Last week Many Hands members had the opportunity to reconnect with two 2021 Partner Grantees, Community Advocates for Family & Youth (CAFY) and Community Youth Advance (CYA). CAFY founder and CEO Arleen Joell and Jhae Thompson, who succeeded Danielle Middlebrooks as CYA’s executive director last fall, joined Many Hands Board member and Virginia Funders Network CEO Katy Moore for a wide-ranging conversation that addressed the joys and challenges of nonprofit leadership, the movement within the philanthropic sector to focus on racial equity, what impact really means, and what they would ask for if offered a wish list underwritten by MacKenzie Scott.
Arleen Joell founded CAFY in 2003 to support children who were required to appear in court to confront individuals charged with abuse. Initially, she recalled, her focus was on helping children understand the process so that “all they had to worry about was: walk those 34 steps and tell their story.” After two years of learning “that so much happens before someone gets to tell their story,” she broadened CAFY’s scope to victim services and advocacy. Today CAFY works with residents of Prince George’s County who have been impacted by crime or unexpected trauma to support “safety, healing, restoration, and justice.” The work, she said, is both difficult and joyful:
If you provide support and service for people and give them the opportunity to get reengaged and begin to make some decisions for themselves–because if you’re a survivor of crime or trauma, something that has been taken away from you is that ability to decide for yourself–when someone starts to get engaged in making decisions for themselves, that’s a joy in itself. And when people feel, “Okay, I don’t need you anymore,” that’s a good thing, too.
The 2021 Housing Committee selected CAFY to receive a Many Hands grant to support its work providing housing and wraparound services to survivors of domestic violence. During the pandemic, CAFY found that close to 80% of the clients they followed up with were still in the homes they had been placed in and current on the rent or only one month behind. But numbers don’t capture the full impact of CAFY’s work. To give a fuller picture of how CAFY thinks about success, Arleen shared a story about a survivor of domestic violence whom CAFY helped relocate and restart her life:
She got a job, she did the financial literacy training, everything–check the boxes; she did all of the programs. But for us what was so impactful was that when she got her job, she invited us back to do a training on domestic violence for the group she was working with. Then you know you had an impact and it was lasting, because that person turned the corner where they were ready to give back.
Jhae Thompson also turned to storytelling to share the impact of her work–not just on the students CYA serves but on herself: “The joy comes with randomly bumping into a young person that I knew as a teenager, who will call me ‘Miss Thompson,’” she said, “and I’ll be completely embarrassed because here’s this adult–and they always want to tell me how well they’re doing. People want to be seen and known and remembered.”
Founded in 2017 through a merger between Mentoring to Manhood and Community Tutoring Inc., CYA serves students in Prince George’s County and DC with out-of-school-time tutoring, mentoring, and enrichment programs that are designed to “teach, reach, and keep” youth on the path to success. The organization’s “Train the Trainer” program, which prepares older students to tutor younger peers, impressed the 2021 Education Committee.
Building enduring connections is an important component of CYA’s approach, as Jhae highlighted through the story of a college junior she met shortly after joining the organization. As she observed, “often times, when it comes to our young people, we think that graduation from high school is the end point or even a success point.” But this young man, she realized, still needed mentorship. So she worked with his former mentors and with members of the board to provide the support he needed. “I do think this is a lifelong relationship. It doesn’t just stop when people graduate from high school,” she said. More broadly, Jhae continued:
For me, I want to always continue to provide an opportunity, whether it’s to students or it’s to staff. I think my greatest joy in this role is to give people opportunities who might not otherwise have them, whether it’s promoting a person who may not quite be ready or employing a scholar in their first full-time job–because I think it’s important for the work to come full circle.
Expanding on this theme, Jhae and Arleen both spoke about the impact the pandemic has had on how they approach their jobs and the task of leadership. “Before it was very easy to focus on the mission and the numbers,” Jhae said:
We had to get our outcomes; we had to get our numbers. But throughout the pandemic, it’s been: focus on the people. Because if my people can’t show up, none of that matters. I provide more space than I had previously to focus on the human element of my team, and that translates into better outcomes for the kids and the families that we serve.
Arleen explained how her team has applied the same approach to their work:
For our clients, we’re being a little more patient, getting creative about how you can meet their needs, and really taking the time to identify what the needs are. Particularly when you’re working in communities where English is their second language or not everyone is documented, you really have to take that extra time to build that rapport and trust.
Commenting on the broader toll the pandemic has taken, she noted:
Over the past 24 months, a lot of that [rapport and trust] has been weakened, so people are more prone not to trust outside support. So for us, it’s really going that extra step to speak to other challenges, to find out what their experience is, what their environment is, before you can even start to talk about what the immediate need is for that particular incident or trauma.
The same focus on listening emerged as a central message when the conversation turned to racial equity. Jhae spoke to the need for all organizations to be intentional about equity:
Basically every nonprofit that I have worked for has served children and families and youth of color. So in some ways, there is this thought process that we’re doing the work, so what [other] work do we really need to do? But sometimes when someone forces us to take a look at ourselves and our own practices to ensure that we are serving our communities–we tend to call them ours and refers to them as ours because as staff, sometimes we look like the communities we serve–that pushes us to ask, “Are we really serving them in the best way? Are we authentically lifting their voices to ensure that our programming meets their needs?”
Arleen agreed: “The question of diversity and inclusivity and racial equity is something we have to continue to have the conversation about with every funder. And we need to really paint the landscape in terms of what the community needs.” Noting the diversity of the area CAFY serves–”We support all of Prince George’s County, which is 64% African American and 23% Hispanic, with a growing Asian community”–she explained that serving these communities goes far beyond being a linguistically appropriate provider. “Not only do we have to identify someone who speaks that language,” she explained, “but we have to find that person who cares about that community.”
Jhae also addressed the question of diversity and equity in the context of funding, acknowledging that:
Smaller organizations like mine sometimes can’t compete with the larger organizations that have a really robust development staff. Sometimes our grant applications may not be as polished as some other organization’s, and that’s where we certainly can see discrepancies based on who’s receiving and reading them.
More broadly, she noted:
It’s really important for there to be more diversity within the funding community because often times, there may be a misalignment in terms of what our organizations need and should be doing and what the funding community thinks and what they want to fund.
In the question and answer session, Arleen and Jhae were asked directly about that misalignment: What types of work are funders most reluctant to support? Both agreed on the difficulty of finding support for overhead. “Nobody wants to fund the admin, but you can’t do anything without administration,” Arleen said, adding, “you don’t often get money to develop your people.” “Funders want to see the infrastructure they refuse to fund,” Jhae agreed.
And if MacKenzie Scott waved her magic wand and granted them a wish? It would be a building, they both said, to provide a permanent home for their work.
Find out more about CAFY at cafyonline.org and follow them on Facebook and Instagram.
Find out more about CYA at communityyouthadvance.org and follow them on Facebook and Instagram.
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