Community//

Chastity Lord: “We are who we’ve been waiting for”

We are fortunate to have helped so many women and their children over the years. There are a wide variety of stories in each city that could paint a different picture but equally demonstrate the real impact of the program on young women struggling to lift themselves out of systemic poverty. Whether it’s Alyssa in […]

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We are fortunate to have helped so many women and their children over the years. There are a wide variety of stories in each city that could paint a different picture but equally demonstrate the real impact of the program on young women struggling to lift themselves out of systemic poverty. Whether it’s Alyssa in Austin, Victoria and Keiana in Boston, Kylie in Fargo, or Nailah in Brooklyn, every woman’s story is unique.

Forced to leave her home after her children’s father became violent, Nailah found herself overcome with the uncertainty of starting over alone and at a loss for where to begin. A single mother with a young child, Nailah is nearly six times more likely to live in poverty than a married couple with children. First referred to Jeremiah Program through her therapist to help focus on herself and set personal goals, she entered into the program and has never looked back


Aspart of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Chastity Lord, President and CEO of the Jeremiah Program.

Chastity has dedicated her life to disrupting systems of inequity through a social justice lens in an effort to bridge the opportunity gap. She has a unique mix of both practitioner and executive leadership and has spent two decades specializing in organizational development, education, college access, fundraising, and leadership development. Lord has a BA in organizational communication from University of Oklahoma and an MBA in strategy and marketing from Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. She is a 2012 Pahara-Aspen Fellow with the Aspen Global Leadership Network and serves on the board of Shriver National Center on Poverty and Law.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Like the Jeremiah Program, I deeply believe that education is a critical lever in disrupting intergenerational poverty. Over the past two decades, I have had the privilege of working in organizations equally committed to disrupting cycles of intergenerational poverty through advocacy and education. What excites me most about Jeremiah’s mission is our unapologetic and laser-focused commitment to single-parent women by providing resources, tools, and access to some of the most systemic barriers: housing, education, and economic stability.

What the Jeremiah Program is building is not only inspiring but urgent.

I often say that I live a life that my mother and grandmother could not have dreamed for me, simply because you can’t dream things you don’t know exist. My mother would have been the ideal Jeremiah Program mom, and my sisters and I would have been Jeremiah Program kids.

Higher education is not the panacea for inequity in this country, but it is still the best path for socio-economic mobility and plays an integral role in defining our dreams, narratives, and revolutions.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

On the evening of my first day of work at Jeremiah Program my older sister unexpectedly passed away. She was 49 years old and passed from pneumonia complications. Three weeks earlier she had been at my home in Brooklyn, playing with my then 4-year-old son. It was surreal and devastating to be navigating a new role and embracing such an incredible loss.

It changed me in ways that are still being unveiled to me as a leader, but her passing created a beautiful impatience in me; I have no interest in doing things that don’t allow me to be fully present and self-actualized.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

To this day, one of my favorite jobs was at the Taco Bell drive-through. I loved the job for so many reasons. The thing that stands out was the incredible unparalleled collaboration required to get through the unpredictable rushes of customers. In a lot of ways, it was an extremely formative experience. We made mistakes, but it taught me the incredible value of what a high performing team can accomplish. I also loved the role because it was by far the most diverse work-experience I ever had — and that is also still true to this day. The fast-food industry convenes a nexus of people across the socio-economic continuum, in a lot of cases with the same titles and roles. I was a high school student working to help support my single-parent mom, and other coworkers were often moms themselves working to provide for their families. There was an unusual two-generational tethering that required each other to be successful and achieve our goals. I often reflect on how powerful and formative of a lesson that job was for me at a young age.

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

Jeremiah Program is a nonprofit organization that offers one of the nation’s most successful strategies to help families transform from poverty to prosperity two generations at a time. Using a combination of quality early childhood education, a safe and affordable place to live, and empowerment and life skills training, we have impacted the lives of more than 4,000+ single mothers and their children since we were founded 20 years ago. We firmly believe that education is a powerful lever to disrupt the generational cycle of poverty. We currently partner with over 600 single mothers and their young children at seven campuses across the country in Austin, TX; Brooklyn, NY; Boston, MA; Fargo, ND-Moorhead, MN; Minneapolis-St. Paul, MN; and Rochester, MN.

There are 8 million single moms across the country. The vast majority of our participants are young–between the ages of 18–25–and 78% are from communities of color. Many of our moms have faced poverty and other challenges, including violence and chemical dependencies, before turning to Jeremiah Program. Families that enter the program are determined to work their way out of poverty through education and life skills coaching. Upon completion of the program, moms are more likely to find and be able to afford safe housing, feel empowered to set and strive for personal and professional goals, and more likely to have an increase in their earnings.

Although everyone has been affected by COVID, the pandemic isn’t a great equalizer — far from it. Jeremiah Program young mothers living in poverty before the pandemic are now experiencing it at a much deeper level. How? Part-time jobs are greatly diminished; many of our participants cannot work remotely or if they can, there is no one to watch their children since schools have also gone virtual. Our moms who are trying to keep up their own studies are now struggling to also care for their children at home. Our childcare centers previously would provide breakfast and lunch; many families are now responsible for every meal, requiring additional groceries at a time when shopping is a logistical and emotional nightmare. We are fully committed to making sure all of our families are safe and we make the process of living through this crisis as straightforward as possible. No one will lose housing. No one will go hungry. Our focus is keeping our families stable and ensuring there isn’t a poverty tax on this crisis.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

We are fortunate to have helped so many women and their children over the years. There are a wide variety of stories in each city that could paint a different picture but equally demonstrate the real impact of the program on young women struggling to lift themselves out of systemic poverty. Whether it’s Alyssa in Austin, Victoria and Keiana in Boston, Kylie in Fargo, or Nailah in Brooklyn, every woman’s story is unique.

Forced to leave her home after her children’s father became violent, Nailah found herself overcome with the uncertainty of starting over alone and at a loss for where to begin. A single mother with a young child, Nailah is nearly six times more likely to live in poverty than a married couple with children. First referred to Jeremiah Program through her therapist to help focus on herself and set personal goals, she entered into the program and has never looked back. Provided with life skills, the tools to focus on her education and build her career, as well as support her child as a working single mom, her story is particularly inspiring. In her own words –

[Jeremiah Program] made me realize who I am as an individual. I’m capable of doing anything, you know? And [it] made me believe that I’m strong, going through challenges. And it really made me aware of my confidence, my strength, and how far I’ve come. So that empowerment really, really helped me a lot mentally.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

I think there are a few things that drive my philosophy regarding women and children; I believe they are experts in their lives and experiences and therefore need to be deeply involved in possible solutions or opportunities. There is a great James Baldwin quote: “Anyone that has grappled with poverty in America knows how expensive it is to be poor.” These words remind me of the complexity of intergenerational poverty and how there are no simple answers.

However, we do know that there are critical variables in dismantling the inputs that make intergenerational poverty systemic — insecure housing, education, and quality partnerships that speak to the holistic needs of a parent and child. Especially during the COVID crisis, I find myself asking: “Why are single moms not considered essential workers?” Protections have been put in place for so many services society has deemed essential, and shouldn’t mothers be included? Protections must be put in place to protect single moms. If a mother does not have access to safe housing, quality education with the means to further her career prospects, and a reliable support system, it is infinitely harder to disrupt generational poverty.

My ultimate philosophy is that we as leaders remember that we are not saving a parent or child — rather we are providing opportunity and access to actualize and redefine their dreams.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

I wish someone would have told me that a leader isn’t born with their leadership style, rather it evolves with each challenge, mistake and opportunity. My leadership has evolved over the past twenty years and can be defined as: collaborative, direct, and decisive with copious amounts of humility. I am much more interested in being effective than I am in being right.

The four ingredients that I prioritize as a leader and current CEO are talent development; vision enlistment; scaling with excellence; and measuring impact. These aren’t the only things I prioritize, but I do think they are integral to being able to maintain momentum and impact.

Talent Development:

Ultimately, talent development is comprised of strong managers and effective management structures. Prioritization of effective management practices is key, not for pedagogical reasons but because I understand the value proposition of taking care of people. An organization that is proactive in caring for its people will invest in systems and structures that ensure they are heard, valued, challenged and held accountable. A best-in-class organization not only recruits amazing talent but retains talent at obscene levels enabling it to deliver on the mission.

Vision Enlistment:

Early in my career, I saw strategic planning and goal setting for my teams as a distraction from their critical and urgent work. Now, I have reframed planning and goal setting as tools for enlisting people into their team’s own vision. As a leader, it is important that you take the time to outline a blueprint for your team, which in turn allows you to infuse each member and, ultimately, the larger organization, in that vision. Similar to talent, there must be frameworks and systems in place to incrementally assess the buy-in and engagement toward the team’s ultimate vision/goals. The organization will go further, faster, when each team has a heightened level of clarity regarding how their goals fit into the larger vision.

Scaling with Excellence:

The challenge with a rapidly growing organization is that you have to address the immediate pressures, while simultaneously building structures that absorb the scale and the emerging needs of a larger one. When scaling any organization — investments must prioritize expansion. Unfortunately, in the absence of being intentional, many tools and structures quickly lose effectiveness with scale — impacting the organization’s ability to deliver campaign “wins” and eroding culture and confidence that the organization deeply values people.

Measuring Impact:

It is critical as the primary leader that you outline and define success in very measurable and strategic ways across the organization. Every department should have clear SMART goals with mid-year benchmarks defining success and an articulation of how those goals will be measured and tracked. Impact is something that must be discussed and aligned around annually to ensure ‘urgent but not important’ issues are not eclipsing the ‘important but not urgent’. As a leader, you have to be disciplined and be careful that you are not attempting to boil the ocean.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

As a first-generation college graduate, I do want to return to a time when our country “behaved magnificently” and thought of education as an investment and not just an expense — the GI Bill, Stafford Loans and Pell Grants. This commitment put hundreds of thousands of people with non-traditional narratives through college.

This investment impacted rural, urban, Republican, Democrat, gay, straight and all shades of the ethnic diaspora — these investments were the proverbial bootstrap for many first-generation college graduates.

Bridging the opportunity gap cannot become synonymous with entitlement.

Despite the high number of low-income first-generation college students, Pell Grants now only cover 30 percent of college tuition at a public college, the lowest percentage in 40 years. Meanwhile, college tuition has been rising almost 6% over the rate of inflation for decades.

If we are truly going to make America great again, we need to be visible and vocal in support of these first-generation students because they are the future curators of the American dream.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

In the words of June Jordan, “We are who we’ve been waiting for.” We owe it to ourselves and the next generation to not just celebrate the heroes and sheroes that have come before us, we must also be willing to embody them and manifest their courage and strength.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Ursula Burns, former CEO of Xerox and the first Black woman to lead a Fortune 500 company. We have a lot of similarities in our stories — middle children raised by single mothers, and avid students of leadership and innovation who defied the odds.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Readers can follow me on LinkedIn. Follow Jeremiah Program activities and the latest updates on Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn. You can also visit us online at www.jeremiahprogram.org. We’d love to have your readers join our online community!

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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