Words by Sarah Crumrine & Photos by Alex Hsiao
Sondra Samuels joined this year’s National Philanthropy Day fresh off of a flight from North Carolina, where addressed a group of young nonprofit leaders, eager to learn from her expertise. Sondra was once again sharing that expertise as the featured speaker at November’s YNPN Twin Cities Breakfast of Champions.
Sondra is the President and C.E.O. of Northside Achievement Zone (NAZ), an organization that works to permanently close the achievement gap and end generational poverty in North Minneapolis. They accomplish this through collaboration between parents, community organizations, and schools.
Sondra had a number of lessons to share with the group, and framed the discussion with one lesson had just learned about herself. At the leadership training in North Carolina, she attended a session on storytelling, which stressed that effective storytelling should be framed in one of three ways: ‘the story of me’, ‘the story of us’, or ‘the story of now’. Sondra shared her own leadership story in the same context.
The Story of Me
Sondra’s “story of me” focuses on why she does what she does. She has a deep love, respect, and understanding of her community—North Minneapolis. It was critical for her and her husband to live in the community that NAZ does its work. Born in New Jersey, her family moved from Newark into the suburbs when fair housing legislation passed. Sondra and her sister were forced to test into their grade—school administrators claimed that Newark schools were inferior, but what Sondra heard was that she was inferior. She knew that she was expected to fail, and though she passed the test, she struggled with feeling like she wasn’t smart enough to compete with all of the white kids. Going from a community full of people of color who expected her to succeed, to one where she was surrounded by white people who expected her to fail, shaped her from a very early age.
After attending a historically black college, Sondra got a job with Ford Motor Company, bringing her to the Twin Cities. She became heavily involved with volunteer work, eventually leaving the for-profit sector for the PeaceCorps and AmeriCorps. Along the way, she learned about the Harlem Children’s Zone, a nonprofit organization committed to ending generational poverty in the historic New York neighborhood. That’s where Sondra found her passion and her inspiration for her work with NAZ.
The Story of Us
Sondra is deeply committed to the work that NAZ does in the community. In Minnesota, we have one of the worst achievement gaps, meaning different communities of students are performing at vastly different levels. Our white students are achieving higher test scores and graduation rates, while our students of color are not seeing those results. NAZ addresses this through strong collaboration with corporate and nonprofit partners as well as leaders in the community, and Sondra stressed the importance of language in encouraging that collaboration.
NAZ staff doesn’t call the families they work with “clients.” They call them “partners,” because that is exactly what they are: partners in the work. NAZ doesn’t have “donors.” Instead, they have “investors,” who dedicate resources to the work. In NAZ’s framing, asking people for money is really just giving them an opportunity to live out their values. Her final language suggestion: “No other sector is named after its tax status,” she says. Instead of nonprofit, NAZ calls itself a social benefit organization. Simple language changes can make the difference between charity and solidarity.
“When people start saying ‘we’ when they’re talking about the issues we’re trying to address, it warms my heart,” Sondra says.
The Story of Now
The story of now is framed by a single question Sondra posed to the group: “If not us, then who?”
“True leadership is about a vision for the future. Something greater has to be created,” she says.
“If you want to change the culture, forget trying to fix what is broken. Create something better and everyone will move to that.”
And to the common urge to tweak around the edges of problems, Sondra says: “Bullshit. Just create something new.”
Sondra had wise words for those whose story of now may not be where they anticipated—every experience leads to the next. “You get so much rich experience, even if you hate it,” she said.
Sondra’s story and lessons resonated deeply with the Breakfast of Champions group. Her own “story of me” inspired attendees to think about their own journey to their passions, while her stories of “us” and “now” encouraged everyone to think deeply about the impact their own work had on their communities around them. Whether venturing on to the rest of National Philanthropy Day or heading back into the chilly November air, attendees were all left thinking about their own “me,” “us,” and “now.”
Attendee Quote – Alyssa Whalon
“I think the most refreshing thing to see is a leader who is their authentic self and chooses to show up as they are to meetings. Sondra Samuels was real and brought a great presence to the conversation. She joked about the amount of time she had to speak because she could speak for hours and to tell you the truth I’m sure most of us wouldn’t have had a problem with that. As a woman of color, I’m glad to get the opportunity to hear from others that have paved their own way to leadership. I enjoyed hearing her journey of how she got to NAZ and how passionate she is about the North Minneapolis community. NAZ is a great example of people coming together to make a difference. My key takeaway was that no matter what organization people work at if we are working together then we can make a difference. There were many books and authors she referenced throughout our conversation that I’m looking forward to reading, including a book about healing from racialized trauma.”