On April 4th I sat with five of the six recipients of the Kathy Goldfarb-Findling Leadership Award while they ate lunch, reminisced about Kathy, and shared their thoughts on mentorship, leadership and the future. Present were Mike Melara, executive director of Catholic Charities, Mary Ellen Clausen, founding director of Ophelia’s Place, Mary Beth Frey, executive director of the Samaritan Center, Randi Bregman, executive director of Vera House and Sharon Owens, executive director of Southwest Community Center. Kerry Quaglia, executive director of Home HeadQuarters, was unable to attend. To submit a nominee for the 2016 Kathy Goldfarb-Findling Leadership Award click here.
On Kathy Goldfarb-Findling herself:
MIKE : My first introduction was on a conference call where she was asking hard questions, and I perceived being critical of the services we were providing. I remember very uncharacteristically fighting back with her and saying something along the lines of “I would agree with you if you were right.” [Laughter] You could hear other participants on the conference call just kind of gasp as I had this exchange. Next thing I know Kathy calls to invite me to breakfast and I figure this is it, I’m about to be laid out here in lavender. What I remember about that breakfast – Kathy was formidable, in terms of her intellect, her questioning, her inquisitive mind but we moved very very quickly from this brief exchange over the phone to talking about macro level issues for the community. In particular we were talking about poverty before it was in vogue to talk about poverty. She and I were very committed to getting things done around this issue. We ended the breakfast, and I told her what I [had been] expecting. She said “I liked the fact that you fought back, I liked the fact that you were willing to take a position to defend your organization. That was why I wanted to have breakfast with you, to be able to spend more time with you.” I think Kathy pushed. She was always pushing herself but I felt like she was pushing me towards excellence.
MARY BETH: I met Kathy when I was working at the United Way, and we used to have the same sort of conversations about what do we fund, and why do we fund, and what is its purpose, what are the results. Her purpose was to do things more effectively and do them in a way that had the most impact on the people we were trying to help. So in meetings she was always to me the most courageous and authentic person, she wasn’t afraid to say what she felt, wasn’t afraid to have difficult conversations, wasn’t afraid to encourage you to have difficult conversations and never let an elephant sit in the room. [Laughter]. The elephant was always spoken because that’s how you got to the next step, by acknowledging the things that existed and understanding where they created barriers and trying to break through those so we could all be our best selves. When I moved to the Samaritan Center she was incredibly supportive. She would throughout my time there send me little notes, “I like what you’re doing, I like how you’re doing it, let’s have lunch.” She was always someone you looked to when you needed some grounding whether you called her or you just had her in your head. It was almost like “what would Kathy do?”
MARY ELLEN: I didn’t know Kathy, so what has been really interesting for me is getting to know her through all of the people who did know her, through that lens. She sent me a letter after I got the award, apologizing for not being able to be there that evening. I don’t save a lot of things, but I saved that letter because I was so appreciative that she would take the time to do that. What I feel like I’ve learned about her was a sense of this life force in the community that had incredible energy, drive, passion, determination; wasn’t afraid to say the hard things. I really felt the sense it wasn’t a choice for her, it was just part of who she was. It’s been really humbling and honoring for me to get to know her through everybody else’s lens.
RANDI: I think I’m a little in-between because I knew her but I don’t think I worked as closely with her. But it’s just interesting how palpable the experience of Kathy is, just from the little bit of time I had with her. First time I met Kathy was when she was Program Director at Gifford and they had given a very large grant to the School of Social Work to bring in leadership speakers to try and drive the community towards new things. She was always somebody who wanted to keep pushing all of us to think about what we hadn’t thought about next, and to try something we hadn’t been doing rather than just keep doing what we’ve always been doing – without having a sense of whether we were making a difference. I appreciated that aspect.
SHARON: The memory of Kathy that sticks with me was [at a meeting when] an agency didn’t have their act together, and Kathy was the one who told them that. Just being in that room, and looking at the reaction, and everyone around that room having to own the fact that yeah, they do need to get their act together. Kathy was the one who would never let that 800-lb gorilla keep sitting there. It needed to be said, she was the vehicle to say it. What I took away from that was if it’s the truth it’s the truth, whether the recipient of the truth is an ally or an adversary the truth is the truth.
MIKE: I think Kathy was a big believer that the truth will set you free but first it will make you miserable. [Laughter]
MARY BETH: It was almost like she spoke like she had nothing to lose, but I think for her she had everything to lose because community was so important.
About the nature of the award
RANDI: I think you [pointing to Sharon] spoke about this sense of creating time and space. You and I had this conversation at an HSLC event about just creating the boundary. You hear over and over again that piece about you can’t fill others if your well’s not filled, and you go and present on those things to your teams, [but] you’re living this insanity. I think there was something in this award and the structuring of it that really was doing, not just saying. It was making you think about “what would I do if I had funds I didn’t expect to have, what’s important to me?” and I think it’s nice that they’ve added in the part about something going back to the organization. There was a lot of opportunity to think differently about the balance of life.
SHARON: We went to Mexico [with my award money]. You know the first thing was to say, we’re all going to go. I have a 25-year old and a 16-year old – and we’re all going to go. But all of a sudden I said here’s this man that I love and cherish, who puts up with [a lot], that I never see because he works at night and I work all day and into the night. So my husband and I went to Cancun and had an amazing time. I am constantly in a perpetual state of giving, about doing the work that we do, all the time, trying to save the world (or at least the Southside for me) and I have my own 16-year old black male to make sure that he functions and gets through this world, and my 25-year old who’s like “what’s the next phase of life for me?” And my husband who I never see. I have to give to the Owens family what the Owens family deserves. So I am committed to downsizing my life a little bit, so I can be a better me, I can be a better wife and mother, and then I can be a better advocate for the community.
MIKE: I remember I was obviously really honored to be selected but at the same time feeling really uncomfortable about the monetary award. It seemed very strange. I can’t remember the amount at the time…
HEIDI: It was $2500
MARY ELLEN: Mine was $10,000
RANDI: We got $150,000 [Laughter]
MIKE: I think it felt odd because you couldn’t use it for your organization. What was odd was the invitation to take care of yourself, or take care of our family, or to do something that kind of recognizes that you need to get recharged. The award was so intentional, it was a deliberate statement that you’re a valuable person and we want you to do something to take care of yourself. I think Kathy understood that no matter how hard you try there’s always more to do. The award forced me to shift my field of vision to my many blessings.
About making hard decisions
RANDI: One thing with Kathy was that … she could head down a path because she thought it was right, and maybe she was figuring out some of that stuff on the side but it wasn’t really clear, as an observer it seemed like she was …
MIKE: Charging forward…
RANDI: …charging forward, and people could follow or not. She was pretty sure she was right. She did not appear to stay up at night thinking about it.
MARY ELLEN: The award meant so much to me from the respect that here’s this phenomenal woman who recognizes, appreciates and gives permission to you as a leader and a community servant to take a break and to pause. That came a time that was really critical for me. I think probably we all go through that on a regular basis. We all have – well, I’ll speak for myself, these peaks and valleys of fatigue and exhaustion –
MARY BETH: No no that’s all of us. [Laughter]
MARY ELLEN: – feeling like you have to keep going because the drive is so strong, and the pull is so strong. But I felt like Kathy gave me permission. She was all about the connections, the outreach, the community piece, and creating this change within her circle of influence and how that has spread and the ripple effect of all of that. I think about it just being here and listening to all of you speak, from your place of not only your relationship with Kathy, but your roles in the community and what you do in your workplace and in the work that you do and the people that you serve. You know, Mike, I didn’t know you until her funeral. And since then I would consider you a good friend of mine, and somebody I could call if I’m having a breakdown.
MIKE: I wish you wouldn’t, I hope you don’t. [Laughter]
About the future of leadership
MIKE: When I think about Kathy [I remember] she was really generous in terms of mentoring, coaching, being a good colleague, being contrarian, being the person who could push you to think about different ideas. She valued high quality discussion and she valued the exchange. I feel that part of her legacy is I try to be generous in terms of working with folks whether it’s fellow leaders, new leaders, folks that are interested in breaking into the field. Part of that is not just being generous but also being willing to ask hard questions and confront each other in a way that isn’t designed to tear down but to build up. So I think every time I take a meeting with somebody, whether it’s a colleague or somebody trying to figure out what they want to do, somewhere in the back of my mind I’m paying homage to Kathy in the way that she treated me.
MARY ELLEN: I think transitional leadership is number one for me.
MARY ELLEN: Are we bringing people up to step in those gaps, and are we raising leaders, and are we listening to what the needs are and what the challenges are? … And a really great way to honor Kathy is to continue these conversations and to kind of lean into each other’s experience.
RANDI: I know that I’ve heard sometimes from some of the people at Vera House when we talk about having succession plans and people say “I’m afraid.” If we don’t show balance then I think they are afraid.
MARY ELLEN: Nobody wants this. [Murmurs of agreement]
RANDI: That’s part of the challenge. When I had this opportunity to shift my schedule and not work on Fridays anymore to take care of my grandchildren some of the same people at the office were like oh, this is interesting to see – so you can do your job but not necessarily be in the office five days. And you can. … But it’s going to be hard to get young people to follow us because I think younger people are clearer on balance. People aren’t going to succeed us if we don’t show them how to do balance.
MARY BETH: I think my obligation, maybe broader, is to find the people that have the passion for what we do. Because you can balance it and still have the passion. You can make all these choices and still give your life over to something like this. I think our best representation is the joy that we do get out of what we do. Yes, there are crappy crappy days but there is such beauty and such wonder and such magic in what it is that happens in the places that we work that I think’s almost more contagious than the “oh jeez you’re still here – I’m going home.” I think they get that part. But it’s this other piece of what your heart calls you to, and whether we find those people in traditional profit or whether we find them through our volunteers, we have this obligation to gather people with passion around us for the community … that they will then become our leaders. To me that’s where it all lives – if it’s not in your heart it doesn’t work.
MIKE: I was thinking about a field trip I went on with Kathy right after I became executive director at Catholic Charities … We went to SUNY-Morrisville to talk about fish farming because we wanted to start a fish farm in an urban setting in Syracuse. [Tells a story about how the president knew all about the importance of fish farming as well as the minute details of how the systems functioned.] Leaders can’t really afford to live in this visionary, macro “I’m just going to pontificate what I think needs to happen” world – leaders today and in the future need to be able to bridge boundaries. They need to be able to work at a macro level, support the vision, culture and mission of the organization and have the ability to dig in and get really granular around a set of issues or concerns that require their attention. It’s not an either/or proposition anymore, they have to be able to do both. When I look at you as colleagues that’s all I see. The people I gravitate towards as leaders are folks that live in those two worlds and know how to bring them together: that granular level of what we need to pay attention to and how that supports the greater vision and mission of the organization. That’s what we’re looking for in leaders – they have that passion, they can play in both sandboxes, and they are comfortable – and more importantly can bridge both in moving the organization forward.