Children's Voice July/August 2009

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Leadership Lens

Christine James-Brown

One of the most exciting projects I ever took on was renovating a home built in 1855. Even before I scraped the first bit of wallpaper off the wall, I spent hours at the local historical society learning as much as I could about my house and what was happening during the time it was built. After I finished the renovation, most people who visited me didn't realized how much I based the work on my research. The final product looked contemporary and not at all like what one would expect from the history buff I consider myself to be.

What I learned through my research was that the person who designed and built my house was one of the first female architects. She built the house on property given to her by a very proud uncle. The woman was young, spirited, and obviously embraced by her family and the community. The locals were known for being very family- and community-oriented; there was a joke that all the social workers and people in the helping profession lived in that area.

Following this spirit, instead of dark woodwork, my woodwork was painted white, and the windows had mini-blinds instead of heavy Victorian drapes. I opened up the kitchen to be the center of the house where family and friends could gather. I felt that, for me to stay true to the history and spirit of the house, it had to look different than it did in 1855. It had to look as if that young architect had designed the home to fit today's world.

I remembered this situation during a recent conversation with Donna Pressma, the fabulous CEO of the Children's Home Society of New Jersey, a CWLA founding organization. Donna is part of a committee discussing how CWLA can recognize our more than 50 founding members at our 2010 national conference, where we will also be celebrating our 90th anniversary. Donna remembers when we celebrated the contributions of our founding members on our 75th birthday, and she is full of ideas about how we could top that celebration in 2010. A history buff herself, Donna also leads one of our most innovative and cutting-edge member organizations. In an e-mail following our conversation, she wrote: "We agreed that in order to know and plan smartly for who we want to be in the future, we need to first remember who we were in the past, why we came to found a national voice for children, and who we are today. Only then can we be wiser visionaries."

The reality is that innovation and creativity are enhanced when we base what we do in the future on what we have learned from the past. But grounding things in the past should not mean getting stuck there. To effectively meet today's needs and challenges, we must be prepared to do things differently. Honoring and understanding the past should not be a barrier to change; instead, it should provide a springboard to the kind of change that will allow us to fulfill our mission and goals based on today's realities.

Following this concept, CWLA will be convening all of our member organizations to obtain input for the White House Conference on how we should move forward to best serve vulnerable children and families. Our founding members, with their very special knowledge and understanding of our history, will be among the critical voices in this effort.

Like many of your agencies, CWLA has undergone some dramatic changes in the last several years. As the CEO of your national organization, I want to assure you that all of the changes have been implemented with a deep love and respect for the past, an appreciation for the challenging work done by our members every day, and a great optimism for our future and the future of our children and families.

For more information or to register for our national conference in Washington, DC, this January 25-27, visit conferences.

For more about Donna Pressma, read "Supporting the Female Lead" in the March/April 2009 issue of Children's Voice or online at 0903management.htm.

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