Kate O’Day and Tammy Mello, Editors

Becoming the Change We Seek: Stories from CEOs in the Voluntary Sector is a collection of essays “focused on—and dedicated to—the executive and voluntary leadership of child and family services organizations. Its purpose is to highlight the unique history, capacity, contributions, and future promise of this extraordinary and longstanding movement” (Kate O’Day, foreword). Eight CEOs of child- and family-serving organizations discuss their career journeys, lessons learned, and hopes for the future of child welfare. To purchase a digital PDF, visit our Bookstore. A print option is available for a minimum order of 25 copies. Please contact msaulsbury@cwla.org for pricing.

Foreword: On Leading and Learning from the Future
Kate O’Day

CEO, Gateway
Birmingham, Alabama

Personal, Professional, and Organizational Leadership: Meeting the Challenges of the Day
Ronald E. Richter
CEO & Executive Director, JCCA
Brooklyn, New York
I became an advocate for families and children who are vulnerable three decades ago in Bedford Stuyvesant, New York, because of a calling. At the time, I didn’t really understand what that meant, but it felt right. In my experience, most human services executives do not plan to become managers or nonprofit leaders, but they end up advancing because they are good at what they came to do in the first place: social work, lawyering, nursing, and so on. Most of us were not trained in management and finance; we are mission-driven people with strong personal experiences, some might even say “baggage,” that drew us to the work we do. Most of us have learned over time, and taught others, that it is not easy to balance those strong personal experiences with our just and rational determination to make the world a better place. But this dilemma creates an energy and a power that can fuel real progress.

Engaging in Urgent Practice
Shaheer Mustafa
President and CEO, HopeWell
Dedham, Massachusetts
Kaden is the first youth referred to RISE. He’s seven years old and in the second grade at Murphy Elementary School in Dorchester, Massachusetts. Kaden lives in foster care. It’s not hyperbole to say that Kaden’s future may be forever changed.

Readiness, Inquiry, Scholarship, and Education. A first- of-its-kind, high-impact, one-on-one tutoring and education support model for youth experiencing foster care, RISE—a program of HopeWell, a private, nonprofit social services agency based in metro Boston—represents what is possible when we refuse to accept the status quo and leverage the power of public and private partnerships. But the full story of RISE starts 20 years ago when I first entered the child welfare space. Sadly, little has changed in our sector over these two decades, but as the great Sam Cooke says, “A Change is Gonna Come.”

Integrating Lived Experience in Child Welfare
Lydia Todd
Executive Director, NFI Massachusetts
Danvers, Massachusetts
I have been fortunate to serve in a variety of public and private child welfare roles for more than three decades, and I deeply appreciate the perspective my personal history offers. The ability to share my history without jeopardizing my credibility has changed, and I am grateful and relieved that we have reached a point in our collective and historic human service journey where having been in the system no longer carries the stigma or fear that you are being watched closely for signs of cracking. I have finally come to believe that in our work, we should leverage our lived experiences as much as we do our professional resume and academic education.

How a White CEO can Support Anti-racist Work
Eric L. Masi
President and CEO, Wayside Youth & Family Support Network, Inc.
Framingham, Massachusetts
I used to say offhandedly that when it comes to Wayside’s anti-racist work, “I just get out of the way.” There is certainly a lot of truth to this, but others—my colleagues, staff, CEOs of other agencies, and professionals in the field—have challenged me to reflect on what a White CEO or senior administrator can and must do to support and facilitate this work.

A CEO’s Reflections on Lessons Learned from a Pandemic
Keith H. Liederman
President and CEO, Kingsley House
New Orleans, Louisiana
I have been keeping contemporaneous notes of every work-related interaction I’ve had since becoming aware of the impending pandemic in February 2020. To date, this daily chronicle is just under 900 single-spaced pages long. Yes, I have been known to be a somewhat compulsive note-taker. That being said, as CEO of a historic social and human services organization, I have found this kind of documentation to be an essential method for capturing and retaining information of import to the agency, most especially during times of crisis and radical change.

Sustaining the Battle for—and with—Children and Families
Jeremy C. Kohomban
President and CEO, The Children’s Village
Dobbs Ferry, New York
There are days when I am surprised to find myself in the role of president and CEO at the Children’s Village. This was not the planned destination when I began my career journey. I grew up surrounded by war in Ceylon, now Sri Lanka. First came the low-intensity war known as the JVP insurrection (Janatha Vikmuthi Peramuna, also known as the People’s Liberation Front) that impacted the southern part of the island, where my parents were serving as medical missionaries. Then came the Eelam War, which consumed the entire island and was led by the Liberation Tigers of Eelam (LTTE), “an uncompromising group inspired by Che Guevarra and his guerilla warfare tactics. A group that assassinated two world leaders: Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa.” These wars were notable for the ethnic violence unleased against the Tamil minority and the brutality unleashed by both sides. Their impact eventually reached me when the quiet cul-de-sac in which we lived was rocked by two targeted bombings. Suddenly, our neighbors were homeless. My parents brought them inside our small home, seeking to protect them from the roving, murderous mobs that lingered outside. While my parents did all they could to protect us and courageously served everyone who needed them, I could not see their service as a true path forward. I wanted to be proactive and I wanted to fight. No one was surprised when I chose the military, left for the United States in 1985, and joined the ROTC while studying at Emporia State University in Emporia, Kansas.

Building a Better Leadership Toolbox
Lisa Chin
CEO, Treehouse
Seattle, Washington
Einstein said that a problem cannot be solved at the level it was created. Many of the issues facing child welfare leaders today require different approaches, as we are operating in a world fundamentally changed by the global pandemic and social justice movements that are disrupting long-standing beliefs and systems. Practices that served us even five years ago must be reexamined as we face the truths of systemic bias and challenge ourselves and our organizations to appropriately serve our youth and families. We cannot ignore that inequities in the education, health care, and social welfare services all conspire and combine to disadvantage our underserved populations and keep them exactly where they are—at the intersection of poverty and lack of access to resources that keep children safe and families thriving.

From Child Welfare to Community Well-being
Ronald E. Brown
President and CEO, Children’s Bureau
Los Angeles, California
For the past 21 years, I have been working to change the lives of children centered around the concept of eradicating all versions of child maltreatment. This has been a journey, long and circuitous, in pursuit of the magic or silver bullet, the gold ring, the miraculous fix. I am sad to say I have yet to find a simple solution to this very complex problem, but I have learned a great deal along the way. The point of this document is to share some of those learnings with you so that you can further your thinking—perhaps even find a solution!

I started working in the child welfare field in 2000 when I was hired by the Children’s Bureau of Southern California to serve as what was to become its chief program officer. Children’s Bureau has a rich service history, working since 1904 for children who are vulnerable. Since its founding, Children’s Bureau has run an orphanage (that eventually became a series of group homes), engaged in developing the first professional foster parents (1930s), began completing adoptions (1940s), provided child care for mothers entering the workforce (1950s), and facilitated the development of a cadre of family resource centers (1980s). In the 1980s the agency made a distinct and strategic decision to get out of the group home world and put its efforts toward services intended to support families and prevent children from entering the child welfare system.

Tammy Mello
President & CEO
The Key Program, Inc.
Framingham, MA

Eight human beings, each with diverse backgrounds and unique stories of personal and professional challenges, have described the journeys that led them to become CEOs of child- and family-serving organizations and agents of systemic change. 

Public child protection agencies can be incident-driven, reactive organizations, structured by mandates that bring them involuntarily into the lives of children and families. While agencies are required to report on outcomes related to safety, permanency, and well-being, the deep analysis to address root causes that prevent progress in those key areas has been limited at best, resulting in policies and practices created in response to the tip of the iceberg. Conversely, private sector organizations are embedded in community and are the key to disrupting outdated, biased practices and respond to the needs of the communities to which they belong. It was private sector organizations, partnering with communities, that engaged in a racial justice reckoning across the country in response to the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. It was private sector organizations that had to quickly pivot and find ways to support children and families during the COVID-19 pandemic. This essay collection provides many examples of creative, brave, passionate CEOs who demonstrate the ability to challenge their perspective of systems (ego-system), understand systems through those that experience it, particularly those most marginalized (eco-system), and formulate partnerships that respond.