Marva Stanford, Regional Director, Field Operations, The ALS Association
Motivated. Optimistic. Realist.
Tell me about your current role?
In my role as Regional Director, Field Operations for the ALS Association’s National Office, I provide general support to the operational, fundraising and programmatic efforts of chapters and key strategic partnership to the executives and Boards of Directors. Established in 1985, The ALS Association is the only national non-profit organization fighting ALS on every front. I live in Tampa, Florida which allows for easy access to the territory I serve.
If there was a soundtrack of greatest hits related to your career, what would make the list?
My love of music stems from playing the violin and guitar, singing and performing throughout my elementary and high school years, and listening to the lyrics of all types of music. I am a firm believer music can influence how I feel from calm to excited, fierce, courageous, sad, encouraged and always can take me to an indescribable place.
Early in my career the song by Marvin Gaye, “What’s Going On,” spoke volumes about how the world was changing and how I was changing simultaneously. I was reminded by listening to music in my twenties, as a single mom, doing all the mom things and working my way through college that I had a desire to know what was going on throughout the world. I was questioning how changes in the world might impact my life. I had lots of conflict about who I was, where the world was headed and if the world would accept me for who I was. I was a quiet, optimistic listener and leader. I did not have enough experience to understand all that was going on but was smart enough to know caution was in my blood. A mentor used to say that I was reserved in conversation and listened with caution. I eventually learned how to balance listening and using my voice.
Another favorite both of my parents enjoyed was Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.” This song always reminds me of the rough patches in my life. I was eager to learn, wanted to be a role model for my daughter, anxious to be successful, and trying to fit in, yet optimistic. This song reminds me all things change with time.
“I’m Every Woman” by Chaka Khan and Whitney’s great remake say a lot to me even to this day. “Cause I’m every woman, it’s all in me!” Love that part! In my lifetime, like many women, I got distracted by the noise. It still happens, but I am so thankful I know what I know at this point in my life. When I need to hit the reset button, that song still resonates for me even now.
“Higher Ground” by Stevie Wonder is a phenomenal song about looking up and looking forward. At the time when this song was popular, I was working tirelessly in my career and still doing the mom thing. Each year of my life I was SO glad I knew a little bit more. I was in a phase of trying to prove myself to family, friends and eventually realized if I stayed focused, then the only person I needed to prove myself to was me. I could see things in me but couldn’t get others to see the same things. Somewhere along the way the notion of a higher ground resonated that I had strength to be a force in lifting others. I no longer had to worry about what others thought of me. I have hired a lot of women in my lifetime – from all ethnicities. There’s a lyric in the song where Stevie says, “I’m so glad that I know more now than I knew then, gonna keep on tryin’ till I reach the higher ground.” This song reflects the challenges I’ve overcome throughout my career.
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?
Two instances come to mind. I remember in my mid-20s working for a company where I felt two of my core values -- commitment to others and integrity -- were being compromised. This was sometime between the late 70’s and early 80’s when there were mass killings of African American children in Atlanta. It was one of the most heinous crimes in the nation. I noticed around my hometown folks were putting out yellow ribbons and signs displaying sympathy, support and hope. It seemed to me these killings were being acknowledged throughout the country, but not by the company I worked for with over 1,000 employees.
I wrote a letter to the then CEO asking why our company was not doing anything to recognize this tragedy. I never told my family, my boss or anyone else. Two days later, I was called to the CEO’s office which was on the top floor of the high rise building where I worked. I was sure I was going to receive a pink slip. He thanked me and while shocked by my candor, said he felt a sense of angst that he had not thought about publicly acknowledging the tragedy. He asked me with tears in his eyes what should the company do. I suggested recruiting team captains from each floor to help distribute yellow ribbons and to change the sign on the main entrance of the building which ultimately ended up reading Praying for Atlanta. He delivered on every aspect of what I asked him to do. I gained respect for a man who many didn’t know well. When I left the company, I stopped by his office and thanked him again. It is important to me that corporate values match the values that make me the person I have become.
In this instance, I wasn’t willing to stand by and see nothing happen but wanted to use my voice to effect change.
The other situation involved inequitable pay. I challenged the company to take responsibility to fix the inequity which they eventually did. I never trusted the corporation again and eventually resigned. I used my voice and fearless poise to ask the right questions. I went right to my supervisor and said, “I don’t understand why the inequity is, but I trust you to fix it.” After the resolution, I was able to hold my head high knowing my voice counted. I knew if I didn’t speak up, I would be angry with myself. I not only felt it was my social responsibility to speak up for myself, I thought it was my responsibility to stand up for every other woman of color who could potentially face the same situation.
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?
We as women of color must know our worth. Over time, I came to a place in my career where I catered toward making the best, not always the easiest choices when dealing with the workplace. In general terms deciding when to listen, speak, challenge and compromise all resonate with my work experiences. In the last several years, I’ve come to realize most will value my experience, education, leadership and communication skills, loyalty, strong work and knowing what I want. However, many will not value these qualities. Like many women of color, whatever we bring to the table will be challenged by others. I’ve learned to take very little personally in the workplace. I learned to set goals, assess and review those goals, create corrective measures for areas of challenge and be proud of my accomplishments.
What’s your approach to self-care? Are there any rituals you use to survive and thrive?
A 77-year-old friend of mine, who is a professor at the School of Social Work at Indiana University, would always remind me to practice “self-care.” It’s necessary and critical. For me self-care involves making fitness a part of my daily routine. I’ve been a certified fitness instructor for more than 35 years. As a young, single mom figuring out how to deal with stress, I learned how much I loved fitness. I teach indoor cycling and Pilates. I also enjoy hot yoga which along with the other disciplines helps me clear my head and motivate others to do the same. I have come to understand the importance of taking time off to rest and relax, although I am not very good at that part. Sleep, water, healthy meal prep, time with good friends are all forms of self-care for me. I write poetry, love to read and like quiet time. My faith is the ultimate self-care and has carried me from one phase of my life to the next.
We come from a resilient and strong lineage. How would you describe the type of ancestor you want to be and why?
I think of my mom and grandmother when asked this question. My mom passed in 2016. My grandmother in 1968. Both were warriors who left a legacy of being strong Black women. They never seemed to fear anything. Little did I know, all they had been through in their lives gave them an insurmountable resilience.
I want to be remembered as a woman who loved and cherished her family. I want to be remembered as a woman who was strong. I saw that strength in my mom as she fought to survive breast cancer. I want to be remembered as a woman who loved the physical and mental outcomes from a healthy and fit lifestyle. A woman who set high standards, possessed class, strength, integrity, compassion, purpose, a tenacious spirit and one who was never afraid to take on the system if my values were compromised.
What advice would you offer other Black women trying to develop their voice or become better self-advocates?
Here’s a poem I recently wrote:
“The energy you emit will be the influence in the room. The depth of your being will revive your spirit. Your passion will resonate with your soul. Your purpose will be the rising tide for your life. Your inner voice may become your outer voice. Be fierce. Be bold. Be strong. Recognize your worth and keep your head held high.”
- Take time to be quiet with yourself.
- Gain understanding of who you are.
- Assess how you can flex your style depending on the situation.
- Go after the opportunities.
- Give back.
- Find a mentor.
- Know who you are.
- Use your voice.
- Never ever give up on yourself.
If you could change the social sector in a way that would benefit, uplift, or affirm Black women, what would that change be?
If I could change the social sector it would be to uplift and affirm women of color. I would remove stereotypes, recognize and acknowledge Black women for who they are, and appreciate the differences.
I would say to the social sector stop second guessing women of color. Invest in us. Demonstrate respect for Black women and compensate for the experience, education, value and perspectives we bring to the workplace. If you do not want our intelligence, creativity, or ideas, please do not hire us.
I would offer Black women to take interest in the work, creativity and value other Black women bring to the table. Be willing to step outside of your comfort zone. Ask questions -- lots of questions -- and then listen. Seek the knowledge of elders. Shoot for the stars and be a role model for other Black women.