Words by Ivy Stammer | Photos by Josh Olson
Born in the former Yugoslavia, Tea Rozman Clark was fifteen years old when war broke out. Amidst what is widely considered Europe’s deadliest conflict since World War II, Tea’s world suddenly turned upside down. Though the Slovenian capital city of Ljubljana, where Tea and her family lived at the time, was the first city to be subjected to air raids and roadblocks, the war that riddled the region for ten years only lasted ten days in Slovenia. A sanctuary to the region, Slovenia received thousands of refugees, drawing Tea to work in the camps.
Today, Tea is thriving in her role as co-founder and executive director of Green Card Voices, a successful organization dedicated to sharing first-person perspectives on the immigrant experience. Knowing she is now exactly where she should be, Tea recognizes that it took time to get there. She shared her personal and professional journey, and lessons she has learned along the way, at the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network January Leadership Breakfast.
Invest in Yourself
At age twenty-one, Tea found herself living amidst college freshmen in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Many of her peers had never experienced life beyond the midwest. Having already visited thirty-two countries, Tea had one of many epiphanies: travel shapes your empathy and understanding in ways no book can ever teach you. At that moment, Tea made the decision to continue to invest in travel, an investment she credits in making her who she is today.
Following graduation, Tea signed on to be a volunteer teacher for ten months in West Africa. Though the time she spent there deeply connects her to many people she serves today, she still felt like an outsider. “Even though I was passionate and very knowledgeable, I still wasn’t West African. I still felt it should be people from there doing the work I was doing.”
That very thought led her to reflect on her own past. She dove deep to find her own unique perspective, the act of which led her to discover her authentic self—and along with it, her true calling. “All individuals have issues; something preventing them from living a full life. But there was one group of people, extremely productive in every form, that had done everything right, but still lost everything. This group is the refugees.”
Relating to the trying experiences, psychological impact, and damages caused by war, Tea knew she had a natural connection to the refugee experience. Once she honored her past, she was able to come from not only a place of understanding, but also from a place of insight—a quality she hopes more future leaders can foster.
“Look for your own unique understanding. Look into your life. It’s going to help you so much, because as you become a leader, that whole aspect of vulnerability, of you are the story you tell, of coming from a place of not just understanding something, but really understanding it, that really helps.”
Recognizing her passion that had been there all along, Tea began getting involved with local organizations serving immigrants and refugees, but eventually grew frustrated. “I was tired of organizations not having a staff reflective of their mission. All too often, they were serving immigrants and refugees with a staff and/or board that did not include refugees and immigrants.”
So, she decided to do something about it.
In 2013, she co-founded an organization to share the personal narratives of her fellow American immigrants. They called it Green Card Voices.
Learn as You Go
Start-ups provide a lot of flexibility, but not without their fair share of challenges. The first of many, in Tea’s case, would be gaining recognition. Initially, people thought Green Card Voices was merely a pet project, a novel idea. “Well,” Tea said, “It is not a project. It is an organization. We are not going away.” Tea added that communications played a critical role in shifting the perception of Green Card Voices. The first step was to be able to give a dang good pitch. Tea dedicated herself to learning how to clearly and methodically deliver key messages. She started speaking publicly and using the website and social media to build her platform. Having all of these channels focused on the mission of Green Card Voices, Tea gradually saw more and more people becoming not only familiar with but also grateful for her work.
The second challenge for Tea, as many nonprofits can relate to all too well, was securing funding. Tea struggled to get large foundations on board; shifting the narratives about immigrants and refugees seemed too abstract of an idea for many. Her solution? Develop her own unrestricted funding stream. Implementing the principles of social entrepreneurship, Green Card Voices published its first collection of stories in 2015. What started as a small crowdfunding campaign to cover the publishing costs of Green Card Youth Voices: Immigration Stories from a Minneapolis High School generated revenue, which in turn has enabled Green Card voices to publish several more books—with more in the works!
The third and final hurdle Tea mentioned was that like many women, she struggled with the idea of herself as a leader. Trying to balance a family and being an executive director just seemed like too much to take on at first. Out of fear of failing at either, Tea thought she would be better off in a program director role. Her board thought otherwise. Feeling like there was so much she didn’t know, Tea depended on several mentors to help teach her along the way. Surrounding herself with other highly motivated people (encouraging, kick ass women in particular), she joined Lean In. Over time, Tea boosted her confidence by attending as many trainings and formal university classes as she could.
“I didn’t know everything, but I was willing to learn. The first step is identifying which areas you really need to improve on. Then, find the time and learn.”
Last Bit of Advice
When asked if there are any other pieces of wisdom she would like to share with emerging leaders, Tea kept it short and sweet. “Know what you know. Know what you don’t know. Don’t be shy about constantly learning new skills. Get educated, and fill in the gaps. As with most things in life, becoming a leader is always a process.”