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PROFILE IN EXCELLENCE: Chanda Smith Baker

chanda headshotYears ago, across the street from Sabathani Community Center in South Minneapolis, community leaders sat around a dining room table debating issues of the day in the modest duplex of Gertrude Green. Her son the late Dr. Richard R. Green, the first Black superintendent of Minneapolis Public Schools and first Black New York City Schools Chancellor, was in the midst holding court in this vigorous conversation. That was one of many opportunities where Chanda Smith Baker, granddaughter of Gertrude and niece of Richard, bore witness to leadership.

“My impression of leadership wasn’t that leadership was about agreement; it was that leadership was about searching for bigger and better ways to influence and impact community and that you had a circle of people around you that actively disagreed with in order to either hone your thinking to move it to a new direction or to just improve upon it. That was always my impression.”

Today Smith Baker, a fifth-generation resident of North Minneapolis, is impacting community far and wide as president and chief executive officer of Pillsbury United Communities, (PUC), a nonprofit health and human service organization. She is officially stationed in the heart of north Minneapolis at the executive and development office at 125 West Broadway Avenue. However, she remains literally and figuratively mobile as her multi-faceted leadership takes on many forms of collaboration, diversity, and innovation through 180 staff members, one training and development center, five neighborhood centers, five impact areas, eight business ventures, 11 authorized charter schools, 1,000 local, national and international partnerships, and 54,000 connected individuals.

Community connection is not only Smith Baker’s personal tenet as a leader, but it is the life and blood of the organization. This is spelled out in the strategic framework she personally wrote. She writes, “we are one Pillsbury, United around a shared vision to close the gaps and an unwavering focus on measurable outcomes………We will work deliberately and aggressively towards ensuring that all of our children, individuals and families are well and have the opportunity to fulfill their potential and live in thriving communities.” The organization’s strategic framework is a living document that will exist until it is no longer needed, she says.

The work of the organization is focused around two strategies; impact and capacity. The document states that the focus on impact is “internal disruption to current thinking, to challenge convention and to establish a bold goal that pushes us to think beyond our organizational comfort zone.” The focus areas of impact include education, youth and family, wellness and nutrition, employment and training, and asset creation.

The strategy of impact tackles poverty, systemic barriers, and injustice as “interconnected, with a holistic system of support aligned with community as a partner in developing solutions that serve whole people and families.” The focus on capacity is, “to close the “innovation gap”, recognizing the necessity to innovate on purpose, not just with programmatic solutions, but operationally as well”. The focus areas of capacity include evaluation, communication, leadership, technology, and finance.

“Pillsbury United Communities serves as an example of a legacy organization with longevity. Its shape shifts with what the community needs, its values and principles, said Antonio Cardona, Director of the organization’s Urban Institute for Service and Learning. The Institute develops programs and leaders in education, health, leadership, and entrepreneurship from within the communities that PUC serves . Cardona leads a staff of 54 people for the Institute and also serves as director of Public Allies Twin Cities, a full-time program that places young people in a 10-month apprenticeship at local non-profit organizations, with weekly training, individualized coaching, a monthly stipend and an education award. “We care about continuously and consistently building a critical mass of diverse leaders, trained with an authentic world view.” In eight years of working for Smith Baker, Cardona said he values her focus on developing people. He said he considers her a team player that always promotes learning, leadership and coaching among her staff without micromanagement. Most importantly, she encourages managers to create an environment that includes staff diversity in thought and perspectives, to inform the work and make effective and authentic change. This form of management resonates with Andy Augustine, PUC board chair and Director of Financial Planning and Analysis at Cargill. He said, “she is passionate. Passion is number one in what she does for community, how she leads, and how she tries to connect and impact people. PUC is a constant innovation machine.”

Smith Baker sees herself in the people. Her training in leadership came through education and professional experience. However, her lived experience prepared her to be a people’s leader. It was the curious moments in her life that seemed troublesome yet proved the markings of a born leader. For example she admits to not being a great student, yet, she would skip class to go to the library and get lost in reading books. Before building her professional career, she was a divorced single mother with no college education, at a crossroads. Ingenuity tapped her on the shoulder and she forged a path of positive change for her inner leader and the children she had to raise. She said,” I think you don’t realize the path you’ve been on until you look back.” The path has included a twenty year career in the non-profit arena and community in various leadership positions, focusing on urban, low-income communities. Additionally, she has a Masters degree in organizational development, is a certified life coach, and sits on the boards of International Federation of Settlements, MACC Commonwealth, Minnesota Campus Compact, Public Allies National, MACC Alliance, and is chair of the African-American Leadership Forum. She said, “Pillsbury has helped me find that journey in a lot of ways in opportunities that have been offered. And I think this organization allowed me to do that because it is really flexible. Tony Wagner my predecessor had a high degree of trust in all of us and he was really innovative. He created a climate where you can actually come and say this is an idea that I have, and he would say okay do it and let me know how it works out. Not in a way that lacked accountability financially, but in a way that encouraged the type of leaders that you want throughout an organization. He’s also been incredibly influential in my life.”

As Smith Baker builds her own legacy of leadership with PUC she always considers the community as a partner in guiding her work. It has paid off. As a testament to her leadership and committed staff, PUC accepted the FBI 2014 Director’s Community Leadership award, given annually to individuals and groups for their positive work in communities and crime prevention.

Smith Baker said, “in order for me to effectively lead the organization I have to be a good connector of the dots. The political climate that we are in where we have people without the lived experience speaking on behalf of the people with the lived experience is blatant and profound. I don’t want to be that. In order not to be that I have to listen. And if I see myself as the connector of the dots versus the person with all the solutions, if I keep that as pinnacle in how I approach this work it allows me to hear.”

She has a heart to hear because of the challenges she has faced. However, her experiences benefitted her in the long run, and allowed her to lead by example for others. “The more I can be authentic to my experience the better. For instance in this role I talk way more about me coming into Pillsbury a non-degreed, divorced, young mom with kids than I ever have because I don’t see it necessarily the same way I saw it when I was going through it, which was with some degree of shame. Now I see it as a testimony. I know what it’s like to be in struggle and feel responsible for kids. So when people are talking about single parents from 55411 they are talking about me. That’s just how I see it. So as much as I can have people see me as an example of who is in the community they are talking about me. I feel responsible in helping change some of the narrative.”

This year is no different than any other in regards to her continually striving for success. She will remain an avid reader, reading at least two books per month. Additionally, she plans to fulfill the vision her uncle Dr. Richard R. Green had for her in becoming the first PhD in the family. Her focus will be on human and organizational systems from a social justice lens. Smith Baker resides in North Minneapolis with her husband and five children.

February 2, 2015
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