Meet Eight Women at the Helm of Chattanooga Nonprofits

Innovation & Entrepreneurship

 

Championing a Cause

Running a nonprofit organization always comes with a myriad of unique challenges; however, they’re an incredibly important part of our society. Not only do NPOs account for somewhere between 5% and 10% of the nation’s economy and about 10% of the country’s employment, but they also provide vital support to the communities around them, whether through healthcare, advocacy, education, or something else. Here, we’d like to introduce you to eight empowering women who lead nonprofits throughout Chattanooga, as well as the important work that they’re doing to make the city (and the world) a better place.

By Anna Hill

Kristen Pavlik McCallie, executive director of Children's Advocacy Center of Hamilton County: The Emma Haney House

Photo by Emily Pérez Long

Kristen Pavlik McCallie

Executive Director, Children’s Advocacy Center (CAC) of Hamilton County: The Emmy Haney House

What is the mission of your organization?

The CAC provides a comprehensive
path to healing for children who have experienced child sexual abuse. We provide forensic interviews, advocacy,
therapy, medical exams, case
coordination, and education.

What got you involved?

I have been an advocate my entire career. My work has always been focused on social justice and giving a voice to those who may not be able to speak for themselves.

To what would you attribute your organization’s success?

The CAC has been in Chattanooga for 30 years. We have a staff full of experts working with children who have been sexually abused. The team is the reason for the success of the organization. Our organization also values taking care of yourself, because when you have to listen to emotion-laden stories throughout your day, processing that and having the space to take time off is vital to do this work successfully. 

What are the greatest challenges facing your nonprofit organization today? How are you addressing them?

The challenge for a nonprofit that works with sexually abused children is having a conversation about the subject matter we address. It is difficult for people to wrap their heads around the fact that adults with power are hurting vulnerable, innocent children. The CAC provides education for adults on how to recognize and respond to child abuse. We also work with partners in different sectors to ensure environments have policies and procedures that address what to do if a child discloses. 

What do you foresee as the greatest changes that nonprofits will have to respond to in the coming years?

In the last few years, there has been a move from individual program implementation to more systemic responses to solve problems. We are fortunate that this is the way the Children’s Advocacy Center model works. We provide information to our families that helps guide them through the process of working with other partners, such as law enforcement and the Department of Children Services. That’s a systemic approach rather than a programmatic approach to advocacy, so I think we are well-positioned to move into the future.

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Toccora Johnson-Petersen, CEO of Girls inc. Chattanooga

Photo by Rich Smith

Toccora Johnson-Petersen, MPH

CEO, Girls Inc. of Chattanooga

What is the mission of your organization? Who do you serve?

The mission of Girls Inc. is to “inspire and equip all girls to be strong, smart, and bold leaders in their families, their communities, and society,” which translates to being healthy, educated, and independent as they navigate through the journey called life. The Girls Inc. experience is designed to serve girls aged 6-18 through intentional, hands-on, and impactful programming.  

What got you involved?

I’m dedicated to the mission and work of Girls Inc. because the adults in my life worked tirelessly to ensure that I was exposed to life-changing opportunities and experiences. Without such experiences, I may never have left my neighborhood or met new people outside of school. It takes a village, and I’m dedicated to Girls Inc. being there for any family who will have us be a part of their daughter’s journey.  

To what would you attribute your organization’s success?

This year, Girls Inc. of Chattanooga is celebrating 60 years of service to over 28,000 girls and counting! Our formula for success is addressing the local needs of our girls and their families. When we enter into a partnership with Hamilton County Schools, the city of Chattanooga, and others, we strive to provide programming that will increase a girl’s knowledge, teach her a new skill set, and change her attitude about living and learning. We give girls a safe space to make mistakes and try new things.  

What are the greatest challenges facing your nonprofit organization today?

Our greatest challenge today is transportation. This past spring, two of our vehicles were vandalized several times, and the expense to repair them both was too costly, so we decided to sell them both. We are working with our board and other community stakeholders to purchase a new van for summer transportation and add an additional after-school pickup route for the fall.  

As a leader of a successful nonprofit organization, what skills do you think are most important for an individual in your role to guide an organization like yours?

The three most important skills for a leader are effective communication, trust, and hard work. Everyone from the girls to the board must be engaged and committed for our girls to thrive. 

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Stacy Johnson, executive director of La Paz Chattanooga

Photo by Emily Pérez Long

Stacy Johnson

Executive Director, La Paz Chattanooga

What is the mission of your organization? Who do you serve?

Our mission is to empower Chattanooga’s Latino community through advocacy, education, and inclusion. We serve Latino individuals and families in the southeast region of Tennessee and northwest Georgia.

What got you involved? What is your passion and why?

I’ve always had a love for people and cultures. After college, I immersed myself in Latin American culture through travel, volunteer work, and Spanish immersion experiences, including a year stint in Mexico. I found myself on the receiving end of so much acceptance and generosity. I was always made to feel at home, and I want to return that to our local Latino community. Brené Brown says, “Belonging doesn’t require us to change who we are; it requires us to be who we are,” and I want that for every Latino person in Chattanooga.

To what would you attribute your organization’s success?

The foundation of our organization’s success is built upon relationships. We have always attracted incredible leaders to our team – committed to our mission and community. We have historically been supported by local philanthropic organizations and work to collaborate with our nonprofit sector. It’s important to me that we remain connected to each other across communities and continue to foster a dynamic of collective support.

What are the greatest challenges facing your nonprofit organization today?

We face the challenge of advocating for a historically marginalized community in Chattanooga. The Latino population has changed so much since La Paz’s inception; today, we continue to show up for our community in places where, historically, they have not been included. We combat stereotypes and advocate for justice and representation on behalf of a population that is not a monolith. Latinos in Chattanooga, especially now, are a diverse population with diverse needs and obstacles.

Anything else that you can share with us about how you plan to lead your organization into the future?

I am excited about the future of La Paz Chattanooga. We are about to move into the city’s first Latino community center, which will open doors for our city to learn more about its Latino population. You can’t love what you don’t know, and Chattanooga doesn’t know this community as well as it should. That is what La Paz is here for: to give our Latino community the tools they need to make themselves known and to build bridges that lead to meaningful and impactful relationships.

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Rachel Gammon, CEO of Northside Neighborhood House

Photo by Rich Smith

Rachel Gammon

CEO, Northside Neighborhood House (NNH)

What is the mission of your organization? Who do you serve?

The mission of the Northside Neighborhood House is to promote the independence of residents north of the river by providing a hand up through education and assistance. We serve neighbors of all ages through our stability work and CommUNITY Schools model, as well as through our three thrift stores.

What got you involved? What is your passion and why?

God led me to work at the NNH as a sophomore at UTC while studying to be a teacher. Throughout my time at the NNH, I’ve seen the incredible impact that our programs have in the lives of our neighbors. My passion is being in relationship with my neighbors and watching them achieve the personal goals they’ve set for themselves. All the people whose paths cross mine are my why.

To what would you attribute your organization’s success?

As we have grown and added new income streams and expanded our thrift store operations, the community has been consistent and grown with us. Our board of directors consistently sets a clear vision for our programs and agency growth. Our team works tirelessly to provide excellent programming and is not afraid to pivot when needed.

What are the greatest challenges facing your nonprofit organization today?

Retention of our team members is always a focus and priority for us. Relationships are the backbone of our work, so employee turnover can be difficult. Continuing to build a loyal donor base through thrift store donations, increasing monthly online giving, and annual fundraising will allow us to offer more competitive wages and annual increases for our dedicated staff, which will lead to greater retention. We also support and motivate our team members through retreats, lunches, and staff appreciation activities.  

Anything else that you can share with us about how you plan to lead your organization into the future?

I really think that great leaders aren’t afraid to share their assumed “power” in decision-making and running the organization. I’m so blessed to work alongside an amazing leadership team and an incredibly strong board of directors. Having run our organization for 15 years, I’m always eager to learn from new board members or team members to see where our gaps might be and areas for growth, for both myself and the organization.  

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Shannon Stephenson, CEO of CEMPA community care

Photo by Rich Smith

Shannon Stephenson

CEO, Cempa Community Care

What is the mission of your organization?

Cempa is an Old English word meaning “champion.” Our mission is to champion healthy communities by providing affordable, compassionate, and high-quality care through advancing comprehensive support services and person-centered best practices. 

Who do you serve?

At Cempa, we serve some of the most vulnerable members of our community. Every day we serve patients with barriers to care, ranging from those who are uninsured to those experiencing homelessness. Access to care is a key component of a thriving community, so we’re working hard to empower our friends and neighbors to make their health a priority.

In your opinion, what are the biggest differences between running a nonprofit organization and a for-profit business?

From my perspective, there are more similarities than differences. Since my first day at Cempa, I have approached everything – from budgets to HR practices – in much the same way I did in the for-profit space. The only real difference is the ROI. In a for-profit business, that ROI is tied to revenue and increasing profits for shareholders, whereas in our world, it’s measured by how well we can meet our clients’ needs by investing back into the mission. 

As a leader of a successful nonprofit organization, what skills do you think are most important for an individual in your role to guide an organization like yours?

My personal motto is: “Be brief, be bright, and be seated.” (As in make your point concisely, be positive and knowledgeable, and then sit down and listen!) I also believe that some of the best leaders are the ones who really listen. My goal at Cempa has been to hire a team of capable people, set clear expectations, and then empower them to carry out our mission. 

What do you foresee as the greatest changes that nonprofits will have to respond to in the coming years?

Ever-changing funding dynamics that impact the work we do. There are local factors, as well as national factors such as politics, that change our financial footing every year. The most successful nonprofits are the ones who have the foresight to anticipate these curveballs and have the ability to adjust to these changes as they emerge. 

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Robyn Carlton, CEO of Lookout Mountain Conservancy

Photo by Rich Smith

Robyn Carlton

CEO, Lookout Mountain Conservancy

What is the mission of your organization? Who do you serve?

The mission of the Lookout Mountain Conservancy is to protect Lookout Mountain’s scenic, historic, and ecological resources through conservation, advocacy, recreation, and education for current and future generations. We serve all ages and all people who want to enjoy and be a part of the outdoors.

What got you involved? What is your passion and why?

I got involved because it is a way that I can best serve the community. My passion is using the land to connect people to something that is greater and life-changing.

To what would you attribute your organization’s success?

Being innovative, responsive, and relevant. Not being afraid to do things differently and have the necessary conversations about racial equity, inclusion, and diversity.

In your opinion, what are the biggest differences between running a nonprofit organization and a for-profit business?

Bottom lines. Nonprofits and for-profits need each other to balance out the equation. For-profits generate revenue to support the nonprofit work of the people. 

As a leader of a successful nonprofit organization, what skills do you think are most important for an individual in your role to guide an organization like yours?

It’s vital to be a collaborator, convener, and innovator and to have a relentless work ethic. 

Anything else that you can share with us about how you plan to lead your organization into the future?

An organization’s mission and vision are major drivers for the direction the organization takes. These two statements should grow with the organization and not restrict growth and relevance.

I plan to lead this organization with a humble heart and a commitment to connect people to the land, while listening to what the community needs are and being a part of the solution. You see, several years ago, I read this sign that said, “We are all just walking each other home.” Those words resonated with me. I look at each day as a responsibility to be a part of someone’s journey through life. I embrace that responsibility.

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Candy Johnson, President and CEO of Urban League of Greater Chattanooga

Photo by Rich Smith

Candy Johnson

President & CEO, Urban League of Greater Chattanooga

What is the mission of your organization?

The mission of the Urban League of Greater Chattanooga (ULGC) is to enable African Americans, other ethnic minorities, and disadvantaged persons to achieve economic self-reliance, parity, power, and civil rights. At its core, ULGC is focused on addressing racial and economic inequities that affect our entire community to ensure that Chattanooga can be a place where all persons can thrive, regardless of race or socioeconomic status. 

What got you involved? What is your passion and why?

During my early childhood, growing up in a disadvantaged neighborhood and single-parent household allowed me to understand the challenges of a community of high-potential persons who experience barriers to accessing opportunity and success. Even as a child, it was always hard for me to see disparities and not do something about it, so I started fundraising with other kids in my neighborhood so that we could do fun things together. I didn’t really know this was considered fundraising at that time, but my goal was to remove barriers that restricted quality of life for others. From my experience, I learned that everyone has potential to be productive, but everyone does not have access to the same means and opportunities necessary to build a future. Therefore, the more integrated our neighborhoods and schools are, the more shared prosperity we will all have.

In your opinion, what are the biggest differences between running a nonprofit organization and a for-profit business?

The obvious difference in a nonprofit vs. for-profit is the government tax status, but I think there are also many similarities. Both nonprofit organizations and businesses should be focused on quality of services, high-performing teams, and overall growth as top priorities. Businesses need to make a profit, and nonprofits should want to serve their stakeholders in a way that maximizes their resources for reinvestment back into the mission. To do this successfully, you need a leader who has vision, a team that can effectively execute key goals, and investors who support your mission.

What are the greatest challenges facing your nonprofit organization today? Why? How are you addressing them?

One of the greatest challenges facing our organization today is addressing Chattanooga’s long-standing disparities and helping to build a more equitable and inclusive Chattanooga post-pandemic. COVID-19 had a disproportionate impact on Black and Brown communities. We aim to address their needs through three newly established community centers: The Center for Education, Workforce & Family Empowerment; The Center for Equity and Inclusive Leadership; and The Center for Economic & African American Business Success. These centers are designed to meet the emerging needs of people of color and low-income persons, supporting the overall economic prosperity for the individuals we serve and the entire community. 

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Lesley Searce, President and CEO of United Way of Greater Chattanooga

Photo by Emily Pérez Long

Lesley Scearce

President & CEO, United Way of Greater Chattanooga

What is the mission of your organization?

United Way of Greater Chattanooga’s mission is to unite people and resources in building a stronger, healthier community. We envision a community where all people achieve their full human potential through education, stability, and health and well-being. 

What got you involved?

Twenty years ago, fresh out of college, I was working in a youth development program at a local middle school. I asked these resilient, tough girls who they had in their corner. After much silence and no answers, I vividly remember one of them looking at me and asking, “Miss Lesley, what if you’re the only one?” It was the stark moment of my personal why – my realization that no child or person should ever have just one mentor or guide to navigate the challenges of life.

What are the greatest challenges facing your nonprofit organization today?

The workplace campaign model of engagement is too transactional for modern times. We need year-round engagement for lasting community change. We need people to do more than give to United Way; we need them to engage, volunteer, advocate, and then be generous with our work. This kind of cultural and logistical shift in philanthropy will take time.

As a leader of a successful nonprofit organization, what skills do you think are most important for an individual in your role to guide an organization like yours?

Right off the bat, I would say that emotional intelligence and self-awareness are the most critical traits for someone in a leadership position. We need to be willing to constantly examine ourselves, learn from our shortcomings and mistakes, and then adjust our leadership styles accordingly. Ego can kill an organization, and it’s important that the work remains centered on the mission and not on the leader.

What do you foresee as the greatest changes that nonprofits will have to respond to in the coming years?

With limited resources and growing need, we should expect greater alignment and collaboration from both nonprofits and funders in the days to come. United Way sits in both roles, and in 2022, we will present a new but vetted and tested funding model to the whole community. As we all work together, I see a renewed desire to move the needle more quickly and sustainably. 

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