October 15, 2020
As part of my own personal journey, I am committed to being a strong equity leader. This is the tenth in a series of blogs that will be a part of that effort. I hope you will benefit from the conversation.
George Floyd’s murder in my hometown of Minneapolis once again shined the spotlight on the problems of race in our community. In the weeks that followed, calls for social justice have reverberated around the world. In my time at the Y, I have come to understand and recognize — on a far deeper level — my many privileges as a white man. But my self-reflection and education is constant, and I feel compelled to utilize this medium to interview equity leaders. These leaders have served as mentors, teammates and dear friends. Each has allowed me to see a different perspective on systemic racism through their lived experience. As I seek to understand, my hope is that these talks will help humanize the issues and, in some small way, help lead us toward efforts to make a better way for all.
My sixth guest is Jenny Miller, the Y’s program executive working with youth justice, enough and foster care services.. She has been with our team for over 15 years, doing some of the most challenging work imaginable. She focuses on young people in the foster care system, justice system and survivors of human trafficking. Sadly, those are all areas that have grown considerably in recent years.
She also lives very close to where George Floyd was murdered. I cannot express my gratitude enough for who Jenny is, and her commitment to the Y and young people in our community. I hope you enjoy Part 2 of my conversation with Jenny Miller (you can read part 1 here).
Glen: Where are you at emotionally right now, several months after George Floyd’s murder?
Jenny: That we are beginning to have these conversations is long overdue. But now I'm feeling like I'm entering into a phase where people are becoming numb, or they are forgetting, and that is an example of privilege. And that comes with whiteness, the ability to control what we're going to focus on as a community. And that is — once again — hard because it feels isolating. It feels like silencing. It feels like, “No, no, no, two months ago you really leaned in. Where is that? Does another person need to die for us to continue this conversation?”
I think that leadership has everything to do with this, and I don't mean leadership as in your title. I mean, leadership and being committed to growing and learning forever. And that's not just lip service. I look at our organization, and we have put so much resource into developing people who first come to our organization, their first job. New training, onboarding a new employee. And I looked at the people who are in the highest positions in our organization, and I think, “When are you training and developing them? When are they spending time learning to be a leader?”
I am always pursuing outside, growth opportunities to bring back to my team and those that I can influence. And right now, I'm going through Minnesota Council of Nonprofits’ practical leadership development series, and it's a six-month commitment. Along the way, I bring this back to my team. And so we may talk about the outcomes of our program. We may talk about day-to-day operations, but the chunk of what we're talking about is how we grow as leaders. We talk about complex change. We talk about four truths, and we talk about how that intersects with us as leaders and often our work. And I just don't see that in any space, any executive leaders as we're thinking about how we're going to grow and evolve.
The normative truth is, (many of our leaders) ran a fitness facility. So how do they get the skills to run a community center? Those are two different things. It doesn't mean that we send everybody to external training. There are so many internal resources here. But we have to look at our leaders to say, “Are people hungry for that?” Because if somebody is saying, “I don't need that,” then you can't innovate.
You can't do what you, Glen Gunderson, wants.
Glen: That is excellent. I think your point about getting it right with a new team member orientation versus the ongoing challenge of learnings and personal development is important. It’s on us as individuals, but we've got to foster more investment there. Unfortunately, that's been one of the casualties of the financial challenges we've had in the last number of years. That’s a great call out, but do you have any other thoughts on where we go from here?
Jenny: It might not be the exact answer to your question, but just looking at the association as a whole, these departments like finance, purchasing… How do we reframe that they are here to lift up those who are doing the work in the community? You might hear phrases like, “We’re a nonprofit within a nonprofit,” or, “We’re the best kept secret.” But our work is often completely detached from the rest of the Y, but it doesn't have to be that way.
And how can we undo some systems and support the programs that fulfill our mission and keep it as simple as possible?
On one hand, I'm fighting externally on behalf of the organization to call out the system. And then I come home theoretically to do this, to fight the same system. So I'm exhausted, right? When do I get to just have somebody say, “What do you need and how can I help you?”
I mean, it's coming from an I statement, but so many folks could offer the same sentiment, and I don't know how to connect it if it's time with existing team members or if it is bringing in new leaders with that mindset already embedded in them.
Glen: Great insight. Can you share an anecdote about your experience as a Black woman at the Y?
Jenny: When I first started at the Y, after graduating from college, I came back and thought, “Let me just get a job until I find my big girl job.” I worked in membership, and I was at the desk right outside of our association office. I would often get asked the same question: “What are you?”.
II was just reflecting with my partner that so much of my professional experience at the Y has centered around the way I look. Being a biracial woman, I know that my privilege comes with being mistaken for different ethnicities than I am. One hiring manager at the Y thought I was Latino and assumed I spoke Spanish, and placed me at a school with Spanish-speaking students. Uh, I took French in school, but I don’t speak Spanish.
I can give you more examples, but it always comes back to my appearance and the way that I look, whether it is somebody saying, “Wow look at your hair, your skin,” and they perceive it to be a compliment or somebody who is paying a compliment. I want to be having a conversation about my character, about my words, about my beliefs, about my philosophies.
And it always comes back to, “Why are you so tan?”
Glen: That’s really powerful. And a lesson for all of us to focus on the content of one’s character, the substance that each leader brings. I just want to thank you for sharing and being vulnerable because that’s not easy to do. Thank you for all you do, Jenny.
To learn more about Jenny’s programs, please click here. Look for a new “Candid Conversation on Race” next week.