6 Leaders Share How They Decided to Make Change in Their Communities

published May 30, 2019
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Credit: Apartment Therapy

What’s the right way to give back to your community? Is it volunteering each week at the local shelter, or tutoring after school, or attending your local political marches? Is the only way to make an impact by gaining a coveted political seat or C-suite office?

Not so, according to these powerful women, whose early experiences range from failed congressional runs to writing letters to the president, and yet whose paths have all led them to powerful, fulfilling careers where they can make a positive impact on the lives of their neighbors.

Read on, and be inspired to take the step toward that city council run that you’ve been thinking about.

Credit: Courtesy of Girls Who Code

Reshma Saujani, Founder and CEO of Girls Who Code

Reshma Saujani, founder and CEO of Girls Who Code, says her first taste of community involvement was at her local library. “I knew pretty early on that I wanted to be an activist,” Saujani said. “I grew up going to the library with my dad every weekend and checking out books about incredible women like Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosa Parks, Marie Curie, Helen Keller, and Coretta Scott King.”

In 2010, Saujani was the first Indian-American woman to run for Congress, an election she says was “a little terrifying, but exhilarating!” But whereas a run for office might be the peak of someone’s career, for Saujani, it was only the beginning.

“I had quit my job and used up all of my savings running for office,” Saujani said. “And when I lost, I realized that my world hadn’t ended, my life wasn’t over. It lit a fire in me.” During her campaign, she visited many schools and classrooms in her district and noticed a dearth of girls taking interest in computer science, and suddenly she had a new calling. In 2012 she founded Girls Who Code—an organization that works to make sure young girls of all colors and backgrounds are empowered to learn and is therefore “building the largest pipeline of future female engineers in the United States.” (And by the way, her political ambitions remained. Saujani served as Deputy Public Advocate for New York City and ran for New York Public Advocate in 2013.)

What started as 20 girls learning to code in a small rented space has turned into 185,000 young girls going through the program and counting. “We’re well on our way to reaching gender parity in entry-level tech jobs by 2027,” Saujani says. “Our college-aged alumni are choosing to major in computer science or related fields at 15 times the national rate.”

Saujani is also now a book author and published Be Brave, Not Perfect in February. For people looking to run for Congress or step up for their community in smaller, but just as impactful ways, Saujani says bravery is the key. “The leadership skill that translates most from being a political leader to leading a non-profit is bravery,” Saujani says. “It takes bravery to run for office, and it took bravery to start an organization teaching girls to code—without knowing a thing about code!”

Credit: Courtesy of Tami Sawyer

Tami Sawyer, Shelby County Commissioner and Mayoral Candidate in Memphis, TN

Commissioner Tami Sawyer, of Memphis, Tenn., hopes to become the first female mayor of a city she has already served for years. Sawyer’s community involvement started when she was just six years old, and her grandma took her along to volunteer at the local soup kitchen. Sawyer was confused why “folks didn’t have somewhere to live and food to eat,” and Sawyer’s parents fed that curiosity, encouraging her to research the issue and write the president. So, in her first act of political activism, six-year-old Sawyer did.

“I wrote Ronald Reagan a letter and the letter I got back was very basic,” Sawyer said. “’Thank you for your interest, this is a concern for us as well, oh and how cute! You’re in first grade writing it.’ I remember telling my parents that’s not enough.”

Throughout Sawyer’s childhood and into adulthood, she remained active in her school and community, and consistently stepped up to be a leader—be it volunteering at the children’s museum, running for (and winning) various positions in Student Council, or participating in youth legislature. Sawyer had endless energy for organizing around issues that were important to her.

Sawyer has always been particularly passionate about helping children—whether acting as a mentor to them during her time with Girls Inc., or organizing protests in her hometown of Memphis to ask the city for more funding for students. Unfortunately, she felt much of her protesting was ignored. So, she got the idea to run.

“[I realized] if the people who are in power aren’t going to listen to us, we need new people in power,” she said. “That’s when I started exploring running for office.” Sawyer studied many of the great political movements in history, including the women’s suffrage movement and Civil Rights movement, and took inspiration from those leaders as she looked to “shape policy in a more holistic way.” In 2016, she ran for state representative and lost. Many people told her she was too young, or “just wait” until her turn. Despite her loss, she didn’t wait before successfully winning the election for Shelby County Commissioner in 2018. And now, she’s running for Mayor with the slogan, “We Can’t Wait.” Her advice to women considering a run?

“Just do it. All of the things you need will come.” Sawyer said she battles impostor syndrome every day, but each morning, “I recommit to my work. I spend time every morning reaffirming my fight.”

Credit: Courtesy of New York Women’s Foundation

Ana Oliveira, CEO of New York Women’s Foundation

Ana Oliveira grew up in Brazil where she took a public bus to school every day, and as a student, she received a discounted bus pass. When a fare hike was announced, Oliveira led her fellow students in a fight against the price increase, and as a result of their focused action, delayed the fare hike by a year.

“I saw the power of organizing around a common goal close up,” Oliveira said. “My passion for collective action stems from that. The work we do at The New York Women’s Foundation is rooted in collective action—whether it’s grassroots women leaders working within their community to make it stronger or donors coming together to invest to advance social justice.”

As CEO of The New York Women’s Foundation, Oliveira has had experience working with women in the context of very powerful movements. As the #MeToo movement picked up steam, Oliveira saw an opportunity for NYWF to connect with the movement’s founder Tarana Burke, and offer funding and support.

“She had been doing this work for over a decade and now she was in newspapers and magazines and yet she still wasn’t getting funding,” Oliveira said. “So, I asked her to join us in creating the Fund to Support the Me Too Movement and Allies.” Already, the fund has committed one million dollars and continues to raise more money in order to invest in women of color doing important activist work.

Oliveira cites The NYWF as being the first or largest funder of many emerging organizations that support women and families, including Hot Bread Kitchen, Domestic Workers United, and Vote, Run, Lead.

“Our goal is to fund grassroots leaders who don’t get the attention and funding their work deserves,” Oliveira says. “My advice to people is to take action—whether it’s voting, running for local office, donating, volunteering.” In fact, the mantra around The NYWF offices is: Come as you are, and do what you can.

Credit: Courtesy of Hot Bread Kitchen

Karen Bornarth, Head of Workforce at Hot Bread Kitchen

“When I was a kid I did have a desire to be the first female president of the U.S.,” Karen Bornarth said, though she embarked on a slightly more delicious path. What started as a rigorous, sometimes exhausting job baking and bagging bread at Amy’s Bread turned into a leadership position that allows her to combine her love of food, teaching, and giving back to the women in her community.

After years working entry-level at Amy’s and moving up to supervise the team, Bornarth moved into teaching at the International Culinary Center, because she realized that she could influence others for the better. Bornarth started in the bread baking department, which she soon ended up running. The bread-baking community as Bornarth describes is “very tight-knit.” In fact, “it was the first time in my life where people were galvanized around one activity and one subject.” The ability to have influence in that special space was even more invigorating.

Influence, impact, and bread—all ended up in the recipe for Bornarth’s work at Hot Bread Kitchen. In her previous jobs, she took note that most of the people working alongside her were men, and particularly men of color, who didn’t have much formal education or economic opportunity. “I became really interested in why these are the people who are filling these jobs, and that they are ‘dead end jobs’ for people even though they are incredibly hard jobs.” She also noticed that there were very few women in these positions, which Bornarth saw as a problem given that these were good jobs that were high in demand.

“My focus is really to try and improve the lives of people who do this kind of work, to increase the opportunities available for women particularly, and to influence the quality of jobs in the industry,” Bornarth said. “We are in a position of power. There’s a reckoning across the food industry as people realize these are terrible environments for women and we’re in a position to push those organizations to change.” Bornarth herself experienced her fair share of “harassment and hazing” during her time in the service industry.

Though Bornarth is now in a major leadership role, she makes an effort to stay connected to the women that come through Hot Bread Kitchen’s job training program. The “cohorts” that come through have grown from a handful of women to nearly 35 at a time; after graduating the program, they are placed in a job and receive retention support. Bornarth makes it a priority to get to know at least a couple of the members in a personal way.

For those looking to give back or step up for their community, Bornarth has two pieces of advice: volunteer or look where you spend your money. “Put your money where your mouth is,” she said. “There’s been a ton of interest about eating dinner at the restaurant where farmers are supported, but not enough focus on the quality of jobs in restaurants that are serving the food.” Pay attention to the local companies you’re supporting—it’s the simplest way to make a statement in your town.

Credit: Courtesy of Beth Fukumoto

Beth Fukumoto, Former Hawaiian State Representative

Beth Fukumoto is a former member of the Hawaiian House of Representatives and founder of the non-profit organization, Solving Equal. At the time of her election in 2014, Fukumoto was the youngest person to serve in that position, but she didn’t always have political ambitions.

“I don’t think I understood how important it is to get involved until sometime after graduate school,” Fukumoto said. “I didn’t know how important civic engagement was until I actually encountered the real-life consequences of not paying enough attention to how our leaders’ decisions impact all of us.” For Fukumoto, civic engagement took the form of a political run.

“I was excited to try to make a difference in my community,” Fukumoto said. “I felt like the people running our government weren’t paying attention to the needs of people struggling to find a job or afford their rent. I was excited to try to change that.” Fukumoto served in the Hawaiian state legislature from 2014 until 2018, when she was voted out after criticizing the President during Hawaii’s Women’s March. That was the impetus for her to make a big political change, and she decided to leave the Republican party to pursue membership in the Democratic Party.

“I switched because I felt that my values better aligned with the Democratic Party—particularly post-Trump,” Fukumoto said. “For me, more Republicans needed to stand up and say that the way he was treating people was unacceptable, and, when I realized I was one of few voices trying to carry that message, I knew it was time to go.” The switch, though intimidating, was embraced and supported by her community. Today, she’s working closely with the Democratic Party of Hawaii to try to build civic engagement leading up to 2020.

Now, Fukumoto believes passion is the key to activism. “Know what you’re passionate about,” Fukumoto said. “Political office comes with a lot of power than can distract you from why you got there in the first place. Know what you need to do in the world and don’t let anything take away from it.”

Credit: Courtesy of Kiva

Pam Yanchik Connealy, COO and CFO of Kiva

Pam Yanchik Connealy credits her parents with her early activist roots: her father was a volunteer firefighter and her mother worked in the community centers. “It felt like our life revolved around volunteering and working within the community,” Connealy said.

Throughout her childhood, Connealy attended town halls and community meetings with her parents, and was always encouraged to engage with others whether or not they shared her particular political beliefs, and remembers her early activist days fondly.

“I remember when Jimmy Carter came to our hometown to speak, and his beliefs about poverty and taking care of each other and doing great community work really resonating with me,” Connealy said. Years later, she was able to meet former President Carter during her time at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, where Carter was also involved. “It was a really great reminder about how the things we learn as small children, we take with us into adulthood.”

Now, at Kiva, an international nonprofit focused on expanding financial access to underserved communities, Connealy serves as the COO and CFO, and is particularly passionate about financial inclusion for women. “When women thrive financially, families thrive, communities thrive, global health outcomes improve, and educational outcomes improve,” Connealy said. And with that, both Connealy and Kiva are hoping to break the stigma that “if you work in non-profit, you have to be poor.”

“Make money or do good in the world seems really disconnected to me,” says Connealy. “We’re focused on a new experiment in the nonprofit space: pay a market-based compensation for people doing nonprofit work at an intersection of technology, financial services, and nonprofit.”

In addition to her leadership role at Kiva, Connealy focuses her time on working with young female entrepreneurs and lending business advice. “As a finance and operations executive, I have a point of view,” Connealy said. “I spend a lot of time and energy coaching young female entrepreneurs on their business strategy and how to really think big about what’s possible for them.” Connealy has always been conscious of her position as a powerful female executive, and uses that platform to encourage and lift up other women looking for success in their field.

But for Connealy, she believes the most effective way to get involved with your community is always volunteering a bit of your time. “Whether you have an hour or 10 hours a week; one week a month or one weekend a year, make an impact,” she said.