By Kim Cobb
Editor’s Note: This is one in a series of stories about WIF’s grants selection process and the members who make it work.
Juanita Wade is new to sharing the lead of WIF’s environmental work team, but she knows about non-profits and the importance of community partnerships. Prior to her recent retirement, she worked in public and private sector roles in Washington and Boston — as Community Relations Director with Fannie Mae, ED of the DC Education Compact and elected member of the Boston School Committee, among many other significant positions. Against the backdrop of her life’s work, joining WIF and serving on the Grants Committee were easy decisions.
In talking with Juanita, several things become clear: First, no expertise is needed to serve on a grants work team. Neither she nor many of her seven team members have any background in environmental issues. Second, the time commitment is not onerous; a majority of members work full time. And third, it’s not a passive exercise in reading or listening, but rather an engaging process involving lively exchange of ideas, applicant site visits and deep dives into public policy and private solutions. All this combines to make a membership on the grants committee a highly rewarding experience.
As a team co-leader, Juanita believes her first responsibility is to ensure team members are engaged and informed about the issues and potential solutions. Through community conversations with local thought leaders and experts, all develop a better understanding of local needs.
This process entails robust debate and thorough input from all members of the committee. For example, until serving on the environmental team, Juanita assumed that living in a smaller suburban community such as Charlotte must mean cleaner air and water than what she’d experienced in the urban Northeast. Community conversations proved this assumption false. Many were surprised to learn that those resources are often in greater peril here than in inner-city Boston. Charlotte’s rapid development and accompanying sprawl have resulted in widespread loss of developed trees, soil erosion and significant disruptions in water flow.
Importantly, however, the committee received a number of grant applications dealing in the environment focus area.
Juanita says a team leader’s role is more to serve than to supervise. Members of WIF’s grants team have a duty to their fellow committee members in general and the membership of WIF as a whole to give unbiased, accurate analyses and listen carefully to the thoughts of all involved, she said.
She likened this to her previous position as an elected member of the Boston Schools Committee. She believed it was her duty as a public servant to represent the interests of others rather than promote her own. To that end, she regularly held town hall meetings to hear out all sides, but then she reported back to those she represented. Consequently, she was elected three times.
One difference she found between her current role and previous professional positions is the collective power of the group. Rather than take direction from superiors or be captive to political interests, membership in WIF “allows women to put money on the table and then sit with others to decide who gets it.”
To her, this model offers the clearest possible path between one’s resources and a desire to benefit the community in a significant way.