Being present and feeling gratitude got me through an incredibly tumultuous year. The simplest visual for what it feels like being a family of five with three teen daughters is a game of Whack a Mole – two down, one up, then three down and one up, one down and so on. Insert laughing and crying emoji here.
We started the year watching our daughter, Katharina being wheeled off into surgery to be treated for a rare kidney tumor that was discovered after a routine MRI for minor back pain. So, in January our then 16 year old daughter underwent a laparoscopic, radical nephrectomy aka removal of one of her kidneys. Luckily you can live a long healthy life with just one. There is no prep for something like this. While we were quite unlucky to be part of the less than 1% of kidney tumors, we were also incredibly lucky. The surgery seems to be all she needed, as the tumor was “mostly” non-cancerous and did not appear to have spread. For now, we live with quarterly scans and regular check-ins with her oncologist.
On a personal front, outside of my roles of wife and mother, I had a pretty 2x year. I continued to evolve as a runner, enjoying a PR (personal record) with an 8.30/pace running my 5th half marathon. Following the half, I ran my first full marathon, 26.2 miles in 4.32 hours. Outside of being pregnant and nursing three babies in five years, it was the single most challenging achievement of my life. As I hit mile 21, I said to myself, “Finish this race and I will not make you do this again.” But I find myself lately thinking, just one more. I have the awareness that I told myself much the same after I had my first child. Although experience and maybe muscle memory did in fact make each of the subsequent baby years easier.
I had an incredible run professionally, during this same timeframe. In January I started an exciting new role as the senior director of partnership development at a WOC-led social justice non-profit organization. On paper it was a dream job. The mission to dismantle racism within the institution of education so that all children can thrive was incredibly motivating. I was charged with building out the sales and marketing strategy and systems to accelerate the growth and triple the impact. I explored the full experience and my learnings in this blog post, Unapologetically Myself.
Returning to our game of Whack a Mole – while we were navigating Katha’s cancer scare, our firstborn, Elke, was enjoying a magical senior year of high school. The culmination of her college search ended with a surprise twist with her choosing the University of Washington over the Southern California schools as well as her hometown behemoth, UT. But once the decision was made, she never looked back. Just one quarter in, she is thriving in her new life in Seattle as a Husky! While the decision from an economic perspective makes zero sense, Marcus and I were united in wanting her to experience college in a big city with a more socially progressive culture.
Our youngest daughter, Natascha, was having a very good sophomore year of high school. Strong academics, a great group of friends and overall, growing out of her role as the baby of the family. But we had an unexpected and abrupt end to her life as a soccer player. Not gonna lie, it was a shock to our girl and to her parents who have been cheering her on from the sidelines for as long as we can remember. Now that our emotions are a bit in the rear view, I can say that I am honestly proud of our girl for overcoming intense anxiety to play and compete for as long as she did. I am worried and hopeful that she will find a new path for herself.
As I write this on the first day of the new year, our house is filled with the sounds made by our new puppy, Lola and her big brother, Ollie squeaking their toys and playing together. I hear the laughter and happy chatter of Elke and her friends all home from college and happily relieving their adventures from New Years Eve the night before. I count an additional nine or ten friends of Katha and Taschi respectively, sleeping on couches and beds throughout the house, having enjoyed various celebrations before but all ending up at our house in the end. Feels good that all the girls had friends with them to bring in this New Year.
This Independence Day feels like a thinly veiled joke. A wink wink among the Christian right and their ardent cronies. Their “pro-life” vision thinly wrapped in their convservative values around sex and marriage, deciding who has choice and agency and who does not.
It is only when I fill out those intake forms at the doctor’s office that I really ever think about the abortion I had in my early 20’s. How many pregnancies have you had? How many live births? For me the answer is four and three respectively. I was not the victim of incest, rape, or other catastrophic condition. I was simply a twenty something young woman, late to the game of romantic relationships, and in a moment of sexual exploration, a condom did not do its job.
I’m not implying that the decision to have an abortion was an easy one. It’s not and it wasn’t. But I didn’t have to cross state lines, furtively search for a provider (or these days hide my digital footprint) and spend inordinate sums of money and time that I did not have – in order to get abortion care.
But the stark choices facing me as a young twenty-something – motherhood or adoption – were not ones I was in any way, shape or form ready to take on. As an adoptee, I have very strong feelings on the topic, especially when it comes to transracial adoptions. And as a woman who has experienced three “live births” – it is not a trifling thing emotionally or physically to gestate a fertilized egg for nine months until it becomes a whole, human baby.
Women’s bodies are not vessels to be objectified and treated as incubators. And unless you have had the experience – yes, you without a uterus – then you need to stand down, sir and shut the you-know-what up. You do not get a say here. Hard stop. Period.
And for women who make a different choice? Good for you and I support your ability to make that decision, but your choice does not dictate for the rest of us.
I never told the guy that I was pregnant. He was not relevant. Not someone I wanted to seriously date, let alone someone to be tethered to for the rest of my life.
This happened during a time I was taking a break from the oral contraceptives I had been taking since I was a teenager – back in the day, “the pill” was regularly prescribed for girls like me with inordinately difficult cramping and menstrual issues. I wanted to let my body reset itself, naturally. It was during this brief break from the pill that I got pregnant.
That’s it for my story. I haven’t given my experience a lot of thought outside the moments in the doctor’s office filling out those forms. Until now.
All of my life, growing up in this country I enjoyed the fundamental right to decide if I wanted to have a child. To control my body. To enjoy the rights of personhood. In one fell swoop, a group of only five judges – erased the constitutional right to reproductive autonomy – for all women in this country.
And now, my daughter’s personhood has been forsaken for that of a fertilized egg.
Make no mistake. This is the embodiment of the objectification of women. Our bodies are now seen as mere vessels. The patriarchy has once again spoken and pronounced all women as less than men.
I will not be waving the flag in celebration this fourth. I will instead rest. I will hug my daughters close. After this brief respite, I will be ready to fight again, this time with even more clarity and motivation to restore and perhaps this time to codify the rights of personhood for all women and girls.
We are all whole human beings with complex identities and none of us can be defined solely by the work that we do. Our identities and our roles intersect continuously.
I am a feminist and social justice advocate. I like to create and build things. My tool kit is sales and marketing. I am an Asian American immigrant, mother of three. Wife to an incredible man who not only can handle being the father of three teen daughters, he is thriving and proud to do so. I believe in the inherent value and dignity of work. And all of these values, all of my identities have intersected throughout my life.
But this new role, senior director of partnership development at a Women of Color (WOC)-led social justice organization was simply too appealing to pass up, despite my hesitations.
As a woman who has successfully navigated a long and storied career while raising three wonderful humans, I relied on my methodical and careful approach to building my career – growing my skills and experiences largely by proving myself with each step up the proverbial ladder. Given my stay within the lines, rule abiding tendencies, it was truly unprecedented for me to apply for, let alone take on a role with a scope of duties beyond the areas in which I had fully ‘proven’ myself. But this is exactly what I did and I learned so many valuable insights from this experience that I want to share.
The role I took on was a big one – running sales and marketing for a start-up nonprofit organization. While I had a deep track record of success in marketing primarily serving in a public relations function, and I had demonstrated success in many aspects of selling, I had not been charged with the wholesale creation of a sales and marketing strategy and infrastructure building at an organisation-wide level.
As additional context, working in the nonprofit space, and specifically for a social justice organization is a world apart from traditional corporate sales and marketing work – resource scarcity is a thing but the bigger impact is the org mission itself. When you read about social justice fatigue and the need to rest – this is real. It’s a complex equation but for me and I saw among my colleagues that in the service of large, ambitious mission driven goals – dismantling racism – in this case, it’s very hard at the individual level to set healthy boundaries between work and self. And despite org-wide efforts to dismantle traditional cultural values and norms around power structures and endeavoring to work in ways that value each of us as whole human beings – this is hard, maybe impossible to do. I have yet to see or to experience it in a successful way.
During this same timeframe, I was going through a situation as a parent that had no precedence for our family. One of my daughters was diagnosed with a tumor in her kidney, underwent surgery to remove it, and now lives under the shadow and uncertainty of quarterly scans. To say that I have a renewed life perspective is an understatement. On a personal front, after a decade of running for fun and the occasional half marathon, I successfully completed my first marathon in four hours and 32 minutes. While it seems like everyone has done a marathon – once you mention that you are training for one – it is in fact, something less than 1% of all people accomplish in their lifetimes. All of this is to give a more complete and accurate accounting of my particular story. We are all whole human beings with complex identities and none of us can be defined solely by one aspect of who we are and what we do. Again, our identities and our roles intersect continuously.
While we have mutually decided to part ways, I am proud of all I accomplished in a relatively short time frame. Notwithstanding the onboarding process of meeting and learning about your colleagues, the org structure and processes, systems and the like, following are a few key highlights of my accomplishments:
Development of Sales Marketing 12-Month Jumpstart Strategic Plan.
Created theme, Unapologetically Anti-Racist for annual event.
Conducted first ever competitor analysis of the primary competitors in their market space for anti-racism / diversity equity inclusion services.
Drafted and delivered sales proposals for multiple business to business (B2B) engagements with initial results garnering over 50K in closed deals.
Development of a sales pipeline of opportunities to re-engage current clients to maintain their commitment to anti-racism work at the organization-level.
Conducted numerous internal marketing sessions resulting in clarity of telling the org story, including brand identity development, and mission clarity via written and visual storytelling vehicles.
Conducted numerous internal sales sessions resulting in clarity of identifying ideal target market and target customer resulting in realistic and targeted sales engagement activities.
Writing this blog post, naming these wins is in service of telling my story: be unapologetically who you are. No matter the actions of others that we cannot control – we control our actions, our responses, and we get to own our narrative.
While I was driven by a mix of passionate idealism and an almost overwhelming sense that I was an imposter tasked with building and creating a sales marketing system – I still did it. I created a scalable and sustainable sales marketing roadmap that lives beyond me or any individual contributor – I created something that did not exist until I built it. Doing this against the backdrop of a resource starved ambitious start-up was one of the most satisfying and hardest things I have done.
The confidence that I gained from this experience is without measure. I remain unapologetically, myself.
To say that we are proud of the person you have become is an understatement. You are a joy and such a bright light in our lives. Although we have been honored to guide you and parent you for 18 years, the time has gone by much too fast.
The sense of urgency to “fill you up” with as much advice and guidance as we can, is palpable. If you will indulge us a little longer, I hope this resonates someday. You are wonderful, a whole human being, a great daughter, sister, friend, and teammate to all who know you. You do not need to spend time and effort chasing perfectionism. You are loved and wonderful, just as you are.
Perfectionism is a false promise. It is not about striving, setting goals and working toward them. Perfectionism is other directed – focused on garnering the approval of others – something none of us can ever control and there is no end point. “Most perfectionists were raised being praised for achievement and performance (grades, manners, rule following, people-pleasing, appearance, sports). Somewhere along the way we adopted this belief system: I am what I accomplish,” from Brene Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection. Your daddy and I hope this resonate for you, Boo, and can serve as a reminder that while we 100% applaud all that you achieved – you are more than the sum of your achievements.
While your graduation from high school is an expectation, you have made your high school journey your own and it is a tremendous accomplishment worthy of recognition. You did not sacrifice academic achievement over all else, you did not play the game. You worked hard so that you had the ability to have fun, to hang out with your friends, eat ice creme, watch the sunset, take your dog to the park, binge watch Grey’s Anatomy, bake cookies and throw surprise parties for your friends.
While we will never feel ready to let you go, we know you’ve got this.
When I made my big pivot to the nonprofit world back in 2019, I imagined that I would have to put in my time, garner enough experience and build a portfolio of wins to be able to choose the organizations and causes I worked for. I also wanted to still flex my public relations and marketing skills but in the service of development work.
My first official foray into the nonprofit world affirmed the need for a strong marketing lens. As a Major Gifts Officer, I saw first-hand the importance of telling the right stories at the right time for the right audience. In my mind, the relationship between fund development and marketing was key. I was surprised to find, however, that synergy between these two essential functions wasn’t always the norm.
Given this set of expectations – putting in my time, building up my portfolio and wanting to leverage my communications skills – it wasn’t easy to find the right fit. After countless conversations with friends and colleagues, so many interviews and oodles of applications submitted, I stumbled upon an intriguing opportunity with a nonprofit social justice organization working in the education space. The organization, Embracing Equity, was looking for a development professional to accelerate their growth on the partnership side. As a startup still building out systems and processes, they also wanted functional skills in marketing along with a demonstrated passion for equity. I found my unicorn!
After an incredible, immersive and collaborative three weeks of exploration and engagement with Embracing Equity, I was offered and have accepted the position of Senior Director of Partnership Development! I am beyond humbled, honored and excited to embark on this next journey.
Embracing Equity is a Women of Color (WOC) social justice nonprofit organization that understands the legacy of systemic racism in education and aims to address these inequities with a holistic approach that encompasses individual learning, interpersonal actions, and institutional-level transformation.
Since their founding in 2017, Embracing Equity has grown dramatically, working with over 2 thousand individuals, across 47 states, accelerating simply by word of mouth from the success of their early participants. In this new role, I hope to leverage and grow their success, helping them to identify and engage with even more institutional partners within the education ecosystem. Our shared goal is to accelerate growth and to impact over 1 million children by 2030!
Getting to this place has been, in many ways, such a perfect alignment of who I am, my values and my goals.
My Story of Why
People see us through the lens of our various identities. As a professional, an advocate, a wife, and mother – those who know me would likely describe me as strong, outspoken and, at times, brave. I believe I am those things on my best days, but I could not draw on these qualities when I was young and most in need of strength and courage.
Growing up in a predominantly white, upper-income community, I experienced endless incidents of being taunted and called out simply for being who I am, Asian. Or the many times I’ve been told, “Go back to your country.” As if I wasn’t already here. This world that was reflected to me through my peers, my community, and the media, did not look like me and did not see me.
One memory from my high school days has stayed with me. l am in the locker room and a “popular” girl was next to me, talking to her friends. I don’t remember her exact words, but she was mimicking the facial features of a Korean girl (there were only two of us in our high school) by pressing her hand against her nose and then pulling up at the corners of her own eyes, exaggerating the traditional almond-shaped eyes of most Asians but in a mocking caricature of our faces. Laughing and giggling was the response from her friends. In that moment, I held my breath, silently hoping to simply vanish. By then she saw that I was also in the room. Momentarily startled, she smoothly recovered and stated, without a trace of embarrassment, “Oh, you’re fine. You’re more like us.”
I don’t think that girl thought of herself as a racist. Who does? But it was a callous and mean and, yes, racist remark, insidious for its easy perpetuation of the message that I had received many times before: We may grant you permission to be seen but only if you are “like us.”
I didn’t have the language to express what was happening and how this made me feel. I remember it as a general sense of disconnection, as I could not be “like them” in the most fundamental way. I could not change the color of my skin, nor the shape of my eyes. But being accepted relied on my putting up the façade. I was a teenage girl with no allies to support me, and I had not yet developed the resilience I needed to create a different path for myself, or others like me. I have often wondered where my life could have taken me if I had not wasted so much time and energy trying to pass undetected, pretending to blend in, to be something I could not be.
It wasn’t until I moved to a larger city to attend a big public university that I began to see that there were more people like me. But even then, as a transracial adoptee raised by a white family, my family, while well-intentioned, did not acknowledge my Korean birth culture in any meaningful way. This further compounded my feelings of disconnection and lack of belonging. It was only when I became a mother myself that I began to recognize and explore this multi-layered dissonance as part of my identity.
However, being a member of a marginalized group does not absolve us of responsibility to do the work or to keep us from finding ourselves on the wrong side of right. I’ve come to learn that not being racist is different than being anti-racist. To be anti-racist means moving from knowing and into action. I did not speak up that day for myself or for the one other Asian girl. I forever regret that I did not have the courage to act nor the understanding that my silence made me complicit.
While this happened decades ago, and we have collectively begun to face this country’s systemic and historic racism, we still have not normalized talking about race. It’s uncomfortable and fraught with deeply rooted layers of unearthed traumas and denial. So, can we solve a problem that we can’t yet talk about?
Yes, I absolutely believe that we can. Despite of or even because of my past, I am an optimist who carries hope for progressive, meaningful change in my lifetime. All of us have the power within ourselves to make it happen. This is a core belief that I have often espoused, especially to my three mixed-race daughters.
Embracing Equity in partnership development is my way of showing up and being a part of making positive change happen. Education does indeed power our future.
Embracing Equity’s model for disruptive change in the education space has already proven transformative and successful. They envision a world in which all children can thrive, regardless of differences in race, gender, identity, or socio-economic status. Embracing Equity’s vision states it perfectly, ” A just society where all children are affirmed in their whole humanity and nurtured to their fullest potential.” We can do this.
How does an intention become an action? For years, I’ve intended to start a meditation practice. Who doesn’t want to be more fully present in life’s moments and enjoy reduced stress while enjoying personal and spiritual growth? Yes, please. I read books and reached out to expert practitioners, but nothing helped me move from intention to action when it came to meditation.
However, like so many of us during this protracted, unprecedented global pandemic, I developed new modes of being and doing that I did not envision before Covid. While my running habit pre-dates the pandemic, I slipped into a habit of longer daily runs simply because I had more time in the day to do so—and the relative safety of being outdoors remained constant. In no time, I exhausted my music playlists. Too lazy to create new ones, I turned to audiobooks to power me through these longer runs.
What happened next was a very organic evolution between running and “reading.” Listening to a book engaged my mind in such a completely different way. A great audio book is both immersive and relaxing, and listening while engaged in physical activity allowed my mind to let thoughts and ideas flow freely without judgement from my often-skeptical inner voice. The simple act of clicking on a headset created a separation between me and my external (and internal) distractions.
And this is how I landed on a type of meditation that worked for me.
I call it my Mindfulness Stacks. It’s a bit of borrowed word play from one of my favorite self-development books, Atomic Habitsby James Clear. Clear references “stacking” actions that we want to create into habits that last by combining two or more actions that naturally go together. In my case, running + audiobooks are my stack.
I layer mindfulness into my stack by listening to a carefully chosen group of audiobooks back-to-back that teach me something new and helps me explore ways that our mind hears, processes, and uses information. Though I suspect that the books in my stacks will evolve to reflect where I am at that moment, I have been focusing on a specific set for the last year: books about the nonprofit sector and its role in serving the social good, paired with books about future trends and our overall human condition.
By stacking these two types of audiobooks and listening to them every morning during my run, I can get myself into a state of mental calm and physical relaxation. This helps me start each day with a heightened mental state that feels open, clear, and focused. It may not look like typical meditation—I’m not sitting on a cushion in a quiet corner with my eyes closed—but I do reach the same goal: inner calm and enhanced well-being.
These are my three favorite mindfulness stacks. Even if you have read some of these books, I encourage you to re-visit them with these combinations in mind. Let me know what you think and if it works for you. Happy meditations!
Stack #1: A New Earth, Eckhart Tolle, Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman, What Happened to You, Dr. Bruce D. Perry and Oprah Winfrey, Know My Name, Chanel Miller, and I know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou.
Stack #2: 2030, Mauro F. Guillen, New Power Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms, Engine of Impact, William F. Meehan, and Kim Starkey, and The Moment of Lift, Melinda Gates.
Stack #3: The 5am Club, Robin Sharma, The 80/20 Principle, Richard Koch; The Culture Code, Daniel Coyle, Atomic Habits, James Clear, and How to Train Your Mind, Chris Bailey.
It’s easy to judge a decision right or wrong, good or bad after we know the result. On the surface, the story of our 20-year marriage seems no different. My husband, Marcus, and I have been together almost half our lives. We have three healthy and happy children, and our life together looks relatively seamless. But looking back I can’t help but wonder: Was it simply luck? Or could it have been thin-slicing at work all those years ago when we met?
Thin-slicing is our ability to make very quick decisions with minimal information. The concept was popularized in Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, a book about how we think without thinking. In the first few seconds of meeting someone, it seems that all we have is surface level information. Yet, it’s undeniable that we’re making many judgements and decisions under the surface within those short seconds – in other words, we’re thin-slicing. As Gladwell examines in Blink, some of those decisions prove to be remarkably prescient.
I think back to my first chance encounter with Marcus in the spring of 1997. In those first few moments of meeting, I felt a sense of familiarity and comfort that could not be explained in any obvious or logical manner. Even if you had asked me, I could not have named it, but in fact I made a split decision that this was a person I could trust, and that changed my future in ways that I had never imagined for myself.
A Chance Encounter
I was a fresh-faced transplant from Seattle, living in San Francisco’s Russian Hill neighborhood and working at Nordstrom San Francisco Centre as a PR specialist during the Bay Area dot-com era. It was a heady time to be a young person living in one of the most incredible, iconic American cities. I was young and happily unattached. Growing up without positive relationship models, I saw no appeal in tying my life to another’s. Cliché as it may sound, my possibilities felt truly endless.
It was one of those golden, late spring San Francisco evenings. I was meeting friends for happy hour at a trendy bar in San Francisco’s theater district but got lost on the way. Frustrated, I was on the verge of giving up and going home when my friends found me – walking in the opposite direction. It was at that happy hour that I met Marcus – who only decided to join his friends at the last minute.
It seems almost old-fashioned in this era of online dating where everyone’s background is pre-screened, to say you met someone, not with a swipe or via text, but rather in-person, at a bar, over cocktails.
A year into our relationship, we went to Germany to meet his family. His dad still lived on Sylt, a tiny resort island in the North Sea where Marcus grew up. Our first morning there we wandered, hand in hand, visiting places that were meaningful to him – his family home with the in-law building where his Polish grandmother lived and often cooked traditional dishes such as cow liver (not one of his childhood favorites). We visited the school he attended and the Strenk family plot where his grandparents were buried, marked by a giant marble headstone from Marcus’s father, Anton’s, masonry business.
I was feeling my jet lag as walked to an old vine-covered church near his boyhood home and it started to rain. But just as I began to get cranky, Marcus dropped to one knee near his Oma and Opa’s headstone. “When I was a boy,” he said solemnly, “I would walk by this church every day and think, someday I will get married here. The next best thing is to be here with you and ask you to marry me.”
As most of our friends know, our wedding happened in the days following 9/11 on the tropical island of Kauai in Hanalei Bay. We had taken our very first couple’s vacation to this magical, somewhat hidden garden isle beach destination. It was during one of our return visits, we agreed that if we still felt the same way about each other in one year, as we did in that moment, we should get married. Given the unprecedented realities in the days following 9/11, we did not enjoy the destination wedding that had been a year in the making as we’d hoped. In the end, we understood that it was never about the ceremony, the party, or even our friends and family. It was just the two of us making a pledge to be together, no matter what.
What I’ve Learned
Listen to each other. Marcus and I genuinely like each other – not every moment, but every day. Do we fight? Of course, we do! Thanks to years of fantastic therapy (mine) and Marcus’ genuinely optimistic perspective and naturally high EQ (emotional intelligence), we have become excellent communicators. It’s not that we don’t have issues and conflicts, but it has been our ability to continually learn about each other and to acknowledge that we can see each other without having to always agree that has held us together. We listen, we resolve, and we move forward.
Better together. We often joke that if we could combine the two of us, we would be near-perfect, blending Marcus’ intuitive intelligence and great communication skills with my disciplined focus and execution. Since stitching two brains together is not yet possible, what we have done instead is we have learned to leverage each other’s strengths to the point that it’s a nearly seamless process. When we’re aligned, the end results are always our very best ones. Life is hard and full of challenges large and small, no matter how pretty the picture. But we have never both been down, or both been wrong at the same time. One of us has always been there to lift the other when needed.
Team Strenk. When we made the decision to have kids, we agreed that we would share equally in the parenting and running of the household. We’ve made many course corrections along the way, but we own the duties and savor the joys, together. We can do this because we started with one simple belief: Neither of us would live for our careers. Our careers would be the fuel to allow us to live. Don’t misunderstand, we are ambitious and motivated but in an ultimate tradeoff between career and family, family would always come first.
Our first real test came when we had an “oops” pregnancy when our two kids were just three and one years old. At the time, Marcus was very much on the track at Microsoft as a senior sales manager and I was at this point a PR executive, managing a team at Williams-Sonoma. But our unplanned third child forced us to abruptly change plans. Given the lack of space, both mental and physical and the accelerating economic constraints raising kids in an incredibly expensive city, we quickly made the decision to make a drastic move to a family-friendly community with strong public education and attainable housing. During my second trimester, we moved across the country to access the wide-open spaces and family-friendly community that we wanted, in Austin, TX.
Now that our kids are all teenagers on the cusp of leaving home for college and the real world, I can say that one key to our success as a couple is our mindset of shared + equal versus any traditional gender roles dictating marriage and parenting.
It’s nice to be married to your best friend. I did not know how compatible we would become all those years ago when we first met. Luckily for us, thin-slicing skills told me that I could trust this person and that decision opened the possibility that has made these twenty years married feel like a satisfying romantic comedy, featuring two main characters that despite their flaws and missteps, you root for them, you love them together, and you can’t imagine either of them ending up with anyone else.
I spent the last year of my life helping people find their joy – in fact, it was part of my job description. Now, in the face of an unanticipated setback, the profound sense of joy I found in helping others is grounding me in gratitude in the face of tumult and change.
Throughout my career, I’ve worked on behalf of traditionally marginalized people and groups, whether as a volunteer for numerous food and shelter organizations or as a board member leading fund development effort for YWCA Greater Austin. But I’ve found that working to enable philanthropic giving as a MGO (Major Gifts Officer) for a disabilities non-profit has given me a sense of purpose and motivation that has superseded traditional metrics of job satisfaction. If you’re a disciple of Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle, fund development is clearly the “how” to my “why.” Philanthropy is the ideal and fund development is the fuel for philanthropic work.
At its root, philanthropy means “a love of humankind.” I saw this time and again in my work with a range of caring donors who aligned their values with their philanthropic giving. Having the opportunity to shine a light on the diversity, talents, and individuality of people with developmental and intellectual disabilities has been an honor.
Yet, I will not be able to continue this work – at least not with this particular organization. The once robust national development team was reduced by 40% as a result of a new strategic vision and post-covid realities. In other words, I’ve been riffed.
Despite the uncertainty and sadness this unanticipated change brings, I can’t help feeling an overwhelming sense of mission, gratitude, and, yes, joy. This sense of positivity has been enhanced by the wonderful words of thanks from colleagues, business partners, and donors for the work I have been privileged to do.
I am so grateful to know the impact I’ve made on this organization. And it has had just as much on me. These are some of the lessons I’ll be taking with me:
Relationships Above All As an MGO, you are charged with identifying and building authentic and meaningful relationships with donors who have the capacity and the heart to give to your organization. I‘ll never forget feeling unsure and nervous before my first call with a major donor, afraid I would come across as too salesy. By the end of the call, I was elated. Because what we had was an easy and deeply satisfying conversation about a shared vision for a better future where all people deserve to be treated with dignity and care. The global pandemic had created so much isolation for all of us that I found most of my calls were often a welcome opportunity for connection and a sense of shared humanity.
Be Audacious I appropriate this wisdom from others, but it’s a good one for anyone in this field. Although I was a new MGO with limited development experience, I wrote my first proposal to a major donor within my first five months on the job. The ask? One million dollars to create ABA support services as a branded extension of a current behavioral supports service that had limited reach. Although this donor did not ultimately make the million-dollar gift, I believe that my bravery in making that request created a deeper connection to the org for him and a more meaningful relationship for me, which ultimately led to a major year-end gift.
Don’t Be Silo At a non-profit organization, fundraising is not the sole responsibility of the development team. Everyone plays a critical role, beginning each day with that same sense of mission fulfillment that the MGO or other fundraising folks do. We are all stakeholders in the success of fundraising. No money. No mission. This mantra remains relevant for good reason. As fundraisers we are focused on external audiences – donors, foundations, partners – we also need to build relationships across all levels and functions of the org, especially on the program delivery side. In my case, to understand the operational side of the business, I had to know the employees providing the services – the front-line service workers, or in our case, the DSP (Direct Service People). Working with them, learning from them, and understanding their world was integral to my ability to successfully tell the “Why we exist” and “How we change lives” part of our story.
Change is Constant I love my family, but my daily runs while listening to audiobooks became the needed break from 24/7 family time during this pandemic. In a normal year, I go through two pairs of running shoes with a half marathon every January. Covid year and no group runs or races? I cycled through six pairs of running shoes. I have over 30 books in my Audiobooks library. I have listened to them all. Some more than once. In my current listen, Great By Choice, by Jim Collins of Good To Great fame, Collins posits that chaos and uncertainty are the conditions in which we live rather than aberrations to the norm. They are the norm. In my own varied career, this aligns with my personal journey, starting in retail at Nordstrom headquarters in Seattle, WA as a newly minted college graduate, to the heady start-up days in San Francisco in the late 90’s as a single person to an executive position at Williams-Sonoma Inc., married with children. Today, I’m living in Austin, TX having made the transition from corporate PR and marketing to the non-profit world as a fund development professional against the backdrop of a global pandemic. I feel confident that my ability to adopt to and anticipate change has been the key to my enduring and always challenging career opportunities.
As my last day passed on this first non-profit job in development, I am uncertain what the next opportunity will look like. What I do know is that my vision and my values remain intact, more so now than ever. I will find that next right fit non-profit organization whose mission aligns with my values. I can’t wait to be a part of helping to drive the engine that enables their philanthropic vision to become realized.
Spreading joy and receiving joy in the name of working toward a world that reflects our shared love of humankind? Yes, please.
After a truly wonderful career in public relations, I am about to embark on a completely new path. I can now employ all the skills and knowledge I have honed from over two decades in one field and start anew. As daunting as this is, it also feels like a transition that makes perfect sense. It has been the moments of synchronicity that have punctuated the very best parts of my career journey. Originally coined by psychologist Carl Jung, synchronicity refers to “the meaningful coincidences that occur in your life.”
I have accepted a position as a Major Grants Officer (MGO) at Bethesda, a national non-profit organization that elevates the lives of the IDD (Intellectually and Developmentally Disabled) community with innovative programming, services, and an authentic corporate culture focused on service. While it may sound like an incongruous transition – Public Relations to Fund Development, viewed from the lens of synchronicity, it has all the hallmarks of meaningful intention.
My decision to transition to a career in fund development is something I explored in a recent blog post, “Show Me The Money.” After many successful years helping companies sell (mostly) wonderful products and services, I found myself feeling ready to create impact in a more personal and meaningful way. The rush of big wins marked by market share gains no longer felt as satisfying. Once I made the decision, I immersed myself in the hands-on work of fund development. As synchronicity would have it, as a board member at the YWCA Greater Austin for the last two years, I had numerous opportunities to gain valuable insights into the tremendous value of strategic and sustainable fundraising.
Another “meaningful coincidence” not as direct but just as potent: this year marks the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) signed into law in July of 1990. A recent series of stories in the New York Times, “Beyond the Law’s Promise” presents a comprehensive overview of the myriad ways in which this piece of landmark legislation has changed the landscape for Americans with disabilities.
When it was introduced, the ADA was called “the most sweeping anti-discrimination measure since the Civil Rights Act of 1964.” The majority of my non-profit volunteerism and engagement for the last decade has focused on giving voice to the disenfranchised and marginalized as exemplified by the mission of the YWCA mission to empower women and girls and anti-racism work within the mantel of social justice.
Today, with this new opportunity to become a Major Grants Officer, I get to continue working in the social justice space – still as an advocate – but my bottom line will be to successfully bring big vision and major funding together in a mutually beneficial relationship. Matching the aspirations of major donors to the promise and the vision of Bethesda’s mission and work will become my new measurement of success. Being a part of a team of seriously smart, dedicated, mission driven people working together to fight for the dignity and quality of life for a marginalized group of individuals? Synchronicity has struck once again and for that I am deeply grateful.
I’ve had the honor to serve on several non-profit boards for causes I care deeply about, but it has been during this pandemic that I have found myself more deeply connected to the cause of the YWCA. I’ve been a board member of YWCA Greater Austin since 2018. At our board planning retreat last year, my colleagues elected me to chair the Fund Development Committee. Not so sure anyone else wanted it – but I was genuinely honored and up for accepting the challenge. The timing felt right as I had wanted to amplify my non-profit work with hands on fund development experience.
Who could have foreseen that in less than three months we would be here? Fund development during a global pandemic? As the saying goes, timing is everything…
Three months into flatten the curve, shelter in place, here’s what I am seeing so far. Because of the volatility, our priority path has been to take a short-term view of the organization’s funding needs and to focus on best case outcome opportunities. Fund development for a non-profit entity in normal times is critical to the livelihood of any organization. We are responsible for ensuring the organization has the financial resources to realize the mission and enact the vision. Layer on a global pandemic, even for someone hardwired to take on challenges, it has been a continuum of exhilarating highs and exhausting lows.
The challenges have forced me to jump in and to problem solve in creative ways that have somewhat upended what I considered traditional lines between staff and board member roles. Not to mislead, ours has always been a working board – no posturing, no VIP lane – we have always been a working board, but this pandemic has forced all of us out of our comfort. Board work during pandemic times is not for everyone.
However, it has not been all stress and panic. The surprising, positive outcome? Bearing witness to the quite literal heroic efforts of the staff making sure Austin’s longest and inarguably most impactful social services agency, continues to deliver on its mission to empower women and girls and to fight for equal rights and social justice. In a perverse way Covid-19 has validated the very existence of social services organizations such as the YWCA by laying bare and exposing even more clearly the social and economic inequities in our system that have always existed. “Covid-19 represents a new and additional disparity that sits atop the already existing mental health and social justice issues that have been at the heart of our (YWCA) organizational mission for over 100 years,” stated CEO, Executive Director YWCA Greater Austin, Naya Diaz. See the full story behind this quote at the organization’s official Covid-19 response, “An Update From Your Greater Austin YWCA.”
When we talk about “additional disparity” we are looking at a complex web of societal and institutional inequities that are so baked into our institutions and societal norms that many of us may not even question their very existence. Shortly after doing the fact finding needed to communicate the agency’s initial Covid-19 response, I came upon this New York Times article, “A Terrible Price: The Deadly Racial Disparities of Covid-19 in America.” When I read this comment from the current president of the United States, “Why is it that the African American community is so much, you know, numerous times more than everybody else?” I paused. Well, at least he asked the question.
According to this story, the reasons are complex and deeply multi-faceted: “The conditions in the social and physical environment where people live, work, attend school, play and pray have an outsize influence on health outcomes. Those in the public-health field call these conditions social determinants of health.” This is exactly why non-profits exist – to meet the tremendous gaps in our social construct wherein the private sector cannot adequately address these disparities.
Social determinants are not a new concept for the team at the YWCA. Deploying culturally and linguistically sensitive therapies and trainings is the hallmark of the YWCA Greater Austin’s approach to healing the most vulnerable in our community. In fact, they have been recognized nationally by YWCA USA as leaders in the field. According to YWCA Director of Clinical Services, Laura Gomez-Horton, LCSW, “We view all of the women and families we serve through a lens of oppression. What does that mean? Rather than seeing the person as the problem, we ask: What have they experienced? What social determinants need to be considered with regards to this person’s mental health?”
Very few organizations can claim the deep historical footprint of progressive social change of the YWCA, an organization with over 200 affiliates deeply embedded in communities all over the country. This model makes their reach and impact possibly unparalleled in the world of economic empowerment for women and girls, social justice and elimination of racism. Here in the Southwest region alone there are nine (9) YWCA affiliates which includes Greater Austin. All affiliates share the same mission – empowering women and eliminating racism – with each location developing their programmatic strategies and priorities based on the needs of their community.
YWCA Greater Austin has been an integral part of the fabric of Austin’s community, leading at the forefront of the most pressing societal issues since the early 1900’s. Being ready and able to address the many impacts in our community from this global pandemic is why this organization exists.
When the city wide shelter in place mandate was instituted in early March 2020, YWCA very quickly made the difficult transition to all-remote work. Easy enough for a high-tech company, but for a social service agency that serves the community primarily via face to face counseling, care coordination and training services? The logistical and operational challenges were intense, while at same time having to “answer the phones” to ensure they remained responsive to the many needs of the community they have always served.
While the agency has been on the front lines of this pandemic, providing mental health services and support to already marginalized communities throughout the eight (8) counties in and around Austin, their financial health has been at times in jeopardy as they are largely reliant on Travis County, City of Austin and Office of the Governor contracts. Technically these are termed awarded “grants” but they are in essence contracts for services with very specific guidelines and benchmarks to meet. As the state and the city have struggled to enact emergency measures, agencies with contracts have been living a day to day game of Whack-A-Mole securing one essential source of grant funding then learning another grant renewal is in jeopardy.
During the past three months I have become more integrated with the agency’s day to day operations in addition to the short and long-term finances and fund development pipeline. Working alongside our incredible CEO, Executive Director, Naya Diaz and key members of her staff that oversee fund development, government contracts, and the clinical team. I have learned the importance of really listening, asking the right questions and conducting timely next steps with the right subject matter experts. I have loved learning the language of equity, justice and equal rights from these incredible women with deep expertise in social justice work.
Over a recent Zoom, I asked Naya Diaz to take a moment to share her experience as the executive director overseeing the organization’s transition.
When did you know this crisis was real? “Within a week of shutting down our physical office and everyone working from home we saw a dramatic spike in calls from our current clients as well as lots of new people seeking help. We began hearing from families and their children about what was happening to them.”
What was one of the first needs that you identified as a result of the coronavirus? “We learned that several agencies here in town had shuttered their services completely and / or eliminated their help/crisis lines. As a result, many of those calls started coming into us. Because of the dramatic increase in calls and the broader range of needs of those callers, I quickly saw the need for us to develop a centralized warm line. A warm line is an alternative to a crisis line that is run by trained and experienced peers. Unlike a crisis line, a warm line operator is there to hold space for those going through a crisis such as suicidal or self-harming thoughts or behaviors. Trained peer support specialists can get them to someone who can handle this level of crisis.”
What is one surprising and positive impact as a result of this? “Even though I had to focus very quickly on the operational challenges of getting our telemedicine and training services running at full capacity, the one thing that stood out was that everyone on our staff just understood that we all had to step up and be problem solvers in a way that we had never had to be. Our team already worked very well together – but this situation made me really see everyone’s strengths very quickly. Each person took on an even higher level of ownership and accountability. As mental health providers, we don’t have the Hippocratic oath, but we don’t need one. We instinctively understand what we signed up for. Many of us are women, women of color. We are the lived experience of women supporting women.”
As the mother of three teenage daughters, I am feeling right at home living this language of inclusion and empowerment. It’s a scary time thinking about the world my children will inherit. But knowing that there are incredibly smart, dedicated and passionate women working together to make our communities stronger and more inclusive, gives me hope. As a member of a non-profit working board, we get to do more than just hope. I know that collectively, we are all making a difference.
Our daughter’s birthdays have always been occasion for an excess of enthusiasm and sentimentality as we enjoyed each “first” and “last” over these past eighteen years we have been parents. With three kids so close in age – less than four years separating our oldest and our youngest – we have truly done that and been there when it comes to birthdays.
However it is our middle kiddo turning 17 that has inspired more-than-usual enthusiasm and sentimentality.
Why the extra enthusiasm for this birthday? Sixteen was an unprecedented and jarring year for our family. We are ready for a reset and will enjoy looking at the past year from the rear view.
Just months into her 16th year, our middle kiddo was diagnosed with and treated for a renal carcinoma. In January, she underwent a radical laparoscopic nephrectomy, an operation to remove her (left) kidney. We have two kidneys and as long as the remaining kidney is healthy – a person can live a full and complete life with just one. However, there is almost no precedence for someone her age to develop a kidney tumor. Less than 200 cases recorded – ever. In attempting to gather data and to understand potential outcomes, we asked both her pediatric oncologist and her surgeon – what are the chances? Neither of them could give us an answer because so little case data exists.
This is a disease of the very old or in rare instances newborns can be born with a kidney tumor, but it’s not something that happens to teenagers. The best analysis was that our kiddo was special – she was that rare 1 in 500,000 cases.
The follow-up pathology showed mostly benign – this I have come to learn is medical speak. There are no absolutes – we are mostly benign and that is a very good thing. She is young and the recovery was relatively fast and issue free.
In advance of the first postoperative scan at the beginning of the summer, we were anxious but assumed this would be a perfunctory nod to an abundance of caution. Not so fast. The liver scan was clean but an alarming “nodule” showed up on her thyroid. What?? How can this happen, again? More worry. What does the thyroid do and do we need one? Another specialist. More appointments. Another scan. But this time, “it’s all great news”. Benign. Literal, tears of joy as multiple layers of worry are instantaneously released.
So, here we are. Ready for a fresh start. Happy 17th birthday to our resilient, beautiful daughter. We are very happy to be looking at 16 from the rear view.
I have long identified social justice as a core value. There was never a “moment” of decision or clarity, it’s always been there, an integral part of who I am. Living my values has meant engaging with my whole heart in a multitude of roles – as a donor, an advocate, a volunteer and through various leadership positions as a board member to support organizations that are working to fight for social justice.
My definition of social justice is grounded in the belief that as human beings we are deserving of the right to live our lives to the fullest extent of our ambitions and talents. Sounds pretty good right? Well, this last year has both humbled me and energized me in ways that have shown me just how far I have yet to go in fully understanding the depth and complexity of this ideal.
In my August 2020 blog post. Synchronicity 3.0 I shared the news of my big pivot – leaving the corporate world of public relations and diving headlong into the non-profit space as a Major Grants Officer for Bethesda LC, a national organization in the disability space. Major Grant Officer is simply a fancy sounding title for development – my job is to bring the “big transformational gifts” to the table so that the incredible people doing the actual work of empowering individuals and their families with disabilities can do just that. No money. No mission.
However, I am chagrined to admit that it was not until I became a full-time advocate for individuals with disabilities, working with incredible, generous philanthropic minded individuals, did I come to understand that my world view of social justice had not made the connection between social justice and the disability space. Seriously. I am not kidding. Insert red, embarrassed emoji face here.
For this, I actually had a true “a-ha” moment. In order to explain, I have to confess my addiction to audio books. As a runner, I discovered that I could be entertained, learn something new and get my daily run with the tap of an app, in my case it’s Audible. For one hour every morning I am literally in my flow, no angsty teens, no needy pup, no deadlines, no one tugging at me and no stress! It was during one of these runs that my moment of connection and understanding took place. I had used up my monthly credit and was weeks away from my new allotment when I found myself perusing the section of free downloads. Normally I am not into biographies nor have I had more than a cursory interest in reading about famous families. It was here that I stumbled upon the book, Rosemary, The Hidden Kennedy Daughter by Kate Clifford Larson. Game changer.
I found myself quickly immersed into this well written, historical account of the Kennedy family and their journey with what was then called, “mental retardation” of their first-born daughter, Rosemary Kennedy. The Kennedy family is widely recognized as the force behind sweeping transformation for the disabled community and their families. Their personal experience with ID/DD led them toforge a historic path for all individuals with disabilities and their families. President Kennedy’s sister Rosemary, the eldest daughter of the Kennedy family, was born with developmental issues that could not be overcome, even given the intense focus and incredible financial resources that her family was able to bring to her care.
The tragedy of her story is that she was born at a time when there was no research and no understanding of the capabilities inherent of an individual that did not progress developmentally as a “normal” child. Because of the Kennedy family’s personal experiences, they championed the cause to recognize disabled individuals in mainstream society. This served as a precursor to future landmark civil rights legislation that sparked another important societal shift much later: the Americans with Disabilities (ADA) in 1990.
While listening to Rosemary’s story, I soon learned that the nascent movement for disability rights was in fact a part of the 1960’s social justice movements. During this time, we started seeing mainstream references to “social justice advocates.” In fact, Eunice Kennedy Shriver was heralded as an early social justice pioneer for the disabled. Among her many accomplishments, Eunice started Special Olympics as a vehicle to advocate for and to bring awareness to the potential of all people with disabilities when given a chance to succeed!
I heard this during my morning run and literally gasped in stride – I had not abandoned my work in social justice by joining an organization in the disability space – I had in fact come full circle in my journey to make a positive impact within the social justice space.
Fairness is core to the concept of social justice. The movement has evolved to align with the fight for human rights. In application, human rights concern the distribution of resources, how people are treated, and access to services. When we hear the words “social justice,” we tend to think of inequities based on gender and race. But when we think along these linear lines, we make the mistake of further marginalizing one of the most forgotten groups of people – those with intellectual and developmental disabilities (ID/DD). For the more than 6.5 million Americans classified with some form of disability, gender and race does not discriminate.
I now understand that we cannot limit our understanding of social justice as a defining tool of progressive social change without understanding the fight to recognize ID/DD individuals in this country. Doing so through the lens of social justice is the embodiment of fairness.
Despite current Federal and State civil rights legislation, people with ID/DD remain marginalized and viewed as “less than” by society even today. They are systematically excluded from the economic and social opportunities routinely provided to those without disabilities. These were the realities before the coronavirus pandemic hit in early 2020.
While we may think of donating to ID/DD as a feel-good initiative, I hope that my a-ha moment can help others who are as in the dark as I was. I hope to challenge this concept that disability rights are somehow outside of the social justice narrative and affirm disability rights as a social justice imperative.
I work every day to be a part of educating people to do more than “give from afar “out of pity or mercy for people with disabilities. I hope others can see the “justice” of acceptance of all people with ID/DD as wholly and equally deserving of the opportunities to live life on their terms, to the fullest extent of their ambitions and abilities. Honoring the many Americans with intellectual and developmental disabilities is to never forget that their individual rights as citizens have been and will continue to be a part of the march toward social justice. As a society, we can, and we should challenge ourselves to do better. For my part, I am still running, still learning.