As part of our ongoing conversation on homelessness, we asked members of the Family Promise network and individuals working to serve families experiencing homelessness to share their personal thoughts and reflections on Family Promise and the issue of family homelessness. These writers are true thought leaders, using their skills and expertise to develop and implement creative solutions that are changing the lives of parents and children in their communities. This is an excerpt from an interview titled “Why You Don’t Have to Project Perfection,” with Family Promise’s Chief Impact Officer, Cara Bradshaw, that was recently published by Authority Magazine. It was written by Parveen Panwar.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
Growing up, I was always drawn to humanitarian and social justice issues. My father was a minister and my family spent weekends on Habitat for Humanity builds and chopping firewood at the local women’s shelter. When I was 15, my parents divorced, my father left the church, and my mother worked two jobs as a school bus driver and teacher’s aide. We experienced financial and housing instability, and it was a time full of anxiety and uncertainty. But I ultimately had a safety net of grandparents that prevented us from falling too far into the cracks. I was able to attend college and graduate school (my parents and I borrowed and paid our way as we could) and made connections to the kinds of organizations I wanted to work for.
So many people do not have any kind of familial or social safety net. Their stories and life experiences are important to me because I see how I could have ended up on another path. I have always believed personal storytelling is one of the most powerful tools to raise awareness and funds for issues I care about, and I’m fortunate to be able to do that through my work.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
Do your best to figure out what each team member needs. Some may need more feedback on their work, others need recognition and praise, and yet others like to be more independent and check in less frequently. I try to find what works for each person and make sure they know that I’m accessible at any time (it’s never been a problem to offer that). I try to be as responsive as possible and not let anyone’s work be delayed by my decision-making.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I sure hope that I have. I am very committed to the work we do at Family Promise and I consider housing as a human right for every family. The most important thing I can do is to take a step back from the strategy from time-to-time and get to know someone who is experiencing housing instability. I bring my own personal experience as I listen to theirs. That person-to-person connection helps me bring compassion, empathy, and non-judgment to my work. It also helps me communicate clearly with our stakeholders who may not understand all of the root causes and systemic injustices that lead to a family’s homelessness.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- You don’t have to project perfection. I don’t think I ever expected myself to actually be perfect, but I wanted people to think I was, or at the very least, that I wasn’t making mistakes and was above reproach. When my boss gave me what I perceived to be negative feedback, even if constructive, I panicked and bristled. I was afraid of being seen as making mistakes because I didn’t think young women leaders on their first tour of managerial duty would get much slack.
- You will not impress everyone. When I started in my position, there were some legacy employees who were suspicious of me and I think now I may have put too much energy into trying to win them over. If you get in the trenches, do the work, and are fair to people, that should be enough. If they still are resentful of you or don’t back you up, it might be time for a hard conversation.
- You are going to have to do hard things. I had never fired anyone when I got to this job. And I had certainly never fired anyone I’d hired. I had to do both within the first year of this role and I lost sleep, confidence, and almost decided organizational leadership was not for me. I’m glad I kept going.
- Draw emotional boundaries. I don’t mean not talking about your personal life at work (I think there’s value to vulnerability in the workplace), but draw boundaries for yourself about what you let upset you, or what you react to. I’ve had to learn to be more patient and less reactionary and it has served me much better.
You can “be the change.” If you bring positive energy and a can-do attitude to an organization, you can be an example of what you want the work culture to be. If you don’t appreciate people gossiping about other colleagues in your office, don’t let it happen, and certainly don’t do it. If you want people to have a good work-life balance, model that and be sure to leave the office at a reasonable hour, disconnect from email, and use your vacation time.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
We have a serious affordable housing crisis in this country and we’re saddling the next generation with tremendous student loan debt. Since COVID-19 is shutting down on-campus living and likely will be doing so for the foreseeable future, I’d see colleges and universities using their empty dorms to shelter people on an emergency or transitional basis. Some of our Affiliates have worked with schools to use their dorm space this way in the past, and I think we could scale it through our footprint. Small liberal arts colleges will be hardest hit as international students will not attend and parents will reconsider paying hefty tuition bills for their students to have the “college experience” at home. I’m not sure how you justify upwards of $60K in tuition to live with your parents and take courses online.
It would be an admissions incentive and possibly a revenue-maker if certain for-profit entities sponsored the idea (startup biotech firms could use vacant campus laboratories and offices, for example, and that rent could subsidize the affordable housing component). Nonprofits working with the populations being housed on campus could provide experiential learning opportunities, internship experience, and credit for students. Undergraduate students could be virtual mentors/companions to high school students; they could help with storytelling projects, marketing, data projects… the possibilities are endless. And graduate students in programs like social work could get hands-on case management experience. With unemployment soaring, parents are going to be most concerned with their kids obtaining real-world skills and workplace connections during their college years.
My dream would be to see fewer children experience homelessness, colleges and universities use their space and their community resources to serve housing-insecure populations, and young people not graduate with the burden of student loan debt, which greatly affects their economic mobility.