Nationwide protests around systemic racism and police reform are forcing business leaders across the country to reckon with how they handle questions of race within their own organizations: the cultures they've cultivated, the actions they must take, and in some cases, their own implicit biases. Vault recently spoke with Chastity Lord, President and CEO of the Minneapolis-based Jeremiah Program, about the type of leadership that is needed right now.
Vault: Can you please tell our readers more about Jeremiah Program—the organization’s history, its mission, and the work it does?
Chastity Lord: Jeremiah Program is a national organization leveraging education to disrupt the cycle of poverty for single mothers and their children, two generations at a time. By providing a combination of quality early childhood education and childcare, a safe and affordable place to live, career-track coaching and empowerment and life skills training, Jeremiah Program empowers single mothers at seven campuses in cities across the U.S. to support them in curating a path out of generational poverty, for good.
Founded in Minneapolis in 1993, Jeremiah Program has impacted the lives of more than 4,000 single mothers and their children. We currently partner with over 600 single mothers and their young children annually. We work with these determined single mothers so that they can excel in the workforce, prepare their children to succeed in school, and reduce generational dependence on public assistance.
Vault: Career-track education and empowering/life skills are two of the five pillars of Jeremiah Program’s mission of helping to give single mothers the agency to build a successful future for themselves and their children.
As we’ve seen, the murders of Breonna Taylor, Ahmed Arbury, and George Floyd among many others—and the worldwide protests they’ve sparked—have renewed focus on Black Lives Matter. Many companies across the country have responded by reaffirming their commitment to racial equality in the workplace and taking a stance against racism.
Has the shift in discussions around racial discrimination in the workplace factored into Jeremiah Program’s approach to career education? Is the renewed awareness of these issues informing the way you prepare Jeremiah Program graduates for entering the workforce?
CL: We are committed to delivering programming through a racial and socioeconomic lens. Ultimately, a huge part of disrupting generational poverty isn’t just acquiring the degree, it’s about rewriting the rules and redefining what is possible for their families, community, and the country. We encourage and invest in building a community that allows our moms and their children to bring all of their identities to bear in pursuit of their dreams.
Vault: In the announcement of your joining Jeremiah Program as Program President and CEO, you said, “Because of its successful model, Jeremiah is in a unique position to frame a national conversation about the investments required to disrupt cycles of generational poverty, while simultaneously illuminating what systems and structures lead to it.”
The issues at the heart of recent events are not recent at all. Can you talk a little bit about how race has historically played a role in the work Jeremiah Program does to illuminate the underlying causes of generational poverty? How have the recent protests influenced that work?
CL: Many of the inequalities in our country were literally written into law. It is only within one generation that these systemic inequalities have begun to be acknowledged. My mother, not my ancestors, lived through-Brown vs Board 1954 and Voting Rights Act 1965. The systems and policies are structured to support inequity whether or not a person participates. It shows up everywhere, including in insecure housing, discrimination in education, workplace, the criminal justice system, and childcare.
More than 70% of moms that participate in Jeremiah Program are women of color. Generational poverty is directly correlated to the same systemic structures and policies that ensure certain communities are disproportionately contracting Covid-19, suffer from asthma, are over-policed, and so on, and so on. Generational poverty is the result of an ecosystem of unjust policies and structures that work together maintaining oppression in certain communities. Jeremiah Program seeks to disrupt that by acknowledging the intersectionality of policies and issues that are at play in our work, and that must be simultaneously addressed - hence the two-generation framework. We invest and support both moms and their children at the same time.
For example, there is not a shared societal structure around education. Tax structures pay for education, resulting in some schools getting more resources than others. More people of color live at a lower socioeconomic status - that education funding policy predicts the quality of the education system for people of color. According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, each level of education after high school reduces a single mom’s likelihood of living in poverty by one third. Our moms and families are determined to work their way out of poverty through education and by incorporating the life skills that Jeremiah counsels.
Vault: Jeremiah Program is headquartered in Minneapolis, which is, of course, where George Floyd was killed and where this latest wave of protests began. What has that been like for the organization?
CL: I think the better question is what has it been like for our Jeremiah families - we are not an organization without the mothers and children in our program. In some ways, our families have been affirmed to see the issues and unjust policies plaguing their lives finally being given the national spotlight.
For example, there isn’t a person in America who hasn’t begun to think about how unjust America’s child care system is - especially if you are a single parent experiencing poverty. As a result of this movement, hopefully, our moms will no longer have to explain why their identity and race matter. There is a renewed desire to center this reality in a new way that is shaping how our instructors and staff show up.
Specifically in Minneapolis, many of our moms had fears, and fatigue, about the additional toll the demonstrations were taking on their employment and ability to study during the already incredible time of Covid.
Vault: Let’s take it back to my earlier reference to the response of corporate America and the many companies that have declared their support for Black Lives Matter and pledged either money or effort to the cause. What do you think we’d need to see in order to trust that statements like these are not just reactionary, but that there is a commitment to lasting, sustainable change?
CL: Ultimately we must all ask ourselves if we want to lose weight or do we want to get in shape. The former can be achieved by a lot of one-off, quick external performative measures but will quickly catch up with you. The latter is more long-lasting and requires technical and adaptive changes in your behaviour, mindset, policies, and systems but can be the rebirth of a new you. I think it will be pretty clear which road was traveled as we sunset on 2020 because you can only perform racial fitness for so long.
Vault: As a leader, what advice do you have for other leaders, executives, managers, etc., about supporting their people during a time like this? What examples should they be setting? How can they ensure that they are cultivating a culture of true inclusion and respect?
CL: It depends on what they are working in service towards, but I would say leading and championing equity and justice is what I care most about. Until we all win, no one wins.
One of the more challenging things about that reality is that we don’t have frameworks and structures and theories that were created with us in mind. So oftentimes we are having to find, to lean to the left, lean over, stand on one foot, to see or hear ourselves within what is deemed as the most successful or pedagogical frameworks regarding leadership and organizational structures. One of the tensions is what does it look like, feel like, sound like when you are able to easily value the identity, history, the struggle, the community, the magic, of a people and a culture?
Vault: As the head of an organization that focuses, at least in part, on career readiness, what advice do you have for people navigating the workforce in this current climate? What should jobseekers be looking for in (or prepared to ask) prospective employers? What should workers be looking for from their employers, and how can they do their part to ensure they’re contributing to an anti-racist workplace culture?
CL: This is the time to be incredibly courageous leaders. We spend most of our time at work, and to think you can work in an environment that isn’t on the path to being anti-racist with no impact to you is naive.
As leaders, this is our responsibility, and every last person in your company or organization should be holding you accountable. This is hard work and will require real investment (money and time) to get in shape, but I candidly think it will be some of the most important work that is done this century. My question is what side of history will you be on? There is no way around it, as leaders, you have to do the work and create structures and systems that do not support the things you do not value as an organization.
More About Chastity Lord
President and CEO of Jeremiah Program and a national nonprofit leader, Chastity Lord has dedicated her life to disrupting systems of inequity through a social justice lens in an effort to bridge the opportunity gap. She has a unique mix of both practitioner and executive leadership and has spent two decades specializing in organizational development, education, college access, fundraising, and leadership development. Lord has a BA in organizational communication from University of Oklahoma and an MBA in strategy and marketing from Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. She is a 2012 Pahara-Aspen Fellow with the Aspen Global Leadership Network and serves on the board of Shriver National Center on Poverty and Law.
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