Coaching executive and community leader Barbara Rapaport honored with Ledy Award

It’s "pretty darn exciting."

That’s how Barbara Rapaport feels after being named this year’s recipient of the Ledy Award for Community Engagement. 

Rapaport will receive the award at the 30th Annual Spellebration event, hosted by the Literacy Center of West Michigan. The award recognizes Rapaport's outstanding commitment to improving her community through her work with various nonprofit organizations and her efforts to promote literacy and education.

Rapaport is a well-known community leader and activist who has dedicated her life to improving the lives of others. Rapaport’s journey toward community engagement began after she left her executive management team position at Steelcase. Since then, she has devoted her career to "uncovering answers in the room," helping aspiring and current leaders optimize their organizations’ human capacity. As a coach for executives, she believes that people have their own answers and her job is to create a context for those answers to surface.

Through community engagement, work with local nonprofits and organizations, as well as service on various boards and committees, Rapaport's efforts have changed lives throughout West Michigan. With the Ledy Award, she sees "validation that I've made a difference in the work that I do at a community level."

Rapaport spent 20 years at Steelcase and was a member of the executive management team before she retired. One of the major challenges she faced during that time was reducing 35% of the workforce after the global impact of 9/11. She chose to find a new path after two years of nine salaried workforce reductions left her feeling the need to engage in something more fulfilling. That's when she was approached by the Harvard Graduate School of Education and became interested in the theory of adult development and how adults cope with the complexity of their lives.

Using the coaching process she had honed over the years, Rapaport focused the next part of her career on uncovering the hidden barriers that people face during times of development. She says she was excited to bring this coaching process to Michigan through her private practice.

Facing a severe form of cancer in 2018 led Rapaport to unpack a burden she had been carrying emotionally and psychologically since a young age, an experience she details in her 2021 memoir, "Reimagined."

Rapaport says she discovered two personas within herself that had been fighting each other for domination. Through writing her book, she came to the realization that these personas didn't need to integrate as one, but rather coexist in a way that made her hopeful.

"If you look at the cover of my book, it brings you close to two little girls — the two personas that ultimately connect. In my view, they end up walking together holding hands. They coexist in a way that makes me feel hope," Rapaport says.

As a result of her experience with cancer, Rapaport says she became more connected to her clients by sharing her own vulnerability and allowing for reciprocity in coping with the world. Cancer changed her life and helped her to become a better coach, as she now understands the importance of human connection and how it can impact our lives.

"Cancer literally changed my life," Rapaport says. "It helped me become a better coach because I realized that human connection is so critical to all of us, especially in the times we're in."

Looking toward the future of the community, Rapaport believes that there are different paths for individuals to take depending on their developmental stage and personal goals. She encourages young people to reach out to resources such as the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce and the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy, to find belonging and community spirit within nonprofit organizations.

"If you really enjoy a particular area and have an area of interest you want to pursue, my best advice is ‘don't be shy,’" Rapaport says. "For any stage of development, I would research them, understand them, and be bold. Reach out to them, demonstrate your passion and be clear about your expectations and desires."

Despite her optimism, Rapaport is also aware of the ongoing challenges faced by the community. One of the most pressing issues she sees is the breakdown of civil discourse and the inability to have constructive conversations. She believes that acknowledging our fears and defenses around those fears is key to moving past this issue. As such, she advocates for human-to-human conversations that focus on addressing legitimate fears, rather than getting caught up in reactionary and unproductive patterns of paralysis.

"What frightens me is what has happened to our culture, where people are not able to have civil discourse," Rapaport says. "I believe that the way to get past that is to acknowledge our fears and our defenses around those fears. Name them with one another, whether we agree or disagree."

Rapaport will receive the Ledy Award on March 29 at the 30th Annual Spellebration event, hosted by The Literacy Center of West Michigan, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing free literacy instruction to adults in the area. The Spellebration is the organization's largest fundraising event. The Ledy Award for Community Engagement is named after Susan Ledy, the Literacy Center’s first executive director who retired from the role in 2014. It is presented each year to an individual who has made a significant impact on the community through their engagement and advocacy. Alongside Rapaport, Dr. Ken Fawcett, former vice president of Corewell Health Healthier Communities, will receive the Champion of Literacy Award, while Literacy Center tutor Penny Hoffman, will be recognized as Volunteer of the Year.

Rapaport's hope for the community moving forward is to pass along her inspired view of the mysterious and precious nature of the human spirit. She believes that by doing so, she can touch the lives of others and have a positive impact on the community.

"If that can be passed along through me and others I've touched, that would be the greatest reward for all of us," she says.

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