Empowerment, sustainability, legacy: Issues that keep young leaders motivated

When Elizabeth Lian got the call offering her a position at the Burma Center in her former hometown of Battle Creek, she was working for a corporation in Houston in her newly begun life after graduation.

The job offer tugged at her. Battle Creek, an unlikely home to over 2,500 Burmese American refugees since the 1980s, had also been Lian’s home during formative years in her adolescence when she attended Lakeview High School. She remembered fondly many teachers who had held her hand at a time when she was struggling with English and “in that state of becoming somebody,” she says.

Elizabeth Lian“I think I’ve always had it in me that I wanted to empower and serve refugee communities because of my own refugee background,” says Lian, who has lived in seven countries and speaks five languages fluently. “When Martha (Thawnghmung, Burma Center Executive Director) contacted me, it was hard for me to say yes, but I felt it was calling to me. I wanted to give back to the community that helped raise me.”

At only 26, Lian was first offered a position as Assistant Executive Director, but she declined due to her age and inexperience and instead asked for the title Program Manager, a position under which she oversees many of the Burma Center programs that serve youth, family, and adults through language, advocacy, and community engagement.

Of particular importance to Lian is a current project called the Burmese American Professional Network, a program whose goal is to connect Burmese Americans in a variety of fields in higher education with college-bound Burmese Americans to increase networking and success.

Lian herself experienced challenges in college due to language, culture, race, and adjustment so she knows firsthand how personal support, especially by those who have undergone what you are going through, is invaluable. “There were a lot of times I thought I might not make it through,” she says. “If I hadn’t faced those challenges and barriers, I don’t think I would be able to hold the position I do today.”

While Lian’s multi-cultural experiences are an asset, at times, she says, they also pose a challenge in a community the size of Battle Creek. 

“I tend to think of things at a global level,” she says. “Working here sometimes, I have to shrink it down to a local level.”

In all Lian does, whether it is working with her team or with the public, Lian says her motivating mission is empowerment. 

“When I see people on our staff who are working and feeling empowered, I know they can spread that feeling to the people we are working within the community,” Lian says. “To me, to be a leader is to make more leaders. I don’t think I have any power to make anyone a leader. Every person already has what it is needed to be successful inside of them. I just hope to empower more people to become the leaders that they already are.”

Erin Denay, Open Roads

When Erin Denay, 25, Executive Director of Open Roads of Kalamazoo graduated from Western Michigan University with majors in Environmental Science and Sustainability and in Organizational Communication, and with a minor in Nonprofit Leadership, she saw her end career goal as becoming an executive director of a nonprofit organization.

She had no idea she would fulfill that dream so soon. Denay, who directs Open Roads Bike Program, a Kalamazoo nonprofit that launched in 2013 and has been growing every year since, has found a perfect match for her passion for sustainability and service to the community. The program currently serves 450 youth by fulfilling its mission to teach youth bike mechanic skills and social skills in order to better prepare them for their future. One way the program does this is through its weekly Fixapaloozas, where an entire bike shop plus parts are moved to different locations in the city to help youth fix broken bikes.

“We’re giving bikes a new life -- these hefty objects,” says Denay. “Otherwise they end up in a landfill. Likewise, we’re teaching kids about taking care of old things instead of just getting new ones.” 

Denay thinks of sustainability at Open Roads in a tri-fold way: fixing and saving the bikes, sustaining and helping develop youth who learn to care for the bikes while  learning about how to manage their emotions and recognize their dreams, and creating a positive atmosphere so the staff, both paid and volunteer, stay on and grow, fulfilling the organization’s mission.

Recently, Open Roads graduated its first student who started off in the Earn a Bike program while he was in the juvenile home. He attended programs every year since and just this year became an instructor for Earn a Bike, coming full circle. This is the kind of sustainability Denay seeks--creating programming that’s engaging enough that youth will keep coming back year after year.

“We’re still a younger nonprofit so that means we need some strong leadership to vision and guide us to a next sustainable step to help maintain funding diversity and lessen staff turnover,” says Denay, who has been on the job since 2015. “My job is to take us to that next level and to empower our employees to produce quality programs along the way so we are able to have a lasting impact on the population we are serving.”

Denay concedes nonprofit professionals can get burnt out pretty quickly so she seeks to model a balance of work, fun, and self-care. “The staff tries to go on bike rides together. We try not committing to too many things. We encourage plenty of sleep and nutritional foods. We want to set the tone to be really strong and healthy,” she says. “Ultimately it leads to staff sustainability. You want to have a staff that knows you care about them.”

Jacob Pinney-Johnson, Fatherhood Initiatives

Jacob Pinney-Johnson 29, has been involved in nonprofit work and community service since his graduation from WMU, including serving as media and outreach coordinator for the Society for History and Racial Equity and as a coordinator for Project X, a leadership program geared towards young adults.

Jacob Pinney-Johnson and his daughterCurrently he applies his community engagement experience, along with his parenting skills as the father of a four-year-old daughter, to his new position as a community educator with Fatherhood Initiatives, an offshoot of Healthy Babies, Healthy Starts, run by the Kalamazoo Health and Community Services and funded in part by a United Way of the Kalamazoo and Battle Creek Regions grant.

His job involves educating new fathers about what it means to be a man and father in our culture, men’s health issues, family history, education and childcare. He also advocates for new fathers in the community. One challenge of community service, as Pinney-Johnson sees it, is to not become overwhelmed by all the problems you see.

“Right now, being involved with fatherhood, I think a lot about our families and the stress and trauma that families specifically in Kalamazoo are going through in terms of racial disparities and economic equalities,” he says. “Being a lifelong resident of Kalamazoo and being fortunate to be involved in social justice and nonprofit work is great, but also tough sometimes, because a lot of my friends and my family are wrapped up in the struggle of mental health and the struggle of poverty. There’s that feeling that you can’t help everybody.”

What motivates Pinney-Johnson is his sense of carrying on a legacy of fighting racial disparities and advocating for social justice. His father, David Johnson, was a National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Youth Chapter President in the 1960s and led boycotts for racial justice. His grandfather traveled from Mississippi to Kalamazoo in 1913 to escape racial persecution including threats from the Klu Klux Klan.

“When people who knew them say to me, your grandfather and father would be proud, and I think about the legacy that I’m passing on to my daughter, that brings me pride.”

To be the change

These inspiring young nonprofit leaders and devoted advocates are bettering lives in Southwest Michigan. In the process, they are becoming the changes in the world they wish to see, to paraphrase an often-quoted saying by Gandhi. 

As a person who is passionate about sustainability, both in the community and the environment, Denay sees her young age as an asset. “I’m like a sponge,” she says. “I try to absorb everything that’s going on. Being young, I’m still discovering things about me and what I want out of my life so I’m open to learning with the student’s we’re serving, our staff, our board, and other community nonprofits.” 

Young Nonprofit Leaders in West Michigan from Michigan Nightlight on Vimeo.

Pinney-Johnson, who sees leadership as a collaborative effort, considers himself an aspiring leader. “To be a leader, you have to have what I call some juice. You have to be willing to work harder, work longer, and not just work smarter. And doing all that in balance. Realizing that my leadership can’t just be community and organizationally-based. It has to start in the home.”

And Lian is very aware that she is not just managing an organization, but trying to create revolutionary change for a large group of people. 

 “It’s a lot of responsibility. When I think of making that kind of change and empowering these individuals, while I, on a daily basis am not always empowered, I can feel overwhelmed,” says Lian, who says she continues to face discrimination due to her race, culture, and gender. “The best in me cannot always come out. If I’m still struggling, how can I help other people make this change? While I can’t say I’ve overcome all obstacles, the fact that I’m still in the fight is what makes me most proud.”

Theresa Coty O'Neil is a Kalamazoo area freelance writer. Her articles have appeared in many local publications and her short stories have been published in Alaska Quarterly Review and West Branch, among others. 

This article is part of Michigan Nightlight, a series of stories about the programs and people that positively impact the lives of Michigan kids. It is made possible with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Read more in the series here.

For further reporting on the Burma Center, please visit here and here.

For further reporting on Open Roads, please visit here and here.
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