An Interview with Candice C. Jones, President & CEO, Public Welfare Foundation

To learn more about the series Black & Bold: Perspectives on Leadership, click here.

Candice C. Jones, President & CEO, Public Welfare Foundation
Friend. Passionate. Real Person.

Twitter: @ccjones235

Candice C. Jones has a calling. In this interview, she reflects on her leadership journey, moments of tension she has navigated, how she purposely takes up space, and why she is no longer apologizing.

Tell me about your current role?

Public Welfare Foundation is a national foundation that has existed over 70 years as a grantmaking institution that gives resources to other nonprofits across the country. We recently announced that we are narrowing and deepening our focus to issues of criminal and youth justice – working to catalyze a new vision of justice that is truly transformative. In our recent past we also focused on issues of Workers’ Rights and civil legal aid, but are transitioning away from those areas as we deepen our focus in justice reform. (Candice Jones pictured at right.)

Do you partner with other organizations and coalitions?

Yes. By giving resources we are making a bet on our grantees’ work. We work with partners to amplify them on social media and talk to other funders to bring visibility to increase resources. We also try to partner with others in philanthropy who we think are innovating in the field. We listen, learn, and share insights. There’s something inherent in philanthropy about partnership; we are “glorified enablers.”

That phrase “glorified enablers” makes me think about Edgar Villanueva’s book, Decolonizing Wealth: Indigenous Wisdom to Heal Divides and Restore Balance. How does that notion of decolonizing wealth relate to your approach?

I have talked to our board about this. I came from a practice background and had a lot of frank conversations with the board about what I was looking for and interested in when considering this role. The danger in philanthropy is that sometimes you are posturing to be invited to the Governor’s Ball – making choices about power and resources. I talked about centering community and it’s not even in a novel way; strategically the work isn’t getting done without centering community. It’s not about coffee shop comfort.

We know communities of color have borne the brunt of consequences of decisions we have made in criminal justice. Uneasy Peace: The Great Crime Decline, the Renewal of City Life, and the Next War on Violence by Patrick Sharkey is a book about jurisdictions around the country that have seen reductions in violence and it’s not just about law enforcement; there were significant investments in community resources. Resource communities to actually be able to reduce violence. It’s a challenge for a national foundation to get close enough to the ground to have an impact. It’s hard to have insights at the community level. We need to think about how we are going to make our strategies and portfolios to be able to do the broad, strategic work at a policy level. This raises questions about whether policies are impacting the communities we are working with.

I used to work at MacArthur Foundation and left to get out in the field…to be able to do the work I was talking about in conference rooms. I needed to test myself against the current and do the hard work. It was a good choice and informs how I approach philanthropy when in the other chair.

What are some of your career highlights?

I served as Director of the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice (IDJJ), a cabinet level state agency that worked with youth in conflict with the law; I was responsible for that system. It was the toughest job, but it’s the thing I’m most proud of because of the team and quality I was able to build as a leader there to meet those challenges. I came in under a Democrat administration and stayed under a Republican administration. I told them (the powers that be) that I would hire my people and wouldn’t make political hires – only those competent since the nature of work demanded that. I’m proud of what we accomplished. There was a lot of significant change in the agency from making data and reporting more transparent to the public, to major changes in how we treated youth and provided educational services. We increased the number of teachers and also worked with policy leaders, the governor, and legislators to reduce the number of youths in custody. We cut the number of youths in custody and those supervised in post-release in half and eventually closed a prison. We were ultimately touching and harming less youth in the state.

That work sounds heavy. How did you sustain yourself? 

Self-care was not a thing; I didn’t do it well. I lost ten pounds in that job and my hair started to thin. I should have taken vacation more often and been speaking to a counselor. When you run a human services agency, you are accessible 24/7. The sacrifices that we all made were not ideal.

From day one I knew I had a clear set of objectives I was trying to accomplish, and I knew I was not in that job to stay. There was a question of whether I was a catalyst or sustain change leader. That role was a catalyst moment; I planned to run the race for couple of years. There was a cost. Self-care is thing we all need to do but not an easy thing to master and particularly difficult for women of color to master. We are constantly socialized to listen, care for others, and work above and beyond. A lot of women are doing incredible work at the expense of their own sanity and personal lives. When I reflect on my time at IDJJ, I was not successful at self-care and that’s me just being really real.

What are your favorite types of challenges, if any?

If I’m honest with myself, I love a challenge. Period. If I’m not equally parts excited and terrified then it’s not an opportunity where I am going to stretch. I like difficult systemic problems that require a complex infrastructure to move things in real-time. Getting people who believe small, status quo changes are all that’s possible and moving them to transformational work is a challenge.

If there was a headline for your leadership journey throughout your career, what would it be?

She got things done. She was of use. Who cares about the title? I want to walk away from each challenge knowing we got things done. In each assignment I want to be effective at strong execution.

What is one book that was meaningful or influential in your development as a leader?

I love this question. It’s hard. I’ve read those leadership books that you should have read like The First 90 Days. I think the book for Black women in leadership has yet to be written. The leadership books I’ve read didn’t change my life; they didn’t speak to the unique challenges of women of color in leadership. I’m waiting for that book to be published which considers how you approach established leadership frameworks and how they change based on who the leader is. I try to be in that work with other women of color in social justice – the experience of leadership is different and distinguishable.

Work in the social sector can be very personal and linked to one’s values. Can you think of a time when your values were in tension during your career and how you reconciled that tension or not?

Values are always in tension and some have been teased out in this conversation. I fought for youth not to be incarcerated while running a system that incarcerated youth. Each tension is a struggle to balance and remain true to the intent you had when you entered into the position; articulate an end and hold yourself accountable to that end. It’s a constant struggle – what makes me excited and terrified.

Can you share an experience in the workplace where you have had to reclaim your time? What was the context? How did you navigate it? What was the outcome?

As a quarterback on the field, players have to often dead all that noise and call the play. With women of color, in particular, people are happy to think for you when it’s unnecessary. People are constantly proffering and projecting their thoughts. I want to be responsible as a leader in hearing the world, but I have to create space to dead all that noise and do what needs to be done. I don’t imagine that young white men who ascend to power are constantly having people feel like they need to help them think.

In a past political role, I had people who thought they were going to help me hire. I had someone tell me in a previous philanthropic position that I was a Black woman in that role and should take responsibility for that. What does that mean when it comes from a bunch of people not of color? You have to learn how to dead that noise because it will paralyze you. There are distinct examples. Black women have to be hypervigilant about trusting that they can make the calls and move forward.

How do you respond when people offer unsolicited advice?

I may say thank you or may simply say no. We are constantly in positions where we need to bite our tongues. He’s just competent, assertive, and in control. She is shrill and has an attitude. Asserting leadership goes to the point of self-care: how to assert yourself as a leader and not offend. We have a responsibility for future generations to take up our space in the world. At some point, we need to stop apologizing.

I have a nose ring and am a bit left of center with my style. I get feedback on how I dress. I show up at professional meetings and people say these things. I’m not in high school with a school monitor commenting on the length of my skirt. If I keep apologizing for how I present myself then I’m forcing the next generation to do the same. The world may not yet be comfortable with Black women in leadership, but I need to be a Black woman in leadership that I am comfortable with. It creates issues and discomfort but I need to struggle with that. We have a right to take up our space.

We touched on self-care a bit earlier. What’s your approach to self-care now?

Exercising more. It’s a huge sanity thing and not about size. There’s a peace that comes from the cardio release and I have the best clarity of thought when I hit that magical point in a run. It doesn’t start there, you get there and feel like you’re about to fly. I’m sure it’s just the endorphins. I need that. Spending time with friends…I have an incredible network of women who are the closest people to me in the world. We are making more time to be together since we agreed that the time is so critical to us. One of them is a patent lawyer for a major corporation and she reflected last time we were together that she’s actually able to be herself without judgment. I can only do that in a communal space with women of color.

I’m trying to do more spa days and create space. It’s not my strength but I’m learning more and more that I’m better for work if I’m taking care of myself. I build in concrete things with regularity now.

What advice would you offer other Black women trying to develop or amplify their voice and become self-advocates?

Keep talking. I remember in undergraduate school reading a book about Black girl talk – who speaks up in class. Research showed that Black girls speak up most and get shushed the most. We’ve lived decades of life being told to shut up. Keep taking up your space. You and your ancestors have earned it so many times over. I have many pictures of Black women including my grandmother in my office to remind me from whence we came. There are generations of people who preceded us; we must take up our space because they didn’t have any. We have a right to it. Stop apologizing or capitulating; we have more than earned our place.

If you could change the social sector in a way that would benefit, lift up, or affirm Black women, what would that change be?

We have to be less of an anomaly. There’s no way to get to better until we can stop going in a room and being only three of us; we are an anomaly in leadership. We need to be in a place to make impactful decisions where we have some power and agency. We can do cultural competence until we are blue in the face, but until Black women have access to power and resources to do the work on behalf of the community and how they vision it, I don’t think we get there.

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