On my very first day at the University of California Berkeley, School of Social Welfare, we gathered in a beautiful auditorium for an orientation session. I was eager to get going and enthusiastic about learning new skills to make a contribution to the world. It got real pretty quick when a dynamic speaker — whose name I do not recall but whose words will stick with me forever — asserted that social work has often been corrupted to perpetuate injustice by placating those who suffer under unjust laws, policies and customs, essentially acting to let enough steam out to keep our unjust systems from combusting. Damn, not exactly the career I thought I was getting in to.
As my career has progressed, and today as the President and CEO of Graham Windham, I have tried to hold this lesson with me. It is uncomfortable to recognize that even well intentioned help can be ineffective, even harmful, if one is not sufficiently grounded in the reality of those you intend to serve. We at Graham are committed to partnering with communities and families (most of whom are struggling to make ends meet), in helping a generation of NYC children (primarily of color) to thrive. As a white, well-compensated man running this historic organization entrusted with this sacred responsibility, I grapple consistently with the fact that the privilege that opened so many doors for me is directly connected to the same systems, policies and customs that have kept opportunity from many of the extraordinary children and families we serve, in addition to many of our excellent staff members.
To me, being a Social Worker leading Graham Windham requires complete honesty about this truth and the tension that accompanies it. Remaining in this tension, one might fear, could lead to ambivalence and indecisiveness. In my experience, it is the exact opposite. In fact, it is the only way I’ve found to lead from a perspective that is sufficiently grounded in the reality of the lives of our kids and families. Remaining in this tension — and many others inherent in our family and youth development systems that we grapple with as a team at Graham — creates the space for profound conversations with our kids, parents, foster parents, staff, and Board, and leads to important breakthroughs. Through these dialogues, which we make a top priority at Graham, we’ve gained clarity of purpose, vision, approach and voice.
Our kids and families have told us clearly where we’ve got it right, and where we’ve got it wrong. They let us know when what we offer as help isn’t helpful. They’ve challenged us to not only offer services but to build enduring relationships and to break down barriers to their success. And, they’ve shown us over and over again that they’ll work hard and seize available opportunities. They have set our course.
We firmly believe that we are at our best when we do this work as neighbors helping neighbors, with our common humanity closing the distance between “professional” and “client.” Those we serve often serve alongside us as peer supporters and builders of the Graham Community. The talents abundant in our kids and families are an essential resource to the achievement of our collective vision.
They’ve made it clear to me that I need to get and stay close, to lead with a real understanding of their lives and aspirations. They’ve also made clear that the best thing I can do with the privileges I’ve been afforded is to use them. With this clarity, we’ve determined to use our collective voices to call for needed change, especially as it relates to the opportunities available to our kids and families, and to partner with leaders in every sector to help bring it about. We’ve also determined, a legacy of my predecessor Poul Jensen, to always look inward first. Often, we are what needs to change. We can’t call out the speck in someone else’s eye when we haven’t cleaned the logs out of ours.
This commitment to self-evaluation and accountability is one aspect of the leadership and learning culture we are continuously building at Graham to help all in our community grow and thrive – and, dare I say, enjoy themselves along the way. We are also intentional about respecting the dignity inherent in each member of our community, promoting the inclusion of all voices, and celebrating both major accomplishments and all of the milestones along the way. Our focus on organizational culture, the central role we believe it plays in our ability to truly help kids and families achieve their goals, and the specific elements that we’ve discerned together to set as the hallmarks of the Graham culture to which we aspire are both informed by my social work education. I’m especially grateful to my classmates who were focused on community organizing and development for showing me the power of shared intentions and culture.
As we lead towards our vision here at Graham, I’m certain that I don’t have it exactly right and that wisdom accrued in the years ahead will lead me to re-evaluate aspects of my current thinking. It won’t be the first time. Knowing flaws exist won’t slow us down. Our kids and parents aren’t seeking a perfect leader. (Thank goodness because they sure don’t have that!) They want and deserve an authentic one who learns from them and uses every tool at his and this organization’s disposal, including their abundant talents, to do right by them, their families and communities.
I try each day to be that leader and I am grateful to lean on my social work education, experience and community in that effort.