Women in Nonprofits: Why More aren’t in Positions of Power

Traveling to far-flung places and helping people with their basic needs was Julie Chase-Morefield‘s dream in high school. Her mother grew up impoverished and shared stories of standing in line to get federal food commodities. Now Chase-Morefield is president and CEO of the Lorain-based Second Harvest Food Bank of North Central Ohio.

Diana Natalicio‘s high school set low expectations for students simply because they were from low-income families. Girls were taught home economics or secretarial skills, while boys learned woodworking and machine shop skills. As the first female president of the University of Texas at El Paso, Natalicio provided new opportunities for both low-income and Latino students.

Anita Bradley dropped out of college and struggled with drugs after both her father and uncle died in a boating accident. Bradley endured one crisis after another, including a miscarriage, until she finally sought treatment. Years later, Bradley founded the Northern Ohio Recovery Association in Cleveland.

Yet, driven and successful women like Natalicio, Bradley and Chase-Morefield are habitually demeaned on the job.

While studies show that 45% of nonprofit CEOs are women, the illusion of gender parity dissipates with closer examination, said Patricia Deyton, a senior adviser for the Council of Women World Leaders, an adjunct professor at the Simmons University School of Business and the Harvard Extension School in Boston and former CEO of the American Red Cross of Massachusetts Bay.

“When you look at the nonprofits with power—the ones with voice and the nationwide nonprofits—that’s where you see disparity in leadership,” Deyton said.

Women nonprofit CEOs earn 34% less than their male counterparts, said Deyton, who is also a senior associate at the Center for Gender in Organizations, a research group at Simmons University. And, she said, women hold just 18% of CEO roles at nonprofits with budgets over $50 million.

Such disparities make it difficult for women to lead, Chase-Morefield said.

“Women are collaborators who just want to make things happen without worrying about who gets the credit,” she said. “But that’s not the way the rest of the world is.”

As a result, Chase-Morefield thought she couldn’t have flaws.

“I felt I had to be much more serious and much more prepared than men because I was being judged on a much higher standard,” she said. “My predecessor had been male, and there was a little bit of a ‘good ol’ boys’ thing with the men in the community. It was frustrating. They wouldn’t take me seriously.

“People would even say, ‘You went into nonprofits because you couldn’t make it in the business world.'”

Women’s work? No, women’s values

Nearly 75% of nonprofit employees are women—not because they can’t make it in business but because the sector reflects women’s values to a greater degree, Deyton said.

Indeed, most staff and board members at Humble Design in Pontiac, Mich., are women—though not intentionally. Founder and co-CEO Treger Strasberg said the work resonates with more women.

Strasberg understands Chase-Morefield’s frustration.

“I’ve seen directly how being a woman has impacted my business,” she said. “Small meetings tend to be run by women-driven organizations. But when we get to the large organizations seeking large dollars, serious money, it’s a male-centric room.”

Strasberg has been studying homelessness for 11 years and even talked about affordable housing at the White House with Ben Carson, the U.S. secretary of Housing and Urban Development. “But I’ve been to meetings where there were 16 people, and I was the only woman,” she said. “And they turn to my husband, who is not an expert, for answers.”

Likewise, Diana Sieger finds she’s not always taken seriously or included in networking opportunities even after being appointed president of the Grand Rapids Community Foundation more than 30 years ago.

“I don’t play golf,” she said, “But I survive.”

Sieger credits the respect she gets in boardrooms to her outspoken nature.

“I would be the only woman sitting around the table, and I wanted so desperately to be taken seriously,” she said. “But I was never shy about advisedly expressing my opinion, and that worked in my favor.

“I remember sitting in a meeting, and the men were denigrating Hillary Clinton in pretty unsavory terms. I said, ‘I want you to go home and say that to your wife, your daughter and your granddaughter and see how they react.’

“From that time forward, I didn’t hear those kinds of comments.”

The takeaway, Sieger said, was not to allow herself to be minimized, to address it then and there and to learn how to sit down with a business leader and hold her own.

“I take the attitude that you may not like me, but you’re going to respect me,” she said.

Nonetheless, Sieger acknowledged that being a white woman in leadership is a truly different experience from being a minority female leader.

“Women say men treat us as if we’re invisible,” she said, “but African American women and Latinx women are truly invisible people.”

Case in point: Helene Gayle, M.D., noticed throughout her career that she could be the only leader in the room and still be discounted by male colleagues.

“Luckily, I came into my roles in the times when being the first woman was not the uphill battle that it was 20 or 30 years ago.

“Still, I have had male counterparts that were my direct reports, and reports of my direct reports, who got more attention in meetings than I did,” said Gayle, president and CEO of The Chicago Community Trust, former president and CEO of CARE and a physician who worked with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation on HIV/AIDS and other health issues.

As a minority leader, NORA’s Anita Bradley finds she must do more than her male counterparts to get the outcomes for the people she’s serving.

“I have brought in more than 20 million federal dollars,” Bradley said, “but it’s not easy.”

It’s what you know—and who, too

The ability to acquire essential funding, Bradley said, comes down having access to a larger social network. That’s something that men and white people in general tend to have because they are invited to serve on more boards of directors.

“Clearly, being on boards provides connections, knowledge and experience,” Deyton said.

Likewise, Cassie Nielsen, president of Talent for VMG Partners, recently told Yahoo! Finance it “makes economic sense” for women to serve on boards as they make 70-80% of consumer purchasing decisions.

“Yet, because women are underrepresented on boards of directors, those boards lack a diversity of decision-makers, which allows unconscious bias to play out,” Deyton said.

Sieger of the Grand Rapids Foundation said boards of trustees also help build a good network of female leaders and other support and are easier to get on than boards of directors.

It took a while to get her foot in the door, but Eva Garza Dewaelsche, president and CEO of SER Metro-Detroit Jobs for Progress Inc., said sitting on several boards has allowed her to penetrate a normally all-male group of leaders. Dewaelsche sits on the advisory board of Comerica Bank, is a member of the New Detroit board of directors and is a Detroit police commissioner.

Unfortunately, she said, she has received more help from men than women.

“I would like to be able to say that women have opened doors to opportunity for me, Dewaelsche said. “But that hasn’t been the case for most of my life because they are not in leadership roles or were not when I started 25 years ago.

“Women have to place themselves in situations where they can have that opportunity—where they can be leaders. I take advantage of every opportunity that comes my way to learn how to be a leader.”

Whatever the reasons for the inequality, women’s work should not be diminished, Deyton said. “Women at work in this country’s more than 900,000 charitable organizations are making huge contributions to the fabric of our society.”

This story was originally published at FordFund.org/our-stories. Read more about these incredible women:

Compassion Becomes a Career for Women in Nonprofits
http://FordFund.org/our-stories.Bringing Dignity to the Struggles of Others
From Roots in ’60s and ’70s Grow 3 Advocates for Social Change 

Music Matters: Here’s Why

Kurton Harrison

By Leslie D. Green 

The power to change lives

The Ford Motor Company Fund recognizes that creativity and artistic expression enrich lives and inspire innovation and that communities which support and provide access to the arts are stronger for it. In this collection of stories, we share how and why music affects us at all ages and stages of our lives.

Kurton Harrison III was a quiet child, who met most of his developmental milestones. Yet, he didn’t make eye contact and he didn’t talk. He also was sensitive to loud noises and certain sensations. Warm water caused him burning pain.

After years of taking her son to fruitless doctors’ appointments, LaJuana Harrison finally received the diagnosis. Five-year-old Kurton had Autism Spectrum Disorder, a developmental condition that affects behavior and communication. The doctor reported Kurton would doubtless end up in a group home.

Kurton Harrison III in the JEDI Jazz Recording Studio

Kurton Harrison III, of the Jazz Educators of Detroit Jazz Ensemble, in the recording studio.Photo by Jeff Dunn

Despite the negative prognosis, LaJuana Harrison, her husband and her mother dedicated much of the next year to painstakingly teach Kurton to speak. And although they succeeded in getting him to speak, Ms. Harrison said music is what taught her son to live.

MSU Community Music School-Detroit

Shortly after asking for a trumpet at age 7, Kurton began attending the Detroit Academy of Arts and Sciences, where other children bullied him. When he was 12, he began attending the Aspiring Musicians Program (AMP) Camp at the MSU Community Music School-Detroit (CMS-D), an independent affiliate of Michigan State University that offers music classes and therapy.

Kurton Harrison’s hard work, his family’s perseverance and the support they received through the network of music are paying off. Harrison graduated from the Detroit School of the Arts in June and will attend Oberlin Conservatory of Music this fall on a full scholarship.

Music on the brain

Music’s impact on Kurton Harrison aligns with years of research by scientific researchers and academic experts who have found that music increases productivity, advances learning, boosts self-esteem, and helps heal bodies and minds. These are some of the reasons militaries use music to improve coordination, surgeons use it to heighten concentration, physicians use it to rehabilitate patients and parents use it to calm infants.

Neurologist Alexander Pantelyat, who studies the effects of music on the body, is the founder and co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Music and Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland. Dr. Pantelyat explained that music — whether listened to, played or sung — activates more parts of the brain than any other physical activity. As a result, music can improve social behavior, such as eye contact, and social interaction, notably between children with autism and their parents.

Lauren Koff

Lauren Koff (left) and Cristina Rodriquez, co-founders of Miami-based Mind&Melody Inc.

“People on an autism spectrum might be hypersensitive to lighting, touch and sounds,” Cristina Rodriguez, president and co-founder of Miami-based Mind&Melody Inc. said. “Music is probably one of those things that doesn’t feel so intense and can bring comfort.”

Kurton Harrison agreed. “Music never hurts, even when it makes you emotional,” he said. “It can be a cure, any time, any place.”

Harrison, who also participated in the Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s Civic Youth programs, said that music also teaches diligence. “My mindset changed (because of) music,” he said. “I was in an environment where I didn’t want to fail. You have to study and you have to practice. Music is hard work.”

Banding together

Learning to sing or play an instrument in a classroom setting can also lift children, emotionally and economically, out of poverty, researchers have found.

In 2017, the Latin GRAMMY Cultural Foundation in collaboration with the Ford Motor Company Fund held a Latin GRAMMY in the Schools program at Miami Senior High School as part of their initiative to give music students an opportunity to learn about the music industry.

Since 2014, the partnership has donated more than $360,000 in musical instruments to more than 6,000 students in U.S. cities, such as Dallas, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Miami and New York and in Argentina, Mexico City and the U.S. Territory of Puerto Rico.

Miami Senior High band students performed as part of the 2017 event. The opportunity was “a big shot in the arm” for the teens, said band director Michele Fernández Denlinger. She said the kids felt like professionals playing a Latin jazz salsa under stage the lights.

Even more impactful, however, were the $20,000 in new instruments the school received as part of the event, she said.

“Our instruments had been taped and tied together,” Denlinger said. “But there are only certain things you can do with an inferior instrument.”

The data show more than 80 percent of students at Miami Senior High School live in disadvantaged communities. However, Denlinger said they can escape that through music, especially if they have the right instruments.

“Having a good instrument creates opportunities for someone who is inspired to play music,” she said.

Denlinger recalled one student who lived in the middle of Miami’s Little Havana community. “They had absolutely nothing,” Denlinger said, “But, he got full ride to play tuba at Yale.”

A sense of belonging accompanies being in a band or a choir and that feeling contributes to a child’s emotional growth and ability to succeed in every facet of life, Denlinger said.

“Imagine a teenager with all these self-esteem issues and home life issues who finds a place where they are part of something, a place where they are getting cheers, they are doing solos, and getting support,” Denlinger said. “Once you get them to feel like they are a vital part of something, like a band, it inspires them. Kids with social anxiety come out of their shells. Kids who didn’t have anyone to talk to at home find a family.”

That bond helped Denlinger’s family heal after the death of her son in 2002.

“Getting back into band (in 2006) helped me get back to me because being able to play music is intoxicating in a good way,” Denlinger said. “Music healed my whole family.”

Violinist Anita Dumar found kinship with the Sphinx Organization, where she volunteers while attending the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. The Sphinx Organization is a Detroit-based nonprofit that helps find, develop and promote young classical string players of Black and Latinix heritage. Working to address the lack of diversity and inclusion in classical music, the Sphinx Organization has received support from organizations that include the Ford Fund.

“Sphinx provides a community of people who look like you and are talking about issues in your field,” Dumar said.

The Sphinx society also gave Dumar a goal.

“As a young person, I saw what was going on in the world and thought, ‘I’m just sitting in my room practicing, what good am I doing?'” Dumar said. “But Sphinx shows that what I do affects what happens with underrepresented musicians. Music gave me a purpose that fit me. Losing music would be like losing a part of myself.”

Notes of hope

Richard White was literally lost.

“Every day was about finding food and trying to find my mom,” White said.

Dr. Richard White with tuba at dusk from documentary film, R.A.W.

Dr. Richard Antoine White during production of the documentary film, R.A.W. Photo by John Waire

Born prematurely to a mom who suffered from alcoholism, White started his life homeless on the streets of Baltimore.

During a snow storm one night, a 4-year-old White crawled into an entryway to stay warm. Miraculously, a stranger found him and contacted his mother’s adoptive parents, Richard and Vivian McClain. They took White in; but, he wouldn’t speak to the McClains beyond saying the basics like, “Thank you, yes, no, please, hello and goodbye.”

Still, the McClains were supportive. They gave White a trumpet when he was in fourth grade and then threatened to take it away if he didn’t improve his grades.

“I never got a failing grade again,” White said. “The trumpet gave me a voice, it belonged to me.”

Musicians process music as another language, scientists have discovered. In addition, experts have found that knowing multiple languages makes learning subsequent languages easier. The ties between music and language help explain how Kurton Harrison can play multiple instruments and why it was easy for Richard White to not only play the trumpet, but to switch to the sousaphone, an instrument in the tuba family.

Music opened doors for Richard White. When he showed up at the Baltimore School of the Arts and requested an audition – one day after auditions ended – administrators saw the 15-year-old’s passion and gave him a chance anyway.

One hard-fought opportunity turned into another. Eventually, White earned a scholarship to the Peabody Conservatory of Music at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

Today, White is an associate Marching Band director at the University of New Mexico. He also is principal tubist for the New Mexico Philharmonic and founding member and principal tubist for the Santa Fe Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

“Music became the thing that made the impossible possible,” White said. “I went from surviving to living. Without it, I would have stayed lost.”

Music Helps Us Learn by

    • creating a desired atmosphere
    • building a sense of anticipation
    • energizing learning activities
    • changing brain wave states
    • focusing concentration
    • increasing attention
    • improving memory
    • facilitating a multisensory learning experience
    • releasing tension
    • enhancing imagination
    • aligning groups
    • developing rapport
    • providing inspiration and motivation
    • adding an element of fun

Source: LifeSounds Educational Services

This story was originally published on fordfund.org. The Ford Motor Company Fund supports a range of music-rich programming, including the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the Mosaic Youth Theatre of Detroit, the Sphinx Organization, The Ark in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the League of American Orchestras in Washington, D.C., the GRAMMY Museum’s GRAMMY in the Schools program and Latin GRAMMY Cultural Foundation’s Latin GRAMMY in The Schools program.

Read more about Kurton Harrison and Richard White.

Handing out hope

Boy with his "Avengers"-themed hand prosthetic.
This story was originally published on FordFund.org.


Inventor Gino Tubaro shows you are never too young to change lives

Atomic Lab founder and inventor Gino Tubaro proves youth isn’t an impenetrable barrier to invention, entrepreneurship or community service.

“From childhood, I started to imagine what I could invent with my ideas,” Tubaro said.

At 12 years of age, the Argentinian invented a device that could recognize the difference between an appliance and fingers and would prevent electrocution by interrupting the current if fingers were touching an electrical outlet. His invention earned him AR$500 pesos and significant recognition from the World Intellectual Property Organization, a United Nations agency that promotes innovation and creativity that benefits all countries.

Encouraged, Tubaro continued inventing. His creations include a wearable device that recognizes letters in written text and translates them into braille in real time.

From prototypes to prosthetics

At 16, Tubaro decided to construct a 3D printer from the spare parts of paper printers. The idea was to use the machine to prototype his inventions and try to create a company. The company would also sell the 3D printers Tubaro built.

“After I had my machine, I wanted to go to forums and talks and showcase my projects,” he said.

With one Facebook message, Tubaro’s plans changed and so did the lives of many.

Argentina resident Ivana Gimenz didn’t have the $10,000 it would cost to buy a prosthesis for her son, Felipe Miranda, who was missing a hand since birth. She messaged Tubaro on Facebook to ask if he could use the printer to construct a prosthetic for Felipe.

“It was a challenge,” said Tubaro, who now is studying electrical engineering. “I am not into medical or biotechnology, but I always love to design things.”

Tubaro based the prototype on a photo of Felipe and the knowledge that he would have limited movement.

“The first one was really, really bad,” Tubaro said. “It broke really easily, and we had to make a lot of improvements.”

After getting direction from medical professionals, Tubaro and his colleagues figured out how to make it. A few months later, Tubaro sent the prosthesis by mail, as the inventors weren’t able to travel the 500 kilometers to deliver the device.

Before long, Tubaro received photos of Felipe using it to hold a fishing pole and perform other valuable activities. Elated, the young inventor uploaded a video of Felipe and his new hand to the internet.

Worldwide recognition

The video was a hit. What’s more, his new company, Atomic Lab, gained notoriety.

In 2015, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) honored Tubaro as one of its Innovators Under 35. In 2017, Tubaro had a private meeting with then-President Barack Obama in Argentina.

“We didn’t know at the time many people would want them,” Tubaro said. “But tens of thousands of people saw the video we uploaded. After, many people wanted the prosthesis. They sent requests through Google forms.”

Alliances amplify efforts

Gino Tubaro has since been able to deliver no-cost prosthetic limbs to children and adults who need them in Argentina, Mexico, and Brazil with the help of partners that include Ford Fund, Disney Mexico, the History Channel and prison inmates.

“We teach people in prison in Argentina how to 3D print and assemble the prosthetics,” Tubaro said. “The project changed people’s mindset, and the numbers of people going back to prison has decreased because they feel better with the work they are doing.”

The History Channel donated $60,000 to the Atomic Lab Limbs project in 2016. The funds went toward supplies, tools, virtual teaching sites and research and development.

For Disney Mexico, Atomic Lab designed 60 brightly colored, superhero-themed prosthetics that movie stars distributed.

“The kids were really excited,” said Tubaro, who taught himself English by watching television. “They started to not only be able to grab things, but they also said they felt like superheroes.”

Social media nets automotive partnership 

A major boost to the nonprofit came after Tubaro tweeted that his nonprofit needed a vehicle to increase distribution. He hoped to work with automobile companies. Ford was the first to respond.

“After going to many other motor companies, the only one we felt cared more about the community than selling the car was Ford,” Tubaro said.

“He shares the same vision of Henry Ford,” said Joe Avila, community development manager of U.S. and Latin America at Ford Motor Company Fund. “He’s committed to making people’s lives better, which is what the Ford Fund is all about.”

Avila met Tubaro in late 2017, when the young inventor returned from speaking at the London School of Economics. There, Tubaro discussed Project #Argentinatón, Atomic Lab’s mission to deliver as many prosthetic limbs as possible to Argentinians in need.

“It was a no-brainer for us to partner with him,” Avila said. “He’s a social entrepreneur.”

Young boy trying on prosthetic,

Atomic Lab employed a donated Ford Ranger and Gino Tubaro’s solar-powered 3D printer to make and deliver prostheses at no cost to clients. Hook-and-loop tape makes the prosthetics adjustable, and plastic keeps the weight light.

“We found a shared vision with Atomic Lab: Improve people’s lives by applying innovation and ingenuity to make accessible for them what they need to achieve it,” said Carlos Galmarini, institutional relations director of Ford Argentina.

Road to success

To start, Ford loaned the nonprofit a fully equipped Ford Ranger for the planned cross-country journey. Ford also provided extensive modifications – “options” – exclusive to the assignment.

“It’s a big pickup,” Tubaro said. “And we created a 3D printer that (essentially) floated at the back of the truck so it would not get any physical interaction while the pickup was on the road.”

Essentially, Avila said, they used the method for stabilizing the printers that the military uses to transport bombs. “If they hit a hole or something, the printer would not move and would not deviate from the printing process.”

That wasn’t their only vehicle modification. They attached a dome, cables and solar panels to the exterior to power the 3D printers.

“It takes five or six hours to print each part for the prostheses. The idea was to print them over the 500 kilometers between each town,” Tubaro said.

They also produced common parts in advance of the journey. Volunteers at Ford’s Pacheco Stamping and Assembly plant in Buenos Aires helped assemble prosthetics for delivery.

Using the Ford Ranger, Ford Fund and Ford Argentina helped Atomic Lab deliver nearly 200 prosthetic limbs around Buenos Aires. In all, Tubaro and his team were able to deliver more than 1,000 prosthetic devices to people in outlying towns. They also reached those in remote areas that even “post mail” cannot reach.

“My favorite part was the delivery,” Avila said. “You go to the house to deliver to young girls, young boys and adults, and it’s very hard to contain emotions because you are making their lives better.”

Avila said Tubaro didn’t just drop off the medical device and leave. “He also answered any questions. He would open the truck and bring the children and explain how everything worked. He would tell the kids what motivated him. He would print a small gift and tell the kids about following their dreams and encourage them to be entrepreneurs and invent things. The kids would be so excited.”

At the end of the journey, Ford donated $40,000 and the Ranger so Tubaro’s vision could grow. Now, Atomic Lab is working to partner with 44 countries to deliver more prostheses to those who find cost a barrier.

Next, Tubaro said, he wants to improve on the product with robotics and artificial intelligence. These technologies could improve the user’s ability to grab and hold objects.

Leading by example

Oftentimes, youth have great ideas but don’t know the next step.

The key is to make strong connections, said Sibrina Collins, executive director of the Marburger STEM Center. Part of Lawrence Technological University in Southfield, Michigan, the Center holds business pitch competitions for high school kids from faith-based organizations and an annual Shark Tank Entrepreneurship summer camp.

Keith Young, founder of Ecotek Lab, a Michigan-headquartered, science-based research cohort for youth in Detroit, Baltimore and Orlando, sees common traits among young inventors – from their uninhibited creativity to the barriers of entry they face.

“Kids are all looking for the same thing, an opportunity to explore,” Young said.

Young, who advised enterprise systems for Fortune 500 companies as a consultant for Deloitte, started looking at the quality of education his own kids were getting. That’s when he developed Ecotek, what he calls “a YMCA for scientists” to create patentable products in myriad fields, such as material science, citrus greening and life science.

Young said youth who don’t have a STEM Center or organization like Ecotek should look for mentors at maker groups or tech accelerators.

Gino Tubaro, now 23 years old, hopes to be an inspiration to those around him by launching his own mentoring organization.

Gino Tubaro video chatting with a client.

Inventor Gino Tubaro uses video chats to shorten the distance between himself and clients when he cannot visit in person.

Tubaro’s League of Inventors incubator lab would teach kids – ages 6 to 16 – how to 3D print, use a computer numeric control (CNC) machine, code, laser cut, design and more through hands-on projects and workshops.

“It’s his vision that more people like him will do these things around the world,” Ford Fund’s Avila said.

As a result, Ford Fund created and developed the first Ford Fund Entrepreneurship Ambassador Award for Tubaro. The award will include a $25,000 donation to Atomic Lab and a visit to Detroit on June 16, 2019, where the young inventor will be keynote speaker at a special event. He also will be part of a judging panel and engage in the Ford Fellowship program that will bring about 20 entrepreneurs from around the world to Detroit.

“Young people say, ‘He’s young like me, he still has to finish college,’” Avila said. “Gino is able to connect his dream with his passion and his skills. He’s saying, ‘Follow your passion. If you don’t have skills, develop them. Create something, invent something.’”

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Need a change agent? Look to your CIO

In his 50 years in the tech industry, Francis (Fran) Dramis has discovered his passions: investing in startup and emerging businesses and helping leaders give meaning to people who work for them.

Fran Dramis

Francis (Fran) Dramis

In addition to comprehending the technical, financial and logistical aspects of running a technology business, the author, investor, retired CIO, and change agent understands what fuels morale and aids employee retention and innovation.

For his keynote address at the Michigan CIO of the Year ORBIE Awards program, Dramis, the former CIO of BellSouth, plans to present the importance of CIOs becoming meaningful interveners in the lives of their employees.

“They need to go beyond the task of just producing output and help the people working for them get meaning from their tasks,” Dramis said.

About box



The CIO Challenge

Dramis, who also judges CIO-related awards, is attune with what makes an effective and innovative leader.

While CTOs are purely technically focused, he said, CIOs take what the CTO has and blends that with their business knowledge. CIOs must convert businesspeople into accepting that technology will change their business processes.

“That kind of nudging is really tough,” Dramis said. “A good CIO will be the instigator of the transformation of a major business. I was always on the cusp of a transformational event that allowed me to do work in a different way.”

As senior vice president, CIO and chief security officer of BellSouth, which AT&T acquired, Dramis was responsible for technology in the company, software connected into public network switches, data and physical security. In other words, he helped BellSouth evolve from being just a phone company to becoming a more connected, technology company.

Long before COVID, Dramis convinced the business leaders he worked with that salespeople didn’t need offices. As long as they had technology, they could work remotely and be more flexible.

“Today, change is upon us because of COVID and other things, and working remotely is the norm,” he said. “A good CIO would have known that’s where it was going in advance and been capable of capturing important information and social interaction prior to COVID to make remote work happen.”

A good CIO also realizes that changes need to be implemented in “digestible chunks,” he said. “If they implement technology too fast, Bob or Joan, who have been handling it the same way for 10 years and doing it well, may not be able to keep up,” he said.

The CIO Path

Dramis, who authored three books, including “The Four Secrets of Retention: Holding Mindshare in a Transitional World,” has decades worth of advice for seasoned CIOs as well as for those just beginning post-secondary education and considering careers in information systems management.

He said the latter need to begin with a technical background, or platform, to which they add an MBA or MBA equivalent.

“The biggest issues are in the translation process. You need to speak the language of the business,” he said.

This knowledge is crucial because many leaders don’t know the systems, or assets, supporting them, and good CIOs value their assets.

“If you were running an oil rig, you would know the life of the assets,” he said. “A company’s most important assets are its people; yet, many leaders don’t understand their value.”

Acknowledging the value of one’s technical staff is why when Salomon Brothers Inc. approached him about being a managing director and CIO, Dramis told them he wouldn’t take the job unless he could make the technology portion of the company a separate entity.

“When you treat technology people like back office people, that’s what you get.,” he said. “By making technology a separate company, the tech people could be treated like front-office employees. By making them front-office employees, you attract more skilled workers.”

Transforming a Life

Dramis was mentoring someone in his architecture group at Salomon Bros. when he learned the man wanted, at the end of his career, to make a presentation to the national science foundation. So, the pair looked out for the credentials needed to do so and Dramis mapped out an incremental plan that could get him to that point.

The plan included becoming a consultant, joining a venture capital group, earning his Ph.D. and becoming a notable scholar, all of which required skills the man didn’t yet have. But the man started by learning to write and make presentations.

Dramis left Salomon and the men lost touch. But four years later, he picked up a magazine and saw among a list of the four hottest technical consultants a photo of his former mentee. Years later, Dramis learned he was lead technical person at a venture group. Years after that, Dramis discovered the man had become a professor and liaison between his university and all government entities.

“As I walked into the office, we celebrated that he was there based on the plan that was put together so many years before,” Dramis said.

If people get only one idea from his keynote address, Dramis hopes it’s that leaders are intervening in people’s lives every day. That intervention can be task- or meaning-focused, but it’s the latter that’s truly consequential and transformative. “The only way to help an employee get more meaning from their tasks is to know the employee’s endgame. Be an end-of-career facilitator, and you’ll get more employee retention.”

Crain's Content Studio originally published this story here for MichiganCIO.

The race toward economic and social stability

Businessman jumps over gap. Overcoming obstacles business concept

By Leslie D. Green | Special to Crain’s Content Studio

Economists suggest the speed of recovery from pandemic-related shutdowns shows the United States is on an upswing that could continue into 2021. However, presidential transition-related conflict and a third-wave surge in global coronavirus cases have economists, investors and businesses on edge.

Credit spreads, overall financial-stress indicators and the dollar have remained relatively tame, suggesting the equity market is mainly consolidating its outsized gains while anticipating clarity on the profits outlook. Indicators, including positive corporate earnings in the third quarter, have been pointing toward stronger U.S. growth—particularly since they rebounded faster than during the last recession. And the United States has been experiencing solid momentum in economic growth so far in the fourth quarter, bringing activity within the 90 percent to 95 percent range of pre-coronavirus pandemic action.

Yet, uncertainty remains. Business leaders question how the President-elect’s plans and policies, including taxes, health care and tariffs, will affect industries and their consumers. And, as more states implement and reestablish COVID-borne restrictions, worries over country-wide shutdowns and hopes for an additional stimulus are growing.

“We have seen a fairly quick rebound. But that last 5 percent of economic growth is going to be very, very difficult to reclaim. It will be a long climb—and probably not until 2022—until we return to the levels of economic growth we had prior to the pandemic,” said Matt Elliott, Midwest Region Executive for Business Banking and Detroit Market President of Bank of America.  

Elliott recently moderated a virtual roundtable conversation with metro Detroit business, academic and community leaders about the state of the region transitioning from 2020 to 2021.

collage image of roundtable participants

Top row, from left: Christina Brown, Consumer Research Insights Analyst, HMS Mfg. Co.; Matt Elliott, Midwest Region Executive for Business Banking and Detroit Market President of Bank of America; Ki (Kouhaila) Hammer, President and CEO, Ghafari Associates; Darienne Driver Hudson, President and CEO, United Way for Southeastern Michigan. Bottom row, from left: Rip Rapson, President, The Kresge Foundation; Nicole Sherard-Freeman, Executive Director, Workforce Development & Detroit at Work, City of Detroit; Michelle Sourie Robinson, President and CEO, Michigan Minority Supplier Development Council; M. Roy Wilson, President, Wayne State University.

Nicole Sherard-Freeman, executive director of Workforce Development & Detroit at Work for the City of Detroit, said city administrators are encouraged by the recent bump in economic indicators but recognize that it’s unlikely to be the real story.

“We won’t know the real measure of impact of what’s happening with the economy for another 12 or 18 months,” she said. “That’s when we’ll start to feel the ripple effects of what happens when you close casinos and hotels and restaurants, and when Detroit’s small business community fails at a rate of about 40 or 50 percent.”

Going beyond economic figures and issues of financial volatility, roundtable participants also delved into the impact of this dramatic year and their concerns surrounding the future of COVID-19, supply chain shifts, racial justice and equity.

Down, Not Out

Increasing cases of coronavirus in the U.S. and Europe is a top concern for investors and business leaders alike though many businesses have been able to rehire workers and the number of unemployment claims is decreasing. Still, there’s growing, but cautious, optimism.

The City looks at residential employment, instead of unemployment, as the real measure of how economic development, economic stability and mobility are affecting Detroit neighborhoods. That number was close to 231,000 in February 2020, Sherard-Freeman said.

“But those numbers dropped in April to 165,000. It looked a lot like a 90-degree angle fall off a cliff,” she said.

With 208,000 residents employed as of late October, the city appeared to be bouncing back. Still, Sherard-Freeman said city leaders remain watchful.

While dips in the economy often hit contract labor first, that sector is also usually the first to rebound, said Ki (Kouhaila) Hammer, president and CEO of Ghafari Associates, which operates technical staffing company G-Tech.

“Before COVID, things were going just fine. Then the pandemic hit, and business in the G-Tech world went down by about 50 percent almost overnight,” she said. The company furloughed staff and cut employee hours, and clients began requesting billing-rate reductions.

Now, though, G-Tech is getting “requests for many engineers, in many different frames for different clients,” Hammer said.

Likewise, HMS Mfg. Co., which designs and manufacturers housewares for retailers, was doing well and focusing on developing innovative products for the home in the beginning of the year. The company paused that strategy when the quarantines started and businesses shifted to delivering essential products.

The company’s niche has helped.

“We did all right because we make everything that’s in the house,” said Christina Brown, consumer research insights analyst for HMS. “Now, we need to make sure we are making the right things for the home to ensure we support life looking a bit different.”

While COVID didn’t hurt HMS sales, it did complicate order fulfillment and supply chain logistics, and it altered company priorities.

“All of our business units focused on shifting away from new design into human protection—what our people need to get through the pandemic and what customers need from us,” Brown said.

In part, this means determining whether employees truly need to travel to accomplish their goals and developing more secure online platforms to help people feel more comfortable making purchases.

“This idea of pivoting and shifting toward the people is really critical for growth,” Elliott said.

Agility Is Key

Pivoting or evolving business strategies is really about resilience and resilience planning, Elliott said. This requires having a diversified source of revenue, planning for sustainability of revenue sources and business models, and ensuring your organization has a technology angle and technology support.

“Not every organization can make that sort of a pivot. But you have to if you’re going to be resilient,” Elliott said.

HMS, which has U.S. and global operations, found itself contending with different and ever-changing pandemic-related executive orders. Shipping also became more complicated for goods manufactured domestically and internationally. At the same time, production was complicated by executive orders requiring some businesses to shut down, Brown said.

Still, HMS shifted goals, optimizing what it manufactured to maintain retailer partner expectations while still protecting their workers. The company also began using its 3D printing capabilities to produce personal protection equipment (PPE), which it distributed to staff and frontline workers.

Now, Brown said, “We are looking at different fulfillment options to optimize where the staff can be and what we can do from various locations. We are looking at doing things like shipping directly to the consumer, shipping larger volumes to our retail customers at a time to optimize fulfillment.”

While work with aviation, shipping companies and online retailers, such as Amazon, accelerated, many construction projects stopped, especially those in the Middle East, which essentially halted for Ghafari Associates, a global engineering, architecture and construction services company.

So, Ghafari shifted its focus from construction to designing more capital projects for the future. Because work in the Middle East is predicated on oil prices, the company is used to and prepared for shifts there.

“If the oil prices are up, they’re spending money. If oil prices are down, they’re not spending money, and everything shifts to a very slow pace,” Hammer said.

Adjusting Service Models

Nonprofits were among the most visible organizations to shift strategies and processes to both endure the pandemic and support those suffering through job and other losses.

In March, most of the region’s K-12 and post-secondary schools turned to remote learning. Whereas digital learning has kept students with adequate technology connected, schools have been paying the price.

By April, many colleges and universities began seeing decreases in fall enrollment—16 percent around the country—and drops in residence hall renewals. Consequently, they initiated layoffs and other budget cuts to help stave off hundreds of millions of dollars in predicted losses while also trying to mitigate the financial pain many students were experiencing.

Yet, Wayne State University is bucking the trend. The Detroit school has seen increases in some enrollment figures.

“We actually had a 5 percent increase in our first-year students,” said university President M. Roy Wilson, M.D., a trained epidemiologist.

The university also hasn’t taken the financial losses most universities have so far experienced this year because of shifting strategies a few years ago that included turning to a public-private partnership for housing and food services, Wilson said.

Still, with decreased consumer spending in 2020, property taxes left unpaid or deferred, high rates of unemployment and other hits to state budgets, college and university administrators expect state and federal budget cuts to affect their bottom lines in the near term.

“We’ve been fortunate, but we are going to be impacted financially,” Wilson said.

The United Way for Southeastern Michigan was beginning to witness more stable households and thriving children before the world was thrust into the pandemic, said United Way President and CEO Darienne Driver Hudson.

However, the board quickly released $2 million from emergency reserves to help nonprofits on the front lines of serving those in need and to provide collaborative and regional grants. Through ongoing and new corporate partnerships, the nonprofit also acquired the volunteers they needed to answer calls from distressed citizens.

“We were able to raise $37 million with the COVID fund. But the actual campaign we run annually plummeted,” Hudson said. The nonprofit, which has more than 740 corporate and community partners, shifted from using its resources to deal with decreasing donations to pushing much-needed resources into the community.

“That’s not a sustainable funding model for any of us, especially people who have fee-for-service models like our family service agencies,” Hudson said. “That’s a big question in terms of what happens next, how we think about those models.”

More than the economy’s finances, Rip Rapson, president of The Kresge Foundation, said the “dark matter of the economy” needs addressing. He described this as the fraying of the soft tissue of the community that is creating a health crisis throughout society.

“Unless people feel a sense of cohesion, a sense of confidence in their daily routines, unless they feel like they have the kind of mutual supports and community that permit them to succeed over the long term, all this falls apart,” said Rapson.

“Nicole’s comment about 40 to 50 percent of the small businesses in the city of Detroit failing is not something that gets put back together right away. This has enormous traumatic, personal, professional community implications.”

Wilson added that there’s also the issue of children missing out on the social and educational development they get from in-person learning. “As an epidemiologist, I’m worried about the pandemic and think we have to be very cautious,” he said. “So, I just urge everyone to think in terms of being as aggressive as we can be in driving the numbers down so that we can open up schools earlier.”

Which is why, Rapson said, philanthropy’s energies have been redirected. “Philanthropy can step in and underwrite every one of those 50 percent of businesses who fail, or they can do any number of other things. But it can’t do everything,” he said. “So, this deconstruction of what it takes to be healthy and vibrant and sustainable over the long term is at risk.”

Understanding, Addressing Disparities

Pivoting in philanthropy, Rapson explained, requires a deep commitment to trying to figure out the infrastructures of social and racial justice that are needed to carry the country into a different rebuilding process.

“There’s no question that urban centers of America are going to have to rebuild. Whether it’s housing, small business development, transportation or infrastructure, this is going to be a different world, and municipal government is only going to have so many tools at its disposal,” Rapson said.

“It’s sad, but I think it took the pandemic to remind people that you can’t talk about health without talking about disparities. You can’t talk about housing without talking about disparities. Just tick through every single indicator,” Rapson said. “People don’t want to deal with it. It’s complex. It means sort of undoing systems and kind of rejiggering them.”

When it comes to rebuilding the city of Detroit, Sherard-Freeman pointed out that it won’t happen with $15-an-hour jobs as the ultimate goal.

She and colleagues at the City are exploring what prospects they have to benefit the region. Beyond FCA building and bringing 5,000-plus jobs to Detroit and the opportunities through suppliers considering a move to the city, Sherard-Freeman said there’s more they can do.

She cited closing the gap on public education and building a workforce that becomes an attractive economic value proposition for industries outside of the auto industry, like health care.

But this means understanding the impact of COVID on the healthcare industry, on communities of color and on industries that don’t yet exist, Sherard-Freeman said.

Rapson added that understanding the open space possibilities and neighborhoods around FCA is as important as determining what to do about the city’s transportation, education and health-related issues.

“What it means is that we have to go back to basics, but the basics are sort of predicated on issues of racial disparity and justice. How we think about a next-generation housing program in the city, how we think about a next-generation small business program or commercial quarter redevelopment program has everything to do with issues of identity and race and history and legacy and opportunity. So, in some ways we’re looking at what we’ve always been looking at,” Rapson said. “But I do think that there’s sort of a bright light that has shined in our direction, and we have to take advantage of the moment.”

The responsibility is on everyone, Hudson said. “Even if you were not the person who built the system, or you are not perhaps the oppressor, or you’ve been victimized, everybody has a role to play, and everyone has a responsibility to understand how we can improve it,” she said.

For its part, the United Way Worldwide has changed its bylaws to include statements on diversity and against racial justice, which they are pairing with staff training.

Elliott said Bank of America thinks about diversity and inclusion as a core part of its business strategy.  “There is also an extremely strong business case for closing the racial wealth gap,” he said. “We can’t be a top 10 state for jobs and income if we don’t make progress on closing the racial wealth gap.”

Ghafari has always had internal policies promoting diversity and inclusion and standing against discrimination, Hammer said. However, not everyone on staff understands the perspectives of other cultures.

“We’re finding out we all need more education in terms of what we have to be aware of so that we don’t think that we’re doing such a good job when we’re not. So, we’re on our first journey, if you will, of pivoting after the whole situation with Mr. (George) Floyd,” Hammer said.

Michelle Sourie Robinson, president and CEO of the Michigan Minority Supplier Development Council, said they’ve seen eloquent letters, commitments and pledges from corporations since the video of the death of George Floyd came to light.

But, she said, equitable education and simply the opportunity for minority-owned companies to compete for business are the best ways to close the racial wealth gap.

“Minority firms are often overlooked. But because of their ability to hire in some of these often-forgotten sectors, they have the ability to help close that gap in a more sustainable manner,” Robinson said. “We’ve seen some amazing organizations that are raising funds, but when you look at the fact that the average black family has about $3,000 in net worth, and you compare that to the average white family, which has about $147,000, we have some gaps to close.

“And we close those through economics. So anytime you support minority-owned firms, you are actually helping to do that in a fashion that is much more sustainable than most.”

Forging Ahead

Global manufacturing hit a 29-month high in October and appears to be dealing valiantly with shifts in demand and supply chains. USDA economists predict higher commodity prices in nearly every agricultural industry in 2021.

However, the country is not out of the woods.

Fundamental changes in the way we operate are as necessary to growth as are a second stimulus, a vaccine, a return to pre-pandemic employment levels and a peaceful transition of power at the federal level.

“Going forward doesn’t mean continuing the way we’ve been going,” Elliott said. “If you’re not being inclusive, we’re going to have problems. If your business isn’t resilient or planning for resiliency, we’re going to have problems.

“We all need to take into account how what’s happening now is impacting not just the business community, but also our children, our educational system and the fundamental building blocks of what our economy and society will look like as we head into 2021.”

This piece was originally printed in Crain's Detroit Business Book of Lists 2021 and on CrainsDetroit.com.

CIOs must address value, impact over technology

Successful business leaders understand that IT strategies are foundational elements to corporate strategies and their tech workforce are critical strategic partners to leadership and clients.

Melanie Kalmar, Corporate Vice President/Chief Information Officer/Chief Digital Officer, Dow

Leadership Award Recipient: Melanie Kalmar, Corporate Vice President/Chief Information Officer/Chief Digital Officer, Dow

“Unlike just five years ago, CIO’s now need to know all aspects of a company or organization, such as traditional manufacturing, supply chain operations, how financials in the company are run, security and the latest in technology, not to mention customers’ tastes and demands,” said Melanie Kalmar, corporate vice president, CIO and Chief Digital Officer for The Dow Chemical Company. “This is even more crucial as technology and CIOs help companies respond to unforeseen challenges, such as COVID, to maintain business continuity and connectivity with customers.”

Kalmar is the 2020 recipient of the Michigan CIO of the Year ORBIE Leadership Award. She earned a degree in management information systems from Central Michigan University and took on roles at Dow that helped her understand how technology could solve business issues on a large scale.

CIOs and their teams touch every part of a company every day, “putting them in a unique position to accelerate collaboration across an organization and get alignment on where best to invest in digital resources that will drive the most value for the company and customers,” she added.

More often, companies are looking to CIOs to help improve employee and customer experiences.

“Gone are the days of pushing out the latest new capabilities and then moving on,” Kalmar said. “Here to stay is business-aligned prioritization with shared ownership for change management and adoption to ensure we get the value and continuous improvement needed.

Among other initiatives, Dow also gathers data through market-listening capabilities that, integrated with machine leaning and advance modeling, allows it to develop products faster.

Looking to improve performance in sustainability, the company developed a mobile friendly, web-based lifecycle assessment tool to provide information regarding the environmental impacts of associated products and services and digital technology to reduce its carbon footprint and improve compliance.

A CIO’s biggest challenge, Kalmar said, is helping an enterprise understand that digital isn’t just an IT thing but a crucial corporate function. She said this requires CIOs to speak in terms of value and business impact and not in terms of technology.

“At Dow, we’ve changed the narrative within our teams to talk about technology as business drivers and value creators for the company, customers and employees. The more we’ve linked digital to outcomes in business terms, the more employees understand what’s in it for them, and the more we’ve been able to get them excited about playing a role in our digital acceleration,”

Just as IT strategies shouldn’t be limited to information systems functions, tech employees shouldn’t be relegated to being backroom service providers, she said.

“Members of our CIO teams are now embedded into functional and business teams. They’ve taken on new, ‘hybrid’ roles where they become fluent in business drivers and can translate those into digital strategies. But that is just the start,” Kalmar said. “These teams represent all functions and businesses, and by working together have become key in delivering the right capabilities and getting the right engagement to deliver successfully.”

Crain's Content Studio originally published this story here for MichiganCIO.

Business Technology Management During Economic Uncertainty

I wrote this story for Crain's Content Studio client Huntington Bank 
in May 2020. You can find it online here.

When the U.S. economy’s future is uncertain, businesses should consider investing in new technology 

Many corporate leaders began 2019 with a positive economic outlook and an optimistic plan of action. Now, bolstered by fast-moving headlines that raise questions without providing answers, some are less than confident in the economy and what they should do next.

In the meantime, businesses are looking to 2020 with an eye on potential investments in technology to help stay relevant, increase efficiencies and protect against a potential cyberattack.

For many, leasing technology equipment can provide valuable benefits, particularly in a volatile economy.

Economic Outlook: Where we stand at the end of 2019

A weak international economy catalyzed declines in U.S. exports and the overall manufacturing sector  in the third quarter for the first time since Q1 2016, says Huntington National Bank’s Director of Economics, George Mokrzan. A recession in Germany, a trade-induced slowdown in China, intensified concerns regarding the outcome of Brexit, and general uncertainties regarding international trade were factors weighing down world economic growth in the third quarter, Mokrzan says.

However, these events don’t guarantee a significant downturn and shouldn’t keep businesses from practicing wise operational strategies. There are still signs of growth and progress.

In 2019, the U.S. economy grew moderately in the third quarter due, in part, to solid consumer spending and a decline in the 30-year conventional mortgage rate. Powered by solid labor markets, increasing incomes, a rising personal saving rate, solid balance sheets, and generally favorable financial conditions, consumer spending is forecast to remain the major engine of economic growth in 2020. Despite the international growth and trade policy headwinds, a strong U.S. consumer is forecasted to lead real GDP growth of 2.3% in 2019 and 2.0% in 2020. 

In addition, the Federal Reserve held the Fed Funds rate target constant in the 1.5%-1.75% range and indicated that the monetary policymakers do not plan to change the rate in the current economic environment.

Operating with Longevity in Mind

Whether an economic downturn looms or the economy continues growing at a moderate pace, businesses still have to service their customers, stay relevant and maintain operational efficiency. 

One step toward accomplishing these goals may be to leverage the latest technology. 

Investment in technology initiatives is still growing, with companies looking to increase their short-term spending in an effort to gain long-term efficiency. In fact, a recent survey of more than 1,000 businesses found that 88% of companies expect their IT budgets to grow or stay steady over the next 12 months.

Many organizations are placing priority on user technology, such as laptops, mobile devices, and printers. Since October 2018, investment in computers rose 8.3% year over year and medical equipment increased 5.1%§.

Not keeping up to date with technology may put your business at an operational disadvantage. Companies that do not regularly refresh their equipment risk falling behind their competition and may find themselves unable to upgrade to the latest enhancements offered by new technology, says John Zimmeth, senior vice president of Portfolio Management, Huntington Technology Finance.

All too often businesses that have purchased products such as computers, servers and medical equipment, delay decisions to replace this equipment and keep it for as long as they can, even when refreshing their assets would be beneficial in the long run.

Zimmeth recommends that companies conduct a thorough study of the total cost of ownership of equipment prior to making a purchase versus lease decision, including the escalating costs of maintaining aging technology and the potential for lost business due to obsolescence.

Realize Financial Goals by Leasing

Nearly 80% of U.S. businesses, from small entrepreneurs to Fortune 100 companies, finance the equipment needed to run their organizations¶.

Leasing can be especially advantageous during an economic downturn when revenue may be down and liquidity is vital. Holding onto technology equipment beyond its useful life often ends up costing a company more money than if they had replaced it sooner.


John Zimmeth


Senior Vice President of Portfolio Management, Huntington Technology Finance

Leasing technology equipment offers many financial benefits to businesses¶ including:

  • Managing cash flow
  • Hedging against inflation
  • Planning expenses for cash flow and business cycle fluctuations

Leasing may also let businesses leverage operating expense funds, help preserve credit lines, mitigate and/or reduce risk, and allow for the acquisition of needed equipment without having to deal with traditional budget processes or utilizing sizeable upfront capital.

Evaluate Your Needs

At Huntington Technology Finance, we can work with you to assess your situation and economic trends and help craft a technology strategy that provides financial benefits, flexibility, and innovation for your business.


† IT Spending & Staffing Benchmarks 2019/2020, Computer Economics, Inc. 2019

The 2020 State of IT: The Annual Report on IT Budgets and Tech Trends, Spiceworks, July 2019

§ 2019 Equipment Leasing & Finance U.S. Economic Outlook, Equipment Leasing & Finance Foundation, October 2019

8 Reasons Businesses Lease and Finance Equipment, Equipment Leasing and Finance Association, 2019

Huntington Bank's legal terms regarding this content is available here.

Coping through COVID: Reminding stressed-out youth they aren’t alone

When COVID-19 struck the United States early this year, the world as we knew it changed. Countries began tallying up their dead, borders closed, cities and businesses shut down, and more than 120,000 schools swiftly ceased in-person learning for more than 72 million K-12 and college students.

The lockdowns ended time with precious friends and family, travel, graduation ceremonies, proms, birthday parties and entertainment outings. They resulted in millions of job losses and a collectively high level of stress that hadn’t been seen in decades.

African American female with short hair wearing pearl earrings, opera length necklace with white collar showing from beneath celery green, burnt orange with black diamond shapes

Kamilah Davis-Wilson

In particular, the pandemic’s subsequent effects—uncertainty, isolation, unrest and disappearance of opportunities—are putting young people at risk for higher rates of depression, anxiety and suicide.

“How do we expect youth to process it all?” asked Kamilah Davis-Wilson, community outreach and education manager for The Corner Health Center in Ypsilanti, Mich., which provides health and mental health services to 12- to 25-year-olds and their children.

Adenike Griffin, behavioral health manager at the center, said society isn’t equipped for the after-effects of COVID and likely won’t be even after vaccines and treatment are developed.

“I don’t think we’re prepared for people’s inability to cope,” Griffin said. “There will likely be higher rates of depression, anxiety, PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and more profound mental illnesses, like psychosis. The effects are going to be huge. We’re going to need to pull together as many resources as we can to create a new normal.”

African American female with short hair wearing black top and unlined jersey knit jacket

Adenike Griffin

The Ford Motor Company Fund, the auto company’s philanthropic arm, is responding by increasing its support of mental health awareness and treatment. Among its initiatives, the nonprofit is partnering with the Corner Health Center on a series of virtual discussions for 12- to 19-year-olds. Topics include social isolation; anxiety, depression and social unrest, suicidality; and grief and the holidays.

“We know mental illnesses in youth have been on the rise over the past several years, and the pandemic has given us even more reason to bring resources to this space,” said Lisa Gonzalez, a manager at the Ford Motor Company Fund. “Our team continues to look at new ways we can partner with specialists and bring forth resources free of charge to teens in this new virtual world. It is important to give our youth the tools necessary to improve their mental health in a safe setting which can hopefully translate to an open dialog between family and friends.”

In this story, we explore how COVID-19 is affecting young people in this country and provide information to help parents and guardians alleviate their distress.

Stress preceded pandemic

Even before the pandemic, the number of young people ages 10-24 who were suffering from serious mental stress, including depression and anxiety, was rapidly growing. These high rates of depression and anxiety caused suicides to climb 56% from 2007 to 2017, making it the second-leading cause of death in that age group.3 Other findings:

• About 2.3 million or 9.4% of adolescents ages 12-17 had at least one major depressive episode.1
• 11 million or 13.1% of 18- to 25-year-olds reported at least one major depressive episode.1
• More than 60% of college students said they felt overwhelming anxiety.2
• 56% of college students felt hopeless, and 13 percent considered suicide.2
• Among black adolescents, the rate of suicide attempts surged 73% from 1991 to 2017.3

To gauge the effects COVID-19 was having, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention conducted a survey from March through June and found that 1 in 4 adults ages 18-24 said they had seriously considered suicide in the past 30 days.

Uncertain and unsettled

When schools first shut down in March, many administrators said it would be for two to four weeks. That’s because no one knew how long the pandemic would last. Six months in, however, and there’s still a big question mark over the direction it’s going and how it will affect our future.

Male with salt and pepper short hair wearing glasses, dark suit with mauve shirt, striped tie and holding a microphone

David Rosenberg, MD

That question mark is adding to the latest mental health crisis, said David Rosenberg, MD, a practicing child and adolescent psychiatrist and professor and chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences at Wayne State University.

“Do we wear a mask? What’s going to happen with flu season? Will we be shut down again? Will the vaccine be effective? The uncertainty around these kinds of prolonged, pronounced societal pressures fuels depression and anxiety, especially in the most vulnerable—our teenagers,” Rosenberg said.

Extremely/very negative impact on personal financial security due to COVID-19
Click on image to enlarge

“And the more depression and anxiety there is, the more uncertainty we feel.”

COVID-19 has also taken a toll on the financial security of young adults. About 31% of 18- to 23-year-olds surveyed reported that the virus has had an extremely negative financial impact on their lives, and 26% said they had to move back home.4

“This is one of the first generations that doesn’t feel as if they will accomplish as much or earn as much as their parents because of how the job market is right now,” Rosenberg said. “So, there’s almost the sense of ‘What’s the point?’ ”

Amanda Beck, a home-based therapist at the Inkster, Mich.-based nonprofit Starfish Family Services, said the teens she works with are usually excited about getting new clothes for school.

Female with dark hair pulled back wearing a denim collared shirt

Amanda Beck

This year was different.

“They didn’t know if they were even going to be able to go school or if their recently unemployed parents could afford to buy clothes,” Beck said.

Before the pandemic, a 12-year-old that Davis-Wilson worked with was preparing for track season, a 17-year-old was looking forward to driver’s education, and a college student was getting ready for his first internship. Then COVID-19 canceled their plans.

“Choirs, dance recitals, SATs, overnight retreats, proms—they all went away,” said Angela Burgess, a Starfish therapist. “Kids say: ‘I did what everybody told me to do. I worked hard, and now I can’t have those things.’ ”

As a result, young people are grieving and unmotivated.

African American female with dark shoulder length dreadlocks wearing black V-neck shirt and cream denim jacket

Angela Burgess

“Graduating from high school signifies the end of childhood, while going to college or getting a job signifies the beginning of adulthood,” Beck said. “If we’re not going to celebrate these things now, then when? Nobody knows. That’s stressful.”

Living in the great unknown is also leaving some teens unmotivated to learn and adding anxieties to those who already struggle with school.

Sofia, a high school freshman who asked that her last name be withheld, lives with depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

“School is already one of the biggest pressures for me, especially if I don’t have enough time to complete my work or get enough explanation,” said Sofia, 14.

Moving to distance learning made things more difficult. “Online school was a hard transition because we didn’t really get taught,” she said. “So, we didn’t really understand anything.”

Teachers are doing better this school year, Sofia said. But she misses her friends and doesn’t know when they will return to the classroom.

“The best thing about school is the social aspect,” she said. “But there is no school in Miami because it’s still the epicenter [of the pandemic].”

Nineteen-year-old Kayla Williams was a college freshman still adjusting to living in a dorm, going to her classes at Wayne State University in Detroit and trying to pin down her undergrad major when the pandemic struck. Suddenly, the public health major had to move back home and adjust to learning remotely.

In September, Williams returned to campus for her job. But because most students haven’t moved back, she said it doesn’t feel like the same school. She knows the number of young people getting COVID-19 has increased and worries about catching the virus.

“As an employee, they enforce a lot of extra rules, like hand-washing every half-hour,” Williams said. “But the virus is still really anxiety-producing. It makes every task stressful because there’s so much uncertainty with this disease and what’s going to happen.”

Alone and anxious

Experts say isolation before the pandemic increased the susceptibility to illness, depression, anxiety and substance use disorder. Pandemic-related quarantines and shutdowns will have a bigger global mental health impact.

School doesn’t just provide teens and young adults a basic education, said Griffin of The Corner Health Center. It also keeps them connected to the teachers, coaches, peers, communities and safe spaces that have, for a long time, played important roles in their lives.

Without that connection, said Beck of Starfish Family Services, teens often feel as if no one wants them, loves them or cares for them.

Psychologists say distance learning can make it more difficult for youths who have suffered—or continue to suffer—emotional, physical or sexual abuse at home and also for those living in food-insecure households.

“There’s no escape at home,” Beck said. “School was somewhere they could go.”

At the same time, working parents are overwhelming many lonely, bored adolescents with adult responsibilities.

“They’re having them step up and help with siblings by babysitting and checking homework,” said Burgess, the Starfish therapist. “They’re also expecting teens to use self-discipline to manage their time and get their work done. But teens don’t have those skills yet.”

See the signs, seek solutions

Sofia knows suicide is avoidable. After a classmate shared graphic details of trying to kill himself, she sought out a counselor, who got him help. Still, Sofia worries about the classmates, teachers and administrators who don’t always take mental health issues seriously.

11 suicide warning signs

Suicide warning signs
Click on image to enlarge

“Kids would say: ‘Why would you try to help them? They are just doing it for attention,’ ” she said. “But if they are self-harming, they need help and attention. Not giving them help is the worst thing.”

While the increasing rates of depression, anxiety and suicide are troubling, mental health experts say there is hope—and also help.

Recognize the signs: Young children with anxiety or depression may have more tantrums or become clingier. Older children may exhibit changes in appetite, mood, energy levels or activity.

“Listen to what they are saying and how they are feeling,” said Davis-Wilson of The Corner Health Center. “They have a lot of feelings about everything happening. Ask why they feel this way. Remember, they are children and try to work with them in a way that works for them.”

If you or someone you care about is exhibiting suicidal behavior, seek help immediately from a mental health professional, or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255.

“When a teen is having thoughts of suicide, we can’t discount it,” Beck said. “We have got to take them seriously. Connecting them to appropriate treatment can be lifesaving.”

Sources: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services,1 American College Health Association-National College Health Assessment, Fall 2015 and Spring 2019,2 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,3 Edward Jones and Age Wave study4


Stopping the Merry-Go-Round of Women’s Incarceration

Selena Lopez with her son Nathan

How one organization helps women rebuild their lives after prison

Selena Lopez was 19 when tragedy struck. A week after her mother died, her father was deported to Guatemala. Distraught and confused, the young mother turned to the streets, where she began using drugs and committing robberies to feed her young son, herself and her addiction.

“I was running amok and ended up circulating in and out of incarceration,” Lopez said. As a result, she lost her son, Nathan, to the foster care system.

A year later, she found help at an outpatient drug rehab center in downtown Los Angeles. But Lopez struggled with housing. And without a stable home, she couldn’t get her son back.

Lopez’s struggle isn’t unique. In 2017, 225,060 women were serving time in jail or state or federal prisons. And more than 60 percent of women in state prisons have a child younger than 18, according to the latest data from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. That’s a 750 percent increase since 1980, when 26,378 women were incarcerated.

The Sentencing Project, a Washington-based nonprofit, attributes the increase to “more expansive law enforcement efforts, stiffer drug sentencing laws and post-conviction barriers to reentry that uniquely affect women.”

Lopez’s narrative changed for the better when a rehabilitation drug counselor told her about the Reentry Project at A New Way of Life. ANWOL, founded by Susan Burton, provides housing, legal assistance and other resources that formerly incarcerated women need to successfully reenter the community, reunify with family and heal themselves.

For those efforts, the Ford Motor Company Fund recently awarded ANWOL $25,000, the grand prize for its Ford Gives Back Freedom Award. And before that, in 2013, the Ford Fund honored Burton with the Ford Freedom Unsung award, which recognizes the achievements and extraordinary work of ordinary people in the African American community.

“For decades, Susan Burton has opened pathways to success for women that are facing challenges to reentering their community,” said Pamela Alexander, director of community development for the Ford Fund. “Without her efforts and her commitment, many would not have had access to support systems they needed to rebuild their lives.”

A lost son, then a lost life

Growing up in Aliso Village, a housing project in LA, Susan Burton didn’t dream of helping women get clean or reunite with their children. She just wanted a happy family of her own.

In 1981, Burton was a content 30-year-old stay-at-home mom living with her 15-year-old daughter, Antoinette; 5-year-old son, Marque; and her mother. She clearly recalls picking her son up from school, going home and then preparing dinner while Marque played outside. She recalls him proudly coming into the house with a flower for his mom.

So far, the nonprofit has helped about 1,200 women rebuild their lives.

“It was covered in ants,” Burton said.

Then the unthinkable happened when Marque went back outside to play. He was hit by a Los Angeles police detective’s car and killed.

“My whole world went out of control,” Burton said. “The rage, anger and guilt I had was overwhelming, because a mother is supposed to protect their children. The day I lost my son, Antoinette lost her mother, because I was no good for a long time.”

Burton tried drinking away her grief. When that didn’t work, she turned to cocaine. She eventually was arrested for drug possession and spent the next 15 years in what she calls “a virtual turnstile of incarceration.”

Despite asking the courts for help with her addiction, Burton said she was repeatedly sent to prison. Her last release was in July 1996. But rather than return prison, Burton, in October 1997, learned that the city of Santa Monica, unlike LA, approached drug use as a social problem and provided resources to help.

“I saw a whole new world that white folks had access to in lieu of incarceration,” she said. “I took advantage of it and found a treatment center.

“Then I said I’m going to build in South LA what I received in Santa Monica.”

Sharing food, lifting spirits

Susan Burton

Susan Burton

After getting a job and saving every dime she could, Burton bought a small house, built five pairs of bunk beds—with help from friends from her 12-step fellowship—and started ANWOL.

“I would go to the bus station and wait for people I knew who were getting out of prison and would invite them to the house,” Burton said. “We all lived together, laughed together, went to 12-step meetings together, paid bills together and created a community of women helping women. It was beautiful. We were all there lifting each other up—sharing food, sharing hope and sharing our commitment.”

Some of the women lost custody of their children because they didn’t have homes for them, which pained Burton.

“I could not turn back the years of pain and suffering that had been thrust upon me after the loss of my son,” she said. “And I knew I couldn’t bring my son back, but maybe I could help another woman not suffer so long after incarceration. Maybe I could help another woman get her kid back.”

In 2002, Burton was able to buy a house for formerly incarcerated women and their children. Now she operates 10 homes.

New attitude, new altitude

ANWOL has helped more than 300 children reunite with their moms. Selena Lopez’s son, Nathan, was one of those children.

“My journey and process were a little longer than others because I was focused on not only maintaining my sobriety but also trying to regain custody of my son,” said Lopez, who lived in an ANWOL home with six women for three years.

She attended monthly and weekly meetings in the house, and the program provided transportation to meetings outside the house.

“A New Way of Life’s programs helped with the reasons behind the trauma, too,” she said.

Yet the most valuable part of Lopez’s recovery was the support she received directly from Burton, whom she calls a second mother.

“Coming from where I grew up, you didn’t really hear success stories about women who were incarcerated and overcame drug abuse. You only heard the negative,” Lopez said. “When I heard Miss Susan’s story and the other women’s stories, it was amazing to me that there was light at the end of the tunnel.”

ANWOL also taught Lopez her rights and how to advocate for herself while going through the complicated child protective services system. Besides staying clean and having a stable home, Lopez had to visit her son twice weekly. But the home he was placed in was five hours away, and she didn’t have transportation.

Still, the nonprofit taught her resilience, and Lopez found a way. She donated plasma and used the money to buy 3 a.m. train tickets so she could arrive in time for her 8 a.m. visits.

“It was challenging to have him gone for nearly 2½ years, but he will have been home now for three years because of the whole program,” said Lopez, who is now 25.

A ‘shared responsibility’

Burton, who today is 69, believes communities are underresourced in helping victims of trauma.

“We as a community have a shared responsibility in looking out for and caring for each other,” she said. “I’m trying to fulfill my responsibility to people who are released from prisons and jails so they have something to come home to and have a way to rebuild their lives and become productive members of our community.”

ANWOL now has 35 full-time employees, five consultants and hundreds of volunteers—including Lopez. Burton is also training other nonprofits to use the ANWOL model.

She advocates for women in other ways as well. Burton is author of “Becoming Ms. Burton: From Prison to Recovery to Leading the Fight for Incarcerated Women” and co-founder of the civil rights movements All of Us or None and the Formerly Incarcerated and Convicted People and Families Movement. Named one of 18 new civil rights leaders in the U.S. by the Los Angeles Times, Burton received a NAACP Image Award in 2018 for her book and an honorary doctor of humane letters from California State University, Northridge in 2019.

She also advocates against “child snatching”—the act of removing children from the custody of their mothers—and serves on the Sybil Brand Commission, which allows her to inspect county jails and ensure that the incarcerated women are getting the medical care they need.

“Everything about ANWOL is phenomenal,” Lopez said. “I remember that first conversation I had with Miss Susan when I arrived at A New Way of Life. She asked my dreams. But I didn’t have any dreams, any passion, because I was not expected to do anything with my life.”

Now, she said, she’s now a happily married homeowner with a second child due just before Christmas. Before the pandemic resulted in her being laid off from her job as a program assistant at Los Angeles Southwest College, Lopez helped students enroll in classes and find resources, such as childcare, to be successful at school. Now she is a full-time student with a near-4.0 grade point average and plans to transfer to UCLA in the spring.

“Everything that I ever dreamed of happened. It keeps me motivated,” Lopez said.

She’s also determined to stick with ANWOL, particularly its Women Organizing for Justice and Opportunity cohort program, because she wants to stay involved with children and family services and in changing legislation around it.

Lopez said, “I’m always there to learn more.”

This story was originally published on fordfund.org. Other features I’ve written for the Ford Motor Company Fund include:

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