An Interview with Sheri A. Brady, Associate Director, Strategic Partnerships, Aspen Institute Forum for Community Solutions
Racial equity, justice, and community are three values that encapsulate Sheri Brady’s career and life’s work. In this interview, she reflects on milestones along her decades-long philanthropy voyage and reminds us that those most proximate to the problems are those with the solutions.
Sheri A. Brady, Associate Director, Strategic Partnerships, Aspen Institute Forum for Community Solutions
Tell me about your current role.
My work for the Aspen Institute Forum for Community Solutions is about power building in communities to identify problems and use collective action to create solutions for the most enduring issues in the community. Nothing for us without us is about us is a core tenet of our work. I truly believe that those closest to the problem should be closest to the solutions, their lived experience should be valued and incorporated in order to create long lasting and effective solutions. The Forum was launched in 2012 in response to the social challenges affecting people in need based on the work of the White House Council for Community Solutions. One of the key populations focused on by the Council was opportunity youth, youth ages 16 to 24 not engaged in work or school. As a result, this population is the focus of much of our evidence building work around the importance of engaging those most impacted in collaborative policymaking. Our work includes grantmaking, advocacy, network building, collaboration, and technical support.
My focus is mission-focused on ways that communities build power and field work around collaborative models of policy solutions including collective impact. We center equity beginning with racial equity and then move into other elements of equity. We begin with racial equity as the systems we are working to change have been designed to and are operating in a way to keep people of color, especially Black people, mostly on the outside.
My work is multi-sector and cross-collaborative. In addition to community engagement, we also work with other sectors including the philanthropic sector. We recently launched Philanthropy Forward with Neighborhood Funders Group (NFG), a fellowship model to explore what it looks like for philanthropy to realize its fullest role as a collective financial engine for social change. We want the sector to think about community partnership in a way that centers community knowledge and power building.
If there was a soundtrack of greatest hits related to your career, what songs would make the list?
A big part of the soundtrack of my life is Motown including Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye. Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On makes me think about how I look at the work.
Protest songs like Ella’s Song make me think about how we, as a people, how our pain is often shared through music along with our triumphs. Having said that, the reality is I love all kinds of music from classic Motown to Parliament Funkadelic…it’s a whole mix of stuff.
I imagine that your work is linked to your values of equity and community based on what you’ve shared. Can you think of a time when your values were in tension during your career and how you reconciled that tension or not?
For me that’s something I have struggled with recently since the world has shifted to a dark place. I don’t want to get political necessarily but news stories about people who look like me are heartbreaking and really challenging to see. Generations before me made sacrifices for me to get to where I am. I’ve been in privileged spaces like Kellogg and Aspen. I work in a place that is a neutral institute in theory, yet sometimes there are not two sides to the story. You have money. You have power. If you have shat upon people who don’t have money and power and protect the status quo, you need to be called out and challenged. If you have done nothing to protect those who are being shat upon and are willing to be complacent, you also need to be called out on that complacency as well.
Either you stand up for something or you’ll fall for anything. It’s a somewhat trite idea, but what I’ve learned is that my message hasn’t changed but my delivery has. As I’m getting older, I can’t be angry all the time. It doesn’t do you any good or the cause. For me there have been times I’ve been in conflict. If you look at progressives in the world, some want to take the high road and lose gracefully. Many years ago, a colleague told me that losing gracefully does nothing for me. It doesn’t move the needle or help the constituencies we claim we want to help.
A conflict more recently is whether I am doing enough to change the situation of the world today. I love the Aspen program I work for – centering community where youth drive the change and the agenda, those closest to the problems drive change, the agenda and the solutions. Ever since I have been in philanthropy or philanthropy adjacent, I believe people with the money should give it and get out of the way. Is it an inside strategy or an outside strategy? Do I continue to work in philanthropy and philanthropic serving organizations as a voice on the inside agitating or do I get on the outside to be an agitator? I struggle with insider/outsider strategy. Sometimes it’s tiring being on the inside. Maybe I should go corporate even though I won’t be able to sleep at night, but I will be happy in a really comfortable bed. Just kidding. (Laughter.)
When I was younger, it was a lot harder to wonder whether to say something or not. As I get older, I can use credibility and chips to call out folks who aren’t doing the right thing. I don’t have time to dance around the issue, nor do I have time to wait for white people to feel comfortable talking about equity. Letter from a Birmingham Jail is just as relevant today as it was when it was written. I am more strategic as I get older. There have been times when I have not been as strategic and to use a stereotype, the “Angry Black Woman” has come out. Being older and more comfortable with myself that has been less of a problem. I have to weigh what sword I am going to fall on and I am more willing to step out and say something than I would have been twenty years ago. It’s been a struggle but more and more I find myself not willing to compromise in ways that I think are harmful to the people that I care about and am trying to care for.
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?
There have been many times. Once when I was about 35 and one of the younger directors at the organization where my predecessor was an older white man who I adored. We had different styles: he wielded power and influence behind the scenes since he had more connection and chits to call than I did. I was of the opinion that we needed to be more upfront about the power and privilege that the organization held and that we should use this power to open doors for our grantees and constituents. It felt disingenuous to act like we were this shy unassuming Midwestern organization versus being a leader in the field. At the beginning, my age was a bit of a disadvantage because I was at least ten years younger than everyone else at my level, and some thought that made me an easy target. For example, I had meeting with someone where we prepped for an upcoming meeting and then during that meeting the person threw me under the bus. I needed to know what had changed in the past hour and a half since we had been on the same page. Women of color in positions of power get gaslit all the time. If we don’t stop it when it happens then will continue to happen. That was a real turning point for me. I had moved away from my family and support network to this place that’s cold nine months out of the year. I was not going to let this continue. I had to be able to look myself in the mirror.
Another example was during a meeting on racial equity where we were discussing how to build racial equity into the work. Someone asked whether we were going to force people to do this. I was adamant that we were. There are people who don’t want to be uncomfortable, but you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs. The status quo has gotten some people far, but not others. If the pursuit of racial equity makes you uncomfortable then you need to do some soul searching and learn to live with your discomfort.
What’s your approach to self-care? Are there any rituals you use to survive and thrive?
Honestly, I don’t do it well. Having a Kitchen Cabinet of multiracial women has been helpful to ask for advice and as a reality check. On an airplane, they say if you are with someone who needs help, you should put on your oxygen mask before assisting them. This is logical as if you don’t care for yourself you can’t care for others, but I find myself forgetting that. I’m just about the work getting done. I know work is important, but others are doing this work too and it’s okay for me to take vacation days. Why do I have 120 hours I need to burn before the end of the year? It’s been a struggle for me. I just had a milestone birthday and started taking my health more seriously which was a lesson hard learned. I would get sick and realized that people would mourn me for ten minutes and then the work would continue. It helps to have a network to remind you that you need to take time. I spend time with family. I’m trying to be better about taking the time. I take a lot of four-day weekends throughout the year.
We come from a resilient and strong lineage. How would you describe the type of ancestor you want to be and why?
I don’t want anybody to be able to say I was silent in the face of a wrong. That I left the world better than I got it – though I’m not sure that will be the case and feel guilty about that. I did the best I could and have to live with that.
With my nieces and nephews, I want it to be known that I always did right thing. My mother’s father is my hero. When we did something wrong, he called us to task on it and we had to explain. I want to be remembered as true to my moral center and values and that when I did compromise it was for the greater good and not my own ego. I want my nephews and nieces– those by blood and adopted– to know that I loved them. That I lived true to my values of equity, justice and fairness and that I called out instances that were unfair even if it came at a cost. There’s a Dante quote that says, “The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in times of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.” I don’t want anyone to ever say I was neutral.
What advice would you offer other Black women trying to amplify their voice and become better self-advocates?
Be true to yourself and to things you know are right even when people tell you otherwise. If you do something that isn’t right, understand the consequences for your actions.
Find mentors. I just did a panel with authors from Yes She Can: 10 Stories of Hope & Change from Young Female Staffers of the Obama White House. A theme that evening was mentorship. Sometimes mentors may look like you and sometimes they won’t but find mentors who will be true and honest with you. Representation matters.
When you get to “success” have a Kitchen Cabinet to remind you if and when you need to step back. You will never be unfunny again. In philanthropy, people came out of the woodwork. I would have to call my friends to check me. For me it has been very important to have that posse. People will try to gaslight you and tell you that you’re crazy; it helps to know where your lines in the sand are and stick to them. I’m at an age where I can say that. I’ve got some stuff under my belt and people who will be supportive in ways that maybe some younger people haven’t built up yet.
If you could change the social sector in a way that would benefit, lift up, or affirm Black women, what would that change be?
The whole sector is designed wrong resulting in the people problem solving having to beg people with money for help (usually money). We tend to say it’s about the work which it is. One might say it doesn’t matter that I didn’t get credit because it’s about the work. It’s not about glory but it is about fairness and if you’ve done something you should get the credit. One thing I hate a lot about the sector is that we have worker bees who do work and then leaders who claim the credit.
I wrote an op-ed once and assumed my boss wanted me to put her name on it. She said she didn’t write it and questioned why her name was on the byline. That was a milestone moment. She told me that I needed to send it under my name. I want us to encourage more of that – creating space and opening odors for women of color to find their voice. Give them the support and when they do something, recognize it and let them get the recognition for it.