La June Montgomery Tabron, President, W.K. Kellogg Foundation: Leadership and Community Engagement

March 18, 2014
La June Montgomery Tabron, President, W.K. Kellogg Foundation: Leadership and Community Engagement

In January, La June Montgomery Tabron became the first woman and the first African American to head the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Based in Battle Creek, Michigan, the foundation has in recent years implemented an integrated strategy of wrapping its commitment to racial equity and civic engagement around efforts to ensure the education and health of children and the economic security of their families. Having grown up in a family of ten children in inner-city Detroit, Tabron has said that she knows first-hand the challenges faced by the families the foundation seeks to help. “In so many ways, my own journey illustrates the power and impact of what is possible with the right conditions.”

Earlier this month PND spoke with Tabron, a twenty-six-year veteran of the foundation, about the Kellogg Foundation’s work to strengthen leadership at the community level, its efforts to expand opportunity for boys and young men of color, and its collaborative approach — at the local, state, and national level — to addressing complex issues at the intersection of race, place, and income.

Philanthropy News Digest: Before you were named president of the Kellogg Foundation last fall, you had been with the foundation for twenty-six years, most recently as executive vice president of operations and treasurer. What are the most significant changes you've seen at the foundation — and in philanthropy more generally — over the last two and a half decades?

La June Montgomery Tabron: I think the most significant change at the foundation, and in philanthropy, has been the constant evolution toward greater focus. In our particular organization, we've never lost sight of our North Star, which is that we are here to help people help themselves. But as we have learned more about the best way to do that, we've shifted the focus of our work to early childhood and an early childhood framework that takes into account what children need at the beginning of their lives in order to succeed throughout their lives. At the Kellogg Foundation, there has been a constant shift, based on the learning and work we've done over the years, to begin to understand how change happens.

PND: As a woman of color who has risen through the ranks to become the president of the sixth-largest foundation in the United States, do you feel you bring a unique perspective to that work?

LMT: Well, I think my background does help inform the type of work we're engaged in. We are working on the ground in urban settings, which is the kind of setting I grew up in. And as a woman — and a woman of color — I do bring a different perspective to the work. At the end of the day, I think I bring a level of commitment and a sense of urgency to the work that is genuine and somewhat unique.

PND: Several of the largest foundations in the U.S. today, including the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the David and Lucille Packard Foundation, and the Bank of America Charitable Foundation, are led by women. Is that a sign that equality of opportunity, for both women and women of color, has been secured?

We speak a lot about the significance of having an African American in the White House, but I don't really see it as a sign. I see it as one more transaction, albeit a very positive one, in a long process....

LMT: I don't look at it quite that way. You know, we speak a lot about the significance of having an African American in the White House, but I don't really see it as a sign. I see it as one more transaction, albeit a very positive one, in a long process. We've come a long way, and it's important that women are being developed and that people of color are being given these opportunities, but I also believe we have a long way to go in terms of leveling the playing field for both women and people of color.

In some ways, I think of myself as a person who was in the right place at the right time, in that the field was not diverse when I came into it and there weren't very many women on a career track to this kind of position. In that sense, it's a long-term pipeline issue we're dealing with, and I just happened to have been fortunate enough to have been with this organization for twenty-six years and to be given opportunities that allowed me to grow and develop leadership skills that put me in a position to take on this role.

PND: Several years ago the Kellogg Foundation announced a new strategy that combines a commitment to racial equity, community engagement, and leadership with three goals — "educated kids," "healthy kids," and "secure families." It's an approach that is directly linked and complementary to the foundation's embrace of place- and community-based strategies. Can you talk a little about how and where the approaches intersect?

LMT: They are definitely linked. As the foundation has learned more about this kind of work, we've seen how the work that happens at the national level needs to be anchored in communities. Our approach really is to find practical applications at the local level for work that happens at the national level, and vice versa — our founder, Will Keith Kellogg, believed strongly in the idea that it is the practical application of knowledge that allows change to happen. Our framework is based on that idea. We take ideas and best practices from our work at the national level and validate them by making sure they can be practically applied in a community context, where we refine and strengthen them and feed them back into our national work.

PND: Does that mean the foundation's work in your four geographical focus areas — New Mexico, Mississippi, Michigan, and New Orleans — is likely to be scaled to other communities in the future?

LMT: Yes, we do believe the work we are doing and testing in those places can serve as models that are applied more broadly. For example, we are supporting a program at Clemson University called Call Me MISTER (Mentors Instructing Students Toward Effective Role Models) that encourages young males of color to go into the teaching profession and, after they graduate, to return to their communities and become teachers and role models in those communities. It is definitely our hope that as we perfect that model, it is scaled across the country.

PND: In a recent Q&A with PND, your predecessor, Sterling Speirn, described the WKKF Community Leadership Network initiative that you launched in November as "different" because it emphasizes "not just individual leadership work, but the connective work that unites each cohort of fellows, with the goal of developing not just individual leaders but networks of leaders." How do you hope to do that?

What we are realizing is that leaders are more successful when they are embedded in support structures. It's the idea that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts....

LMT: Sterling is exactly right. What we are realizing is that leaders are more successful when they are embedded in support structures. It's the idea that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. So the entire program is going to be focused on how you take leaders who are very capable individually and build networks around them that give them access to resources, knowledge, and skills that actually enhance their ability to drive the change that they are looking to make. The entire structure of the leadership program is based on the concept of networking and the synergies to be gained from many like-minded people working together and supporting each other.  

The other point is that leadership — and building leaders and community — is a way of sustaining the work of the Kellogg Foundation long beyond our actual presence in that community. We know at the end of the day that the most important investment we can make is in people, and helping to develop capable leaders in communities is what will enable those communities to thrive.

PND: The Kellogg Foundation is one of ten foundations that recently pledged an additional $200 million over five years to President Obama's My Brother’s Keeper initiative. You were instrumental in developing the foundation's strategic focus on the educational achievements of young men of color through your earlier place-based work in New Orleans and Mississippi. In your view, what is the most important thing we can do to improve access to educational opportunity and success for young men of color?

LMT: We've listed five areas that we believe must be addressed if young males of color are to succeed. Most of them are tied to the educational system, with early childhood education number one on the list. We also need to make sure that young men of color are career- and-college-ready when they come out of the K-12 system, and we're looking at literacy, the criminal justice system, and employment opportunities for these young men. Interestingly, the Kellogg Foundation has been working in all of these areas over the last twenty or thirty years. All of them are important, and we know that no single institution can tackle them alone, which is why we've decided to collaborate with other foundations, business, and the public sector to address them.

PND: Should we also be focusing on education for girls, especially STEM subjects in the early grades? What role might philanthropy play in addressing the gender gap in STEM fields?

LMT: Our national work is focused on all children. We are very much committed to the idea that all children should have opportunities that enable them to thrive. So while there is a particular focus on young males of color, over the years we've also focused on other groups, including girls and STEM education. We don't see this as a zero-sum game. At the Kellogg Foundation, we believe that any and all resources that are targeted to improve the lives of children are resources well spent.

PND: I'd like to switch to a different topic. In addition to your ongoing support for the New Economy Initiative and other revitalization efforts in southeastern Michigan, the Kellogg Foundation recently committed $40 million to a "rescue fund" for Detroit. What motivated you and your colleagues to make that kind of sizable investment in the future of a city that many people would say doesn't have a future?

LMT: Detroit is a city where we've had programming for decades, and we remain very much committed to the city. That said, we were very keen on this particular investment because we saw it as an opportunity to invest in the creativity and passion of people committed to saving the city. We care about Detroit, and we hope, and believe, that the revitalization of Detroit is happening. At the same time, we know that distractions related to the city's bankruptcy filing is affecting those revitalization efforts, and we believe that the rescue fund is an important element in the larger plan to get the city back on track and make sure the revitalization efforts we have invested in, and will continue to invest in, bear fruit.

PND: As someone who grew up in Detroit, you must have some thoughts about what the city needs to get back on its feet. Would you care to share them with us?

LMT: Yes, I do. It starts with supporting families and a caring community. You know, my ideas about Detroit are the same ideas I have about Jackson, Mississippi, or about Doña Ana, New Mexico, about any place where children are growing up, and the kind of love and support they need to thrive, and the kind of institutions that contribute to their success all along the way, and the kind of economy that creates good jobs for parents so that they can support their children and have the resources to help them thrive. We're working hard every day to make sure that Detroit and other communities get these resources.

PND: Both national and local foundations are involved in the rescue fund. Can you talk a little bit about the different role local foundations might play, and why it's important for philanthropy to be involved?

The assets controlled by foundations, and philanthropy in general, should be risk capital; they should be used to test and scale ideas that the other two sectors cannot or will not fund....

LMT: Philanthropy has a unique role to play. We're not the government, and we're not private industry. We have a greater level of flexibility. In an ideal situation, the assets controlled by foundations, and philanthropy in general, should be risk capital; they should be used to test and scale ideas that the other two sectors cannot or will not fund. The rescue fund for Detroit is an example of risk taking, leadership, and collaboration. It demonstrates how collaboration in philanthropy can work, how we don’t have to compete, how we can actually complement and strengthen each other's work. And what's particularly important in the Detroit situation is that none of the investments from the foundations as it relates to the bankruptcy will be taken from their existing investments or commitments to the city.

PND: It's Women's History Month. What would you say to the women in our audience?

LMT: Well, we all know that women play a very impor­tant role in society, particularly in the African-American community. And I think in terms of how we build a stronger society, it's important to continue to lift that up. We have to make sure we continue to acknowledge the importance of working together, and the importance of women as leaders.

PND: You mentioned that women are particularly important in the African-American community. In what way?

LMT: The matriarch of the family is particularly important in African-American communities. And if you think about what's happening in society right now, where too many African-American males are absent from their families, the role of the matriarch, and women in general, is more important than ever.

PND: I'd like to end by asking you what your ambitions for the foundation over the next three to five years are. If I were to sit down with you in five years and asked you what the foundation had accomplished since the last time we spoke, what would you hope you'd be able to say?

LMT: In five years I would like the foundation to have focused on early childhood development and to have influenced funding so that all children in our priority places have access to early quality child care. Also, in five years the foundation will have developed a strong reputation in the field as an organization that promotes rapid action for children. We have studied enough. We have research and data and now we need to use it. I feel like we have been talking for way too long; it's time for decisive action. Early childhood development is one area and disparities in achievement for young males of color is another. In five years I expect to see young men of color beginning to thrive in school and many reforms in the criminal justice system. 

PND features editor Kyoko Uchida spoke with Tabron in early March. For more information on the Newsmakers series, contact Mitch Nauffts at mfn@foundationcenter.org.