

We came together as environmentalists, urban planners, nonprofit leaders, parents and triathletes. Throughout our 14-month-long journey, we got to know one another and examined what we know about ourselves, our leadership styles, our values and personalities. We became collaborative project planners, empathic and self-aware leaders, and a support network for each other.

We visited every corner of Miami-Dade – from Homestead to Miami Gardens, the West End and Miami Beach. We met with community leaders, government officials and grassroots organizers who opened our eyes to key issues like: “Where does the power live in Miami and how can we leverage that to build coalitions?” and “How do you rebuild a neighborhood while at the same time retain its roots?”

When I completed the program in June, I felt a sense of urgency and desire to address these. There are more than 100 Miami Fellows alumni. That’s 100+ change agents who represent all levels of difference and diversity in Miami who are ready to step up to the plate to run for office, lead key local initiatives and hold influential roles impacting the lives of our community. I’m glad to work with the Foundation to unite changemakers by launching an alumni network.

As an emerging leader, the Miami Fellows program helps you uncover what you can do to drive the community change you want to see. That’s why I love working with the Fellows. But, the truth is, we can all become champions for what matters to us. The question is: how will you step up to unite our “Mi ami?”

Michelle Abbs, Miami Fellows Class IX alum, is regional director of Up2UsSports’ Miami branch.

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