Photo by Paul Skorupskas on Unsplash
May 27, 2020

What happens when people think they know your organization but they don’t?

Teresa Younger

What happens when people hang on to an old idea of your organization? Learn how Teresa Younger, CEO of the Ms. Foundation for Women, shaped and advanced a well-known brand.


Sarah Durham: Welcome back to the Smart Communications Podcast. I’m Sarah Durham and I’m joined today by Teresa Younger. Welcome Teresa.

Teresa Younger: Hello Sarah.

Sarah: I’m delighted Teresa is here today. I think you’re going to learn a lot from her. She’s an activist, advocate, renowned public speaker, organizational strategist, and a proven leader in the philanthropic and policy sectors. She spent over 20 years on the frontlines of some of the most critical battles for comprehensive equity and the elimination of institutionalized oppression. And she now serves as the president and CEO of the Ms. Foundation for Women, which is what we’re going to be talking about today. Before she joined the Ms. Foundation for Women, Teresa served as the Executive Director of the Connecticut General Assembly’s Permanent Commission on the Status of Women and as Executive Director of the ACLU of Connecticut, the first African American and the first woman to hold that position. Younger is a thought leader at the critical intersections of gender and race. Within the philanthropic sector, she serves on initiatives to shape and change the narrative of women and girls, including Grantmakers for Girls of Color, Funders for Reproductive Equity, Philanthropy New York, and Black Funders for Social Justice. She’s got lots and lots of other chops I’m not going to share with you today, but she does serve on a number of boards including the Ethel Walker School and the Essie Justice Group. You can follow her on Twitter at @MsTeresaYounger or on Instagram @MsTeresaYounger. So welcome, welcome.

Teresa: Thank you, thank you.

Sarah: Since not all of our listeners know the Ms. Foundation for Women, I want to just read the mission statement, but then maybe we’ll dig into what that’s really all about. So the mission of the Ms. Foundation for Women is to build women’s collective power in the US to advance equity and justice for all. Tell us a little bit about that.

Teresa: The Ms. Foundation is a public foundation and we are built on the concept that no one has the absolute answer. All of us have an answer and a way to contribute to that. So we’re a public foundation. Folks give us dollars and we move those dollars to grassroots movement-building organizations throughout the United States and US territories. And on our wall in our offices in Brooklyn, New York, is our vision statement. And I think it really grounds what we’re trying to do. We believe in a safe and just world where power and possibility are not limited by race, gender, class, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, or disability. We believe that equity and inclusion are the cornerstones of a true democracy in which every voice is heard. And I think like when I think about the work that we’re trying to do, we’re trying to create that world of a safe and just place where people can exist in this power and possibility. And it means that none of us has the answers. And so we trust the grassroots to test out what the answers are going to be so that they can make changes in their communities. We can replicate that if we need to, but they can come together and formulate their own communities too.

Sarah: Hmm. It gives me chills listening to you talk about it. So Ms. Foundation for Women has an unusual situation that a lot of nonprofits don’t have, which is that it’s got some name recognition.

Teresa: Yes.

Sarah: It’s been around for nearly, you know, for a long time. Since 1972. We’re recording this in 2020 and it was founded by these very famous second-wave feminists. People like Gloria Steinem and Letty Cottin Pogrebin. You have this interesting situation of here you are at the helm of this organization that a lot of people think they know. Take us on the journey of the history of this organization and what does that mean for you coming in to shape the future of what Ms. Foundation needs to be for women today?

Teresa: Well, it’s really interesting because there’s two things that happen. One, I stepped into an organization that people thought they knew and people didn’t have any clue. So it was really an interesting dichotomy because when I got to the Ms. Foundation, I would ask questions like, what do you know about Ms.? And people would tell me their story of reading Ms. Magazine and how important that was for them. And I could fully appreciate that having an impact on them. But few people actually read Ms. Magazine and although we were… I oftentimes say, we are daughters of the same mothers raised in different houses. So how we amplify the voices of women and women and girls in this country changes because they’re writing a magazine and they’re trying to lift up who’s writing in those magazines and the stories that they tell. We’re actually on the activist, grassroots movement-building side of how do we move money and change philanthropy? Those are two different ways of going about it. So people thought we were Ms. Magazine, so I had to push back a little bit on that. And then there are a group of folks who never heard of Ms. because they saw second wave feminism as an all white space. And so there were many communities of color that I was going into who really didn’t have as much of a connection to the idea of grassroots movement-building being funded by and for women. And then here I was a woman of color who was also stepping into that space. So it has been a really unique opportunity to engage people where they are and then to, like, push them to imagine a little differently.

Sarah: And you’ve been at the organization now for about five and a half years.

Teresa: Yeah. Yeah. Time has flown.

Sarah: Time has flown. And were all these things apparent to you before you joined the Foundation or did you kind of uncover this as you walked in?

Teresa: I uncovered it as I walked in. I had known of the Ms. Foundation. I was doing state policy work in Connecticut, so I was well aware of what was going on with the Ms. Foundation for Women. However, until you’re in it, you don’t know. And I’ll be quite honest about what I knew and didn’t know. I was a little Black girl who grew up in North Dakota. So my vision of any work in that space around feminism, lifting up voices, grassroots movement-building was limited to my later years in life. It didn’t start out in North Dakota. And so I think that was it. But I got to Brooklyn and I took the job and I looked outside the offices and looked at the East side of Manhattan and I realized I knew a lot about North Dakota, a lot about Connecticut, where I was living, but I knew nothing about what was happening with women and girls, particularly women and girls of color in this country. And so I went on a listening tour and as I traveled across the country, about 60,000 miles that first year, I kept sitting down with people who would tell me they didn’t know who the Ms. Foundation was. They didn’t understand what feminism was about. And then they proceeded to tell me how they felt alienated from the process. So we had to go back out and reintroduce people to feminism, which is the social, political, and economic equality of all genders. Which then we had to ask, well, who are all genders? What does gender look like? Who defines what gender looks like? So we all of a sudden could have conversations with men, trans folks, gender nonconforming, two-spirited folks about the work we wanted to do. We could then position ourselves with the LGBTQ community in ways we hadn’t really been able to before because we were buying into a gender binary. And so how do we, like, start erasing what people’s assumptions are? And that’s where I learned that people didn’t actually know as much about the Ms. Foundation now as they had thought they knew about the Ms. Foundation.

Sarah: So I’m imagining in your first year you’re on this listening tour, you’re out in the field, you’re talking to all these people and you’re probably there as a new president and CEO to learn about the work, to learn about what’s happening in the field. But at the same time, what you’re learning about is either the reputation or the lack of reputation perhaps that the Ms. Foundation for Women has in different communities that you serve. And this is where you’re kind of uncovering what the brand is with bones of what the brand was in the past. So what do you do with that? How did you as a new leader take and shape what you were uncovering was the perception about the organization at the same time as you were forming a new vision for where it might go?

Teresa: Yeah. I started listening really intently. I sat down with a group of young, what they called “everyday feminists,” young women who were going to law school. And they said to me that they were living their everyday feminism and so that was a broader way of approaching it and that every time we talked about women and families, we relegated who they were to the use of our uterus. And I was like whoa. Right? What are they saying and what does that look like? So when I came off of the listening tour, we did a couple of things. First off, we kicked off a series called “My Feminism Is,” which allowed folks from all different walks of life to come in and tell us what their feminism was, when they identified as a feminist, if they identified as a feminist, and then how did they define the word? And that really engaged some really interesting conversations with a whole bunch of folks who hadn’t seen themselves in that space. Then out of that conversation we also decided to change what we were talking about. We were not talking about women’s issues and we were not talking about the women’s movement. We were talking about the issues that affect the lives of women in their communities. And so one of the things we had to do was take a step back at this assumption that one, families were always seen as a positive place for people. And it wasn’t necessarily so that everybody knew who their family was and it wasn’t necessarily so, and that people’s definition of family was heteronormative. And so I really started to, like, ask myself what were these questions about why and how and when we get involved and engaged as activists in our own lives. And so we step back and I say often, which makes people really uncomfortable, I don’t work on women’s issues and I don’t work for the women’s movement. I work on the issues that affect the lives of women and their communities, which you can step into and step out of, and the movements that affect the lives of women and their communities. That changes how broad the movement is and what movements we’re talking about and how they are completely interconnected in how they’re affecting our lives, right? So you can’t actually talk about an economic justice space, you can’t talk about an environmental space, without also talking about a space around women’s bodies. So we actually have to figure out what are these movements, how do they intersect, where are they related, and then how do we want to be part of those conversations? When our Founding Mothers started the Ms. Foundation, there was a level of consciousness-raising that needed to take place that women actually could do these things. They could start a magazine, they could fight for equal pay, they could get paid time off, they could get maternity leave. I mean, there were so many things, they could get credit in their own name. It was right after Roe v. Wade. I mean, there’s so many things that have happened in the past 45 years. Today we’re talking about a slightly different conversation. It’s built on the legacy of those women and where we are, but we’re actually moving forward in a very different way in how we call in and lift up the voices that have not been seen and heard and how we step forward and step back in what that needs to look like. And so how do we not accept the history that’s been handed to us, which will tell us that, you know, feminists burn their bras. We know that feminists didn’t burn their bras. Bras are expensive and nobody’s going to go out and really burn their bra. There’s like these stereotypes that we’ve been told, right? We were told that women of color were not engaged in the movement yet we know that that’s not true. It was just not who the white male media wanted to put in front of them. And so now we’re in a point where it’s like what does it look like to have women of color talking about the critical that are affecting their lives and their communities and how will that affect the broader spectrum of women in this country? Because people always assume that if you say it, you are only talking about one thing. And what we are really trying to push forward with, is that we are talking about a multitude of things. And when we say women, we actually are talking about women of color. And until we can flux in our minds that when we’re talking about women, we’re talking about all women, we actually have to start calling out which voices have been left from the table.

Sarah: So coming into this organization with this vision of grounding the work in women of color, I’m sure sitting around that table with you were people who weren’t there yet, who hadn’t done that research with you, hadn’t been in these conversations, maybe hadn’t thought about intersectionality and some of the layers of movements that you’re describing. How did you bring those people on the journey or how do you continue to bring those people on the journey so that they can start to see all these layers?

Teresa: Yeah, so there’s a couple of things I tend to talk to people about. I say in the pool of inequality. At the Ms. Foundation, we have one pebble to drop. And the ripples of that pebble will affect all of those that are in the pool of inequality. And it’s not a race to see, you know, who gets caught up in the most ripples. It’s that can we get the ripples to start moving? And so at the Ms. Foundation. We are going to drop a pebble over that ripple that will happen over women and girls of color. It’s not the only place, but we figured we need a place to start. And so what I have found is if we go into an open and honest conversation about what we’re trying to do and the limited resources by which we’ve had it, and a recognition of what we’ve tried to do in the past and why not try something totally different? What would it look like to truly invest in women and girls of color? And I like to be in conversations with people, which is how this started, right? It started by me saying, what if we had an all Black femme cohort? What would that look like? What if we truly trusted women to use the dollars as they saw fit instead of our greatest fears, right? What if we operated from a place of abundance instead of a place of scarcity? What would that look like? And you really start engaging people in conversations about all of these kinds of things. And then you say to them, that I said, which is this isn’t our first time. Under the ADA, we didn’t have walkable communities, we didn’t have elevators in places, we had nothing. Right? And when the ADA happened and we decided we needed to, you know, create communities that could walk places and go places, we had the curb cut effect, right? So people could now get around with strollers to anywhere. We saw less senior citizens falling off curbs, right? We saw a whole bunch of things happening and when we were going through and tearing up sidewalks and making it so that we could have these curb cuts, people were upset and they were frustrated and they were disrupted and they didn’t know what was going on. Now, all these years later, we cannot imagine being at a stoplight and not having a voice telling us not to walk or a hand flashing at us or a crosswalk that actually allows us to not have to tilt our strollers up and down or the bikes up and down. So the way I have been talking with people is, what if centering women and girls of color is a curb cut effect? It’s a little uncomfortable because it’s asking us to have conversations around race. It’s asking us to accept and acknowledge our own disconnection with what we’re trying to do in the world and to really acknowledge the history of this country and challenge that. It’s like when they’re starting to do the sidewalks, but in 10 years when the sidewalks are there, the impact of what we will have had is going to be a face change for the entire country, and potentially for the rest of the world because we won’t just end up with white male privilege. We will end up with a diversity of voices and experiences because they actually were able to get off the sidewalk.

Sarah: So if somebody listening to this podcast works in an organization, maybe they’re the president and CEO of a small community-based organization and they are looking to ground conversations in equity or elevate the voices of populations that they serve, or think about intersectionality, but it’s not necessarily explicitly in the mission, or they’re walking into an organization that has a history that is challenging. What advice would you give to them?

Teresa: I love that question. What advice? It always takes longer. Change only happens through building relationships and we have to give ourselves the time to do it. And I think that’s really hard when we’re leading organizations to understand that we need to build relationships that are deep and then we have to give ourselves, I always say it’s going to take a year more than you ever thought it was going to take, to just get off the curb, to just get things moving. And then to recognize that you do not have to be the messenger of the message. So who are those who are your messengers? And being really explicit with them about the voices they need to carry for you, because that really invites them in. And also sitting with them and letting them ask all the really tough questions to you actually helps reinforce that this is about relationship building and that everybody has their story to tell. It continues to require a lot of emotional labor to do the leadership and the communication that we need to have in order to change the world. Because we have very little bits of amounts of time in order to get things done. But I think it’s really important, one of the things I say all the time is our job as CEOs, as presidents, as EDS, is to build relationships that deep and that are wide and that are actually genuinely based in listening and responding. And then we can go about doing our work, which is then about, in many cases, moving the ball forward. But I think the thing I totally underestimated was how much time it was going to take. I mean, I came into this role, President Obama was in the White House. He had just started out with My Brother’s Keeper and men and boys of color and I was like, legacy institution, strong brand, we can move this. And there were lots of folks who pushed back. They were like, we don’t understand. We’ve always served women and girls of color. Why do we have to say it now? And who’s this messenger that’s saying it, right? It’s not somebody who looks like us who’s giving us a message that says we’re not loud enough in what we’re trying to do.

Sarah: Hmm. I notice in just other conversations I’ve had with you that one of the ways you listen is you also create communities of practice. You were talking to me earlier before we started recording about kind of an informal group of Executive Directors that gets together and share. You’ve talked about listening tours, you’ve talked about all of these forums. So is that the primary job of the Executive Director or the President, the CEO? Is it to form these communities of practice and listen and engage in these deep relationships?

Teresa: I think it is. I think our job is to build deep and understand that we are not in this alone because I think what’s really hard for us CEOs is that we have nobody to talk to about some of the challenges that we are faced with in the visioning and the work that we’re trying to do. And I think that sometimes can be really hard, to like hold all of that. And so we need to build our communities. I believe that most EDS, particularly in the social justice arena, are organizers. So we should constantly be organizing. We should constantly be using those tools to organize ourselves, to talk about what we have learned, to hear from other people. We’re not supposed to have all the answers as the leadership of an institution and so we have to trust that other people will have some answers to add to the conversation.

Sarah: Teresa Younger, thank you so much for joining me today.

Teresa: Thank you so much for having me.