Today, we launch our new blog series, “Raise Your Voice: Notes from the Leadership Frontlines.” This series highlights some of The Russell Family Foundation’s (TRFF’s) grantee leaders who are working to make Pierce County and the Puget Sound a greener, more resilient and more equitable place.
As part of the first feature story, we sat down for an honest conversation with Jonathan Jackson, of Palmer Scholars, who is also a Graduate of Jane’s Fellowship Program, Class 6. Jonathan currently serves as the Executive Director for Palmer Scholars, a Pierce-County non-profit (and TRFF grantee) that takes a holistic approach to serving low-income students of color in pursuit of their educational and career goals after high school. Prior to this role, Jonathan served as the Executive Director for the Fair Housing Center of Washington, Director of Development for the Foundation for Tacoma Students and Program Director with the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. Jonathan holds a Master of Business Administration from Pacific Lutheran University, where he also earned his bachelor’s degree. We talked about leadership styles, maintaining balance amid adversity and Jonathan’s professional origin story.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
The Russell Family Foundation (TRFF): What are your top priorities as Executive Director at Palmer Scholars?
Jonathan Jackson (JJ): My top priority is making sure we provide excellent programming for our Scholars and meet them where they are. It’s important that we be responsive to Scholars’ needs as they change and that we provide the type of support they need to get through college and beyond.
Another priority is staff retention and morale. It’s important for the work that we do that Scholars see a consistent face in the office they can reach out to if times are tough or there is something to celebrate.
Finally, financial sustainability and growth is important so that we can continue to not only maintain programs but improve upon them.
TRFF: How would you describe your leadership approach? Have there been leaders in the past or members on your team who have inspired you?
JJ: I find my approach to be very “hands off.” One of my knacks is being able to identify the strengths in people and empower them to bring those (strengths) to the table. I don’t believe in micromanaging, but instead empowering my team to bring what they have. I can’t remember who said it, but I like to follow the idea that, “It makes no sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do.” Note: It was Steve Jobs.
As for my inspiration, I’ve been heavily impacted both positively and negatively by other leaders. In my professional experience, I’ve worked for people who were the opposite of what I strive to be, and constantly felt the need to micromanage. They wished to dictate the “how” versus identifying the “what” and trusting me to get there. But I’ve fortunately also had leaders who’ve seen the value in me, oftentimes above and beyond what I saw in myself at the moment. They pushed and challenged me to take on challenges that ended up being things that I’d do really well over the course of my career. Both have informed my leadership style.
When it comes to colleagues, I’m very fortunate to have an intelligent and capable team that has a high level of awareness as it relates to serving our Scholars. All of our students are students of color who come from disadvantaged backgrounds, so my team not taking a “cookie cutter” approach – and instead continually soliciting feedback from Scholars to work in a way that best serves them – it is really inspiring. It’s such a blessing to have a team you can trust to make the work happen because they are as passionate as you are.
TRFF: Now that we are still in the midst of a global pandemic, and factoring in the latest social movements, how has the outside environment impacted your leadership approach and your organization, Palmer Scholars? Have you had to pivot any of your leadership style to match the times?
JJ: I actually haven’t had to do much in terms of adjusting my leadership style since I am already “hands off.” I collaborate with my team on what needs to be done, and then I leave them to it. What I can say has changed, though, is that I now proactively create short-term structures for staff to work within—incorporating bi-weekly work plans and identifying incremental goals to submit on a weekly basis so that I can check in. We have additional structure so I can see how better to support them, which is more of a process change than a leadership adjustment.
As for the impacts from the outside environment, I will say that it has been difficult. It’s been difficult as a Black male executive director, one of the very few in the area, to have to continually balance my own suffering with the need to prioritize the financial stability of the organization, which often means carefully choosing how to respond to things that deeply impact both myself and my students on a personal level. There is a lot of balancing and mitigating the negative impacts. This isn’t necessarily different than any other time, as I’ve always had to be mindful of how I handle interactions and how I choose which battles to fight—that’s just been an element of my entire academic and professional career. Now, though, the struggle is exacerbated by everything going on.
TRFF: Has there been anything that’s surprised you during these times? What’s been the most challenging obstacle to overcome?
JJ: In the humblest way possible I’ve been surprised at how well I’ve been able to continue to lead the organization. There are no examples—I’ve never seen somebody else lead during a pandemic; there aren’t any “Leading During a Pandemic” courses to take as part of your MBA. So, it’s very much a “building the plane as you’re flying, ensuring you and your passengers get there safely” kind of feeling. I’ve been able to navigate some hardships that came about as part of the pandemic, but kept us afloat through it all, and continued to lead a team without being in the same room as them.
What’s been challenging is that there’s a lot of work that needs to be done, and everything has required a pivot—from staff meetings to training and supporting Scholars. Every single piece of the organization has been impacted by this. In many ways even though you have a team doing the day-to-day, as a leader you’re kind of on your own working behind the scenes to keep everything flowing. So, yes, it’s been challenging but I’m proud to see that I’ve still been able to do it.
TRFF: Do you have any advice to leaders, either related to the pandemic or in general?
JJ: The biggest piece of advice I have for people is to maintain their authenticity. You were put into the position you find yourself for a reason, not because you resemble or emulate someone else but because you, yourself, are the right fit. It can be difficult to overcome impostor syndrome, especially if you’re part of a minority. It’s honestly not just something that you can overcome as much as it is constantly reminding yourself that “you deserve to be here.” It’s important to recognize that you do have what it takes; you just have to trust yourself. Lean on those around you, be collaborative and trust others. But also remember to trust yourself and your gut.
TRFF: One more question before we wrap up: What is the underlying push to do this work, dedicating your career to the advancement of these students?
JJ: Interestingly enough, I could have been a Palmer Scholar. I was in a program similar and was close to becoming a Scholar myself.
I come from an economically and educationally disadvantaged family. I was the first in my family to graduate high school, college and earn a higher-level degree. I did this all at a predominantly white institution that just didn’t have the structures in place, nor the awareness of the need for those structures, to afford me an equitable learning experience. I experienced a lot of racism, social isolation, and folks questioning my merit to be at the institution. On several occasions, people literally did not believe that I was a student. These experiences impacted my decision to get in this work. It also prepared me to enter into the professional world, as it’s not all that different.
More than anything, I’m determined to make that same journey that I took less grueling for students who are going to come in my footsteps. I work on getting young people the resources they need to get to the next level, or to the place where they envision themselves. Or, maybe haven’t been able to envision because their cognitive landscape has been limited, helping them along a path they may not have realized was possible.
I’m living out my personal mission by executing our organizational mission. Our impact is very real in the lives of these young people because we take an intentional approach. So, I’m very fortunate to have a team of people who have either directly experienced what I have or, have spent a significant amount of time working with students who have had to endure these realities and as a result have become advocates and champions of the work.
TRFF: Thank you so much for sharing with us, Jonathan.
To learn more about Palmer Scholars, visit https://www.palmerscholars.org/.