Dismantling systemic racism. There is no going back on our racial and ethnic equity journey as a country. We must use this crisis as an opportunity to deeply understand the history and legacy of systemic racism, colonization and xenophobia — especially how racist institutions, policies, practices, ideas and behaviors give an unjust amount of resources, rights and power to white people while denying them to people of color. We will use this knowledge and understanding to challenge and change policies that perpetuate oppressive systems and inequities in communities.
The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. Many of us now have new challenges that come with working from home, homeschooling, and sheltering in place.
As a part of my series about how busy women leaders are addressing these new needs, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jennifer Blatz.
Jennifer Blatz is the president and CEO of StriveTogether, a national nonprofit working in 70 communities across the United States to enable more than 12 million young people to succeed in school and life. Jennifer is a nationally recognized leader and expert in building place-based partnerships. For two decades, she has designed, developed and implemented strategies that drive large-scale community improvement through partnership with local leaders and organizations.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
Education is critically important to my family. My parents didn’t have the opportunity to go to college, but they knew it was a ticket to upward mobility for my brother and me. So, being the first in my family to go to college shaped my career. This personal experience drove me to pursue a career in higher education and student affairs so that I could support students through their post-secondary experience. My early work in college admissions helped me to understand how systems are designed to favor the white and the wealthy. This was when I started to understand my own privilege, which led me toward a path of working to dismantle inequitable systems and rebuild systems and structures that support every child from cradle to career.
Can you share the most interesting thing that happened to you since you started at your company?
The most interesting thing is probably how I became the CEO of StriveTogether, because it’s a story that many women leaders may relate to. When my predecessor left, I was asked to take on the interim role, but no one approached me about becoming the CEO. My predecessor was a charismatic male leader where I had always been a behind-the-scenes operational leader who got things done. When I expressed interest, I was discouraged by someone close to our organization because I have young children and the role required a great deal of travel. A national search was launched. In the meantime, I led the organization through a major strategy transition.
Over time, many colleagues in the field, most of whom were women, suggested that I throw my hat in the ring. During the interview process, I showed up as my true, authentic self. I explained why my style of leadership was what StriveTogether needed. I wanted that job and had nothing to lose. I was myself and I’ve been told I blew the interview panel away. I came in confident, ready and it was clear to them that I was the best choice for the role. I learned was that showing up as myself was enough.
I had to unapologetically communicate my brand and style of leadership and why that’s what StriveTogether needed at this time. I showed up as my true, authentic self. I wanted that job and had nothing to lose. I was myself and I’ve been told I blew the interview panel away. I came in confident, ready and it was clear to them that I was the best choice for the role. Apparently, I surprised them with how I showed up. What I learned was that showing up as myself was enough!
I had to navigate uncharted territory and sometimes didn’t know if we’d have the resources to make payroll in a few minutes. Under my leadership, we garnered multi-million, multi-year investments. We tripled the size of our team. In a way, it was like skydiving: when you are about to jump, you are thinking about all that could wrong, including the parachute failing. But once you’re out in the air, you’re thinking about the exhilaration and possibility. That’s a healthy balance. We just have to push ourselves to make the jump. And then it happens: you see a beautiful and expansive world around you full of opportunities and possibilities.
Leading authentically has served me and the organization well, especially through transition, exponential growth and opportunity and now through these unprecedented times.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We’re focused on using this moment in time to create urgency and action to address structural racism embedded is so many systems affecting children of color. We’re advocating and working toward an equitable recovery, investing directly to ensure our network has the resources to change systems in their community, we’re working closer than ever with other national organizations who share our commitment and we’re sharing examples of what’s possible in our new podcast series, Together for Change. It is our hope that listeners will be inspired by these practical ideas and examples and that leaders, policymakers and funders will change behavior, policies and systems. Additionally, we’re doing some exciting work behind the scenes in terms of shifting power, including providing more opportunities to community members.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
There is no way I’d be where I am right now if it weren’t for my husband, Tom. He is my biggest supporter and number one confidant. Like so many other female leaders, I believed I could have it all and that there was such a thing as work-life balance. But I learned that the “balance” is a myth: it’s all life. I learned to integrate work and my family life.
I was passionate about my work and wanted to have a family. In a short amount of time, we had our daughter, followed by twins! When the children were still very young, StriveTogether started to take off as a national organization. So, my responsibilities grew, as did the need to travel, then I received the CEO position.
Tom had already changed his career path so he could have more flexibility for our family, and he continued to make sacrifices so I could pursue my passion. I am incredibly grateful. He’s a huge fan of our work at StriveTogether and a true believer in everything we’re working to achieve.
The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. Can you articulate to our readers the biggest family related challenges you have faced as a woman business leader during this pandemic?
I’m a part of the sandwich generation — working to raise my own young children and taking care of my aging parents. This has been a great challenge during this pandemic and I know there are so many other women in the same situation. In addition to caring for family, I have been leading a national organization through this global crisis, which has been exhausting at times.
When the pandemic halted travel, I remember thinking I would have a lot of free time at home. I had these visions of being so productive — cleaning out closets, organizing storage areas, helping organize my parents’ house, etc. None of that has happened.
I felt like I was wasting the opportunity to be super productive, but then I realized that keeping my sanity and supporting my family — especially my children’s mental health — is productive. On top of that, my role as a leader is to sustain positive morale and well-being at StriveTogether. That is being productive. So, now I’m focused on quality rather than quantity, making sure I do the most important things really well.
Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
First, I realize how incredibly fortunate I am that I don’t have to face any of these challenges alone.
At home, I share the homeschooling and caregiving responsibilities with my husband. My brother and sister-in-law are a part of our “quaranteam” and we share the care of my parents. And at work, I am lucky to be surrounded by a strong and talented team of leaders who share accountability for organizational health.
I’m also fortunate to have financial resources, stable housing, food security and so many things that so many Americans navigating this pandemic do not. I try to practice gratitude, especially when I get overwhelmed. This is especially important as I have three children watching my every move and an organization that looks to me for modeling. I try to look for the unexpected gifts in what’s happening. I get to spend more time with my family, without racing around to practices, games, activities, appointments or worrying about missing things because I’m traveling.
I believe that shared vulnerability is a critical trait of authentic leadership and common humanity. Being honest about where I am and what I’m experiencing has helped me connect on a deeper level with my family and has helped me lead genuinely and with empathy at work.
I have also tried to maintain some sense of normalcy and routine. I get up at the same time each morning and go for a morning run. I also get fully dressed each day, even if it’s to work out of my makeshift home office in the corner of my son’s bedroom (quietest part of the house!). This has helped me create a boundary between work and home. At the end of the day, I change out of my work clothes and into my sweats so that I can hang out with my family.
Can you share the biggest work-related challenges you are facing as a woman in business during this pandemic?
One of the biggest work-related challenges I’m facing as a result of dual pandemics — COVID-19 and systemic racism — is naming and confronting the white supremacy culture within our organization and my contributions to it and doing the real work to become a truly anti-racist organization.
StriveTogether has been working to center racial and ethnic equity in our work for the past several years.
So we were particularly attuned to the way that COVID-19 quickly unmasked the persistent and wicked disparities and inequities that exist within every facet of our society. And at this time when the country felt at its breaking point, we had the senseless murders of black men and women, including Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and many before and after.
In checking in with our black and brown colleagues at StriveTogether I learned of the pain they were experiencing and heard their concerns that within our organization — even with our stated commitment to equity — we weren’t really living out our core values as an anti-racist organization.
In a true “learn in public” moment, with the best of intentions, I wrote a note to the team suggesting that colleagues take time off for self-care. One of my colleagues wrote me back to let me know I was placing the burden of care on individuals instead of working to improve the system. My good intentions had not had the desired impact and I realized we weren’t quite as far along as I’d hoped in our equity journey. Together, with my executive leadership team, we doubled-down on our commitment to become an antiracist organization and we have a clear plan to get there.
Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
I am fortunate to work with a brilliant coach who reminds me to be kind to myself and exercise self-compassion. I decided to look at this situation, not as a failure, but as a learning opportunity and remind myself that if I’m feeling uncomfortable, I’m doing the right work. Even though I lead the organization, I know that I don’t have all of the answers. It’s important to understand when it is time to speak up and when to step back.
Next, together with the StriveTogether leadership team, we identified opportunities to better listen to team members. We used already-established affinity spaces for team members to engage in dialogue about what StriveTogether could do to move forward on our anti-racist journey. We invited StriveTogether’s Black Grounding Group, an affinity group of Black staffers, to offer a set of recommendations to leadership for how to support black team members, network members and communities. We also established a heterarchical, cross-organizational Culture Team to refine our core organizational values and advance our anti-racist journey.
I constantly remind myself and the team that we’re on this journey for the long haul. There will be setbacks and there will be huge advancements. We may not always be where we want to be, but as long as we’re moving forward, listening, learning and staying uncomfortable, then we’re doing the right work.
Can you share your advice about how to best work from home, while balancing the needs of homeschooling or the needs of a family?
- Create a routine and stick with it. The best parenting advice I received was to get babies on a schedule quickly and stick to it. So, in March, when our overscheduled worlds were turned upside down, we decided to keep up some sort of routine. We kept bedtimes and wake up times consistent. The whole family gets dressed and keeps normal mealtimes. We all work at desks. It may sound a bit rigid, but there is room for flexibility, and the routine helps.
- Expect the unexpected and do the best you can. Even with a routine, you’ll have to adapt to the unexpected. One day our twin second graders had online sessions with their different classes at the same time that my husband and I had important meetings. So, we trusted our second graders to handle their classes without us. Later, we got a note from one twin’s teacher reminding us that he must stay seated and not ride on a hover board with his Chromebook during class! We often have to make trade-offs. In the end, we’re all doing the best we can.
- Pick your battles. One battle in particular relates to monitoring my kids’ screen time during COVID-19. My kids have been playing a lot of Robolox and watching too many ridiculous YouTube videos, but I’ve stopped fighting it. We have screen limits, but I’ve let go of worrying about the long term effects of all of the screen time they’re getting because the reality is all of our lives have been upended and we all need ways to cope. The same goes for nagging my 12-year-old daughter to go out and juggle her soccer ball. I get it. She wants to be playing soccer with her friends, not be trained through Zoom. Do I worry that she’s going to lose all of the skill she’s built over the last seven years playing select soccer? Yes. But she’s a sixth grader who is desperately missing her friends and the social connections she gets through sports and school, so if she’d rather spend her evening “scamming” people on Robolox instead of logging minutes on a soccer app, I probably need to let it go. It’s not worth the fight.
Can you share your strategies about how to stay sane and serene while sheltering in place, or simply staying inside, for long periods with your family?
I’ve been able to maintain my sanity through exercise. I love to run. It’s a part of my normal routine. It helps me think, process and it produces endorphins to lift my mood. I also join online fitness classes, which my kids sometimes join as well. We’ve also been hiking as a family, which we didn’t do before COVID-19.
Then there are times when we all need space from one another. I go for a run. My husband will go for a bike ride or get into a book. I’ve noticed the kids will find time to be away from one another, as well. I think we’re all coping and supporting one another through it.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. From your perspective, can you help our readers to see the “Light at the End of the Tunnel”? Can you share your “5 Reasons To Be Hopeful During this Corona Crisis”? If you can, please share a story or example for each.
5 Reasons to be hopeful…
- November 3, 2020. 2020 is a big election year and elections matter.Systems are perfectly designed to produce the results they get and we can all see that our systems in this country produce inequitable results. If we want better results we need better, more equitable systems. To change the systems, we need to change who’s in power.
Story/example: Elections matter at ALL levels — local, state and federal. We need to become more active and educated voters to vote out policymakers who create and maintain oppressive systems and policies. We must stop voter suppression so that everyone truly has the right to vote.
2. Dismantling systemic racism. There is no going back on our racial and ethnic equity journey as a country. We must use this crisis as an opportunity to deeply understand the history and legacy of systemic racism, colonization and xenophobia — especially how racist institutions, policies, practices, ideas and behaviors give an unjust amount of resources, rights and power to white people while denying them to people of color. We will use this knowledge and understanding to challenge and change policies that perpetuate oppressive systems and inequities in communities.
Story/example: We have an opportunity to rewrite history books so that they tell true stories instead of the white-washed history so many of us learn in America’s schools. We must continue the current efforts to remove racist monuments, names and legacies and stop celebrating parts of American history that harmed Americans and caused pain.
3. This generation of young people. This generation promises to be more resilient and share a common humanity that will make the world a better place.I believe that the experiences our young people are having during these twin crises will shape their futures for the better. They are facing adversity and having to make sacrifices to protect others. These are such important life lessons that will produce more compassionate, kinder adults that we desperately need in our country.
Story/example: My children have tremendous privilege, which at the ages of just 12 and 8 they understand. They are asking important questions about race, privilege and justice that I couldn’t have fathomed at their age. They aren’t scared and they have resolve. They want to make a difference, make the world better, prevent this from happening again. They inspire me.
4. Closing the digital divide (and other gaps). If we’ve learned anything through this pandemic it is how important it is to be connected. Still, so much of America remains disconnected as a result of lack of technology and broadband internet. By working to bridge this divide we will have smarter communities and a more connected, data-enabled and effective society.
Story/example: There is a tremendous opportunity for public/private partnerships to bridge this divide and already we see corporations stepping up to provide technology and access to broadband to support digital learning for education.
5. The power of communities. We are seeing examples of community resilience all across the country in response to the crises we’re facing. Communities have rapidly made adjustments to infrastructure in response to the pandemic to support businesses, provide safe space for exercise and supports for learning.
Story/example: Through our work at StriveTogether we support 70 community partnerships, which are coming together to ensure that families and children have access to the resources they need, including food security, learning materials, provision of childcare and access to stable housing. Although leadership at the state and federal level has been scattered, we are seeing amazing things happen in local communities.
From your experience, what are a few ideas that one can use to effectively offer support to their family and loved ones who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?
When I’m trying to support my family, especially my children, as they experience anxiety, I try to do the following:
- Listen. Really listen. Oftentimes when someone’s feeling anxious they just want to be heard. For someone like me — an extrovert who often wants to solve problems — listening without judgement and without having all of the answers isn’t always easy. But it is so important in these situations.
- Empathize and destigmatize anxiety. Make sure your loved one knows it’s okay and quite normal to feel anxious. I often experience anxiety, so I share some of my personal stories about when I felt anxious and how I coped.
- Suggest coping strategies such as exercise, yoga, mindfulness, meditation, therapy or other resources.
I’ve struggled with anxiety for most of my life, so right now, I’m relying on so many of my coping strategies (which have been mentioned throughout the interview above). These include keeping a routine, running, practicing self-compassion, connecting and getting advice and guidance from others and sharing my own vulnerability (i.e. showing up as my authentic self, emotions and all). I think this is the most important thing we can do right now because as cliché as it’s become, it’s true that we’re all in this together!
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” — Maya Angelou
This advice is relevant no matter who you are or what you do, but it’s been especially meaningful to me over the last few years as I really unpack what I need to learn and do in order to become the leader I want to be for racial equity.
I’m a white woman leader, with tremendous privilege, leading an organization that supports a network of communities working to change systems so that they produce more equitable results for children of all races, incomes and circumstances. And the work we’re doing is taking place during unprecedented times, with dual pandemics — COVID-19 and systemic racism and oppression.
It’s no small task. I don’t know half of what I need to know to lead right now, but if I continue to listen and learn and turn what I learn into action, I’m confident that my actions will be effective and meaningful in this moment.
How can our readers follow you online?
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!