An Interview with Luella Provenza, Chief Impact Officer, Second Harvest Food Bank

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

Luella Provenza, Chief Impact Officer, Second Harvest Food Bank

Generous. Active. Engaged.

Twitter: @Lu_Wills

In this interview, Luella Provenza reveals how her varied experiences in the social sector have enabled her to leverage her authentic voice and intentionally champion marginalized communities without succumbing to a deficit frame.

Tell me about your current role?

I recently became Chief Impact Officer with Second Harvest Food Bank. Second Harvest Food Bank’s mission is to lead the fight against hunger and build food security in South Louisiana by providing food access, advocacy, education and disaster response. Each year, Second Harvest provides more than 32 million meals to 210,000 individuals in need through our 700 partners across 23 South Louisiana parishes. Through our life-changing programs, we are ensuring the hungry in our community have the nutrition, education and support they need to be healthy and prosperous. Previously, I was the Chief Strategy Officer with Up2Us Sports, a national nonprofit that engages, trains and supports sports coaches to transform youth, programs and communities.

If there was a soundtrack of greatest hits related to your career, what would make the list?

Instead of picking songs, I selected artists who, in my opinion, have leaned into their strong voices, sound and overall unique perspectives: Florence and the Machine, TV on the Radio, Estelle, Nelly Furtado, Leon Bridges, Childish Gambino, and Alabama Shakes. I like these artists a lot and I think they could be a great representation of my career. I feel like I have evolved a lot since 2007. I have leaned into the unique qualities that I bring to the social sector, found my voice, and am proud of my overall perspective.

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 and how you reconciled that tension or not?

Within the social sector, there can be a reactive approach to increase the sense of urgency around a particular cause to gain access to funding which can portray marginalized groups negatively. As an individual who is a first-generation college student, I obviously grew up with some privilege that put me on a different track, but I still grew up with hurdles. I’m sensitive to not using language and/or images that sensationalize the work that I am involved in. Sensationalism and insensitivity can creep into nonprofits’ messaging if you’re not intentional. (Luella Provenza pictured at right.)

Most of my experience is within the youth development space. As I work on initiatives, messaging, or funder pitches, I try to put myself in the shoes of the parent or guardian of the youth involved in the program: What would their gut reaction be to how we are presenting our work and their kids?  I aim to tell a story in an authentic way that doesn’t paint a bleak picture. Over the years, I have had the opportunity to work with kids, sports coaches, teachers, parents, and communities — all of the stakeholders from the community bring a lot of assets to the work. I try to ensure that I leverage those assets in a complementary way to make the work that I do stronger.

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?

I don’t know if it’s reclaiming my time, per se, but reclaiming my voice and reclaiming the fact that I belong at the table. In this particular instance, it involved a key external stakeholder attempting to use their position to influence market expansion and staff hiring. I navigated this challenge by convening our core leadership team as an opportunity to remind ourselves of our process, values, skills, and talent we needed in that particular city to be successful. I leveraged a team member’s relationship to assist in my conversations with this key stakeholder about our commitment to the process and goals of the city respective to the entirety of the national organization.

What’s your approach to self-care? Are there any rituals you use to survive and thrive?

Admittedly this is an area that I have to improve upon. I believe I have gotten better since becoming a mom. I can’t take care of a child without caring for myself first. To ensure that I am present for my son and family, I leave my phone and computer in my home office when my working hours have concluded.

Things that bring me joy are cooking and making things. I take random art or cooking classes in the city which is really fun for me. I grew up playing video games and continue to play with my husband. My goal is to get back to coaching girls lacrosse because it truly was one of my favorite weekly activities.

What is one book that has been transformational for your career?

It’s not a book, but I really like TED Talks.  My top three favorite Ted Talks are: Hamdi Ulukaya: The Anti-CEO Playbook; Simon Sinek: Start with Why and Nadine Burke Harris: How childhood trauma affects health across a lifetime.

I was recently inspired by The Anti-CEO Playbook Ted Talk and how Hamdi Ulukaya dedicated himself to establishing strong relationships and leveraging community in order to have a successful brand. It is very apparent how much this CEO cares about actively contributing to the livelihood of his employees and the community surrounding his business in a positive way. I am striving to be more intentional about relationship building and ensuring that I am not a transactional leader.

We come from a resilient and strong lineage. How would you describe the type of ancestor you want to be and why?

I would hope that I’m seen and looked upon as one who had thought about things intentionally, strategically and tried to really ensure that the work that I have been doing and will continue to do preserves the uniqueness and culture of New Orleans. Particularly because I am in New Orleans and a transplant, this is something I worry about a lot. I do not want to be someone that takes all the wonderful things from the city or contributes to the loss of identity and culture that New Orleans prides itself on.

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

It’s really important to understand the value that you bring to the table and not wait to be told the value that you bring. I feel like I’ve gotten better with that with age since I started at 23 in the nonprofit space. I didn’t know my voice or the skills I was bringing to the table. The sooner you figure out what you hold as value in yourself, the easier it is use it. And don’t expect to be invited to the table; it’s really important that you claim your space – make your own table.

For me personally, when I was younger, I was worried about being seeing as the ‘angry black woman’ and I had to let that go. Even though my voice is strong, that doesn’t make me angry.

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

I haphazardly fell into the nonprofit space. Volunteering was not a luxury I had growing because I had to work. Growing up, becoming a nonprofit professional wasn’t something that I knew was an option. I consider myself extremely lucky to have found my passion. Removing barriers for young people to enter into the sector is one way to diversify the social sector and increase Black women in leadership positions. Competitively paid volunteer and/or internship positions are one way to do this.

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