Six Local Nonprofit Leaders Making a Big Difference
Xouhoa Bowen, above, is the founder and CEO of Community Impact LAB in San Leandro.
Photo by Liesa Johanssen
Xouhoa Bowen: Empowering Women by Uplifting Them Through Community Impact LAB
By Jared Karol
How do you measure success? Not by becoming rich, according to Xouhoa Bowen.
Bowen is the CEO and founder of Community Impact LAB in San Leandro, a nonprofit dedicated to empowering women. Bowen believes you measure success by how committed you are to uplifting others. And to do that, you need access to information and knowledge.
This means working to remove the barriers that create inequity. Bowen should know. She has experienced and observed a lot of systemic biases and oppressions in her life. Laos refugees living in Thailand, her family emigrated to the Midwest when she was 4. Then, after living abroad in Seoul, South Korea, for eight years, they struggled to repatriate back to the United States.
These childhood geopolitical experiences cemented her global perspective. It was at Marquette University in Milwaukee where Bowen affirmed her drive to do something about the inequities she saw and lead a purpose-driven life.
After college, Bowen became a Peace Corp volunteer in a tiny village in Kyrgyzstan. There she saw teenage girls forced into marriages and becoming mothers, which perpetuated their lack of agency and empowerment. “They were denied access to opportunity before they knew what opportunity might look like,” Bowen said.
Highly aware of these fundamental inequities, Bowen worked diligently to open their eyes to what was possible. It was when she became a parent, however, that things really sank in. “The problems that parents, especially mothers, face don’t become real until you become one,” she said. “So you just ignore and inadvertently perpetuate the systemic inequities.”
Until you don’t. And create an organization that sets out to break the perpetual barriers, biases, and systemic oppression faced by women, and especially mothers.
“I decided that the best way to beat the system was to create my own thing,” said Bowen, who has an MBA in project management. Community Impact LAB was born in 2016 to address the international issue of women’s empowerment at a local level.
In the beginning, six families cooked dinner for two dozen families in a women’s shelter in San Leandro. Almost four years later, they have held more than 250 drives, workshops, and events, tackling issues from homelessness and domestic violence to gun control, immigration, and climate change. They have crowdsourced $500,000 worth of goods to give to families in need and provided opportunities for thousands of families to volunteer, learn, and grow throughout the Bay Area.
One of Community Impact LAB’s most successful endeavors is the Lift Me Up program, where people who have stuff to give create baby shower gift boxes for vulnerable moms. Bowen partners with caseworkers, midwives, nurses, and others from 60 organizations throughout the Bay Area to connect resources to hundreds of susceptible families through community baby showers and box drives annually. “Having a concrete ask really mobilizes the community into action,” she said.
This work is not easy. “It’s going to take generations to achieve the changes we need to see. It’s going to take new policies. How do we empower women and their families to truly thrive — to get access to opportunity, to give them the agency they need to make their own choices? We all need to do our part.” Xouhoa Bowen is certainly doing her part with Community Impact LAB.
Christine Chilcott: Inspiring the Next Generation at Girls Inc. of the Island City
By Renee Macalino Rutledge
Photo by Lance Yamamoto
With a mission to inspire all girls to be “strong, smart, and bold,” Girls Inc. of the Island City needs leadership that demonstrates those qualities. The organization found that in Christine Chilcott, who joined Girls Inc. in June 2011 as director of programs and became CEO in January 2015.
Girls Inc. of the Island City serves girls in Alameda and is one of 80 national Girls Inc. affiliates, 10 of which are in California. Each affiliate is annually evaluated against high standards, and, in turn, is able to provide specialty trainings to staff and research-based curriculum to participants, Chilcott explained.
“That makes me proud as CEO, but also as a mother whose own two daughters participate in the program,” Chilcott said. “I believe we are the only girl-only afterschool program in Alameda, having served girls in Alameda for 55 years. Girls Scouts exist, but they are not exactly the same program format.”
Under her leadership, Girls Inc. has grown from serving 271 girls in 2011 to more than 600 today, and from working with one or two schools in the Alameda Unified School District to running classes in all but one AUSD school.
“We serve more girls than ever and run programs all over the island,” Chilcott said.
Prior to joining Girls Inc., Chilcott ran an after- school program in West Contra Costa School District for six years. This role inspired her to go back to school to earn a master’s degree in education. After joining Girl’s Inc., Chilcott, her husband, and their two daughters (one of them on the way at the time) moved to Alameda, where they appreciate the fantastic weather, wonderful schools, and nice people.
Fundraising is critical to sustain and grow the Girls Inc. program for Alameda’s girls. Chilcott is in charge of fundraising for Girls Inc., along with managing the licensed before- and after-school child care program, Alameda Island Kids; making sure staff members have the resources and support they need to do their jobs; and working with community partners like the school district and the city.
“We make sure that everything we do carries out our mission to inspire all girls to be strong, smart, and bold through innovative programs, activities, and advocacy,” Chilcott said.
Far from being just a “cute” program for girls, Chilcott explained that the organization gives girls exposure to a variety of fields and the opportunity to explore them.
“Our programs are so varied: economic literacy, including investing in the stock market, self-awareness and self-defense, learning about government and voting rights, STEM, etc. We don’t want to dictate to girls their path; we want to give them a variety of opportunities so they are aware of what they can choose to do in the future. We want to inspire all girls to be healthy, educated, and independent.”
Girls, Inc. is not anti-boy either, another misconception that Chilcott often hears.
“We know that everyone is involved with the success of our girls: moms, dads, brothers, sisters, grandparents, strong women and men in the community who model and support what equality looks like ... and Girls Inc. is open to all girls; it’s not just for wealthy or poor girls.”
Chilcott pinpointed creating the GEMS program — which stands for Girls. Empowerment. Mentors. Support — which launched in all nine AUSD elementary schools in 2018 and serves over 200 girls as her biggest accomplishment with Girls Inc. to date.
“The program offers social-emotional support activities and was created to support the findings of AUSD’s mental and emotional wellness needs assessment … It highlights how much work and relationship-building I’ve been doing with AUSD since I started in 2011 and how many girls we can now serve because of this partnership.”
Chilcott’s hard work and dedication does not go unnoticed by the residents of Alameda.
“I love when people find out that I run GIIC and they tell me how Girls Inc. has impacted their daughter positively. I was just out for dinner and someone found out what my job was and told me how much our onsite GEMS program meant to their daughter. That made my whole week.”
With all of the changes she’s seen in Alameda over the years, Chilcott said she believes that accepting differences and working collectively keep the city a desirable place to live. She sees herself as part of an amazing community in Alameda, one she describes as being full of funny, smart, incredible woman who are strong leaders, wonderful supporters of Girls Inc., and great influencers on the next generation of girls.
“The fact that our last three mayors have been very different, very strong women is really impactful. Representation really matters and that is what keeps me going in my job and makes me proud of Alameda for providing that representation in terms of its female leaders.”
Mimi Ho: Working for a Kinder World Through the Movement Strategy Center
By Kate Rauch
Photo courtesy Mimi Ho
Protesting to stop something, to block something, like a new oil refinery or a string of dusty coal-packed rail cars can make a strong statement. It’s a visual way of taking a stand. It draws attention to an issue. It’s social, luring crowds.
Mimi Ho, the executive director of Oakland’s Movement Strategy Center, knows this energy well. She’s stood with others to stop air pollution, defend affirmative action, and fight for immigrant health care.
Today, Ho, who also lives in Oakland, is trying to take street protest to a different level. What if, Ho said, the communities most impacted by industrial air pollution become economic leaders, developing and operating clean-energy alternatives? What if people left out of public health care and education develop, enact, and oversee inclusive policies that serve everyone, regardless of immigration status or ability to pay.
In wonk-speak, Ho’s work is about systems change. And the organization she leads, the Movement Strategy Center, is about helping social justice movements strategize for long-term change. The center convenes workshops and meetings, provides ongoing consultation, and runs an innovation center to support leaders of new ideas. Justice — social, racial, economic, gender, sexuality — is at the core of all the organization does.
“I’d say the central question that animates our work is how do we transition from a world of dominance and violence to a world of interdependence, regeneration, and resilience; a world where love, care, and community are at the center,” Ho said.
“At the heart of this, the problem we are trying to solve, is, to put it bluntly, that human factors and human culture are some of the biggest causes of planetary decline, and yet, human culture is also our biggest hope.”
She added: “It’s not about idealism; it’s about a profound shift of culture that’s necessary for the people and the planet.”
Under Ho’s loving leadership, the center has grown into a national player, with diverse partners. Growing networks and strengthening collaborations are important aspects of the center’s work. So much is gained when people join forces for shared goals, rather than splinter their efforts in silos, competing for the same meager funding, Ho said.
Loving leadership is more than just pretty words when it comes to Ho.
Thoughtful, humble, deeply stirred by her family’s history as Chinese immigrants, and the histories of anyone who has suffered because of the color of their skin, their language, gender, sexuality, religion, income, Ho truly works for a kinder, gentler, more loving world. This is part of the center’s mission, but also a personal driver of Ho’s.
“Personally, I think the way to system change is by every day trying to figure out how I can be a better parent, friend, daughter … to me, that’s what we need to bring to the ‘work’ we can do,” said Ho, who is the mother of two young daughters.
Ho, who spent early childhood in New York and then moved to Taiwan at 10, came to the Bay Area after graduating from Tufts University, landing an apprenticeship at the Center for Third World Organizing in Oakland. There, she campaigned against a slew of anti-immigrant voter initiatives. She found a home with grassroots political organizing, working for several nonprofits before starting at the Movement Strategy Center as a senior fellow in 2011. In 2016, she became co-director and was named executive director this year.
“I was hungering for a space where I could learn from people’s most proud accomplishments and learn from all of our biggest mistakes, hungering for a learning community. I wanted to be in community with other organizers but also from people across different sectors,” she said.
Ho is a news junkie, a mom’s group junkie, and enjoys swimming, reading, and catching The Great British Baking show with her daughters. She loves to cook, for the food, but also for the company. Her dream dinner?
“I would cook probably a big vat of noodles, and this Chinese dish, a slow-stewed black bean pork dish, and I would cook a veg version for my veg friends. We would hang out and sip wine and talk about our families and do a lot of deep hanging.”
John L. Lipp: Making a Difference for Animals and People at FAAS
By Susan Kuchinskas
Photo courtesy FAAS
The whole world tuned into social media to follow Starfish, the German shepherd puppy. The adorable pup was afflicted with a rare condition, and she could only lie on her stomach with her limbs splayed out. Her rescue and rehabilitation were one of the happiest moments in John L. Lipp’s career.
Lipp, the executive director of Friends of the Alameda Animal Shelter, or FAAS, still tears up a bit when he remembers holding Starfish in his arms for the first time. The initial medical opinion was that she be euthanized.
“There was something special about her,” he recalled. “It wasn’t intellectual but instinctive. I said, ‘We have to get a second opinion.’ When I retire, that will be the moment I’m most grateful for.”
Starfish is thriving in her forever home, and Lipp thrives in his role as leader of FAAS, where 98 percent of the approximately 1,000 animals that pass through the shelter each year are saved. (The other 2 percent must be euthanized due to untreatable medical conditions or, occasionally, extreme behavior issues.)
One recent FAAS victory is the opening of Cat Experience, a cool and calm oasis in South Shore Shopping Center where people can drop in to meet cats, cuddle them in an expansive, glass-walled room and decide whether they want to adopt one. Cat Experience is one factor in a 25 percent increase in adoptions this quarter at the facility. Now, FAAS is raising funds for an additional, private adoption and community center.
“There are a million different causes you can take on,” Lipp said. “I’m not saying animals are more important than people. But they’re truly helpless and dependent on people to survive.”
The 54-year-old Lipp originally planned a career in theater and education, but he was soon hired by an arts organization and made his career in the nonprofit world. The work is a great use of his theater training. “You have to be very creative, because there are few resources to do what you want to do. And, working with staff and volunteers, you need to have empathy and be able to communicate,” he said.
Lipp lives in Alameda with his husband of 23 years, Peter Lunny, and their two rescue dogs, Lucy and Chance.
A nationally recognized expert in nonprofit management, the multitalented Lipp is also a published fiction and nonfiction author, with two books on managing volunteers to his credit. He recently created his own publishing company to produce his series of kids’ books, Monsters Anonymous Club.
He said his diagnosis of Parkinson’s Disease in 2015 gave him a sense of freedom. “I feel very fortunate to be in this role,” he said of being at FAAS. “I have a certain freedom to do the right thing, to be creative in serving the community.”
On a personal level, he added, “It made me realize what’s important in life. Things that used to drive me crazy, I can let go. I’m focusing on the big things — and that’s true freedom. I’m a lucky guy.”
Anne Marks: Stopping Violence With Smart Intervention at Youth ALIVE!
By Patrick Hoge
Photo courtesy Anne Marks
Anne Marks has had a stellar run for almost a decade as executive director of Oakland’s Youth ALIVE!, a path-breaking violence intervention program that works with victims, survivors, and youth at risk of involvement in violence.
On the one hand, Youth ALIVE! has tripled in size to about 30 people, adding programs to support families of homicide victims, deliver mental health services, and counsel people on probation, among others.
At the same time, the annual number of homicides in Oakland has plummeted from 110 in 2009 to 75 last year (the total for this year was 62 at the start of November), part of a Bay Area-wide drop in gun violence that is reportedly larger than the national average.
“I feel good. We really are gaining traction with this. I don’t want to jinx it, but it feels like we’re starting to build something,” said the understated Marks in an interview at Youth ALIVE!’s modest offices. The organization rents space from Sutter Health next to the Alta Bates Summit Medical Center on Pill Hill.
Marks first fell in love with Youth ALIVE! in 2005 when she was the city of Oakland’s lead planner for implementing Measure Y, the 2004 voter initiative that allocated money for violence prevention and public safety programs.
Marks was enamored by Youth ALIVE!’s precedent-setting Caught in the Crossfire program, which since 1993 has sent violence intervention workers to hospitals in the wake of shootings to counsel victims and their supporters. The program was started in 1994 by Sherman Spears, then a young man who was put in a wheelchair by gunfire.
“I thought it was so powerful this idea that you could connect with someone in that kind of moment and help them off a trajectory that could lead them to retaliation, or could lead them to decide to carry a weapon, or could lead them to join a gang because they don’t feel safe, or whatever it is, and use that moment to put them on a different path,” Marks said.
Caught in the Crossfire has since been replicated in cities around the nation, and it led to the formation in 2009 of the National Network of Hospital Based Violence Intervention Programs, which was part of Youth ALIVE! until last year when it spun off into a freestanding nonprofit.
Marks, a graduate of UC Berkeley and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, knew she wanted to be in public service as a girl when her mother worked helping women re-enter society from incarceration. At different times, Marks has been a substance abuse counselor, a welfare and prison rights advocate, a grant writer, and an organizer.
A native of Portland, Oregon, Marks wrangled an internship with the city of Oakland while at Cal in college by cold-calling the Human Services Department departments (in addition to working at a Rockridge fish shop), and, after graduating in 1996, worked a variety of jobs, including as a press officer in the U.S. State Department. (She resigned over the Gulf War). She returned to the city of Oakland from 2004 until 2008.
Since she took over Youth ALIVE! in 2010, Marks has been central to the organization’s being “a leader and innovator both nationally and locally in the violence prevention field,” said Sara Bedford, Oakland’s director of human services.
“Her commitment to building on the strengths, skills, and wisdom of those most impacted by violence lies at the heart of YA!’s strategies and success,” Bedford said.
Youth ALIVE! has continued with Caught in the Crossfire and its original Teens on Target program, which trains high school students and young adults to be peer educators.
It also added the Khadafy Washington Project, which provides support to family and friends of homicide victims to prevent retaliation and promote healing.
“I trust Anne with my life,” said Marilyn Harris, who founded that program after her 18-year-old son Khadafy Washington was fatally shot in 2000. Harris moved it into Youth ALIVE! in 2011.
For the last four years, Youth ALIVE! has employed “violence interrupters,” who develop close relationships in dangerous communities and respond at all hours when needed to defuse tensions and prevent bloodshed.
Youth ALIVE! also counsels young people returning from incarceration and has invested significantly in programs aimed at promoting healing for people recovering from violence or suffering from other trauma and at risk of being involved with violence.
In particular, clinical mental health counselors now accompany intervention workers in the field. Previously, people referred for services would often decline appointments, perhaps not knowing what to expect. Warm hand-offs have proven to be much more successful.
While it is difficult to gauge what factors have led to the reduced shooting deaths — is it a buoyant economy, gentrification? — Marks is confident that tens of millions of tax dollars that Oakland voters made available for violence prevention programs like Youth ALIVE! over the last 15 years have played an important part.
Youth ALIVE!, in addition to private donations, has received much of its funding from those taxes, the latest of which was Measure Z, a 10-year city initiative approved in 2014 that has been providing more than $9 million annually for local violence intervention programs.
Ironically, Marks worries that good news about reduced gun crime could cause people to think that the need for prevention services has dissipated, something that she said has preceded renewed spikes of crime in other communities.
The need also still remains greater than what Youth ALIVE! can address, just in terms of the number of shooting victims who go to local hospitals.
One of Marks’s top goals going forward, meanwhile, is to raise pay for Youth ALIVE!’s employees.
“We have people that were born and raised in Oakland, that work in Oakland, that are using their Oakland knowledge and experience to prevent and end violence here, but they can’t even afford to live in Oakland now,” Marks said.
Keith Wattley: Promoting Healing Over Warehousing at Uncommon Law
By Kate Rauch
Photo by Lance Yamamoto
Keith Wattley is a lawyer by trade. Or is he? He went to law school and understands the law. But in many ways his work is more therapist, counselor, and healer. This makes sense, given that Wattley, the founder and executive director of UnCommon Law in Oakland, wanted to be a psychologist, choosing law school as his back-up when grad school in psychology didn’t work out.
He has always, he said, been fascinated by human motivation. This fascination has grown into a pathway that is helping former offenders live successfully within laws.
UnCommon Law is uncommon. It does one thing: prepares incarcerated people for parole hearings. Most of its clients are serving life sentences. The bar for parole is enormous.
“We provide counseling and legal assistance that helps people heal from the harm they experience and the harm they’ve caused,” said Wattley, who grew up in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and now lives in Oakland with his wife and two kids. He moved to the Bay Area with his then-girlfriend, now wife, following her as she went to graduate school at UC Berkeley’s School of Optometry. He’s a graduate of the Santa Clara University School of Law.
Wattley taps into the transformative power of talking and being heard, not unlike psychotherapy. Provide a private, nonjudgmental space, and let the person’s story unfold. He has learned that when prisoners are given the opportunity to explore their pasts in a caring, therapeutic environment, they can uncover reasons for their behavior. This helps them understand why they acted as they did. Many can then separate themselves from the behavior of their past, laying a foundation for living peacefully without acting out in criminal ways.
“All of our clients did it. We focus on why they did it, who they were before they did it, who they are now, and how they make that change.”
Wattley was working for the nonprofit Prison Law Office in Berkeley when he launched UnCommon Law, moved by the stories of people facing parole. His mission is also personal. The youngest of seven siblings and son of a hardworking single mother, Wattley has an older sister who was in and out of prison for 20 years of her life for mostly drug-related offenses. It wasn’t until Wattley was a lawyer that he began really talking with her about her childhood, including learning the lingering pain she felt from watching a younger brother get killed by a car when she was walking him home. The tragedy happened before Wattley was born. The family didn’t talk about it. But his sister carried her agony for years. Wattley wonders how different her life might have been if she’d been able to talk about her feelings, hurt, and guilt.
“This is something that was always missing for her,” he said, adding that today, she’s doing well, and not in jail. “It might be too late for her, but this is a worthwhile cause or effort because these patterns are very, very common among people who are incarcerated. And if there’s something I can do to help them, I’m going to do that.”
The goal of criminal justice should be ending criminal behavior, not locking up offenders, he said.
“When you start with the idea that we’re all people first, you shift the range of responses we have to someone harming another. Most of us act and think the way we do because of earlier experiences in life. People who act out in violent ways are usually responding to some earlier traumatic experience as a child, for which they never received any help,” he said.
And so, UnCommon Law offers that help. Its track record says a lot: Of the clients it represents, predominantly people with life sentences, about 60 percent are granted parole. This is three times the state’s average parole rate for this group. Since the organization was founded in 2006, it has helped parole or release 240 clients. Of these clients, the recidivism rate is less than 1 percent. The statewide recidivisim rate of all formerly incarcerated people is about 62 percent, with most of these serving fixed-term rather than life sentences.
Others are taking note. Wattley was selected a 2018 Obama Fellow, one of 20, the inaugural year for the program. He meets periodically with other fellows to strategize how to strengthen their work.
He is excited about a new pilot program funded by a city of Oakland grant that will train incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people to counsel people in prison for their parole hearings, doing the same work as UnCommon Law. “It’s something that hasn’t been done before in the way we’re trying to do it. They’re going to be fully employed. We’ll train them and get them going doing the work that we do.”
The state corrections department is on board, he said, which reflects an attitude change. “[They] are eager to work with us in this pilot and are open to new things, especially things that promote healing and not just warehousing.”
He hopes this attitude will last. “Harsher punishment is neither a deterrent nor rehabilitative. How many more lives and billions of dollars should we waste on a failed system? We should try something new and more natural.”