Saturday, July 30, 2011

Behind the Movement with Valery Jean!

Valery Jean, Executive Director of FUREE! 

Recently, Compass Point Nonprofit Services and the Meyer Foundation released "Daring to Lead 2011", a national study of Nonprofit Executive Leaders focusing on the recession’s impact on organizations and leaders. More than 3,000 executive directors participated in this study finding that twenty eight percent (28%) of people-of-color-led organizations were severely impacted by the recession, compared with 18% of white-led nonprofits, however, men report burnout at half the rate of women and are significantly more likely to report having the work-life balance that’s right for them.

“I thought  I was going crazy, that it was all in my head, but when I spoke to other Executive Directors locally & nationally, especially women of color, I found out it wasn’t just me. It was a good feeling to know I wasn’t alone but then it made me think wow, how far have we really come?” stated Valery  as she takes a deep breathe and prepares herself to continue to answer personal questions about being both an executive director and a women of color on the front lines and the impact this has had on her life.

Her question is one that people of color ask themselves everyday not just in non profit and community based organizations but also in their personal lives as they look at the world they live in today and when these two worlds collide within social justice the feelings get overwhelming and magnified for everyone involved.  There seems to be a myth that once we become staff, a member, or a board within an organization, when we take a position of some sort that we can divide ourselves in half and that the personal lives we live stays outside the door the minute we are on the clock.  Valery however, knew that the one thing she could not leave at the door when she took on the position of Executive Director was her gender and her race. If anything she knew that this would be the first thing people would notice and that it would have a major impact on how the organization was viewed.

 Like many women of color on the frontlines, Valery Jean became the Executive Director of FUREE , (Families United for Racial and Economic Equality) by default. Five years ago she was the Development Director and when the position opened she hesitated as she not only thought about the economy and sustainability but more importantly how she would handle the unspoken challenges of being a women of color in that position and how would she handle the different standards she would have to face, created both by funders and other co-workers in the movement.

Valery recalls a very specific moment that happened when she was about six months into her position.  She was told in what seemed to be an advice wrapped up in compassion and empathy but really was a condescending expectation, its okay to fail!. “We might have set backs but failure has never been and will never be an option for me” says  Valery as she recalls what she responded.  As a poor immigrant women with two children Valery stands on the shoulders of a very conscious and politically active family who taught her how to survive and value that today she can vote, sit on a bus and compete for a job. “This keeps me being a mother charged to change conditions so my children don’t have to worry” says Valery.
And I say but at what cost? At what cost are women of color , executive directors , in management positions or on the frontlines being charged with social justice, running and leading organizations both in times of economic crisis and everyday where crisis is happening in their lives and communities?

 “ The clock ran out a long time ago, our communities where in crisis way before this one was published and I am not apologetic about saying it” says Valery but as executive director during this hard time Valery Jean goes to bed every day  thinking about her staff and her membership who have to deal with evictions, public assistance and  losing their jobs, while also  struggling  with paying her own bills and rent in the same way her members struggle.  As a result Valery  works 50-70 hours a week and around the clock  to provide economic sustainability  and healthcare for her staff. However, this year FUREE has lost half their budget  but doing about 75% of the same work, while funders continue to have 3 times as high of standards to produce because she is a women of color.

According to “Daring to Lead 2011”, beyond their organizations’ balance sheets, the recession has taken a personal toll on executives. Sixty-five percent (65%) of executives reported significant levels of recession-related anxiety.

“There are days it is hard for me to get out of bed, the stress is literally killing me” Valery says as she quickly mentions that she spent two weeks dealing with a near death experience. Valery and her almost exclusively women of color staff have been attending transformational organizing trainings with Social Justice Leadership, a nonprofit organization located in New York City that has supported them in linking biological stress with organizing. As a result she says, “ when there is a lot going on in the organization, then we all get sick and we pass it on; our health and our work load go hand in hand, not having a big staff stresses everyone when one person is sick  but we can’t  do less work or the organization will not be sustainable”.

On top of that because she is understaffed Valery holds several positions, she is lead organizer, development director and administrative assistance all at once leaving her to also take home work to do later.  This is had a major impact on her family. “I mean how available am I, when I am filling in gaps and doing hands on organizing, building alliances and creating policies locally and nationally; I need a break” says Valery.

However, despite the exhaustion in her voice, Valery laughs as she tells me that this is her life’s purpose, to challenge the system but something has got to change, she cannot win this fight on her own.  So for the past year, Valery has not only embarked on a journey of self care but has taken her staff along and is using this economic crisis to build alliances within and outside of the organization.

Today, Valery creates space to take care of herself, she journals, rants on face book, plays games and spends more time with her children. As Executive Director, her and her staff have created a space to address personal challenges and respecting each other as human beings first.  As a result there is a lot more communication and support. “ We operate more as a team now” says Valery.  “Together, we have created a women centered model because we know we cannot organize without addressing our needs”, this is one of the major accomplishments for her today. In addition, the most important accomplishment to date has been that organizationally she has developed one on one relationship with other Executive Directors from Mothers on the Move and the North West Bronx Clergy Coalition.

Valery Jean has come full circle since her organizing days at Hunter College, where she took classes on race, class and gender disparities. In spite of what she has gone through, she believes that this recession is a great opportunity for funders to support for and by people of color led organizations. However, they must first look at the quality of life for social justice leaders and how much is being requested of them?  “The political landscape and public policy are shifting at a fast rate and it takes lot of energy  and time to address them because they cannot be predicted and forecasted” says Valery as she finally advocates for self care, urging funders to think about pay rates so executive directors can pay themselves and their staff what they are worth.

As for other Executive Directors, women of color and women on the front lines, Valery has an important message for you, BREATHE!  “I know self care seems like a long path but it only takes 5 minutes to breathe and reflect, take a pause and check in on how you are feeling” and NETWORK! “Make sure you have a supportive network of people that you can vent with”  

For more information about FUREE log on to
FUREE is a Brooklyn-based multiracial organization made up of almost exclusively women of color. We organize low-income families to build power to change the system so that all people's work is valued and all of us have the right and economic means to decide and live out our own destinies.

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