Breakfast of Champions: Tracy Fischman
A guide on how to be your authentic self from the ED of Prepare + Prosper
Jun 6, 2017

Words by Lisa Dahlberg  | Photos by Hannan Wazwaz

At YNPN Twin Cities’ May Leadership Breakfast, Tracy Fischman was a ball of energy. She enthusiastically greeted the young professionals who had woken up at the crack of dawn to spend time with her. Tracy is the executive director of Prepare + Prosper, an organization that provides high quality tax preparation and related financial services to individuals and families of limited means.

In the conversation that followed, topics meandered from professional advice to a discussion about making friends as a transplant to the Twin Cities. Tracy spoke about her unique career path and did some listening, too, asking attendees to share their experiences with her.

Building a bridge to systems change work

Tracy recently had her car towed. It was an experience that illustrated for her “the many ways that our systems screw poor people.”

“It cost $138, to pay for my car, $37.50 for the parking ticket. They also add on $18 each day. So if you can’t pick up your car, if you can’t get to the impound lot the day your car is towed, it’s $18 every single day after that. I asked the person who shuttled me out to my car at the impound lot what happens when people can’t afford to get their cars. She said that after thirty days, they basically sell off the cars. So for me, this was the epitome of one of the most systemic injustices that exists. If you are poor, you most likely don’t have a parking place. You often are probably at risk of getting a ticket, or probably getting your car towed, and you absolutely cannot afford $138 plus $18 for every single day your car sits in that lot.

And that is, for me, the kind of storyline that drives me in my work. That’s what it’s about. I’ve had a lot of questions about my own career trajectory, how I’ve made choices about what to do in my career, and it really is about that. Even from very early on—even when I was a young kid—there’s been this sense of justice. There’s a Hebrew saying called Tikkun Olam. It means “to heal and repair the world.” Those have always been the values that have driven me in everything I do. Beyond that, I have really not been all that strategic in setting out my own career pathway. It has always been about what is ultimately going to drive me to make change in people’s lives, and ultimately, make systems change. So I’m already thinking about who at the City of Minneapolis I’m going to be reaching out to, to change this system. Because this is truly an economic barrier. This is just one of many ways that it is expensive to be poor. So we’re going to be working on that.

Ultimately, what I have always known is, while I’ve done direct service work—and it’s always been important to me to be grounded around individual level work, and how you can make an impact in doing service delivery to help people make change in their lives—I’ve always felt like there has to be a bridge to systems change work. And so much of my career has been focusing on policy—warding off really bad policy.”

Networking as a newcomer

Of you the young, nonprofit professionals in the room, many were originally from Minnesota, while others were recent (and not-so-recent) transplants. One attendee asked Tracy about navigating socially in the Twin Cities. Once the topic was broached, it became a lively chat between Tracy and several attendees. Tracy invited everyone in the room to make the commitment to get to know someone new, and to actually ask that person to coffee to continue the conversation.

“We’ve all heard that saying. For newcomers to the Twin Cities, “Minnesota Nice turns into Minnesota ice.” I think that’s real. I don’t think that’s just a stereotype or a cliche or something people use as an excuse for why they might be having trouble building community here. But I think of organizations like YNPN, I think of some of the nonprofit opportunities, and volunteer opportunities that exist. To some extent, it’s just really about putting yourself out there, and kind of forcing yourself to attend these kind of networking events to try to meet people. And then, you know, asking somebody that you meet here to meet for coffee. I encourage you all to at least meet one person you haven’t met before, and make a coffee date. To actually take it to that next level.

Finding and being your authentic self

Knowing her audience, Tracy shared some thoughts about what it’s like to be a young professional in 2017, and how that difference might make some people feel overwhelmed, under pressure, or out of step. The constant pressure to be authentic can sometimes feel counter-productive, especially as Millennials are expected to seamlessly merge their personal and professional lives.

“You guys are coming up in a culture that is very different from how it was when I started my career. There was no social media, there wasn’t even email. I spent some time looking at headlines of articles that popped up on LinkedIn, BoardSource, other web resources, and I realized how overwhelming it must be to really be newer in your career when these are the things that are being thrown at you:

  • Be More Charismatic and Successful by Focusing on These Areas
  • Your Career Can Benefit From Your Online Presence
  • How to Impress Those You Meet at Work
  • Don’t Fall for These Job Search Assumptions

There are lots of experts—so-called experts—who think they know what you need to do to be better in your job, to be better in your career search. There’s a lot of advice about being your authentic self and finding what your authentic self is. Well, truthfully, I think it is really important to be your authentic self, but only you can determine what it means to be in your skin and what it means for you to walk in your shoes. It feels overwhelming—there’s a lot of advice out there. It is a different age today.”

Moving from direct service delivery to systems change

Many young professionals in the room wanted to know how Tracy moves between direct service work and system-level work, and how to balance the two.

“I think some of it is knowing who is doing systems-level work in your area. So if you’re doing housing work, checking out the Coalition Against Homelessness, or Housing Now Coalition, and then figuring out, are there stories that I’m hearing? And actually if you’re working with a client or a program participant, to actually listen a lot. Is there a theme to their stories? Is there a policy barrier that is actually affecting these themes that you’re hearing? And then talking to people who are lobbyists or who are doing advocacy work. What is the law around this? What are the rules? What are the systemic barriers that are driving people to continue to have these barriers? There may be systems fixes, and there may be people who are working on those fixes. And there may be some power in you asking permission. Can I share your story with people who are trying to make systems change around this? But I think it’s about being networked, knowing who is doing some of that systems work, and then seeing if you can tap into some of that. We all have the duty to work at the systems level. We don’t have the luxury to just be doing direct service.”

Breakfast of Champions: Tracy Fischman Photo Gallery

Posted by Pollen on Jun 6, 2017

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