Words by Sarah Crumrine | Photos by J Olson
The air outside was getting chillier, but the bright yellow dahlia that sat in the front of the room helped keep the summer feeling going strong at Twin Cities RISE! for September’s Breakfast of Champions. Outside of his position as President and CEO of Twin Cities RISE!, Tom Streitz has quite the green thumb, and the dahlia that sat at his place at the table came from his garden. At this Breakfast of Champions, Tom offered advice for the young professionals in the room, shared stories about his work with Twin Cities RISE!, talked about shared the things that bring him joy outside of his career (and his garden).
The Philosophy of Work
The mission of Twin Cities RISE! is to transform lives out of poverty through meaningful employment. Through work skills training, internship opportunities, job search assistance, and employment placement services, they aim to reduce barriers that can stand in the way of employment and create a community of empowered individuals.
Tom explained the mission of Twin Cities RISE! by exploring the philosophy of “work”. “There’s something uniquely American about ‘work’,” he said. “There’s something about work that defines people.” Tom reminded everyone that in today’s society, what a person does for work will define them to a lot of people. This standard in our society is something that Tom keeps in mind with everyone who comes through the doors of Twin Cities RISE!.
Rewriting the Rules
Tom’s career clicked because of a character many of us know well: Atticus Finch. After seeing the well-known film adaptation of To Kill A Mockingbird, Tom thought to himself, “I want to be that guy who can stand up and help speak out for people who don’t have a voice or have been pushed to the side.” The fire that was lit then hasn’t dimmed one bit. Tom became a civil rights attorney and worked in the United States Senate as legal counsel, channeling his own inner Atticus to be that very voice.
Tom always sets out to acquire as much knowledge as possible, especially as it pertains to power. How is power used? How is it designed? Who writes the rules of how we live? How do we use those rules and bend them to accomplish the things we think are important?
While working for Legal Aid, Tom threw those rules made by people in power out the window. He sued the city of Minneapolis and the federal government in a major civil rights case regarding racial discrimination in housing—and won. Surprisingly, five years after the case, the city came to him and offered him a job. “The people I sued hired me to do what I asked them to do,” he said, laughing.
Getting to know (and like) the very people he sued helped Tom solidify one school of thought. “Never think that it’s ‘us against them,’” he said. “The world is not binary. Everything is a relationship.” Despite others thinking he sold out and went to work for “the man”, he looked at it a different way. “No, I’m running the machine that the man owns to actually do what I want it to do,” he said. As leaders, Tom cautioned against the mindset of staying in your lane. Instead, he said, “think of your lane as really, really wide. And that every relationship, even the bad ones, are important.” As leaders, everyone in your life can teach you something.
Leading with Humility
Tom also stressed the importance of knowing when to step back. A good friend of former Minneapolis mayor R.T. Rybak, the two met for coffee when Tom himself was considering a run for the office. After listening to R.T. share his passion for the position and the city of Minneapolis, Tom stepped back, ended his campaign, and ended up going to work for R.T. as the Head of Economic Development and Housing. Tom believes that if you meet someone, hear their vision, and know they’re going to be great, silence your ego and “just get out of their way,” he said. To Tom, a major part of leadership is helping others succeed.
Tom’s passion for social justice drives his career. But he thinks a career should be more than simply doing what you’re passionate about. “Work should be fun. It should be fulfilling,” he said. “If there’s no joy in your work, you’re not doing the right thing.” He also added a self-described “corny” reminder: “What you do as work is an expression of your love to the world. What you do every day defines who you are.”
Tom does a number of things every day that express his of love to the world. He’s forever applying his skills to what he is passionate about, in and out of the office. And, as evidenced by the beautiful dahlia sitting in front of him in the room, he’s damn good at it.
Alexa Peters Posner
“Tom Streitz clearly presented as a passionate, knowledgeable leader, and I left this breakfast with many thoughts to consider. Two that stick out from the conversation is to get out of the way when you know a different leader will be and do better, and to refer out if it’s not what you/your organization is great at – that is living in community. These were good reminders that we don’t have and don’t need to have all the answers, but if we live mindfully in community and defer appropriately, we do have all the tools and answers between all of us.”