The following is a conversation between La June Montgomery Tabron, President & CEO of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and Denver Frederick, the Host of The Business of Giving.
Denver: The W.K. Kellogg Foundation, founded in 1930, is among the largest philanthropic foundations in the United States. Guided by the belief that all children should have an equal opportunity to thrive, the foundation works with communities to create conditions for vulnerable children so they can realize their full potential in school, work, and life.
Welcome to The Business of Giving, La June.
La June: Thank you. I’m delighted to be here today.
Denver: So the foundation… My goodness! You’re going to be a hundred years old… your centennial in just eight years.
Share with us the founding story of the foundation, La June, and maybe some of the significant milestones along the way.
La June: Sure. So our foundation was founded by Will Keith Kellogg, the same person that created the cereal company. But Will Keith was someone who was an innovator, an entrepreneur, but who came from little means.
And as he amassed his wealth, he determined that he wanted to promote the health, happiness, and wellbeing of children. So he left his good fortune in the Kellogg Company to this foundation that he created in 1930. And he said: Use the money as you please so long as it promotes the health, happiness, and wellbeing of children.
So we have been doing so, and we understand that for children to thrive, their families must be stable and have opportunities, and their communities must be equitable places for families and children to thrive. And that is how we look at how we support organizations that are striving to improve the lives of the most vulnerable children.
Denver: Tell us a little bit more about that, La June. The foundation does have several interconnected priorities. You touched on them. Tell us a little bit about how they all work together.
La June: They do, and we approach the work from a comprehensive lens. I’ll start by saying our DNA… when we think about how you improve the lives of children…our DNA focuses on what we believe are our key elements that must be present, and that is: one, racial equity.
We believe that equitable communities create the best outcomes for all children and families. We also believe that leadership is critical in these communities and around the world, so we have supported leadership from the very beginning. Will Keith Kellogg believed that it’s actually the leaders that sustain the positive change that improves the lives of children.
And finally, community engagement. Our approach is that we believe that people have the inherent capacity to improve their own lives, so we look for bodies of work where the innovators are the people of the community, and we support their aspirations. We are not prescriptive. And as you mentioned then, that looks like early childhood education is a focus area of ours. Economic empowerment and equality and economics– so we look at workforce development, et cetera, everything about equitable opportunities for employment. We also look at health equity and how our children are faring, both physically, mentally, and nutrition and food access– to quality food– and healthcare.
So our work is comprehensive and particularly as we drill down into what we call our priority places, we have identified places where we not only have an office, but we provide this very comprehensive approach, supporting their leaders and committing to these communities for at least a generation in how we believe change really happens, which is not episodic, but it’s a commitment where we work alongside partners in a community until we can see results for children and families.
La June: And those priority places in the United States consist of Michigan, of course, which is our home state, Mississippi, New Mexico, and the city of New Orleans. And within the state of Michigan, we are committed to Detroit, Grand Rapids, and of course, Battle Creek. And then we have international locations, as you mentioned, in Haiti, as well as the Yucatán Peninsula and Chiapas in Mexico.
…in order for children to truly thrive everywhere, that we had to dismantle the hierarchies that racism presents where some people are advantaged and others are disadvantaged. And it was structural just as much as it was being practiced.
Denver: That is a great overview, and I’m always amazed how the DNA of an organization when it’s formed still has an influence 90 years later. Even everything you said about Will and focusing on leadership, and I don’t think people even appreciate how sometimes at the founding, how something like that gets baked in and still casts a shadow here almost a century later.
Well, the Kellogg Foundation board made a commitment to become an anti-racist organization all the way back in 2007. I don’t think many other people were entertaining that notion back then. As a matter of fact, I don’t even think that it entered a lot of people’s minds. What was the impetus for that decision, La June?
La June: Again, as you mentioned, it really goes back to our DNA. Mr. Kellogg actually stated he wanted children to thrive, regardless of race, creed, nationality, sex, et cetera, and so we have continued to build on our DNA. But what we understood in 2007, was that we were starting to see the barriers that racism presents for children and families to thrive.
And in all of our communities and around the nation and the world, we were seeing the disparities. We supported deeply the work around the health disparities that children were facing across the United States, and we understood that in order for children to truly thrive everywhere, that we had to dismantle the hierarchies that racism presents where some people are advantaged and others are disadvantaged. And it was structural just as much as it was being practiced. And so in 2007, our board understood that we had to practice what we preach. And while we were doing it as best we could, moving up until this point, we wanted to double down. And so it took that kind of a commitment from our board all the way through every level of the organization. And our board led the way.
So, yes, they committed that this foundation would be an anti-racist organization, which meant we had to review every policy and practice and structure within our own organization to make sure that we were living the ideal of racial equity that we were promoting throughout our nation and the world.
Denver: Were there some policies and practices which seemed somewhat innocuous maybe at the time, but then when you really examined, you said, “Wow, this has got to be changed”?
La June: Absolutely. Yeah. We needed to change many things. The most important thing that we looked at was our personnel practices: our hiring, our promotion, how we uplifted and supported our staff. And yes, there were things we needed to change in that regard to make sure that people had equitable opportunities to thrive within our own organization.
Denver: And one of the biggest things you changed or really put into practice was establishing something you call an “authorizing environment.” What does that mean?
La June: That’s key we learned, and again, the authorizing environment means that there is commitment and support for our pursuit of racial equity at every level of the organization. And what we now know is: that is critical. So the board engaging in this process and affirming the pursuit is part of that authorizing environment.
Our board actually participated in every training opportunity we had for staff. So it wasn’t a committee that was formed; it wasn’t a segment of the organization. It was through and true, top to bottom, this authorizing environment that allowed for everyone to show up, feeling as if they were valued and respected and honored for their full selves, and for them to see commitment at every level of the organization for their success and their work.
Denver: What’s your current composition of staff? … because you really are truly an anti-racist environment when you take a look at that.
La June: We are, and we’re just about fifty-fifty in the organization. We have about 50% people of color, and our board is actually 60% people of color. So our commitment, as I said, has driven our hiring practices, our board selection. We are very committed to making sure that the communities we work with see themselves in our organization.
Denver: I just love how often you’ve used the word “board” because there are so many organizations that want to do it, but their board is on the sidelines, and it’s not going to happen unless the board is not only in the middle of it, but really leading the way.
La June: Absolutely. And as you said, that is the authorizing environment. And I can tell you… you probably know that I’ve been in the Kellogg Foundation for just about 36 years. In May, I’ll have my 36th anniversary. And I can tell you over the years, as I have been a part of this organization, that commitment from the board and that engagement from the board is key to approaching the type of equitable organization that we are continuing to pursue, but the growth that we’ve had is because of that environment.
And it does cascade down to the executive leadership team, the leadership team, middle management. And in fact, in our organization, we say we’re leaderful– is every person engaging and helping us make this happen, and holding ourselves accountable.
Denver: Yeah. Well, I’m finding this with a lot of organizations right now. They don’t have enough leaders through the organization, and they can’t scale because of it. And they’re beginning to recognize that every single person has to have the capacity to lead, and you really need to give them the tools with which to be able to do that.
La June: Absolutely. Absolutely.
Denver: So you’ve taken this expertise in racial equity, and you’re now helping companies through this program called Expanding Equity. Tell us a little bit about that.
La June: Yes, I am. I’m so excited about the journey we’ve been on with our Expanding Equity work. And this actually launched prior to the pandemic. And we started by looking at our own financial institutions– those who were serving the Kellogg Foundation and investing our eight and a half billion dollars.
And we started to think that the financial services industry is one that is not very diverse. In fact, less than 1% of the entire industry was led by women or people of color. And so we thought, again, thinking about how we practice what we preach, how do we engage with our financial services industries that are managing our wealth, and partner in a space around providing greater opportunities and taking this racial equity journey with us?
And we did get a great commitment from our partners and our money managers. And our first cohort consisted of these companies, and we began to take a journey together– How can the lessons that we’ve had at the Kellogg Foundation provide insight to these companies as they are beginning to take the journey that we have been on for many decades?
Now this work doubled down after the murder of George Floyd. And during the pandemic, we actually expanded our Expanding Equity work. And instead of the cohort of just financial services industries, we reached out and received interest from companies all over the United States, and we began continued cohorts. We now are close to a hundred companies.
La June: And again, taking a very deep dive into their own practices, looking at the environments within these organizations, talking about how they as cohorts can even learn from one another, as well as from the Kellogg Foundation… and as far as how to implement these best practices around providing equitable opportunities for all people to thrive.
And we’ve learned a great deal along this journey. The work is continuing. We have continued demand. We’re building digital tools in this space, but the reactions are very practical. And so we talked a lot about, for some of these companies, why they have what we call a leaky bucket.
Basically means they may recruit and hire entry level people of color, but somehow as they progress through the organization, many leak out… women leak out. And when you get to the C-suite and the top leaders of the organization, you don’t see that same representation. And what we talk about is how do we plug those holes where…
Denver: How do you plug those holes? What are some of the things you can do?
La June: Yeah, there are many ones, but I like to talk about something that I believe I benefited from, and that is what sponsorship and mentorship looks like in your organization. And thinking about that from an equitable perspective and what we are learning together is: Those sponsors and mentors are precious, but whether they are accessible to everyone in the organization, and how they become accessible is key.
And I think about my own career and where I know I’ve had that sponsorship and mentorship that allowed me to progress. That’s not very even throughout some companies. And as they understand how culture may impact how sponsorship is accessed, we’ve seen some change and some reflection in that space, and more intentionality in those types of structures.
…it’s based on storytelling, and it brings people together from different sectors, from different places, different ethnicities. And it’s a methodology to allow them to learn more about one another through storytelling. It allows them to affirm one another and based on a premise of our common humanity.
Denver: Another thing that you are keen on is listening to communities, and you do this through a storytelling platform, or at least one of the ways in which you do it. But tell us about that storytelling platform.
La June: Sure. And the way I’ll tell it is through an effort, a body of work that we are supporting that we launched in 2017, which is called our Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation effort.
And just to take you back a little bit before this work, we call it our TRHT, Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation work, we launched a body of work right after our anti-racist shift, and we called that work America Healing. And we supported people and leaders from all over the nation who were working on issues of racial equity. And what we determined is the way to get to racial equity was through racial healing.
And we talk a lot about our healing work. And I believe now it is more common to hear people talking about healing and racial healing across our nation. But it wasn’t so in 2007, and when we launched this healing work, we determined that at the heart of racial equity was bringing communities together, bringing people together, allowing them to heal from their own histories, their backgrounds, the history of racism in their own communities.
And we knew that every community would have a different story in that regard, and every person has a different story. So we thought the way to really get to the structural dismantling of racism was to begin with bringing communities together and allowing them to heal together, and then come to common dreams about what they wanted their communities to look like and be like in the future.
And to do this, we brought together the practitioners from our America Healing work, and we said: How do we support this happening in communities– community by community– and then to scale this across the nation so that communities are solving their own problems, but they’re healing together? And this body of practitioners created a methodology which we call our Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation effort.
And it is based on narrative; it’s based on storytelling, and it brings people together from different sectors, from different places, different ethnicities. And it’s a methodology to allow them to learn more about one another through storytelling. It allows them to affirm one another and based on a premise of our common humanity.
And through these curated conversations of storytelling and healing and truth telling, it was the vision that people would come together; they would learn more about one another. They would begin to think about what structures in their own community prohibit equality, and they would together address these structures and policies and create a future where everyone could thrive.
And there were pillars where we were seeing policies in the criminal justice system or the education system or the economy, where if policies were shifted, more people would have equal opportunities to thrive. And so we challenged the communities to look at these pillars through the lens of narrative and storytelling and healing, and to support their efforts to build better communities for children and families.
And we continue to support these efforts. And some of the results have been just incredible for us to watch, as we know one of the deepest structures that create racism is separation and segregation. And this body of work is doing just the opposite. It’s bringing people together, not separating them and dividing them.
But instead, it is connecting them and embracing their common humanity and their own personal stories, and validating those stories in a way where it’s not about blaming or shaming, but it’s about connecting and validating and affirming people. But the power of that allows people to then work on some of the most embedded problems and issues in their communities that they want to then address together.
Denver: That is so smart and thoughtful, La June. As a matter of fact, I think if you were to ask me what is the biggest blockage to systems change, it would be: We never deal with the trauma that communities have been through. We just want to get on with the show, and unless you take that time to deal with that trauma and allow time for that healing, that’s a thing that we get stuck with, and it really seems that this is just such a wonderful way in which you’re trying to address that.
La June: Absolutely. And it sounds maybe less scientific or soft. Some people at the beginning described it as the soft work, but we actually believe it’s the most important, the most intense, and maybe challenging work that needs to happen, which is why many people want to skip it because it’s not comfortable all the time.
Denver: Not comfortable. And it’s… yeah.
La June: Yeah.
Denver: And we’re not taught it in school, you know what I mean? So therefore, it’s a little hard. But I think if you take a look at the workplace, the soft skills which are always dismissed, have now really become the hard skills.
La June: Exactly.
Denver: And hard skills are actually going to be done by artificial intelligence or something, so there is this flipping that’s been going on.
Well, I mentioned in the opening about some of the recent initiatives that you have undertaken, and one of the biggest and certainly most exciting for me has been Racial Equity 2030. That’s your global challenge which you did in honor of W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s 90th anniversary.
Share with us some of the elements of this challenge and how the outcome has gone.
La June: Thank you. And again, going back to our DNA, when we talk about racial equity, we’re serious. We know that if we can unlock this level of equitable inequality in our nation, that we can unlock promising futures for children and families all over the world.
So, as we were approaching our 90th anniversary, we were thinking we’ve done a lot in this space. We, one, believe that the best way to accelerate this work is to learn from people doing this work all over the world. And part of this initiative was to garner the best practices from all over the world that would accelerate the pursuit for racial equity.
We knew that 2020 was our 90th anniversary, but we are also approaching our hundredth anniversary as you commented on, and we are eight years away. And we envisioned infusing support and resources in some of the best practices of pursuing racial equity all over the globe that would accelerate this work. And by our hundredth anniversary, be able to show new practices, new models of how we can accelerate racial equity and actually achieve racial equity globally.
So, we set about this challenge, and it was an interesting time, right? Because in 2020, we also were in the middle of a pandemic, and then we saw a racial reckoning. But one of the things we held true to as we continued this work was to think about how to provide this opportunity globally without the traditional power dynamics of a large foundation working internationally.
And we learned a lot along the way, but what we knew was that if we were going to support this effort, it needed to be a long-term commitment. It couldn’t be just an infusion of capital. It needed to be a partnership and a commitment. And so we determined that we would find five finalists, and each of those finalists would receive between $20 million or $10 million for the next decade, working toward that 2030 hallmark and a point where we could actually share their work and their lessons globally.
So we worked. We had over 1,400 applicants from all over the world. That has now been narrowed to the five awardees that we have announced, and they are embarking on an incredible journey on some of the most fundamental structures of racism in our world. And I don’t know, I’ll just quickly tell you who these five awardees are and what they’re working on.
Denver: I wish you would. That was my next question.
La June: It is amazing work, and we’re truly honored to partner with them. But you start off in Brazil with ActionAid, which is an organization that’s building an anti-racist education system in Brazil. They’re taking on the entire system and rebuilding it from the point of every child, every student having value and deserving of quality education.
Then we have Communities United, which is a body of work in Chicago focusing on healing, and they’re using a justice model to help youth heal from the trauma while they work to heal their communities. And again, this is so inspiring because it’s about young people doing this work, young people acknowledging their own trauma, and then determining that that trauma strengthens them and allows them through their own trauma to go out and heal their own communities.
The third organization is the Indian Law Resource Center, which is an effort that is securing indigenous land ownership in Mexico and Central and South America. And again, if you talk about wealth building… and a key structure determines that journey is land and land ownership. And this work is working to really provide access and tools for indigenous people to advocate on their own behalf to reacquire their land.
The next group is Partners in Development and this is an inspiring body of work out of Hawaii. And their model is to end youth incarceration in the state of Hawaii. And this is a native-led effort, again, with young people, but to truly end all youth incarceration in the entire state.
And then finally, Namati. Namati is an effort dealing with environmental racism, and basically saying that those who have been impacted most by the environmental issues, should be in a place to shape policy and the law in the future. And it’s building their knowledge, their ability to be a part of the solutions that we need around climate change in order to improve communities across the world.
So these are five great awardees. They’re really reflecting the complexity of the structures that we all navigate, and they’re going to produce meaningful long-term change in their own communities, but also produce models that we can learn from and use across society.
Denver: What a fantastic group! I probably would be doing myself a favor, as well as our listeners, if I featured all of them on the show, and maybe I’ll try to do that. I think it would be wonderful…
La June: That would be great.
Denver: …to see the kind of work that they’re doing. You have been involved in philanthropy for some 35, actually at Kellogg, 36 years. La June, what are some of the more notable changes you’ve witnessed, and what do you see happening in this sector in the next couple of years?
La June: I have to say I have truly observed remarkable change in philanthropy over the time that I have been in philanthropy. It has become much more diverse and is continuing to become more diverse, which means that my colleagues are very diverse people. And they’re thinking, and their innovative nature is just growing, I think, the field and our pursuit for supporting change. I think we’ve come from a grantmaking effort fully to one that is more about looking at the fundamental systems and how change really happens, and understanding that change happens not only from just dollars, but it happens when people come together.
So you see a field that understands the convening power. You see more collaboration in the field. You see people coming together with like purposes, working together and understanding how we complement one another, and not… I mean, there isn’t a spirit of competition now. There’s more of a spirit of collaboration and engagement.
So it’s been a journey, but I think we are closer to communities. We’re understanding how to support communities and to navigate what may be power dynamics. But to figure out how to partner alongside people on the ground because we know that the real innovation and the knowledge for how things happen comes from those who are closest to where the issues are.
La June: And so where philanthropy started out, maybe as more of a top-down, research-focused endeavor is now very much a work from the ground and is truly inspirational. And the results speak for themselves.
Denver: Yeah. And sometimes from the ground, La June, you hear people say, “Don’t come in here and tell us what’s wrong and what you need to fix. Did you ever think about taking a look about what we’re doing well and trying to build upon that? Because we can get a complex when you say this is broken, and this is broken.” So those kinds of insights from the ground never really penetrated, I think, the philanthropic mind.
But now, sometimes you’re saying, yeah, like it’s what we’d be told as an individual: Build on your strengths! And I’m seeing more and more communities saying: Let’s do that. And that will kind of just push out the weaknesses in our community by building on our strengths. So there’s just a lot of new thinking that it’s been really interesting to watch.
La June: You’re absolutely right. And it’s both the what and the how. They have answers on both fronts.
La June: And we have to listen to both the what and the how and the who. Probably the most important thing I’ve learned in philanthropy, particularly as we think about leadership, that we have to understand is both the formal and the informal leader.
And how do you go into a community and find that informal leader that truly has the influence in that community and the respect, and it’s not those who we typically anoint and with the titles. And understanding how to really leverage and support the true leaders of a community is really, I think, the secret sauce and how you really find sustainable change and support it.
Denver: I think you’re absolutely right. With that though, let me ask you about your leadership because this has not been an easy time to be in charge. We’ve had so many changes. You’ve got hybrid, you’ve got virtual, you’ve got remote. You have issues of wellbeing. You have a young cohort, new generation coming into the workplace. I would say it’s fair to say that the bar has been raised for all leaders. How has your leadership, La June, changed over the course of the past three years?
La June: Well, I think fundamentally, my own style of leadership is that there are many leaders, and I’ve never gravitated to the concept of: because you’re the CEO, you are the leader and everybody else needs to follow you. And it probably comes from my own upbringing. I’m number nine of 10 children, so I had to lead from behind, from the bottom, from the side. And that skill has followed me through my own career. So I’ve always been one of building shared leadership and collaboration and partnership, and knowing that no one person has a magic sauce, but you need to build teams. And through the pandemic, I think that showed up more than anything.
We knew we had to listen to what was happening with our own staff. We knew that there was more than one issue that we were solving for, and we weren’t trying to come in with a top-down solution, but we listened to our staff. And so it was interesting for us though because before the pandemic, we had already started this journey.
We actually had converted our organization to what we call a network organizational model, which is very different from a hierarchy. And so our org chart is not a CEO at the top with boxes that pyramid down. It is more of a circle, but it talks about shared leadership in a leaderful organization. So we had done that a few years before the pandemic.
So when the pandemic hit, we were already in a distributed leadership model which allowed for people… as they were remote… to continue to foster that type of leadership and connection, either on Zoom or however we were connecting. So we had already had Zoom rooms before the pandemic. So we quickly shifted. But we also knew that because we were a deep public health organization, a health equity organization, that this pandemic was real.
La June: We had to protect the lives and safety of our staff, our grantees, the children and families. So we shifted. We were completely disrupted from a practice perspective, but we shifted. We were agile and maybe like many others, but we’ve had some of the best staff perception result because people felt like they were seen and heard.
La June: And we knew how to do our work regardless of where we are, where we were.
So we continue to remain hybrid. People are back into the offices, but people are continuing to be remote as well. And we’ve had this hybrid approach that we’re learning how to lean into, which is the both ends of that. And I think that is a reflection of who we are, the leadership that we’ve built and how I think about leadership.
Denver: Yeah. Well, you’re a little bit ahead of the curve, and it seems that the organizations that have fared best through this were the ones that had already started to put things in place before the pandemic. Whether it be technology or whatever else, they’re the ones that just seem to move along and actually accelerate their progress.
Let me leave our listeners with something, La June, and I can’t think of anything better than changing the narrative. The thing you’re doing with NBCUniversal, tell us about it.
La June: Absolutely. Our partnership with NBCUniversal really allows for us to connect with a larger audience, and to continue this conversation and this narrative about racial healing and racial equity.
Through that NBCUniversal partnership, we will be discussing what’s happening in those communities where truth, racial healing, and transformation is occurring… so that instead of all the narrative we hear today, the divisive discourse, how everyone is polarized, I believe there’s another narrative that people should hear, and that is all of the people who are out there working hard to come together, to build relationships and to build trust.
And that when that happens, great things result for everyone. It’s not a zero-sum game. It’s a growth where the pie grows for everyone. It’s a shared fate as opposed to this zero sum. And that’s what we’ve been supporting and working on for many decades, and it’s time for people to hear the stories of this great work and how it results and benefits all of us. And that’s what the partnership with NBCUniversal will be about.
Denver: That’s fantastic. I think one of the reasons we have such anxiety and angst in this country is because we don’t hear enough of those stories. We just get a pretty bad diet of news that comes our way.
La June: Exactly.
Denver: And it can really depress us. You just look at it and you’re like, Yai Yai Yai!
For listeners who want to learn more about the foundation and this incredible work you’re doing, tell us a little bit about your website and what people will find there.
La June: Sure. Please, there are two things I want to talk about. First of all, go to www.wkkf.org. That is our website. And you will access from there another body of work that we have, and we call it Every Child Thrives. And this information is coming to us from all of our grantee partners as well.
So Every Child Thrives allows you to hear the stories from the ground, to hear stories from people who are every day improving the lives of children. And in support of storytelling and great lessons, the Every Child Thrives is just an inspiring place for people to see models and to begin to think about how they can make the same type of change in their own community. And you can get to that as well from wkkf.org.
Denver: Fantastic. Well, thanks, La June, for being here today. It was such a delight to have you on the program.
La June: Sure. Thank you. It’s been my pleasure.
Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving serves as a Trusted Advisor and Executive Coach to Nonprofit Leaders. His Book, The Business of Giving: New Best Practices for Nonprofit and Philanthropic Leaders in an Uncertain World, will be released on Giving Tuesday, January 4th.