An Interview with Sherece West-Scantlebury, President & CEO, The Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation
Sherece West-Scantlebury shares how she navigates challenging times by leading with grace and why she rejects the view that poverty is a character flaw. This interview is the eighth in our series, Black & Bold: Perspectives on Leadership. For more about this series, click here.
Sherece West-Scantlebury, President & CEO, The Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation (WRF)
21st Century Poverty Eradicator
If there was a headline for your leadership journey throughout your career, what would it be?
My mantra is: I’m a strong, passionate warrior for justice. To make it a headline, Sherece West-Scantlebury: Warrior for Justice; Warriors Get in Formation. (Sherece pictured at right.)
What are some of your career highlights?
This is tough to answer. For someone who had no real career plans, my entire career has been a highlight. I am grateful to have served those impacted by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita as founding CEO of the Foundation for Louisiana, though it was the hardest job to date. WRF, the Walton Family Foundation, and the Arkansas State Board of Education created a comprehensive strategy called ForwARd Arkansas that is committed to helping every Arkansas student graduate prepared for success in college and the workplace.
Most recently I was named the 2017 – 18 James A. Joseph Lecturer by the Association of Black Foundation Executives. My colleagues in philanthropy believe in me, my work, and that my leadership matters. My lecture, “Now Is the Time for Philanthropy to Resist,” was delivered during the James A. Joseph Lecture and Awards Dinner in September 2017. It was one of the best nights of my life.
What are your favorite types of challenges?
My favorite types of challenges are those that push me to understand myself better and to strengthen my faith in God and in myself. The level of crises and responsibility for charitable giving for the state, for raising money, navigating politics, developing the right strategy, supporting relief, recovery and reconstruction – all of that was really challenging. I am grateful that all of my training at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, my faith, my previous experiences, and studies of institutional racism, equity, and more guided me to get the Foundation for Louisiana off to a good start in very trying times.
What is one book that was meaningful or influential in your development as a leader?
Deepak Chopra’s The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success was a book I read early in my career. I intentionally practice each law. The 48 Laws of Power was recommended to me by my husband and I read it often. The laws are great: Law 1 Never Outshine the Master, Law 4 Always Say Less Than Necessary, Law 25 Re-Create Yourself. The book is gold. The New Testament guides me to be a grace-filled leader and to appreciate the hard, difficult times. The difficult times pushed me to grow and develop into a stronger leader.
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?
My mother, sister, and I lived in the Murphy Homes, a public housing community in Baltimore. I dedicate my career to the families of the Murphy Homes. My values have conflicted when I engage in conversation with people who believe poverty is linked to character and not cash. Poverty is a failure of character to some. Personal responsibility equals character for them. For me it’s circumstance. People don’t have enough money to make ends meet and I don’t view poverty as a character flaw.
I especially value this among children. A child’s zip code is supposedly a predictor of success. No matter how one feels about personal responsibility, if 70 percent of students are not reading on grade-level by the end of third grade, it really does not matter who made a bad choice at home. Seventy percent of kids not reading on grade level may become adults who are illiterate. In Arkansas 70 percent of jobs do not require a high school diploma, and most of these jobs do not provide a family-supporting wage. There is nothing you can do to prove to me that 70 percent of this state has bad parents. There’s a point where you make a choice between whether you want your society, community, or economy to be one filled with working-age adults who are not employable or change the system to be responsive to the needs of children and families and their success.
Summer 2017, Democratic Representative Maxine Waters coined the phrase, “reclaiming my time,” as she thwarted Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s attempts to waste her time with nonsense. 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 have had to deal with the nonsense of harassment in the form of ageism, sexism, and racism. I have had mainly white male colleagues actively seek to discredit me, get me fired, and lecture me on how my style and personality make them uncomfortable. Regardless of how these individuals felt, I still had to work with them and a job to do on behalf of kids and families.
The outcome of the “-isms” and attempts to sabotage me is that I have learned to focus on my mission and goals and those of the organization. I do not focus on my ego. They pushed me to up my game, up my excellence, and up my leadership skills. I work the proverbial “twice as hard” and try to lead with grace.
What’s your approach to self-care? Are there any rituals you use to survive and thrive?
I get up at 4:00 a.m. every morning to pray and meditate and read my devotionals. Sometimes I journal in the morning, but most times in the evening.
I have gone to the gym every day at 5:00 a.m. – with some exceptions – since the early 1990s. It started out as a way to stay fit and wanting to stay cute. The main benefit is exercise helps me manage my stress. There’s nothing like a good kickboxing class to let out frustrations.
I get a massage once a month.
I absolutely go on vacation, and I try to take two consecutive weeks, but definitely a full week. My husband likes beach vacations, so it’s usually a beach vacation. I went to a yoga retreat in Thailand last year and that was pretty fun.
What advice would you offer other Black women trying to develop or amplify their voice and become self-advocates?
First, speak your truth. Define your personal values, beliefs, what is important to you. You will speak up, give voice, and advocate for what you truly believe. Know it deep in your soul.
Second, know what you’re talking about. So many folks go off at the mouth and cannot back it up. Stand firm in it. It is necessary to be a student, a scholar, of whatever you are trying to amplify or advocate. You must speak with authority and learn how to effectively present your case.
Third, and most important, you must conquer your fear and develop courage to amplify your voice and self-advocate. Not everything will happen as you plan, not everyone will support you, and you will not be successful all the time. Fear of failure, fear of loss, fear of rejection, fear of looking foolish is all in our minds. Courage helps you overcome your fears. Courage allows you to act despite your fears.
Finally, remember to always have faith.
Have courage, be strategic, and just do it – amplify and advocate.