Thomas Owens of MENTOR Newark: “Plan as if it’s going to happen until it doesn’t”

Plan as if it’s going to happen until it doesn’t — I learned this from my board chair when we were planning our annual charity golf outing, our biggest fundraiser of the year. We were going back and forth about whether to postpone or cancel because of the pandemic. The board chair’s advice was simple: “Plan as […]

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Plan as if it’s going to happen until it doesn’t — I learned this from my board chair when we were planning our annual charity golf outing, our biggest fundraiser of the year. We were going back and forth about whether to postpone or cancel because of the pandemic. The board chair’s advice was simple: “Plan as if you are doing it, until you can’t.” Don’t water down your enthusiasm concerning yourself with what might or might not happen. This great lesson eliminated a lot of the hesitation from our planning process.

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

Thomas Owens is the Executive Director of MENTOR Newark (formerly Newark Mentoring Movement) the New Jersey affiliate of MENTOR: The National Mentoring Partnership. An experienced leader, innovative program/partnerships director with demonstrated success leading the creation of powerful collaborative solutions in the areas of urban education and not-for-profit organizations. Thomas spearheads the strategic planning and growth efforts of MENTOR Newark in partnership with local stakeholders including Newark Board of Education, philanthropic partners, non-profit organizations, corporate partners and government agencies. Prior to MENTOR Newark Thomas was one of the founders of the Eagle Academy for Young Men of Newark in Newark, NJ and launched the Global Peace Ambassadors, a global initiative partnering Newark youth with youth in Belfast, Northern Ireland. His mission is to grow exciting, relevant and sustainable mentoring experiences for youth in Newark (and the state of New Jersey.)

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

I grew up in Hempstead, New York (Long Island) with my dad, mom and two brothers. I was a middle child in a very supportive family where education was not an option. My mom was a school librarian and dad worked for the New York City Housing Authority. His team was responsible for creating NYCHA’s first tenant associations and tenant patrols. Their work became the model for housing authorities around the world. One of my earliest memories was riding with my father after work to various tenant association meetings and events in housing projects all over New York’s five boroughs. This meant spending many hours in project basements meeting with tenant leaders and tenants around the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan and even Staten Island. I was fascinated by this and knew my way around all of the boroughs by the time I was 13. This was a big influence on my professional life. I learned early the importance of having an authentic relationship with the people you want to serve.

Another pillar in my life was the HBCU (Historically Black College/University) experience. I started at Morehouse College in Atlanta and after a small detour (it’s a long story) graduated from Benedict College in Columbia South Carolina. The history, legacy (both of my parents graduated from HBCUs) and supportive network that comes with being an HBCU alum has had a major impact on my early development and my current success.

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

My mother in law, Rev Dr. Carolyn Holloway, taught me one of my most important leadership quotes. She warned me that sometimes in my leadership journey I may lose the plot, get caught up in the politics of the work, and even become unsure about my purpose and mission. In those moments she taught me to refer back to this quote: ”When in doubt, love the people.”

The work we do is about the people we serve. Stay focused on the people.

Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

One of the many books that has influenced my journey is The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. Key among the many lessons in that book is the idea that when you are operating in your true purpose “the universe will conspire in your success.” Put simply, when you are walking in your purpose, you notice that the things you need most to achieve your goals appear.

I remember when a group of students at Eagle Academy for Young Men of Newark challenged me to create an experience that would really blow them away. I decided upon an international trip to Northern Ireland for 16 of our students. We had never taken any students on an international trip before, nor did we have it in the budget. All we had was purpose and a strong belief that this trip could be a game changer. With my partner in Northern Ireland, we plotted this experience over the next 18 months. After turning us down once before, we received word from the US Consulate in Belfast, Northern Ireland that they would provide 90% of the funding. Our partners in NI, provided the remaining funding.

We got a big send off from the local school district and the Mayor of Newark and these students made history! It all came full circle for me when I was standing on the Northern Irish shore looking at the Atlantic Ocean with one of our students. I was rattling on about what our next big project would be and I wasn’t sure if he was listening to me. I asked him, “Are you with me? Do you think we can do it?” His response caught me off guard. He said, “Mr. Owens, I am a kid from Newark, New Jersey standing with you right now on the other side of the world, I believe anything you say.” That was an important life lesson for me. In the interest of youth, everything is possible.

When youth recognize commitment from the adults/mentors around them, they are empowered. Like the verse in Marianne Williamson’s famous poem, “Our Deepest Fear,” says, “And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we’re liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. Can you tell our readers about your career experience before the Pandemic began?

In the years leading up to the pandemic I was the deputy director of a non-profit organization in New York, then the Executive Director of a community based organization in Long Beach, NY. In 2007, I moved to Newark and launched the Mentoring Success Center @Communities in Schools of New Jersey. The next step was the creation of the Great Expectations Freedom School, the first all male Children’s Defense Fund Freedom School Summer program in the nation. This led to becoming one of the founders of the Eagle Academy for Young Men of Newark, the first and only all male traditional public school in the city of Newark. In 2019 I left Eagle and became the Executive Director of Newark Mentoring Movement (now MENTOR Newark).

What did you do to pivot as a result of the Pandemic?

In Fall 2019, I started my job as the Executive Director of the Newark Mentoring Movement. I knew immediately I wanted to transform the organization. Specifically, I wanted to focus on three main tasks: becoming more relevant and responsive to the local mentoring organization that we serve, aligning ourselves with the work and mission of MENTOR National, and creating a sustainable working partnership with the Newark Board of Education.

In the beginning of the pandemic I recognized that if the organization was going to survive and grow we had to become more agile and prepared to pivot. In retrospect before the actual pivot we had to adopt a more lean mindset that would allow future flexibility as well. I look at this like an athlete. Before you can run or jump, you have to train. Mental conditioning and preparation is required before you can successfully pivot.

Can you tell us about the specific “Aha moment” that gave you the idea to start this new path?

A watershed moment for me was reading an article by Indian writer Arundhati Roy. In the article she speaks about being prepared to “imagine a new world and fight for it.” She writes that, “Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.” This article starkly reminded me about the danger of returning to normal. In essence, normal is how we got here. This idea has influenced every decision I have made during the pandemic.

How are things going with this new initiative?

It has been an exciting and challenging time. There have been moments when we were anxious, unsure, and uncomfortable. Particularly during those times I have embraced the fact that this is what growth and change feels like. We share that with the organization leaders and students we work with. If you are comfortable in your work, you probably aren’t growing. This approach has opened doors for our organization, leading to exciting business and funding opportunities.

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?

Aside from my parents who provided the ultimate support, I think about one of my mentors Reverend Alphonso Wyatt. Early in my career Rev. Wyatt saw what I wanted to do and took me under his wing. The first thing he did was advise me to enroll in the Columbia University Business School Institute for Not for Profit Management. In his words, “It’s not enough to do good. You have to LEARN how to do good WELL.” That experience completely changed my approach to non-profit work and provided me with a much more sophisticated tool kit.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started in this new direction?

My most interesting story occurred at a point when I received confirmation that I was on the right path. The source of this confirmation was a high school student. In a virtual town hall about the impact of the pandemic on Newark high school students, one student shared that the “best” thing about the pandemic was that she would be returning to school with a “clean slate.” It would be a new beginning where virtual learning and other innovations are the norm. She was excited to embrace a new, less concrete normal. The biggest threat to her excitement was that so many school administrators and educators were saying, “I can’t wait to get back to normal.” These dissenting points of view on what post-pandemic life looks like, create issues with school culture and the trusting relationship between students and educators. As mentoring leaders, we will continue to embrace an innovative strategy that is willing to pivot when necessary to serve the genuine interest of our youth.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my organization” and why? Please share a story or example for each.

  1. You can’t do it all — I learned early on that with growth comes more work and the Executive Director cannot do it all. You need a like-minded, devoted and talented team. Building this type of team is a lot more challenging than it seems. This is an area where I am still developing.
  2. Embrace your board — Active, engaged, and financially supportive board members are the most sought after but not enough is said about the cultivation and management of an active board. The relationships with your board members cannot simply be transactional. They must be honest relationships that are intentional and developed with integrity. This process is challenging and takes substantial time, but is crucial for the development of your business.
  3. Do what you do well and get help with what you don’t do well. — Simple example: if you are not good with numbers, hire an accountant. If you have no sense of design, hire a marketing person or a graphic designer. Don’t limit your reach on social media because YOU don’t do Instagram- find someone to help.
  4. Self care is essential. -Take days off. The work will always be there. Be intentional about your own health and well being. Personally, I am working on this one.
  5. Plan as if it’s going to happen until it doesn’t — I learned this from my board chair when we were planning our annual charity golf outing, our biggest fundraiser of the year. We were going back and forth about whether to postpone or cancel because of the pandemic. The board chair’s advice was simple: “Plan as if you are doing it, until you can’t.” Don’t water down your enthusiasm concerning yourself with what might or might not happen. This great lesson eliminated a lot of the hesitation from our planning process.

So many of us have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. Can you share the strategies that you have used to optimize your mental wellness during this stressful period?

My primary strategies have included intentionally monitoring the amount of news and television I ingest each day. The constant bombardment of troubling news is mentally detrimental. The saving grace has been my piano. Just before the pandemic lockdown began I purchased a piano and set up a small music studio in my home. I began to learn songs that I wanted to learn for years and gave up on. In the last 18 months I have learned over 60 songs.

You are a person of great 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?

I would inspire a movement centered around realizing that the path of greed and self aggrandizement that has been successfully marketed to us is bankrupt. This is a moment to restore our humanity, care for our friends and neighbors, and create solutions that impact the lives of others. We have an upsetting habit of monetizing everything. I remember being in a meeting when someone proposed that the local performing arts center provide students with free piano lessons. A number of people chimed in, “Yeah. They can learn to produce music.” “They can write jingles. There is a lot of money in jingles.” “Or they could teach music, That’s a great career.” I remember saying to the group, “Or they could simply learn to play the piano because it’s a beautiful instrument and music enriches lives.” As Arundhati Roy says, “And in the midst of this terrible despair, it [the pandemic] offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves. Nothing could be worse than a return to normality.”

Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have lunch with, and why? Maybe we can tag them and see what happens!

As a proud graduate of South Carolina HBCU Benedict College I am so proud of all the work our president and CEO Roslyn Clark Artis, JD, EdD has done to grow the legacy and reach of Benedict. I would love to have lunch with her and discuss what I can do to help the students of my alma mater.

How can our readers follow you online?

Follow our work at and look for MENTOR Newark on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. MENTOR Newark is the New Jersey affiliate of MENTOR: The National Mentoring Partnership.

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!

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