Cultivating a Community from a Mustard Seed of Hope

Mona Khalil
8 min readJul 1, 2024

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“Often it is strangers who help us make sense of where we are going and who we will become.” -Herminia Ibarra, Author of “Working Identity”

People say “be in community” as if it is that easy. You can easily be further ostracized when seeking community. It can be hard to find a community that feels as though it can hold all of your identities, the whole person. As I wrote about in a blog post last year here, being in community can be healing, and it can also be harmful.

At different stages in my life, I’ve had to ask myself:

  • Where do you find community when you don’t meet the criteria to belong?
  • Where do you find community when you can feel you are in other people’s space?
  • How do you feel a sense of belonging when there is no defined community to belong to?

My earliest memory of a disparity while being in community involved my socioeconomic status. As a kid, it showed up in the toys I didn’t have. I enjoyed the Barbie toy car for kids at my friend’s house. However, I was always a passenger and never a driver. It wasn’t my car and I didn’t (and couldn’t) have one of my own. At school, my lunches looked different from my classmates’. The quality and the quantity of food differed. Some families qualified to get meal assistance. When I asked my mom to apply, she said she didn’t qualify without ever looking at the application. I look back and things weren’t adding up. As adults, disparities exist in who makes up our network and community.

I attended the University of California- San Diego (UCSD). Although it is only 2 hours away from home in the city of Pasadena, it was worlds away from how I grew up. I was now living in the conservative city of La Jolla, one of the top beach destinations in the world that houses exclusive world-class golf. My friends and I didn’t attend college together. I was the only one in my graduating class to attend UCSD. It didn’t take long for me to notice that I moved differently from my peers. Our mannerisms, values, priorities, and identities were different.

“We change the most away from people who know us well. For example, when you go away for college and have fewer interactions with family and familiar friends.” – Herminia Ibarra

College is said to be an experience where you get to define your life, and yet it played out as an isolating experience. I was isolated when I furthered my education and moved away from home. I no longer had a support system or a safe environment to rest.

As you grow, your community changes. As you move geographically, your friends change and so does your community. In college, I was a kid having a new experience with my identity on full display at a predominantly white conservative institution. I wasn’t rebellious or trying to figure out my identity like many of the other kids. I wanted to find a safe space to show up as myself. A space that I quickly learned didn’t exist. I explored student groups on campus and navigated relationships that I hoped were authentic. I was comfortable enough with myself to know the difference between spaces that felt restricting versus liberating. Most of the organized communities I encountered accepted only pieces of me. All of me didn’t fit into any of them.

A community is a defined group organized by human beings. You don’t pick who is in a community you join, however, you trust that you are all bonded by some criteria of commonality. And often those who organize the space are on their own identity journey. Their identity and upbringing can play a role in how a community is defined and organized. Human beings create the criteria for who is and who is not welcomed, and how they can and cannot show up. Community is an objective and subjective experience. Harm can come from being in community by a defined group while also not fully identifying as a whole person in those spaces. It can show up as not being fully accepted for who you are, safely.

Rothaniel talks about it on the Jerrod Carmichael Reality Show on Max. Jerrod says in his comedy special, that he thinks everyone is in the closet about something. He continues, “There is a part of you that you don’t want to reveal to the world.” A person who is unable to 100% confront themselves can be the same person organizing community for others. Respect and authenticity can be absent in community spaces when people are driven by ego and shame.

In college, it was evident I was different from the privileged people organizing community spaces. Over time, I met people within disparate groups who accepted me for who I was, and we maintained our relationship outside of the organized community. Sometimes you have to find and create your own, unique community.

“All reinventions require social support. New and/or distant acquaintances help us take a step forward in a new direction while providing the security we need to make a change. We can take risks in their company trying out our new selves.”

— Herminia Ibarra

I have experienced life as an outsider. After college, I moved to Morocco for the Peace Corps, and then lived in Colorado, and then the Bay. When I returned to the States from Morocco connecting with people was hard. There are layers to our identity. You can feel alone in community. Because of my experiences, it also explains why it’s important for me to create inclusive spaces. I know the harm caused by being exclusive to someone already isolated by society. And I relate to the experience of working identities.

I know when I am around unsafe people. They are oftentimes the people who disregulate my nervous system. It took practice to learn when to walk away. I stand out when I walk away from disrespect. Your social and professional circles change with career change. College ends, jobs end, and relationships end. We move, change jobs, change homes, grow up. The only thing constant is ourselves trying out new identities that evolve with life’s experiences.

“We become more ourselves by experimenting with who we might become.” — Herminia Ibarra

When my social and professional circles changed or I needed to walk away, I yearned to create the community I needed for myself, while welcoming others in. I didn’t have a community to fall back on, and so I had to create my own. This happened again and again. I have had to leave a lot of spaces and people, so each time, I started by asking for what I needed and if it didn’t exist, I created it.

In workspaces without Employee Resource Groups, the work experience is very isolating and othering. At various jobs, I have connected with colleagues on my team I had nothing in common with. The work environment and workload bonded us. And I had relationships with a few people outside of my team that connected with me as a whole person and we hung out outside of work. Many of my relationships throughout my career are still intact.

Recently while in my coaching program, I was seeking to be in community. I am first-gen, and so are most of my clients. One of the faculty members, Aiko Bethea, in my coaching program, has a leadership and consulting firm called, RARE Coaching and Consulting. I spent the money to take advantage of a 6-month offering, allocated time over 10-weeks, and was able to be present in community. The 10-week workshop was centered on the experiences of People of Color, in an environment where we are the majority and not the minority. I found it challenging to be the coach I want to be without being in community where People of Color constitute the majority rather than the minority. It can be difficult to find safe spaces. I felt I could trust the space Aiko created, and I did.

I am constantly reminded of structural systems that are designed to dehumanize us. I created the Intersectionality Employee Resource Group at Tesla and inclusive programs throughout my career. But why do we have to create programming on the side? Employee Resource Groups? Inclusive Programs? Why can’t schools and companies build inclusivity into the structure? It’s often seen as an add-on or an optional nice-to-have without considering the extra labor and cost associated with making it supplemental. Only those who have experienced the labor can fully understand the sacrifices. Nonetheless, I am grateful the supplemental spaces exist, designed for us and by us (Reminder, not all spaces are safe and it’s important to use discernment). In these spaces, I validate my sanity and the components that are missing from my educational and professional experiences. For example, an MBA program’s curriculum not mentioning how intersectionality plays a role in business or the importance of conscious leadership. It’s less about the MBA program and more about the world we live in.

I didn’t get to where I am by accepting what was offered to me. I refuse to accept harm in spaces. That is why I need to be honest about my experiences and create bridges for myself and others. Whether I inspire or create a path, it’s important for me to show the road I travel. Nothing was handed to me on a silver platter. More than ever, I want to be in community through purpose.

There is a lot of power to being heard and seen. I challenge myself to show up exactly as I am. It is important for me to create a genuinely safe space for myself and others. People want to be in honest relationships. I know my professional calling is to connect people to themselves and create community. As a recent coaching client noted, “Thank you for taking me on your journey and for helping me find mine.”

“We flush out our ideas of ourselves in the company of people who share something fundamentally with us, even if only aspirationally. We get closer to our own ideas of who we are becoming. We identify with the important characteristics that define them and also define us.” – Herminia Ibarra

Truth opens the door to love. Throughout my life, what fundamentally connects me to strangers is my integrity, vulnerability, and courage. People want to be in honest relationships. All the bridges I have built–those that led me away from harmful spaces, and those that took me toward creating my own safe spaces–have led me to this moment. I am setting out to build my next bridge.

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Mona Khalil

Name Dipped In Mango | Transformational Leadership Coach & Consultant | Peace Corps, Tesla, LinkedIn Alum | Author of #iwritelettersinmythoughts 🇬🇾🥭🇪🇬