Responding to Difference with Interest

One of the greatest joys of all time is watching a small child as she or he discovers something never seen before. She asks (sometimes over and over again), “What’s that?” “What’s THAT?” And, as a patient adult, you answer—after all, you have the opportunity to introduce the child to the world through your eyes, with your perspective. If you’re like me, you love the natural curiosity, as it is a reminder of what it is like to experience the world anew.

Research tells us—as does our experience—that children view things that are new—or different—with great interest and curiosity.

But what happens when a child sees someone moving in a wheelchair, or walking with a white cane or making unfamiliar noises? Natural curiosity would lead them to ask questions: “Why is that person in a chair with wheels?” “What is that white cane for?” “Why does that person sound like that?” These are natural questions that reflect a healthy interest in the world.

How we respond to those questions is the critical moment. When we respond by pulling the child back and saying, “It’s not nice to ask that question,” or, “Don’t point,” or whatever we do to divert the child’s focus on the other person—in that moment, we spawn discomfort, and potentially, fear.

And this becomes the next generation of stigma. This is how we create a sense of “other.” This is how those with disabilities become “them,” and not “us.”

In her essay, Stigma, An Enigma Demystified, Dr. Lerita Coleman Brown writes about the origins of stigma. She suggests that all of us carry with us a fear of being seen as different or separate from the rest of society—an “other.”  Any one of us, she posits, could become stigmatized at any time, given how rapidly our culture shifts over time.  For example, as we age, our status changes, and, in some cultures, age gives us increased status. In others, ageing decreases our status. And when we lose status, we lose power. Losing power means losing advantages and ultimately, losing control about the choices we get to make about our lives.

In addition, those who find themselves in a category or population that is stigmatized in one way or another become defined by our “otherness,” or what could be considered our disadvantage by those who are yet not stigmatized. We become part of what I referred to in an earlier post as a “single story,” defined by that “otherness” such as our heritage or our disability or our politics or our age or economic status, just to name a few ways of exclusion and segregation. If we have gifts or talents that are outstanding, they are highlighted in spite of our “otherness.”

I believe that stigmatization happens on both a conscious and an unconscious level. It is part of a defensive posture that many use to protect themselves from the exclusion that stigma brings. It is part of the message that is passed along to us as children when we are told to be polite and not point out differences. It is passed along in messages from the media and from opinions handed to us by those in authority.

But what if we were to respond to difference with respectful interest instead of fear? What if we allowed the questions: “What is your life like in that wheelchair?” “How do you know it’s safe to cross the street if you cannot see?” What might be the result?

I would suggest that the result would be greater empathy and ultimately, greater understanding of what it is like to be in another’s shoes.  We might come to discover that the “other” is, in fact, very much like us. We might be inspired by them—and ultimately, by each other. It would require that those of us in both the stigmatized and non-stigmatized groups be willing to have the conversation.

We all want to be part of the non-stigmatized majority. If we were to work together, we could indeed all be part of the that majority if we would reshape our thinking and our language. “Them,” then, becomes “us.”

This March, as part of Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month, I ask: what would it take for us to recognize our own unconscious stigmatization of others—no matter what the difference might be? And ultimately, what would it take for us to turn to the world of differences with respectful interest instead of fear and discomfort?

I welcome your thoughts and responses.


Building a Culture of Organizational Resilience

Every day, I marvel at the resilience of the individuals we serve. I see veterans wounded both physically and psychologically with the scars of battle; I see men and women who have lost their homes, their jobs, and their families; I see young people who have moved from foster home to foster home—and I see those who have suffered from substance use, and those who have been incarcerated only to re-enter society burned by the stigma of their past.   Yet  in so many, I see above all, extraordinary resilience.  I am inspired by their ability to not only recover—but to bounce back from unimaginable trials. They have been through a great deal—and still they have the stamina to walk through our doors and find hope, meaning and, most importantly, possibilities for a new future.

While the issues  are clearly very different, organizations, too, are also susceptible to the impact of the environment.   In our organization, like many nonprofits, the only constant is change. Contracts shift. Foundation awards run their course. Federal guidelines change. The political climate shifts with new leaders. Staff move into new roles. These forces create stress.   But also like people, organizations can build their resilience muscles so that change is less a cause for stress, and more viewed as  an opportunity.

What are the catalysts for resilience? There is much research out there about what makes resilience in human beings. To sum it up, resilience is found when an individual feels:  competent—well-built skills to meet whatever challenges arise; confident—in their various abilities; connection—to a mentor, a teacher, a leader, a family member who has faith in their success; contribution—to something greater than him or herself; and control—over the basic and most foundational aspects of their lives.

These characteristics can be applied to organizations as well. These “c’s” of resilience are essential to creating a positive and growing organizational culture.

For an organization to feel competent, there needs to be a common understanding of mission and the skills required to accomplish agency goals.  From hiring, throughout the lifecycle of an employee, it is essential that every employee understands the work, how to do it and where to get information to enhance skills.

Organizational confidence comes from leaders who are clear and focused on the right things at the right times.

Organizational connection is essential—to each other, to our Board, our funders, our stakeholders, and of course, to those we serve. These connections help us feel a part of something greater than ourselves.

Contribution, is an easy “muscle” to fall back on as every day we are able to see the fruits of our hard work in the successes of those we serve.   This “doing” makes us feels good, makes us resilient.

And finally, control…while we really have little control over the future, we do have the ability to prepare for it by carefully attending to the environment and the trends.

How resilient is your organization?

As always, I welcome your thoughts.

Why Together is Better.

If we are not growing we are shrinking.  My staff have heard me say that many times.  Every year it costs more to do our work—more in salaries, health care benefits—so if you are not growing, you are shrinking.

One of the strategies for growth we have employed is to join with reputable, like-missioned organizations.  People often ask me exactly why this strategy for growth?   My response:  because together, we are better.

The driver behind all of our work is comprised of three key concepts: we must be relevant, we must be sustainable, and we must have impact.

In order to be relevant, we must continually look at ways to solve the problems that challenge economic well-being. Needs evolve, policies change, government and foundation budgets grow and shrink, and innovations are happening every day. Part of our strategy is to not only keep up with all of those changes, but also to lead the way in guiding policy and thinking. By joining with organizations that are also focused on solving the problem we have a much better chance at creating relevant solutions.

For our work to be sustainable, we look to long-term outcomes, not just quick solutions. For example, twenty years ago, sheltered workshops were seen as cutting-edge solutions to integrating individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) into employment. As a result of our learnings about sheltered workshops, it is clear that not only can people with I/DD work and work well, but most are able to work in the community, contributing great work in a variety of settings.  And so the next generation of understanding support of those with I/DD includes closing sheltered workshops, working alongside businesses and families to inspire not only the possibility that an individual with I/DD can work, but that he will make a huge contribution to his family, the workplace, and his community.  Combining with organizations that are forward thinking helps us to maintain long-term sustainability.

And, for us to have impact, our work must be about both changing the life of an individual, but  ultimately changing the system itself—we aim to change hearts, minds, systems, and processes so that even those who do not come through our doors are impacted by the work we do.  By leveraging our work and the efforts of our family of agencies—we have a tremendous opportunity to make real impact.

And so we seek to partner with other organizations whose work adds to ours—so that together we are not just 1+1=2, but more like 20 or 30…better together.

And when we find ways to leverage the brands within our family of agencies—like Easter Seals, ReServe,  Wildcat, Community Work Services and most recently, Single Stop USA—we are really leveraging the value of each.

On February 1, we combined with Single Stop USA. This combination is a perfect example of combining strength, talent, and ensuring our commitment to relevant, sustainable impact. Single Stop enjoys a strong reputation as a one-stop shop for individuals seeking to access resources to help break the cycle of poverty through access to education, training, counseling, and employment. Single Stop USA is a perfect addition to our “family,” –and as a result, each of us will be able to offer a new portfolio of services to those we serve.

Together, we will use our strength to leverage equity for those with barriers to economic well-being. And together, we will continue to strive for relevant, sustainable impact.

As always, I welcome your thoughts.

Leaders as Storytellers: A Catalyst for Growth and Change

The success of our organization lies in changing the narrative of the thousands of lives we serve each year. For every individual whom we serve directly or indirectly through our influence, there is a story behind them—a story that changes as a result of the work we do. These stories are what inspire people to join our staff, become part of our family of brands, donate money,  and to enter our programs seeking help.

The stories of those we serve are just part of the power of stories. Research proves that storytelling is also an essential skill for leaders to inspire and motivate. And, ultimately, they are a catalyst for growth and for success because, among other things, storytelling is a tool of persuasion—a key driver in a leader’s toolkit to win hearts and minds and to inspire action.

There are many ways to approach storytelling as a leader, but for me, the first and most important approach is to use storytelling as a means to show others who you are as a leader. Most often, this means telling the story of a time when we learned something—when we were vulnerable, perhaps believing we had the right answer and being humbled by an authentic truth that may have jolted our perceptions and inspired a new way of thinking. This type of story—told absolutely authentically and humbly—breeds trust. It helps those we lead identify with us and understand that as leaders we don’t have all the answers. The story scenario might unfold as, “I believed something, I made a mistake, I learned, and now I see things differently and what a difference it makes.”

Storytelling also motivates others to take action. Telling a specific story of something that has already happened and its success shows an audience what is possible.   In my role as CEO of Fedcap, I have no shortage of true stories about how the work we do has impacted others. Telling my story of what it was like to work with someone and the rewards of witnessing their progress inspires others.

In every good story, something must happen and someone must change. Storytelling for its own sake is of course, entertaining. However, as a leader, the stories we tell must also be accompanied by some analysis of what happened and what its impact was as well as to reflect what changed as a result.  If I tell a story about my own leadership, I must lay out the narrative and then reflect on how I changed. If I am telling a story about an individual we serve, then I must tell precisely what happened, what changed, and how that person is different as a result of the story. Stories can be not just about individuals, but also about the journey of a program or about an entire organization.

And not all stories are happy all of the time.  Rarely do people ‘s lives stay on a single trajectory…they have ebbs and flows, it is what makes us human.

For us at Fedcap, all of our stories—the stories of those we serve, of our agency, of our growth and change over time and my own story as a leader—all follow a narrative that reflects the power of possible. People have entered our agency without hope and because of what happens between individuals, or a system that works, or an inspired story of someone else who has succeeded, things that seemed impossible morph into the possible. Stories are what touch us and inspire us and cause us to remember why we do the work we do. I am inspired daily by the stories I hear from staff and from those we serve about what can happen when we share our vulnerabilities, look to each other for support, and keep telling the stories of what is possible.

I am always eager to hear your stories. As always, feel free to share your thoughts.



Are We Serving or Solving a Problem?

We’re always on the lookout for candidates who have a “learner” mindset rather than an “expert” one. Learners are interested in new ways to solve problems. Experts can’t wait to tell you the answers.”

                                                                                           Tim Jones, Director of Strategy, 72andSunny

Each year, between $3.6 and $3.9 billion dollars are spent in the child welfare system specifically for foster care. These monies are distributed in three ways—as maintenance payments that cover the cost of shelter, food and clothing for eligible foster children; as foster care placement services and administrative costs; and for staff training and some training for parents. These billions of dollars serve those in the foster care system. The money is used to maintain and implement the system. It is essential to the running of the programs.

In the meantime, 74% of youth leaving foster care end up homeless, in prison or pregnant as opposed to 36% of their peers who are not in foster care. By all measures, these 74% are not succeeding.

Every day I think about ways to solve the problems that challenge the populations that we serve as they strive to achieve equity. Sixty-three percent of individuals leaving the prison system are re-arrested within three years. Ninety-five percent of individuals of working age with disabilities are unemployed. Like the foster care systems, billions of dollars are spent each year serving these populations.

What if we were to rethink the way we serve populations, and instead focus on finding the interventions that can significantly shift the track for many of these individual, ultimately, making a huge inroad in solving the problem?

For example, we took at close look at the issues facing youth aging out of foster care. We asked: what if we could find a way to help foster children aspiring to go to college? Attending college could significantly impact that 74% cited above. Then we asked: Why don’t more youth in care attend college? The research shows that youth are most apt to attend college if there is someone at home encouraging them to help with applications and the often complex system of financial aid and testing and admissions guidelines. And so we worked on a solution which ultimately became our PrepNow! program, designed specifically for foster parents to help them navigate the college admission process so that they can help their college-age youth apply and attend college. And we are finding that those who participate are indeed attending college and while we are tracking the precise statistics on long-term success, we know that youth who attend and graduate from college have more choices about the type of work they do, get jobs that have a career ladder, earn more money over their lifetime, and ultimately achieve equity and are more apt to contribute significantly to their communities.

Sometimes, all it takes to solve a problem is not a huge overhaul of a well-established system, but a precise and powerful intervention. It means asking the questions that get to the heart of the matter—what is in the way? Often the answer lies not with the individuals, but with the environment or the system or the process or the structure that is intended to support them. And once we solve one problem, we can move on the next and the next and the next. Each small step can ultimately lead to huge changes that are relevant, that are sustainable, and that ultimately have a huge impact on removing the barriers that caused the problem in the first place.

Are you serving the problems that you are working on, or are you solving them?

As always, I welcome your thoughts.

Asking the Right Questions—A Catalyst for Great Leadership

The most important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.

–Albert Einstein

Asking the right questions at the right time is one of the hallmarks of great leadership. Questions don’t necessarily have to come from a titled leader, but can—and should—come from people all over an organization, at every level. The more we ask questions, the more we understand the problem we are trying to solve—and the more likely our solutions are the right solutions.

What are the right questions? There are all sorts of sites throughout the internet and books written about what the right questions are. I don’t believe that there is any set of specific questions that will propel a company, team or individual to solve the right problems, but simply that we need to be in the mindset of continuously asking questions.

I recall reading a story of a large foundation that invested millions of dollars into purifying water within a region of Africa as a means to combat disease.  They built a huge purification system that flowed into hundreds of taps.  No one came.   No movement in the prevalence of disease resulting from drinking dirty water.  Why?  Because they failed to ask enough questions. They failed to understand that the actual issue to be solved was as much about access to water as it was purity.  They failed to understand what communities had to go through to actually gain access to the purified water, how far they had to travel, and how challenging it was for families.

If you’ve tried to solve a problem with every solution you can think of, your challenge isn’t finding a better solution. It’s finding a better more precise problem.  And the only way to find a more precise problem is to ask questions.   If you are caught in a problem that seems unsolvable, ask this simple question: If the problem you’re trying to solve weren’t the problem, what else might be?  Critical thinking is rarely about having the right answer and most often about asking the right questions—questions that tip the issue upside down and look at it from many different lenses. There’s an additional advantage to redefining your problem: it frees you to experiment with “beginner’s mind”—a term that  refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level, just as a beginner in that subject would.  When you apply the idea of a beginners mind, you get to start over, think differently about areas where you believe you have  knowledge.  I have learned that often what we know can get in the way of being curious.

Questions allow us to move past the lens of “I know” to the lens of what don’t I know.   What there is to discover is most always more important than what we already know.

As always, I welcome your thoughts. What are some questions you might ask to get to the next problem?


Learning, Earning and More

 “The more you learn, the more you earn. It’s an adage that many use to promote education as the catalyst for more earning power over a lifetime. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a person with a four-year degree will earn one million dollars more over the course of a lifetime than that of someone with only a high school diploma. With a college education, an individual can expect better working conditions, longer job tenure, more opportunities for training and, ultimately, more promotions as part of a career ladder.

Education is not only the catalyst for more earning power, but it is the undergirding factor for a stable—and happier—life. With education comes a sense of confidence—personal, social, financial, and emotional. That confidence translates into greater autonomy and self-direction and ultimately means that an individual will have more choices about decisions made over a lifetime.

Education is also an equalizer. It can begin to blur the differences between social classes and gender privilege. Those who have grown up in a poor environment will be empowered to work and play on more equal footing with those who have grown up in more advantaged circumstances. This diversity means that people are able to eschew their differences and reach instead for common ground.

I believe that the power of possible is made into reality through education.

But for many young people, the complicated process of applying for college, navigating financial aid and student loans, making choices about what to study, and steering through the various college offices—registrar, advising, finance, work-study, student services, scheduling—and more—can be daunting and overwhelming to even the most ambitious student. This tension between knowing that education is the catalyst for a better life and the tactical, practical realities of applying and getting in—and staying in—college is very real. What will make the difference?

The number one difference for young people who want to go to college is finding support from someone who believes that they can go to college and succeed.   When you believe that achieving a dream is possible…when you believe that you have options and choices, when you are inspired by those around you to aim high, dreams become reality.  Do you know that when a child has a savings account, even less than $500, she is 3 times more likely to enroll and 4 times more likely to graduate from college?   The very act of just having the savings account inspires a young person to believe that college is possible. And then, college is not just possible, but it is a reality.

Here at Fedcap, we looked at this problem of college entrance and thought long and hard about how to introduce a precise intervention that could help young people find their way through the process of college application. We understood that the support needed would have to come from schools, but also, more importantly, it had to be fueled by advocacy at home. But what if college was not part of familiar family vernacular? What if, for example, a child is in foster care, and her parents had never attended college or navigated the system? We developed a program called PrepNow!™ to help parents and foster parents  guide their children or the youth in their care through the college application process. And, we developed GetReady!™, a program for young people  who are in the process of preparing for adulthood. Both programs offer a roadmap for encouraging and supporting young people who want to go to college along with practical and tactical tools for managing the process.

What other interventions can you think of that might help support a young person plan, prepare, and apply to college? If you attended college, what was the most useful guide that you found along the way? What choices might you have lost had you not attended college? How might your own earning power be different had you not attended college? These questions and their answers are fascinating to me—and as always, I welcome your thoughts.








The Single Story: Expanding Our View and Our Understanding

The consequence of the single story is this: it robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.

–Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Recently I watched a Ted Talk that spoke volumes to me about the danger of what speaker Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls the “single story.” In the talk, Chimamanda discusses what happens when we hear—or tell—the same story about a place or a person. A “single story,” she says, relegates a person to a single point of view, one lens, one narrative that people then assume is the whole story. She tells of her own experience when at 19, she came from Nigeria to the U.S. to attend college. Her roommate, upon learning that she would be living with someone from Africa assumed that Chimamanda must come from terrible poverty, starved of education and infrastructure. In fact, Chimamanda is the daughter of a college professor and an administrator and grew up in a conventional, comfortable middle-class Nigerian home.

Chimamanda’s own introduction to a single story came when a hired helper named Fide came to work at their house. “The only thing my mother told us about him was that his family was very poor. When I didn’t finish my dinner, my mother would say, “Finish your food! Don’t you know? People like Fide’s family have nothing.” She goes on to explain: “Then one Saturday, we went to [Fide’s] village to visit, and his mother showed us a beautifully patterened basket made of dyed raffia that his brother had made. I was startled. It had not occurred to me that anybody in his family could actually make something. All I had heard about them was how poor they were, so that it had become impossible for me to see them as anything else but poor. Their poverty was my single story of them.”

How often do we make assumptions about people based on our own lens told through a single story? Here at Fedcap, we work with a number of “populations,” that can be too easily defined by their barrier or their hardship rather than their entire story. What picture do you conjure when you hear “previously incarcerated?” Whose face comes to mind when we talk of recovering addicts? What does a homeless person look like? What are their stories? The people we meet on a daily basis—whether through our programs or as we navigate our lives—all have backgrounds, histories, talents, and rich narratives that, when seen, heard, acknowledged and affirmed, serve as a source of strength and resilience that will help them overcome whatever barrier is in their way and will see them through to success in the form of economic well-being.

The staff at Fedcap and our family of agencies work hard to gather and celebrate the whole story of those we serve. And I am constantly reminded that one of the keys to helping people out of their own stories of stigma and a key to removing barriers is to listen for the whole story—to probe for the stories of strength, creativity, resilience and possibility that already inhabit parts of their lives. By acknowledging the whole story, we help lift people up, we celebrate our common humanity, and we give them a sturdy platform from which to move forward. And, by hearing the whole story, we are made even more whole and we are ever better to explore the power of possible.

I am curious about your own experiences of a “single story.” Have you experienced it in your own life? Have you been surprised, as Chimamanda was, when you discovered a rich and deeper story about someone you know? I welcome your thoughts.

Balancing an organization’s immune system

I recently read an article in the Harvard Business Review by Michael Watkins, author of The First 90 Days, where he compares an organization to the human immune system. Watkins introduces the idea that an organization functions much like a human in that it has a “brain”—which translates to the senior leadership team, and an “immune system”—which translates to the “body” of the organization i.e. the staff, programs, and projects that carry out the functions of the brain. Like the brain, the senior leaders are responsible for looking at the big picture derived from the environment, input, trends, and experience and it then processes that information, looking for threats and opportunities, creating strategy and disseminating information to the rest of the “body.” The immune system is responsible for the organism’s overall health, and it is required to detect any possible threats early on and send essential messages to the brain to combat any damage that might occur to the overall system.

I like this metaphor. There is a fine line between protecting an organism—or an organization—from outside threats that could damage it. It is up to both the brain and the immune system—the leaders and the rest of the organization—to be on the lookout for possible threats. What types of threats might damage an organization and how do we mitigate these threats?

On the other hand, if an organization is too protective, it can build a wall so tight that nothing can penetrate and therefore, like an overactive immune system, it can turn on itself and cause real damage. How might we guard against a highly reactive system?

How do we stay agile and balance the need for change while not tipping the organization so far over that we lose who we are and where we are going?

The answer to these questions, I believe, lies in being clear and intentional about who we are and where we are going and in constantly assessing and being vigilant about risk management.

Being intentional means looking at an organization’s culture and the several factors that comprise it—including vision, values, practices, structure, systems, and narrative—what we say about ourselves. When we are clear about these parts of ourselves, then we are clear about what projects, programs, and people to take in and to take on. We are quick to recognize when something is not a fit with who we are. And, maybe more importantly, on the other hand, we need to be able to see when a new idea, program, project, or person will challenge us, help us grow, and expand our way of thinking.

The work of leaders and the rest of the organization is balancing the risk between protecting ourselves and staying open to new ideas, trends, people, and changes. This is a deliberate conversation I continue to have with my staff, and I welcome your thinking on it as well. When is protecting the organization too much protection? And how do we know when it is time to stay open to new ideas without risking damage to the organization?

I would love to know what you think about this topic!

To see the original article by Michael Watkins, go to: