Julie Kohler of ‘White Picket Fence’: “Embrace the side hustle”

Embrace the side hustle. No one job — no matter how amazing — is going to make us feel creatively satisfied all the time. When I wanted to start focusing on public writing, I carved out some time on the side, working late at night or early in the morning. Then gradually, I found ways to make it more […]

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Embrace the side hustle. No one job — no matter how amazing — is going to make us feel creatively satisfied all the time. When I wanted to start focusing on public writing, I carved out some time on the side, working late at night or early in the morning. Then gradually, I found ways to make it more of a central focus to my work. Even if a full-on career transition isn’t possible, you can often find ways to do more of what you want to be doing.

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

Julie is a writer, philanthropic strategist, and gender justice advocate. Her articles on women, politics, and families appear regularly in CNN, the Washington Post, Fortune, The Hill, and many other outlets. She is also the co-creator and host of the new trending Wonder Media Network podcast White Picket Fence, which examines the fractured — and often frustrating — politics of white women. Julie has two decades of experience working in philanthropy, advocacy, and higher education. She is currently a fellow in residence at the National Women’s Law Center and a senior advisor to the Democracy Alliance, a progressive donor network. She serves on the boards for many progressive organizations, including New Media Ventures, Family Story, the Pipeline Initiative, and PL-US Action. She has an M.A. and Ph.D. in family social science from the University of Minnesota

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

My parents had a huge influence on my professional path, even though they never pushed me in any particular career direction. But they instilled in me a belief that what you do for a living is an extension of your values. My father spent 13 years in a Catholic religious order before leaving to marry my mom, and although organized religion didn’t play a huge role in my upbringing, social justice remained a strong guiding force. My mom was a biology and women’s studies professor, so gender justice was always at the forefront of family conversations. I’ve made a number of transitions in my own career, moving from higher education to philanthropy to focusing more on writing and storytelling, but the one constant is that everything I’ve done professionally has been a reflection of the values that were instilled in me from a very young age.

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?

When I was a student, I got a part-time job canvassing for a local living wage campaign. It sounded great — I definitely believed in the issue and wanted to do my part to help the initiative pass. My first night on the job, the organization had me go door-to-door with a more experienced canvasser, so I could learn to engage folks on the issue. I enjoyed speaking with community members but always froze up when it came time to ask them for money, so the more experienced canvasser had to keep jumping in to handle that part of the conversation. Finally, he told me I needed to make the ask by myself. I knocked on the next door, and a nice old lady answered. We chatted, and she was very interested in the issue. I gathered up the courage to ask her if she’d be willing to support the campaign and she told me to wait. She came back holding a tiny coin purse, opened it up, and pulled out the one and only dollar in it, which she handed to me. I was so taken aback that I could barely manage to thank her, and as we walked away from the house, I nearly burst into tears. I decided that if canvassing required taking the last dollar from little old ladies, it wasn’t the right role for me.

Now, 25 years later, I’ve spent a career helping raise hundreds of millions of dollars for organizations working to make our nation more equitable and just. All this to say, sometimes it takes multiple attempts to succeed at something. I’m not ashamed that I didn’t stick with that particular job — it really wasn’t the right fit for me at the time — but I’m glad I didn’t give up on fundraising, altogether, or let myself believe that it was something I couldn’t do. Sometimes, we just need to find the right environments for our skills to emerge and develop.

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

I wear a lot of professional hats these days, all of which work to advance equity and justice. But I’m especially proud of my new Wonder Media Network podcast, White Picket Fence, which does a deep dive into white women’s identities and politics and examines how white women can become a stronger force for justice. The podcast has a different type of “social impact” than the work I’ve done in philanthropy, where I help financially support organizations working to make our democracy and economy more fair and inclusive. But I’m convinced that storytelling plays an important role in healing our many social divides and helping us build meaningful connections across dimensions of difference. The feedback I’ve received on the podcast from women who say that it helped them think differently about their own stories or inspired them to take action in their communities is some of the most meaningful that I’ve received at any point throughout my career.

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

Sure. A lot of the work that I highlight in my podcast and writing — and that I’ve supported over the years in my various roles in philanthropy — is community organizing. This is work spearheaded by local organizations that help bring people together to solve community problems. These organizations build leaders — especially from underrepresented communities — who work on campaigns for local and statewide legislation on issues like paid sick leave. Higher minimum wage. Investments in green energy.

I’ve know a lot of exceptional organizers, but I’m equally impressed by the community members who become active in these organizations and do the hard, messy work of democracy — showing up at meetings in church basements on a random Tuesday night, attending local city council hearings, talking with their local elected officials. It’s always struck me as incredibly selfless work, but over time, I’ve come to understand and appreciate the sense of meaning and purpose this work provides to those who engage in it. A couple of years ago, I was interviewing a woman, Lynn, who had become a kind of powerhouse volunteer in the wake of the 2016 election. She had an interesting story. Politics had become a source of pain and isolation for her at home. Her husband was a Republican; she was a Democrat, and increasingly, she was questioning whether they shared the same values. But when she told me about the work she was doing with a local faith-based organizing group, her eyes lit up. She used words like “exciting” and “uplifting.” “What we can do together is very powerful,” she told me.

Often, philanthropy invests in community organizing as a strategy for policy change. And that’s important — critical, even. But the personal transformations that I’ve witnessed through organizing — the kind of confidence that women like Lynn gain; the sense and appreciation of and belief in their personal power, is, in some respects, equally important. It’s that kind of personal transformation that makes me hopeful for the kind of future that committed individuals can build together.

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 love this question, though my challenge is answering it is that the problems that I’m trying to solve are the root problems — the sources of inequality and injustice. If I had to only choose three things, I might go with: 1) closing the racial wealth gap through reparations and other wealth-building tools in communities of color, especially Black communities; 2) building a clean-energy economy that prioritizes investments in frontline communities; and 3) creating — and funding — a high-quality universal public child care system, while also enacting paid family leave for parents and other caregivers. That might be four things — or at least 3.5! But together, I think they’d be pretty transformational.

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

I don’t have one definition of leadership because I don’t believe there is one kind of leader. As someone who cares a lot about diversifying leadership, including political leadership, I think we still suffer from a crisis of imagination when it comes to what leadership looks like. Are effective leaders visionary? Do they excel at execution? Are they inspirational? Good strategists? Gifted communicators? Able to bring people together and unite them around a common purpose? Any and all of these things can be true. I think if there’s one quality that’s most important in a leader it’s self-awareness. Knowing what you excel at and where you need support, being able to build teams comprised of individuals with complementary skill sets, and being genuinely interested in self-growth and the growth of those around you — ultimately, these are the qualities I admire most in leaders.

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. Don’t worry about having it all planned out. I went from college straight to graduate school, thinking I was preparing for an academic career. Two years after I finished my Ph.D., I left academia for philanthropy. Trying new things and embracing unexpected opportunities often bring the best rewards.
  2. Embrace the side hustle. No one job — no matter how amazing — is going to make us feel creatively satisfied all the time. When I wanted to start focusing on public writing, I carved out some time on the side, working late at night or early in the morning. Then gradually, I found ways to make it more of a central focus to my work. Even if a full-on career transition isn’t possible, you can often find ways to do more of what you want to be doing.
  3. People make all the difference. I’m professionally happiest when I’m working as part of a team with smart, interesting colleagues who know things that I do not and have skills that complement mine. Fortunately, I’ve had good luck in that regard. Some of my closest friends are former colleagues. In taking on new projects or jobs, I weigh the people with whom I’ll be working as heavily as I do the work I’ll be doing. It’s a huge factor in where I want to focus my time and energy.
  4. Power reflects just that — power — and equalizing it means disrupting the status quo. Realizing that those with power in society were not necessarily any smarter or more talented than those without it can be infuriating, but it can also be liberating. Not only should we actively work to rid ourselves of the self-doubt that often holds us back (something I still work on myself), but we need to use our positions to expand opportunity and access to power. I grew up in the Midwest and am, by nature, a rule follower. I’ve become less so over the course of my career…and wish I had done so sooner.
  5. #4 again. I try to make it my mantra. ☺

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. 🙂

I actually think that my job is to help support and scale existing social movements, not seed new ones. Black Lives Matter. The Dreamers. The #MeToo movement. If we would each invest a little more “time, talent, and treasure,” as a friend of mine likes to say, to making these movements stronger and more robust, we could make huge change in this country.

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

I love this quote from James Baldwin, “The world is before you, and you need not take it or leave it as it was when you came in.” I’m under no illusion that gender, racial, and other forms of injustice will be eradicated in my lifetime. But I hope that when it’s time for me to hand over the baton, I will have played a small part in making the world different — and better — than it was when I entered.

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. 🙂

I’d like to have an off-the-record lunch with Terry Gross from NPR’s Fresh Air. Not only would I like to absorb all of her tips and tricks for being the best interviewer in the business, but as someone who has spoken to almost every interesting person in the country — some famous, some not — I’d love the low-down on which guests she found most interesting…and why.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

You can follow me on twitter at @juliekkohler1 and on Instagram at @juliekohlerwrites.

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

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