I want to say a special thank you to Tina Lundgren for your introduction, as well as for your support and partnership in service to the families of Ronald McDonald House New York. I have to tell you that Tina exemplifies the values of Women in Development in her work as a Strategic Leader, Philanthropist and Advocate. Also, during her tenure as chair, she raised $55 million dollars. I’d also like thank the Board and staff of Ronald MacDonald House New York.
Thank you to Women in Development co-chairs Nina Hannon, Jane KARLEN, President Brooke A. Bryant, WIDs officers and executive committee.
It is an absolute pleasure to be in front of this audience today with so many women who lead and support great organizations. It is equally refreshing to be amongst women aspiring to enter and advance in the field of development. This is an audience of influencers— current and future.
WID embraces 5 dynamic core principles:
- Professional growth
- Giving back
The field of development stresses relationship building and emotional empathy. The critical task of development is to bring together the right people, at the right time, to the right table. This has been fundamental to my own work, whether I was in an academic setting or in volunteer leadership roles with the National Coalition of 100 Black Women or on the Board of Interfaith, a Brooklyn safety net hospital. I am constantly challenging myself and others to ask a simple but powerful question: Who is missing from the table?
I want to share with you a little bit about who I am. The great poet Maya Angelou said “my mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor and some style.”
My Dad, an immigrant from Guyana, was an equal employment opportunity officer at a construction company by day, a bacteriologist at Pabst Blue Ribbon Brewing Company by night and a self taught stock broker. My mother, a Midwesterner from Cincinnati, was a social worker at the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corp. My grandmother was the highest ranking woman in the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Region II and directed the city’s anti-poverty programs. My parents and grandparents’ professions put them at the center of the fight for social justice and also offered our family a way into a middle class life.
I grew up in Flatbush in a 3-story limestone. We were one of 4 black families who owned homes in a 12-block radius. Surrounded primarily by Jewish and Irish neighbors, I learned early the value of cultural diversity.
As the oldest girl in my family, I was responsible for my 5 siblings when my parents were at work. I was one of three African-American fifth graders in a class of 43 when I entered Packer Collegiate Institute — an elite girls school in Brooklyn’s wealthy community of Brooklyn Heights that I attended from fifth through 12th grade. I felt welcomed and nurtured there.
In college, I had the opportunity to study abroad at University of the West Indies in Jamaica. It was there for the first time that I was surrounded by students and professors who looked like me, at one of the world’s renowned institutions serving the Caribbean region.
I decided to go into public health when I was in the Caribbean; I was already interested; this focus combined meaningful work with travel, which allowed me to experience different cultures, and, at the same time, learn more about my own culture and roots in the Caribbean.
I spent the early part of my career working in NY state and city government. It was great training, however, I knew I wanted to be more of an activist in my own approaches to problem solving.
Choosing the not-for-profit sector and the health field came naturally to me. Both the sector and the field have offered incredible outlets for doing the social justice work that has become my mission.
Social justice is a belief that all people should have equal access to wealth, health, well-being, justice and opportunity. The 4 interrelated principles of social justice include access, equity, participation and rights. Fundamentally, social justice is about distributing resources fairly and equitably.
At the Arthur Ashe Institute for Urban Health, where I spent 2 decades, I led our social justice work focused on health and educational equity. I created a pathway for young people of color to enter and advance in the health professions through pre-college science enrichment opportunities. I also developed behavioral health interventions that gave people the tools and resources to educate themselves and be more proactive about their own health and that of their communities. I’m a firm believer that policy can be influenced by a groundswell of community voices. My goal at the Institute was to create that groundswell of prepared, skilled, socially conscious leaders to advocate for the community’s improved health.
To do that I needed street cred — This involved relationship building among unlikely partners to create cross sector coalitions among Government, academic institutions, community based organizations and donors. Making sure the right people were at the table defined the success of my work at Arthur Ashe.
2 1/2 years ago, I was presented with the opportunity to lead the Ronald McDonald House New York as President and CEO. The work that takes place at Ronald McDonald House has been to transform a children’s cancer charity to a social justice organization. In seeking support, we create partnerships to address social determinants of health for families who would otherwise be medical refugees.
Achieving social justice is long slow work, the victories are incremental and sometimes hard to measure, and often evolve over years, sometimes decades. I am not by nature a patient person, however the work has schooled me in learning to discern and value progress as it unfolds. Through the smiles, tears and hugs I see every day the difference my work makes in the lives of children and families.
Our families come from all over the world and all over this country with the most rare and aggressive forms of cancer. They seek what is likely the treatment of last resort from specialists who are not available anywhere else except at one of the renowned cancer institutions in New York City. These institutions are the partners of the Ronald McDonald House. Our partnerships and services do not end there—we provide families culturally appropriate support and nurturance as they ride out some of the most challenging situations families can bear.
When I arrived at the Ronald McDonald house, colleagues told me about a situation that occurred two years prior. The Ronald McDonald house had hosted a group of children with retinal blastoma from mainland China. The families arrived at JFK in a group of 30. They spoke only Mandarin. At that time, Ronald McDonald House had no Mandarin translators, nor the cultural familiarity to help these families take full advantage of the house’s communal nature and peer support.
This was an opportunity to reach out to both the Chinese business community and Chinese community organizations to expand the donor base and our offering of targeted services. Taking opportunities such as this helps us build a seamless circle of support to meet the comprehensive needs of pediatric cancer patients and their families. The partnership development that I work on at RMHNY is focused on those social factors that determine health and healing—bringing hospitals, health care institutions, and hospitality partners together to provide access to care, transportation, accommodations, financial and economic assistance, culturally competent programming, language access, wellness programs for caregivers and early childhood development.
All of us have an opportunity to use our positions in transformative ways to bridge gaps. Upon reflection in your own work and your own life journeys, there are likely many similar opportunities to build an ambassador base that will provide support. Donors who will give and then ask “what can we do now?” “How can we do more?”, “Who can we connect you to?”
Today we are focused on expanding the leadership pipeline for women. I believe that this could be accomplished in two very important ways. The first through mentoring and the second through our roles as Change Agents.
“Lift as you climb” is my lifelong mantra. Over the years I was fortunate to have incredible mentors who have challenged me, supported me and exposed me to opportunities on a personal and professional level.
My very first mentor was the founder and chair of the National Coalition of 100 Black Women. I was attached to her in my 20’s, following her everywhere—she had been my grandmother’s mentee. For instance, everything I would ever want to know about governance, how boards work behind the scenes, kitchen cabinets, and how decisions really get made I learned from her first.
In my 30s, my next mentor came into my life —she was the head of philanthropy at SUNY Downstate. She was my go-to advisor on how to leverage opportunities for my organization within the University, how to reach out to the right partners externally.
I have mentored many graduate students helping them formalize their career plans and chart out the training and development opportunities that will forge their own leadership paths. As a mentor, my focus has been to expose them to opportunities to lead through projects, professional development and shadowing.
My own journey has included all kinds of professional development opportunities that I wouldn’t even have known about had it not been for mentors who told me about programs, made calls for me to sit in on the sessions that were only affordable to Corporation Executives or recommended me to speak on panels to raise my profile.
In addition to mentorship, our role as change agents is equally important. I strongly believe that we have to own and embrace the advocacy our roles in development afford us. With access to people with resources and influence we can change the way they think about the issues we are raising funds to support. We are fortunate: “speaking truth to power” is part of our job we just need to speak that truth strategically and persuasively.
We are in privileged positions of access and influence that raise funds, but also transform organizations. As skilled development professionals, we are uniquely positioned to be advocates. We find empathetic meeting points and through our persuasive and informed discussions, we create collaborative spaces to evaluate approaches and forge more inclusive solutions. We bring together disparate parties who may not yet see their common interests. It is our job to bridge that gap.
Whether we work in social justice, the arts, education, health or social welfare, the uniting thread for all of us is our passion for mission and our curiosity about the connections to the stories and circumstances of the people and the causes we care about.
In closing, I try to think about my career in development like playing on a trampoline. I look at the challenges and disappointments as opportunities to achieve new heights. Each inevitable dip is followed by an equally inevitable uplift, offering new buoyancy and momentum. We just have to keep bouncing back, without bouncing off.
Resiliency is one of the most important skills we can instill, especially in the younger professionals coming up behind us. By staying resilient, we remain attuned to the successes that often come in ways we least expect.
Sometimes the disappointments along our journeys can make us feel like outsiders. Gender, education, culture, experience, race and class can be dividers but they can also be sources of connection through sharing experience. We thrive, remaining curious as we figure out how to navigate the unwritten rules that lead to connection. We look for opportunities in unlikely places. We find linkages and can then influence how people look at causes and allocate resources. We gain confidence in finding the courage to use our voices to change the narrative.
When I graduated with my doctorate in Public Health, my dad gave me a poster with a quote that I look at every day–it’s one of my favorite quotes and it goes like this:
Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence
Talent will not, nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent
Genius will not, unrewarded genius is almost a proverb
Education will not, the world is full of educated derelicts
Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent
In the field of development, whether we are mentors or agents of change, we are in a privileged position. We bring those with access to resources closer to our organizations. In the process we transform our organizations to attract wider circles of people and affiliations.
The work of development then becomes transformational, not just transactional. We renew our own passion, honor the paths that have brought us to our respective work. We harness a personal sense of empowerment that guides our path and allows us to ascend to new opportunities. Opportunities that will change the landscape and position us to lift as we climb.
Thank you for your time today and thank you for this wonderful recognition.