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Judith Knotts: “True leadership is a mix of empathy, risk-taking, strategic planning, and implementation”

There is no such thing as dipping your toe in the water and walking away if you are truly passionate about something. I found this out. Toe-in, foot in, all in! And it surprised me. It wasn’t a plan I made. It wasn’t a goal I had, yet the interest and passion for the homeless […]

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There is no such thing as dipping your toe in the water and walking away if you are truly passionate about something. I found this out. Toe-in, foot in, all in! And it surprised me. It wasn’t a plan I made. It wasn’t a goal I had, yet the interest and passion for the homeless community and its people had a life all its own and I have swept along in the rushing waters. Nearly two decades later, I’m still passionate, still very much involved. I guess this is the same for all true passions.


As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Judith Knotts.

Judith is the faith columnist for the Austin American Statesman. Her professional career has centered on education as a consultant to schools, school heads, and writers. Dr. Knotts’ journey into the homeless world began when she was in her sixties and continues into her seventies. She believes change always brings with it an invitation to become our best selves. She is the author of You are My Brother: Lessons Learned from Embracing a Homeless Community.


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

For most of my professional life, I have been an educator — heading schools, consulting with schools, and writing about leadership in schools. Then in 2003, while still a school head, a sudden life-defining shift overwhelmed me. I went on a street retreat, where for 72 hours, I lived with homeless people, no cash, credit card, or cell phone in my pocket. It changed my life!

I was initially queried… “Are you making fun of us?” one young woman who was part of a metal-studded Goth group nearly shouted. “No”, I said quietly, “I am just trying to find myself.”

And I think I did living on the streets again and again. I couldn’t stay away. It stunned me that people were sleeping on cardboard, going through dumpsters for tossed-out food, and feeling desperate for a toilet and maybe a shower, while I was living a life of luxury, and didn’t realize it. A wallet with cash and credit cards, a house with bathrooms and beds, a job that energized me, and family and friends who cared for me, also insulated me from reality. I had to keep searching for the meaning in all of this.

Nearly two decades later, I still hang out with homeless folks, and I’m beginning to grasp the meaning in all of this. Wisdom is inching in. I think homeless people, and vulnerable individuals of all sorts, are our teachers. Their presence — oh my — often takes our breath away. We want to turn our eyes from the ugliness, the pain, the desperation. But this is exactly what we are to see, to understand if we are to become truly human.

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

To me, the most amazing thing is that my passion for homeless people changed me in ways I could not imagine. I found myself in relationships and situations where I was not in charge and words flowed from my mouth, not of my doing.

For example, one very sizzling hot day, as it can only be in Texas, I went out on the streets with water, cups, and ice to take to places I knew where homeless people lived in a back alley in homemade shelters of cardboard or plastic sheeting hung from a chain-link fence. Their only shelter from the sun certainly did not have air-conditioning, so ice is a small relief for these folks. As I approached the empty lot off the alley there was only one man standing there. The rest of the alley residents must have found shade somewhere else.

So, I walked toward the lone man who upon seeing me cried out in a loud voice again and again, “I need you, I need you!” With the accompanying pelvic thrusts, I had no doubt what he meant. When we got near each other, he grasped my upper arms firmly and continued his shouting and thrusting. By the grace of God, thoughts, and words not of my doing appeared. I looked him squarely in the eye and said calmly, “You do not want to do this. It will rob you of your dignity.” Almost immediately he stopped shouting and thrusting, cast his eyes downward, turned around, and walked away.

I called to him, “Wait, I have water and ice for you.” He stopped, startled by my words it seemed. Reaching out, I handed him water and ice in a cup. He didn’t speak and neither did I. Everything was already spoken.

The man in the empty lot was right in his crying loudly, “I need you, I need you!” Putting aside his inter course demands, he spoke the essential truth. We do need each other desperately to function, to live a dignified life full of meaning and gratitude.

The fundamental question is always present — how do we choose to live?

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?

The first time I lived on the streets for an extended time, I stopped to visit a homeless shelter, where I heard they handed out free coffee in the early morning. In this place, the security was tight, but I guess the guards, looking at me, an older woman decided that I was no threat, so they let me in. There, I visited with an out-of-work carpenter. He knew I was coming to his place and was part of a group exploring the street life. I couldn’t get over how he knew so much.

When I asked him how he knew who we were and that we had arrived on the streets the night before, he said, “Judy, We have no TV or radios for news, but we have a powerful underground system of information, and I couldn’t wait to meet you!” What a welcome! We sat outside and chatted for most of an hour. Suddenly, my new friend touched his face and said, “Oh excuse me for not shaving this morning. I couldn’t stop and go inside. This conversation just is too delicious.”

With a home, a TV, and radio, I never imagined that people still relied on underground systems for news. The existence of such an important method of communication in 2003, made me laugh a bit at my own sheltered ignorance. Then I smiled broadly at man’s ingenuity and thought to myself, how amazing is our need to connect with each other that we usually find away.

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

The amazing thing to me is that my interest in the homeless community and passion for its people has a life of its own. I rarely climb on a soapbox. I try not to interrupt conversations at gatherings and change the topic to homelessness. I’m almost embarrassed to let my passion seep out, lest I can’t control it. Yet, people, at least a few or more, are intrigued. Maybe, what I do is offer opportunities to come to the table in small ways.

Since 2008, I have been a contributing writer to the Austin American Statesman newspaper in their Faith Section. Over the years, I have explored and written about many topics, but discovered that more and more, I was writing about homelessness. The paper and I would get feedback, showing interest or asking if an article could be used in a sermon or speech. This regular posting about homelessness and people I knew who were homeless, actually prompted me to write You Are My Brother, Lessons Learned Embracing a Homeless Community, which was a compilation of 33 short stories, 32 of them which appeared in the Austin American Statesman.

As Head of School, I would often meet with the student body of 4 to 14-year-olds, and show them what I was taking on the streets in my borrowed backpack. It was a Show and Tell they never expected, but gradually they, too, became part of the journey.

I was asked to give opinions and speak to groups, not as a representative of a particular nonprofit or government agency or political group, but as a person who had been on the streets again and again with homeless people, and who maybe had some insight.

Individuals and groups wanted to join me at events or outreach programs I wrote about. A Brownie troop hoped to make gift bags for homeless people and sought me out for education and a venue. Their Thanksgiving and later Valentine outing to “Home Cooked Fridays,” where I serve as a waitress for over 100 homeless people each Friday, was their favorite badge work, for service. They are back again this year.

Friends and strangers read about or heard about the “Underwear Run,” which I do several times a year at Church Under the Bridge. Here homeless people gather each Sunday with their blankets, suitcases on wheels, and belongings in bulging black plastic bags. Years ago, as I entered a Walmart on a bitter cold day, I was asked if I could spare “Some change for britches.” The old woman’s plea haunted me. So for some time now, I try to remember that homeless people can often get shoes, clothing, coats in a clothing pantry, but rarely underwear. So, a small part of my mission is supplying underwear in all sizes and colors for men and women living on the streets.

Last year, I discovered that in certain cities abroad, some people wrap trees in coats for the winter, for those who have none. A Women in Leadership Legacy group that I belong to did this for the first time last year. Now it is a tradition. We wrap trees along a street with an island full of inviting trees, perfect for wrapping in coats. We write notes, add a sticker or two and hang the message with red yarn around the tree. I notice the next day, the trees are bare. Mission accomplished.

I think what most of us want is a chance to be part of something positive in this world. We are drowning day-by-day in negatively charged opinions, words, and deeds. There must be another way to live with each other on our home, planet earth. We want to believe it is good in the world and want to do some good, however, small our steps may be.

Can you tell me a story about a particular individual who was impacted by your cause?

I met John, although I did not know his name at the time, as I wandered through a park where homeless people gathered. Often, I would go there on my day off with some treats — donuts, cookies, or snacks. It wasn’t the treats that mattered. I knew what mattered was someone seeing them, visiting a little, and handing out some little sweet, saying without words, “I care.”

I wasn’t even sure that under a huge mound of newspapers on a park bench was a person. I gambled. Every time I visited, I would leave a cookie or a muffin on a party napkin on top of the mound. I didn’t say a word or wake the person who might have been wrapped in newsprint for insulation, I just returned again and again. Finally, one day, this sleeping giant, opened one eye and said, “Hi, are you the person who leaves the treats?” I admitted I was. Our relationship was very formal at this point.

Eventually, I learned his name, John, and he moved from bench to alley. Still bundled in layers, he slept inside a cardboard box and kept his valuables in a stuffed shopping cart. With time, we began to talk, mostly centered on general topics, the weather and how we both were. He had serious skin problems and rarely wore shoes. I had a critically ill son. Perhaps our pain bonded us. Talking led to hugging and seeing each other brought joy. John began each conversation asking selflessly, “How is your son?” Although strangers for some time, we gradually began to care deeply for each other.

John, who had isolated himself for years, began to open up slowly to others too. A very kind policeman found him living in the alley and said, “I can arrest you for the third time for living on the streets or I can take you to a shelter where they can help you.” John reluctantly left home — his cardboard box and shopping cart and went with the officer who had a compassionate heart. Today, John has an apartment and is happy to live inside with a donated computer and friends around him.

Sometimes, it is simple. Noticing another person, or a mound where you imagine a person might be and reaching out again and again. Words are often not necessary. Miracles!

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

There are:

1. Gather together a coalition of people and groups interested in and working toward solving homelessness. Reach out to anyone knowledgeable and passionate about the topic — federal, state, county, city agencies, nonprofit groups doing work in this area, faith-based communities who are already helping, businesses and chamber leaders, and homeless individuals themselves.

2. Select a leader to drive the agenda, a person without political aspirations or connection with a particular group. Without one person at the helm, there will be chaos and any efforts to solve the problem of homelessness will falter. This person must be a proven leader who can sift through stories and data to find meaning. This person must have an understanding of group dynamics and an ability to communicate. This person must be someone who unites, rather than divides. This person must inspire respect and trust because he or she has a proven history of leadership and an ego in check.

3. Develop a strategic plan based on successes and failures found in similar cities. In the plan, addressing emergency shelters, intermediate housing with services, and long term housing for homeless people. The plan should have measurable short and long term goals and dates with responsible parties identified. The plan should include preventive measures, finance, geography, transportation, health, education, housing, community services, employment, census data and projections to mention a few key elements.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Leadership is an innate talent or acquired skill that enables people to notice an opportunity or perceive a problem that needs addressing.

It is about rallying others around an issue with a vision of what is possible for the common good.

It is about bringing out the best in others and groups.

It is about serving, rather than being served.

Leadership can stand out in some world leaders and CEOs of corporations.

Leadership can be spotted in family-run businesses, school principals, scout leaders, and first responders who transform lives by their actions.

True leadership is a mix of empathy, risk-taking, strategic planning, and implementation.

True leadership is honest, ethical, and selfless.

True leadership is a treasure.

For inspiring leaders consider:

Mother Teresa

Mahatma Gandhi

Desmond Tutu

Nelson Mandela

Martin Luther King Jr.

Viktor Frankl

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

1, There is no such thing as dipping your toe in the water and walking away if you are truly passionate about something.

I found this out. Toe-in, foot in, all in! And it surprised me. It wasn’t a plan I made. It wasn’t a goal I had, yet the interest and passion for the homeless community and its people had a life all its own and I have swept along in the rushing waters. Nearly two decades later, I’m still passionate, still very much involved. I guess this is the same for all true passions.

2. Your family and friends will be puzzled by your passion.

This came as a surprise to me. Some of my family members and friends feared for my safety. One kind of school superintendent convinced her husband to drive through the city with her, looking for me sleeping in doorways. When I invited homeless folks to spend a Thanksgiving with me, my protective older sister asked, “Aren’t you afraid?” Some friends and family were bored by my passion. They didn’t say it, but I imagine they thought, “Not another column about homelessness, please!” And I made some people with homes feel awkward. One friend openly admitted that she hated to eat with me in a restaurant or at a benefit buffet because I was always looking for the leftovers making her feel guilty for eating.

3. Your passion will change how you spend your time and where will you spend it.

The thrill of the hunt is no longer spent shopping in Bloomingdales looking for sales of Ferragamo shoes or designer sportswear at the end of a season. Now I shop with joy (and passion) at Dollar Stores, stocking up on feminine and hygiene products for those on the streets. And go to thrift shops, where I get a senior discount, making it possible to buy more shirts, pants, hats, and jackets as needs are noticed in the homeless world. The trunk of my car is often filled with donations from generous friends who understand my passion and hope to be a small part of the mission. Leftover party food, handmade blankets, and outgrown clothing happily pass hands from those with homes to those without. With my passion, combined with age, I send my golf clubs to a daughter-in-law with no regret. Hours on the links are replaced by hours on the streets or waitressing at a dinner for poor and homeless people.

4 Your thinking will change.

The week before I went to live on the streets for 72 hours for the first time in 2003, I became a serious weather watcher. I looked for trends and watched the weather channels endlessly, wondering how rain or cold or wind would affect me. I’m still hooked, not so much for me, with a snug little house, but for my friends living on the streets or in the woods. A thunderstorm wakes me up at night, and I toss and turn thinking about those sleeping outside. When it rains for a week nonstop, I imagine homeless friends wearing the same wet clothes day after day, and head out to the thrift store to get dry ones. Such small gestures of friendship. When it freezes, I want to be in a homeless freeze shelter with homeless people and I am. Like a farmer, anxious for his crops. I too worry endlessly.

4. You will be changed in ways you cannot imagine.

How could it be, that I once thought I was helping them! In truth, the poor, the ill, the desperate homeless people were the ones helping me. The experiences I have had and the people I have met have made me a better person. I used to think that I was kind. Probably on the surface, I appeared so, but I didn’t have the depth of kindness homeless people showed me again and again when they said, “Give the sandwich to the man behind me in line, I have eaten today.” Or, “Let me buy you a drink” (with his last dollar) a new homeless friend said, noticing that I looked hot. It’s pretty easy to be kind and generous when you have a lot. What sacrifice is it really to give? When you have almost nothing selfless acts are astonishing. I thought I was resilient. What did I even understand about setbacks, losses, and challenges? Homeless people showed me what true resilience is when all your stuff gets stolen, you have the flu or a sprained ankle while living on the streets, and you wait on a housing list for years. I loved my family and close friends, they were the lovely ones, but I didn’t want to see those who weren’t so lovely. I focused on the beautiful people in ads with bright smiles, shiny hair, and fashionable clothes. And imagined they smelled wonderfully of sandalwood or citrus or jasmine. Now I happily hug the homeless friend wearing four layers, missing most teeth, and moving in a constant cloud of old urine. And it’s wonderful.

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. 🙂

A simple theme, You Are My Brother, (title of my book) could solve so many of our world’s problems, if we kept this idea in our heads and hearts. It could affect everyone, change attitudes, and maybe even bridge enormous chasms. Consider:

People who are living in poverty and people who have an excess

People who are victims of fires and floods and people who have never experienced it

People who have 401(K) plans and people on food stamps

People who are joyous and people who are cranky

People who are members of diverse political parties

People who belong to different faiths

People who are unchurched and people who are too churched

People who have homes and people who are homeless

People who are warmongers and people who are peacekeepers

People who are mean and people who are merciful

People who are married and people who are single

People who are divorced and people who are widows and widowers

People who are employed and people who are unemployed

People who are gay and people who are straight

People who are vegetarians and people who are carnivores

People who are imprisoned and people who are free

People who are poets and people who are plowmen

People who are white and people who are of color

People who are immigrants and people who are native-born

People who are agnostics and people who are believers

People who are loved and people who are unloved

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

We desperately need to help each other slew, or at least tame the selfish dragon living inside us.

This life lesson — made up quote just popped into my head one day as I was absorbed in school leadership thoughts, wondering how to move faculty and staff toward selflessness which so often is the path to collaboration. It is admirable to work hard, to have creative ideas, to be a successful teacher, but it is for naught if knowledge and know-how are hoarded. I’ve seen it first hand in very competent teachers and staff members who, wanting to be the star, are reluctant to share in any way that will diminish their stardom. Yes, we achievers and wannabes all have that dragon tendency. It doesn’t matter what arena we find ourselves. It’s always there.

Then, I branched out and thought. Perhaps this one-liner could be an approach to parenting, grand-parenting, being a son, daughter, cousin, neighbor, and co-worker. Not tackling selfishness alone, but recognizing that there’s an ugly dragon thrashing around inside of all of us, and the only solution is to recognize how much we are alike and help each other with the taming.

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

I would love to have a private breakfast or tea with Oprah Winfrey because she has shown so many of us that change is possible. We don’t have to get stuck in our past. We can keep learning and creating lives of meaning. Her life story, films, and books shout out, “Keep moving on” and she does it by exploring faith, poetry, books, food, friendship, health, history and embracing philanthropy. Oprah is a humble hero we feel we own and are better for knowing her from afar.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Website: Judithdknotts.com

This was very meaningful, thank you so much!

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