This interview is the thirty-first in our series, Black & Bold: Perspectives on Leadership. For more about this series, click here.
Jennifer Jones Austin, CEO, Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies (FPWA)
Visionary. Change Agent. Problem Solver.
What are some of your career highlights?
The first would probably be having the confidence at a young age to step out, define my own path, and pursue the less conventional path when all signs suggested I do otherwise. About 30 years ago, I went to law school, unsure of what I wanted to be in life, but firmly believing that I needed a second degree. My uncle suggested law school. He said there I could figure it out, and if I didn’t that was okay because people think lawyers can do anything short of practice medicine. (Jennifer Jones Austin pictured at right.)
The beginning of my career marked for me a willingness to take risks, be different, be a standout, and pursue my passion and life’s work. I knew I wanted to work in child advocacy to help ensure that all children have loving, stable homes.
Developing the confidence to say no to opportunities is a second career highlight. When just starting out, and to the current day, I have been presented with opportunities to serve and to lead on other great platforms with great visibility. Some have been opportunities to lead in spaces that people would jump at. Very often I say no because the opportunities don’t align with my vision. They don’t align with my values: what I believe, and how I believe I should show up in the work space. Sometimes they are opportunities that don’t really sound like I will be set up to achieve the success that I desire. Having the confidence to say no, that I won’t pursue a particular route and waiting for the next opportunity, is a career highlight.
A third is joining the organization that I lead right now: the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies (FPWA), which is an almost 100-year old organization. FPWA was founded to be the voice on issues of social justice for the Protestant community nearly 100 years ago, at a time when social services were tied to religion. Individuals and families of Jewish faith had their needs cared for by Jewish-based organizations and the United Jewish Association of New York. Catholics were cared for by Catholic Charities. FPWA stepped up to be the voice for the Protestant community with roots in the faith community. Being the daughter, granddaughter, and great granddaughter of Baptist preachers, joining the FPWA was like revisiting, and in some ways reclaiming, my faith-based roots in policy and advocacy work.
Another highlight is that I get to bring my whole self to work. The professional is personal and personal is professional, which is not something everyone gets to experience. I bring my faith into the workplace and it’s connected to my vision in the policy and advocacy space. The professional informs my values and what I know about the work. Equity informs my faith and my faith informs how I think about equity.
Lastly, I’ve had great success in creating success out of a mess. I have become a change agent over the course of my career. I like to go and work in institutions and organizations in crisis or near crisis and identify the value or necessity of those organizations. Then I do the work to rebuild, re-platform, and re-engineer them to be thriving institutions.
If there was a headline for your leadership journey throughout your career, what would it be?
“Creating success out of a mess” is a great headline. My father used to say to his children that our responsibility in life was to find a field and leave it better than you found it. I would like others to be able to say of me that I found a field and left it better than I found it.
What are your favorite types of challenges?
Rebuilding crumbling organizations. This is all thematic and it runs together. I like finding the worth and the value in organizations, institutions, and people. I like doing the work—the forensic work—of figuring out where there is value and how to grow that value. Coming to organizations where everything is not neatly laid out but where there is purpose, potential, and possibility and creating a new vision and mindset is what I like to do. Working with people and the community to re-create or build something new. Again, creating success out of a mess. I take on things that many people would step away from or not be interested in. I find value in strengthening, re-purposing, and rebuilding institutions.
I also like the challenge of helping people to understand complicated matters, especially in the policy space. I like taking complex matters and issues, and distilling them, and then helping to reformat and present them in ways people can grasp and then act on.
What is one book that was meaningful or influential in your development as a leader?
Back in 2004 I came across a book called Fierce Conversations: Achieving Success at Work and in Life One Conversation at a Time by Susan Scott. When I discovered the book, I was in a work environment where I was working with a leader (I was a deputy) where the leader had vision but wasn’t very good at communicating the vision. That resulted in us not being at odds, but we weren’t on the same page. I sought out the book to find out how to communicate more effectively. It’s all about how you work through differences in communication styles—how to be as clear and transparent in conversation so you can be heard and understood, and how to work through tension. At the end of the day, you want to be heard and understood and want to hear and understand the other person with whom you’re in conversation. Whether a boss, child, partner in life, family member, or friend, communication is key in everything we do.
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?
I can think of several, but one instance I will share ties into working in government. There are instances where, due to the variety of interests and concerns, government leaders will make decisions not consistent with values. In a meeting at City Hall, we were talking about what we should do concerning the growing number of people in homeless shelters during the summer months. The conversation shifted to how to make homeless shelters less desirable. There was a concern that people were coming to shelters when they had other options and a sense that shelters were too comfortable. Someone suggested that the City should provide the basics in shelters but not make them so comfortable that people didn’t want to leave. The ideas tossed about shook me at my core. The ideas were never acted upon but struck me as not being the most humane. What I did in that instance was spoke my truth and shared my concerns, all the time operating with a mindset that it might not go well. Who am I to challenge and question? I felt it was more important to voice my concerns.
I’ve come to appreciate that if I have a seat at the table by the work I’ve done and how I showed up that I must use that seat. I am not just happy to be there. The importance of my being at the table is speaking truth to power. My dad used to say freedom is the ability to say no to a lie, to veto an untruth. I’ve found in some instances, when I use my seat at the table as I’ve been taught, that I’ve been more respected, but others may not be so happy. At those moments, I have had to re-examine whether this is the space for me or if I need to find another platform.
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 struggle with this question because it’s less than an instance and more of a continual journey or experience. As a leader with my own vision, confidence in my voice and why I am here, and what my purpose in life is, I regularly experience people trying to box me in and to dictate who I am, what I do, and how I should show up in various spaces. It doesn’t really end; I could probably give 15-20 examples. [Reclaiming my time] is a routine and constant part of the toolbox I use to re-center, reclaim, remind people who I am, what I do, why my voice matters, and why they can’t quiet my voice.
I’ve had bosses place me in significant leadership roles only then to tell me that they don’t really want me to talk about issues in front of other people. I’ve had staff and senior leaders try to tell me that I don’t need to engage in certain things… “we’ll tell you what to think about this.” I’ve had black women try to shut me down and tell me what my truth is or how I should show up.
There are many instances. I feel it’s an ongoing experience and journey of people telling me “we don’t want to hear from you” or “your voice doesn’t matter.” Many instances where people have tried not to hear and acknowledge me as a leader in a space. I respond by stepping up, doing the work, reminding them what I bring to the table, and letting them know that I will be heard.
What’s your approach to self-care? Are there any rituals you use to survive and thrive?
Exercise is very important, and eating well. Time with family is very, very important to me. I try to be home as much as I can for family dinner. When I reached a point in my career where exercise was a priority too, along with being home at night for my family, I made some scheduling changes. I decided there would be no more than two breakfast meetings and no more than two work events or late-night meetings per week. Exercise, family, good food, and friends are my formula for self-care. I don’t often have the luxury of being spontaneous with friends, but I do plan brunches and get togethers.
In terms of rituals, I’m very big on holidays and vacations. I need to vacation at least four times per year. It’s not always extravagant, but I do love traveling. Traveling abroad with my husband and children is part of intentional parenting. I want to expose my children to broader views of the world. Being with family over Spring Break and taking time at the end of the school year and on holidays psychologically helps me feel like I’m grinding but there’s respite soon for myself and family. Grind, grind, grind. Vacation. Grind, grind, grind. Vacation.
Creating time and space for family and friends is very important. I’m just beginning to learn how to take time for me—which may be going to the spa, reading a book, or just pouring into me.
What advice would you offer other Black women trying to develop or amplify their voice and become self-advocates?
I believe it’s very important to focus first on you. Discovering you…who you are, what you believe, what you desire for yourself, how you desire to show up in the world, and de-emphasizing what others want for you or believe about you. Don’t try to adapt to somebody else’s way of being. So often as Black women we have been challenged when it comes to our identity, images, our worth or role; we very often look to and idolize other people and their lifestyles and focus less on who we are. Our lived experiences and backgrounds inform who we are and who we want to be. We often don’t do the work of developing our best selves, but rather the work of developing the best image of someone else. I advise you discover who you are, and then do the work of being an expert on yourself.
I once heard a young lady say she’s not an expert on anything. I challenged her. You should be an expert on you. Your lived experiences, childhood, how you grew or struggled, how you were stifled—all that helps to inform who you are today—and then think about the path to move from who you’ve been to who you actually are or aim to be. Work on becoming an expert on yourself, which comes from listening to yourself, listening to others, reading, and sometimes networking. But don’t go out there saying you want to be just like this person; you want to be you. And can only be you based on how you’re showing up in the space based in part on life experiences.
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 valuing of social service sector jobs and particularly the front-line jobs: the home health attendants, health aides, childcare workers, group home workers, cooks in the kitchen. Many of these jobs are held by women of color and are devalued and minimized. They are seen as low-level, low-grade jobs, but frankly these are the people who care for our children and comfort our aging parents. When we can’t walk or feed ourselves, they are there to help us take care of our basic needs, yet they are undervalued wage-wise and psychologically. I aim—it’s not just something I desire—to work at rebuilding an understanding of and embracing of social service and front-line workers. I also believe that investing in front-line workers would be highly effective, as they make sure they can bring their experiences to the leadership table by running programs or leading organizations that are better informed from their experiences having done the work.