A LEADER AT HEART
I first met Jeri Linas in 2010 when I attended a fundraising gala committee meeting for Teen Living Programs (TLP). It was held in the home of Jane McCart, a TLP Executive Board Member and executive with Northern Trust bank. As a testimony to the wonderful group of people who are part of the TLP family, I was welcomed with open arms into a group of dynamic and caring individuals who are passionate about making a difference in the lives of homeless youth and ensuring the success of TLP.
One of the meeting participants directed me to Jeri who was engaged in conversation with another gala committee member. I was immediately taken with Jeri’s vibrant energy and self-assured calm. I found it interesting how such contradictory characteristics could exist with such balance within one person. Jeri’s knowledge, experience and open heart makes her one of the strongest selling points for TLP and a large reason why supporters choose to join the TLP family. Meeting her definitely sealed the deal for me.
As author Leigh Buchanan says, “different people fascinate in different ways. Some take command, some use emotion, some arouse curiosity, some inspire respect, some create urgency, some build loyalty, and some change the game. Everyone does one or more of these things in every interaction every day. But they don’t always use the right one or the one that best suits their personality.” Jeri Linas delivers on all of these fronts as she is truly a leader at heart.
Jeri was kind enough to take some time out of her busy day and answer a few questions.
Sherry Clayton: Jeri, we’ve known each other for a couple of years due to our connection through Teen Living Programs but I don’t know much about your personal history. Where are you from originally?
Jeri Linas: I was born, raised and educated in Belfast, Northern Ireland. I went to teacher training college in the north of England and taught English literature to students 11 through 18 and then taught in North Ireland – primary school level. When I came to Chicago, I taught 3rd grade for four years.
You mentioned that your son may pursue a non-profit career as well. Do you think seeing your passion in this area influenced him in some way?
I definitely think that because of his upbringing and my direct involvement in social justice issues all of his life, as well as the values and political beliefs in our family, he is currently choosing to pursue a career in the not-for-profit world engaging in social justice work at the community level. He is very interested in affordable housing issues and has been volunteering with an anti-eviction campaign in the city. I think he will ultimately choose graduate study that will further define the direction of his future career.
Would you mind sharing a bit more information about your family?
Sure. My family of origin is currently living predominantly in the north of Ireland, my siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins live there and in England. I am the eldest of seven children and the first of 36 grandchildren. I am also the first to finish high school and graduate from college. I came to the U.S. in 1975; met and married my husband of 36 years and have lived in Chicago ever since. My husband and his family are also immigrants. They came here from Lithuania after the 2nd world war after living as displaced persons in East Germany. My son graduated from UIC in 2011 and spent some time travelling in Europe and North Africa before returning to Chicago.
You mentioned that the European educational system is very different. How so?
Being born and raised in Belfast, North Ireland I was educated within the British school system. Children start formal school at a very early age, usually at 4-5 years old and transfer into “secondary education” at age 11-12. I was tracked into an academic program at 11 through my 18 birthday, expected to learn 2-3 languages starting at 11 as well as algebra, geometry, trigonometry and the sciences. I carried about 10 courses from age 11 through 16. At ages 14, 16, and 18, there were national exams that further determined my course of study. So by the time I was 16 through 18, my future education track was determined. I usually carried 2-4 major courses preparing for examination at age 18. Pre-university courses and my class grades then determined where I could apply to college/university and for what programs. At that time I chose teacher education for English literature. My education was paid for by the government. Since that time, there have been many changes and all higher education is university and tuition based; moving towards the American system. There is still testing for national standards and a ‘two” tier system toward academia or vocation based education.
How did you develop your leadership style?
I became a leader by doing, by watching and learning from my peers and mentors.
The organizations you’ve worked for primarily focus on providing services for families and youth. Is this a particular passion of yours and is there a personal story connected to this?
I grew up in public housing and fully understand conditions of poverty for families, especially for those who were catholic living in Northern Ireland without full civil rights during the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s.
I was very lucky to have two parents who loved and respected each other as well as being surrounded by a huge loving extended family of aunts, uncles and cousins. I am the product of a wonderful, kind socialist father and of a culture that believed government had a responsibility to help its people and to institute programs which lifted people out of poverty through education and socialized medicine.
Working in the field of domestic violence for so very long certainly educated me on the cycle of violence, poverty and addiction that plague so many families especially those children who grow up witnessing those dynamics, not knowing that there could be a different way of being a family. I believe that every human being deserves to be loved, respected and honored.
How do you go about choosing your next role?
I am hoping that my next role is retiree! Over my career, I have become a great believer in fate which has allowed me to find myself in the right place at the right time for any given opportunity. This means at any point in time, I am where I am meant to be, learning and following a path that often isn’t defined or clear sometimes and with an unknown purpose. I am a risk taker and believe that what you put out into the universe does come back to you. So be very careful!
I am also a connector and believe in networking and coalition building, and when I am ready I act. Sometimes it takes me a while – not necessarily procrastinating or avoidance but rather taking my time and being very comfortable with my decision even if it is a very difficult one.
Tell me about your role with Teen Living Programs (TLP).
I am the Executive Director of TLP, responsible for an operating budget of $2.7 Million and a staff of 42. I staff a board of 14 directors and am currently engaging in a capacity building campaign to strategically design a plan that will provide stability and sustainability for the agency.
What is the mission of Teen Living Programs?
The mission of TLP is to create hope and opportunity for youth who are homeless by assisting them to permanently leave the streets, secure stable housing, and build self-sufficient, satisfying lives. We operate a Street and Community Outreach Program, an aftercare program, in house health clinic with our own nurse practitioner, and three housing programs that address emergency, intermediate, and long-term needs of youth who are homeless.
How do you see non-profits struggling during this economic crisis?
Unfortunately a lot of not-for-profits over the last 30 years have become very dependent on government funding – 85% or more of their total operating budgets. This dependency on such volatile funding streams has left them very vulnerable and has been the primary reason for so many having to close.
Many of us who have historically chosen not to be so dependent on those sources are challenged by sustaining the public funding that we do have plus the need to grow more private sources of financial support from foundations, corporations and individuals.
What do you think the difference will be between those organizations who survive these tough economic times and those who do not?
The difference will be located in the capacity of agencies to make tough decisions regarding every single thing ; from mission and vision, to staffing, job functions and deployment of staff to the membership of the board of directors to efficiencies with their operations – all of these decisions will determine how not-for-profits survive in the “new norm”.
Leadership at Teen Living is evaluating the organization at every level for efficiencies and putting everything on the table in addition to making sure everyone is represented at the table. How do you implement inclusive leadership and impactful change without getting derailed by messages from every part of the organization?
I think we have to be very mindful and intentional regarding our inclusivity in the strategic thinking, design and eventual plan for Teen Living Programs over the next 3 years. Engaging all of our stakeholders: youth, staff, volunteers, board, community and donors and being very the intentional in this process allows for respect for the process and “buy in” at every level of involvement at TLP. The end product may not prioritize every recommendation provided by our stakeholders but it allows us to seek and record that input so that everyone “feels” that their voice has been heard. Ultimately staff and board leadership has to take all of the information and process it into a document that will set the road map for TLP in the coming years. It is not enough to write the plan we must also measure and evaluate the plan and support the infrastructure by which that can happen on an ongoing and regular basis.
Teen Living Programs includes Excellence, Integrity, respect, innovation and enthusiasm in its core values . Is inclusive leadership a part of this as well?
I think our practice of striving for an integrated system of care of sharing information across the agency – youth to staff- staff to leadership – leadership to staff – staff to youth and so on reflects one of our core values of “Respect – We value and respect diversity of background, thought, and style.” In our strategic planning process, we have been using terms like “Collective Impact’ & “Shared Accountability” as a way of thinking and acting at TLP. This is an intentional way of breaking down silos and role perception. Each person has a role, responsibility and expectations for the successful outcomes of the total agency: program, finance, fundraising, operations, leadership, donors and community.
How would you describe your leadership style?
My preference is to work within a collaborative framework with each person working independently and autonomously but accountable to the group with shared goals and desired outcomes.
What hopes do you have regarding changes in the state of homelessness in America?
At my most optimistic times, I am pleased to see renewed focus on Chicago’s New Plan to End Homelessness, especially as there is now an intentional focus on Youth who are homeless. I hope that this focus will raise great awareness of the issue as the plight of youth who are homeless or precariously housed is pretty invisible not only in Chicago but across the U.S. Although, the conservative estimates are between 1 and 3 million young people are experiencing homelessness. Most recently the Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sibelius in her new role as Chair of the Interagency Council on Homelessness has called for an end to youth homelessness by 2020.
At my most pessimistic times, I am concerned about how we can achieve such a wonderful goal without a funding commitment at the federal, state and city level for those services that can support such a change in our society.
What is your vision for the future of Teen Living Programs?
A robust, comprehensive, stable and effective agency that can sustain itself as far into the future as it is needed.
What has been your biggest challenge over the last 5 years?
On a professional level and like so many Americans my family has been confronted with bouts of unemployment that resulted in periods of uncertainty and turmoil.
Simultaneously we have also been confronted with personal challenges – family illnesses, trauma and death, all of which reflect the natural cycle of life for so many people.
However I am truly grateful for the presence and support of a family, friends, colleagues and community who support me and TLP on a daily basis.
What do you expect your toughest challenge to be over the next 5 years, both personally and professionally?
Like many people in the not-for-profit world, I think our greatest challenge will be to create safety, security, stability and sustainability for Teen Living Programs; the youth we serve and the amazing staff (and their families!) who create that space. For all of that to happen, our board leadership, all the donors and funders who believe in TLP and provide support to ensure our success must all share in the will to make that happen.
What do you want your legacy to be?
To have lived and practiced the behavior inherent in both Margaret Mead’s and Mahatma Gandhi’s most famous quotes:
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” — Margaret Mead
“You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” — Mahatma Gandhi
When not reading, working or attending conferences and networking events, I am supporting my favorite charities: Teen Living Programs where I am a mentor, committee member and Executive Board member and YWCA Chicago where I am an Associate Board Member. I am passionate about causes related to supporting youth, women and families. Particularly in the areas of education, employment, violence intervention, social services and housing. With a keen intuition on helping people tap into their brilliance, I am passionate about helping people grow. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to know more about my charities or this blog.