Those words were part of the keynote address by Patti Stonesifer at the annual conference of Lutheran Services in America. Ms., Stonesifer currently serves as Chair of the White House Council for Community Solutions. She was also the founding CEO of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and serves on numerous other boards and foundations. Suffice to say that she speaks with some credibility on the subject of leadership. In her words are both admonition and reassurance.
The year 2012 is a milestone for me. It marks 40 years since my first job in the field of developmental disabilities – 35 of those have been with the same organization. It’s hard to imagine a more vibrant piece of this field’s history than the one since 1972. The I/DD field of the 1970s (probably inspired by the civil rights era of the 1960s) saw an explosion of activity; the birth of countless community options, the expansion of education and research, the emergence of whole new professions and specialties. And, there was money. In 1971, federal dollars flowed in the form of funding for ICF-DDs and the eventual waiver programs that followed.
It was an exciting era, to be sure. If you want to know more about it, you can probably ask one of the many current leaders who came into the field as young professionals then – just don’t tell them they may be part of a problem we’re facing today.
In 2008, the National Leadership Consortium at the University of Delaware was calling attention to a “looming crisis” in DD services. Their data showed that two-thirds of current CEOs and executive directors of nonprofit organizations as well as government senior managers were leaving their jobs by 2013. “Many leaders of disability organizations are reaching retirement age,” they stated, “and there is not a ‘next generation’ of leaders prepared to move into these positions.” I think Patti Stonesifer might disagree with that.
If there is a crisis, it is certainly one of our own making. Whether the question is funding, research, education or advocacy, the field is in desperate need of new perspectives and a new level of energy, both of which are available to us in the form of young professional staff.
“…here now… ready to lead.”
I wonder if we’re listening.
The fact that the concepts and structures that define our work have grown up in a relatively short period of time can actually make this a more difficult thing. We resist the need to change the very things we helped invent. As Nancy Weiss, consultant and former TASH CEO has noted, “We are not deconstructing our grandparents’ ideas, we are deconstructing our own.” That, it turns out, is a much more difficult task.