I am optimistic that we can solve the challenges that America is experiencing. This is because real change happens at the local level, not at the federal level, and I know so many local leaders are working to create new systems that produce more equitable outcomes for children and families. Local communities can drive systemic change. We’ve seen it happen in communities across our network. We’ve also seen these communities learn from one another. As soon as the pandemic hit, our communities quickly mobilized to provide immediate relief and prepare for the longer-term recovery. Our country is resilient because of the people who make up our communities. I do worry that we are becoming so divided, especially because the politization and polarization of ideas blocks us from seeing that many of us want the same things. However, I’m confident that we will come together to get out of this, especially at the local level.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Jennifer Blatz.
Jennifer 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. She 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 like to get to know you. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
Inmany ways, I had an idyllic childhood. I grew up in Hebron, Kentucky, a small town on the outskirts of Cincinnati, Ohio. My father’s family had been farmers, so we lived on five acres down the road from my grandparents and several aunts and uncles. Extended family was always present and it’s the type of town where everybody knows everybody. Education was critically important to my family. My parents didn’t go to college, but they knew it was a ticket to mobility for my brother and me. Thus, I was the first in my family to go to college and that experience would shape my entire life and career.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee had an incredible impact on me. I related to Scout Finch in so many ways. I was fairly young when I read it the first time and have re-read it several times throughout my life, most recently when my 12-year-old daughter read it last year.
Like Scout, I was a voracious reader, a bit of a tomboy and quite outspoken. Growing up in a predominantly white town and reading a powerful story about racial injustice was an awakening for me and I am still on the journey of learning and grappling with issues of racial injustice in my personal and professional life.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” — Maya Angelou
I believe 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 do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Leadership is understanding and articulating the vision or result you’re trying to achieve and being able to motivate or rally others around that shared vision or result. I believe the only way you can inspire people is through servant leadership. This means balancing the business and operational elements of leading an organization with deeply caring about the growth and well-being of the people around me, while working to align their contributions to an intended result.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
Running is my therapy and stress release. I love running and I’m an early riser. So, I get up and run most mornings, often while it’s still dark and very peaceful. Most of the time I listen to music, but if I have something that’s weighing on me, I’ll often run without music and think through the situation, whether an important decision, a meeting, or new learnings. Then, I sometimes come back and write things down to ensure I can carry them out. My team has joked that they know the days when I haven’t gone for a run because those aren’t my best days!
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This is of course a huge topic. But briefly, can you share your view on how this crisis inexorably evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?
We are at the boiling point right now because finally people have had enough. The socio-economic inequities that have been magnified by COVID-19 are not new. The overt racism in America is not new either; we’ve been seeing more and more of it over the past four years.
But enough is enough. We are seeing the largest movement in history, across the most diverse swath of Americans, including many white Americans, who aren’t okay with the status quo. They are angry that a global health crisis is 3 times more likely to kill a Black person than a white person, where people of color are more likely to be to face unemployment and homelessness as a result of the crisis and where Blacks continue to be murdered by those who supposedly exist to protect in this society.
And there is no unifying leadership to address any of these issues. Our country is divided. These issues are divisive, and people have had enough.
Can you tell our readers a bit about your experience working with initiatives to promote Diversity and Inclusion? Can you share a story with us?
When I became President and CEO of StriveTogether in January of 2018, I was charged with implementing a new strategic plan that involved growing our team exponentially and centering racial equity in our work. Over the past two and a half years, we’ve grown into a more diverse team and simultaneously worked with our national Network to center racial equity in the work that we do with communities.
This began by adding Equity as one of StriveTogether’s core values and it led to the development of a racial equity statement to provide a vision for StriveTogether’s racial equity, diversity and inclusion work. This includes our commitment to become an anti-racist organization and our work to support our Network members in their antiracism work.
Through this work we have established affinity spaces, worked to establish policies and practices for equitable selection of vendors and partners an equitable compensation policy, etc. There is much more work to be done and it has not been easy, especially during this time as the dual pandemics of COVID-19 and systemic racism laid bare the vast inequities in our society.
We’ve been wrestling with whether we are doing enough and going fast enough on this journey. As a white leader for racial equity, I’ve had to continue to do my own personal work to ensure that I recognizing the privilege and power I hold in this system. But this is the most important work that StriveTogether can be doing right now. Centering racial equity in everything we do in this work is critical.
This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
Diverse executive teams make better decisions and achieve better results. Having leaders around the table that represent a range of cultures and experiences is essential for the type of critical thinking and innovation that is needed to solve complex problems.
And our work at StriveTogether is complex. We support communities to work with different systems and sectors to solve some of the greatest social problems. We can’t do that without a diverse executive team that holds the vision and drives strategy, applying their wisdom and life experiences.
Leadership also has an important role in creating organizational culture, so having a diverse executive team is paramount to achieving the type of inclusive culture we’re working to build at StriveTogether and across our national Network.
Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. Can you please share your “5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society”. Kindly share a story or example for each.
- We must 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 need 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.
- We must center people of color and create solutions together, with particular attention to the Black, Indigenous and Latinx communities that continue to be most harmed. All too often we look for silver-bullet solutions to problems instead of working to co-develop solutions with those impacted by systems. A good opportunity for this is the effort that school systems are making to set reopening plans amid COVID-19. These school systems — at the state, city and district levels — should be engaging with people impacted by the system in their planning efforts. This would ensure that every child has a chance to succeed by addressing the unique educational, operational, and technical challenges that various families my have.
- We must operationalize equity to get better results for those most affected by oppressive systems. It isn’t enough to talk about equity or make grand gestures to call for equity. We must do the hard work of setting out the exact steps that are needed to turn equity from a concept to the reality we see and experience in our communities and country. This includes, ensuring the organizations we are involved with have supportive, inclusive policies that aren’t centered on whiteness.
- We must challenge and change policies that perpetuate oppressive systems and inequities in communities. Elections matter at ALL levels — local, state and federal. We need to become more active and educated voters and 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.
- Change the culture. We need to help nonprofits and those seeking to create a more inclusive world move from a mindset of generosity to one of justice. Until equity is a critical component of our social culture, it will always be seen as an afterthought rather than as part of the process of how we do things. Culture ultimately feeds and changes our systems, values, and traditions. One way that nonprofits can do this specifically is by creating more opportunities for the people we serve to lead.
We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?
I am optimistic that we can solve the challenges that America is experiencing. This is because real change happens at the local level, not at the federal level, and I know so many local leaders are working to create new systems that produce more equitable outcomes for children and families.
Local communities can drive systemic change. We’ve seen it happen in communities across our network. We’ve also seen these communities learn from one another. As soon as the pandemic hit, our communities quickly mobilized to provide immediate relief and prepare for the longer-term recovery.
Our country is resilient because of the people who make up our communities. I do worry that we are becoming so divided, especially because the politization and polarization of ideas blocks us from seeing that many of us want the same things. However, I’m confident that we will come together to get out of this, especially at the local level.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I think I would have to say Joe Biden. As the presumptive democratic nominee for President, I would like to have an opportunity to meet with him and share some of the ideas we have for creating more equitable policies that produce more equitable results to put more youth and families on the path toward economic mobility.
2020 is such a critical year as we face these dual pandemics and prepare for a historic election. While our work at StriveTogether is not partisan, I don’t know that we can make the impact or have the progress we want to and need to have with the current administration. So, I’m hopeful that a transition to a new administration will bring opportunity for change. This country certainly needs it.
How can our readers follow you online?
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!