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Client Spotlight:  Derek Steele, Social Justice Learning Institute

by | Mar 31, 2022

As the Executive Director of the Social Justice Learning Institute, Derek Steele is doing his life’s work. He’s empowering people through education so they can make the change they want to see in their communities. He gives us some great advice about leading an organization toward social action and finding creative ways to solve difficult problems. He encourages us to stay the course to enact our vision for the future.

We loved learning about the Social Justice Learning Institute and Derek’s background going from electrical engineering to volunteering for the Institute. Here’s our conversation with Derek. We hope you enjoy it as much as we did.

Can you tell us about your journey?

The Social Justice Learning Institute (SJLI) has been a part of my life for over eleven years now. I had the opportunity to become a part of this organization through my wife. She also works here as the Health Equity Programs Director. At the time we started working with the organization, we didn’t have a car. At the time I was diagnosed with hypertension, and we were trying to find a way to change our lifestyle. After doing some research to understand how to change for the better, we found out that I needed to eat more fruits and vegetables and get more exercise. But again, we didn’t have a car. The nearest grocery store was about a mile and a half from our home. So we had to walk whenever we went to the store to get what was needed. I should also note that around the corner from my house were 25 different options of fast food, liquor stores, convenient stores, and access to the opposite of the kinds of things I needed for a healthier lifestyle.

Seeing this paradigm week to week, my wife decided she wanted to create more access to healthy food  in the community. She came up with the 100 Seeds of Change Initiative, which is the idea of bringing 100 gardens into the community. When she wrote up that proposal, she took it to the mayor at the time who loved the idea and brought it to a consortium of folks that he was working with including Dr. D’Artagnan Scorza, the co-founder and former Executive Director of SJLI. He was already doing work with young men through our urban scholars program, conducting a youth participatory action research project about health, the environment, and the food landscape around Morningside High School. Their solution was to build the first community garden that ever existed in Inglewood. When Dr. Scorza heard about 100 Seeds of Change, they met, and he offered for the organization to adopt the initiative. From that point, she began volunteering with the organization. 

Concurrently, though I was working at Northrop Grumman, I was really curious about the things she was telling me when it came to the garden. It was exciting to see the ideas she put on paper come to life. I would help out every so often. I finally met Dr. Scorza and in the conversation he told me about an event that they were about to do, giving away fruit trees. They needed help with outreach. With my background in community engagement, I thought I could lend some support, I helped with that and we gave out about 250 fruit trees that day in about an hour. 

At that point, I realized I wanted to be a part of this. These were the days when there weren’t any SJLI staff members. There was just an organization with some big ideas about how we wanted to change the world and a group of volunteers that wanted to see it through. We used to meet at Starbucks once a week to determine the plan for programming at the school, the programming at the garden which was across the street from the school, and what the future may hold and opportunities that could come about if we stuck to the plan. 

That brings me to the mission of the Social Justice Learning Institute. The focus of the organization is to improve the education, health and well-being of youth and communities of color. We do that by empowering the community to enact the social change they want to see through the three pillars of the organization. The first pillar is research. We want folks to have access to the knowledge needed to understand the history and context behind a lot of the social ills that exist. Once they get that knowledge, we want to use the information that comes from the research. So, training is necessary so people can create the vision they want to see. Research and training are the first two pillars and together they help to build capacity within individuals to carry out the third pillar of the organization which is mobilizing the community.

Having that knowledge and know-how from the training and the research, and actually being able to move the community, creates the atmosphere for people to use their own agency to change each other’s lives. That’s the vision we see for the future of the communities we work in and on the behalf of. We want to change the paradigms that are for the most part negatively impacting communities of color, Black communities in particular. You can really galvanize community members with learning spaces and opportunities that give them a voice in how things need to be changed, what changes need to take place, and to be a part of the actions that completely transform the community at large. The SJLI team does that daily in our education work in the schools, the health equity work in the community, and the policy and advocacy work that we do as well. That’s why you will always hear me say the team really is the form and function of all the success that takes place at SJLI. They’re the ones on the front lines in all those different spaces that we are in, working with community members and building them up.

I started off as a volunteer at SJLI, but I had the opportunity to be part of the ideation of all the things that came about for us to do the work we’re doing today. That journey has been amazing, and I couldn’t be more lucky to do something that I think is my life’s work while supporting the community along the way.

We read a statement on your website about SJLI not only educating and empowering the youth, but teaching them to identify and rectify injustice themselves. Tell us about that.

You want folks using their own agency to change each other’s lives, but how do you activate that agency? Well, first there has to be learning spaces created for folks to really understand, contextually, the issues that exist in their communities: the vicious cycles that can exist, and how they can be upended. The thing is, the youth that we work with, they don’t have a choice in which families they are born into. They don’t have a choice in which communities they are born into. They also don’t have a choice in what systems that exist, from a public standpoint, that continue to create the conditions in their communities. Because of this, you can see how difficult it can be to overcome and succeed If those conditions create levels of disadvantage for people who live in these areas. 

The environment that the youth and their families are in has a direct connection to the life course outcomes of those youth and their families. If the public school system is not good, in most cases neither is their school readiness, graduation rates and ultimately their access to opportunities like full-time employment. That all comes down to the fact that the system isn’t doing what it needs to do and gaps are being created. That also is connected to the social-emotional and the physical health of those folks, too. Some are in a consistent state of survival. Most don’t have the ability and/or time to do what it takes to care for their personal health, let alone their mental health. A lot of times, they don’t have the language to share what’s going on. That’s the vicious cycle. The way the system is set up, it can even develop generational disadvantage over time and this is because the experience that young people and their families may be going through, their parents and grandparents probably came from that same type of dynamic.

So what can upend these trends? Well, it’s basically a bit of randomness. I say randomness, but really it’s only random to the person that organizations like ours are impacting. To them, our programs, events and impact are out of the blue. They don’t see it coming. However, the urban scholars program, 100 Seeds of Change, or any of the different programs we have, our the team and the work they do is very intentional. The community members that we impact may randomly come across us, but we were very intentional about coming across them. What the randomness does though is disrupt that system in a way that creates more situated choices for the young people we encounter, the community members and beyond.

Fundamentally, we believe as an organization that people’s decisions are only as good as their options. If we’re doing our job to increase equity in a way that provides more options, then people have more of the opportunity to actually make better decisions. That opportunity disrupts the balance of the vicious cycle to create new, more thriving ways for people to live their lives. That starts with empowering people to use their voice and creating the learning spaces to understand what’s actually going on, so community members can elevate their voice to change things.

You’re doing an incredible amount of work on the ground and attacking social problems systemically. Tell us more about your advocacy work around food insecurity legislation.

When we first started off building some of these garden spaces, we learned you can grow as much food as you want to, but if people don’t understand the importance of having a healthy lifestyle and how to go about improving their health, then all that food will just go to waste because people won’t take advantage of it. You have to change the hearts and minds of folks. So we started creating learning environments. We created physical activity opportunities on third Saturdays. We did cooking demonstrations with a nutrition element and also taught people how to prune fruit trees and tend to the gardens. Those days were amazing. That opened the door for us to actually do more of that work, becoming funded partners with LA County. 

We began to have amazing conversations in those spaces with community members, as you are lending information about physical activity access and healthy food access and teaching people ways of cooking and enjoying their food. We created community conversations around the social determinants of health. Folks began to understand that if you’re spending 65-70% of your household income on the roof that’s over your head for you and your family, then it becomes extremely difficult—especially if you’re spending the rest of that money on a car if you have one or utilities to keep the lights on—to put money towards healthy food options. In the hierarchy of food needs, you’re just trying to make sure that you have enough food and regular access to that good enough food. You realize that things like farmer’s markets and maybe CSA’s might not be solutions for communities like that. There has to be other solutions. Those solutions are not just direct programming, but also the codified changes that have to take place about what barriers may be in front of folks to be able to have access.

One of those was the Neighborhood Food Act which provided folks the opportunity to grow food in the places that they’re renting. In a city like Inglewood that is 63% renters, if you don’t have the ability by law—the landlord can actually keep you from growing food on your patio for your family—you have to be able to change this. The Neighborhood Food Act created the opportunity, with the permission of the landlord to actually do that work, to create an avenue for people to have access in that way.

There’s also AB-551 which we were very instrumental in. It was the Urban Agriculture Incentive Zones Act, which gives incentives to the owners of vacant lots to allow agriculture to happen in those spaces. We’re thinking about how we can codify a health equitable environment. You have to do the advocacy and the policy work at the same time so that you’re creating a direct impact for community members.

Do education and empowerment translate to volunteers doing advocacy?

That’s a major part of our theory of social action; not a theory of social change, but social action. We want people to be about action. It starts with empowerment through education. We want people to feel emboldened and empowered to be change agents in their community because of the information they learned in spaces with us.

Now, those spaces can only be so big. There’s only so many people we can get into a classroom or a gymnasium. In those spaces though, we are very intentional. It’s so impactful when people are seeing their neighbors and their friends and taking the information we share to the next level to create thriving communities. How does that happen? It’s through the power of one. If I am talking to my neighbor, or my family or going to city council meetings, because there are some things that I want to change in my community, through the power of my own agency I am impacting 10, 15, 20 other people by using the education I received and empowering other people. Now you have a whole set of folks who are trying to create this thriving community. Now all these agents of change can use their agency to actually change systems.

How do you change systems? That’s policy; that’s advocacy. Community members are empowered by information to be part of the work to change systems. It’s not our organization that is doing all of the policy work alone; it’s not our organization that is doing all the systems work either. We do our part, but more importantly, we were committed to the beginning piece that sparks—or to continue with the garden analogy, that puts the seed in the ground for those roots to grow and be able to bear fruit. That fruit is a changed system for the betterment of all people, especially those that are most impacted.

What do you love about your work?

I have the ability for my occupation to be my life’s work. It’s not lost on me that what we are doing as a team, day in and day out, can be groundbreaking and history-making. 

History is not just what’s in the books. It’s more about what’s in the stories that people tell. I am from the generation of people—I’m 38 years old—who not only got a chance to read about the things that happened in the Civil Rights movement in books but also still had relatives that can tell us the stories because that era is what their experience was in real life. Not just in the South, but in different cities. I’m originally from Pittsburgh, PA. I got to hear stories from my grandfather, grandmother, and my mother about what the experience was like to be from that particular area during those times in life. On my dad’s side, my grandmother from Charlotte, NC, who’s lineage includes the experiences of enslaved ancestors moved to Pittsburgh with 14 children and that story in itself is amazing. I got to hear and feel what that moment was like and feel from her perspective.

When it’s all said and done and we’re here 40 or 50 years from now, they will start to talk about the things that created necessary change in Los Angeles County, the state of California and beyond or what SJLI was able to do to make our mark in history. I’m excited to at least be a nameless face as a part of that work. It’s a blessing and an honor. I’m excited to be part of the team that’s doing this. If for nothing else, we’re able to just change some of the lives of the people we’re able to touch. That’s what we were here to do in the first place.

Tell me something about your work that you find challenging.

Not everybody sees the world in the same way. Not everybody is as open and ready to be an agent of change. One of the values of the organization is that we do all things in love. That love is not only hugs. A lot of times it’s tough love. Sometimes folks are not ready for what we’re trying to do, and it’s OK for them to be able to walk out the door. It’s OK to sometimes have to say, “Hey, this is the space. This is the direction. You’re trying to take it in a different direction. Maybe we can part ways.” 

Our next value is that no one is hopeless. The door is always open. No one is a lost cause. That can be the hardest part sometimes. What’s challenging in the moment is identifying what part of the spectrum they’re on, and being able to have the humility to let those things play out, knowing that there may be another opportunity in the future. That can be difficult. A politician may be on the wrong side of history at one point, but we end up in consensus about what things need to happen that we can actually do years later. It can be a school principal who doesn’t want the program for whatever reason, but later on, becomes a principal at a different school and they remember us and see the value we bring later on. 

It can come in various ways from a regular community member to systems including people who are in institutions that have seats of power. That can make the work difficult sometimes. It may be hard work to overcome these things, but it’s also what I like to call the “heart” work. Your heart has really got to be in it to understand and to have the emotional intelligence to see what the dynamics are and how to react to them.

Tell me a little about the kind of customers you serve.

I serve customers nationwide in every vertical. It could be commercial, which is something like light industrial or warehouse and office clerical. I work with IT companies, accounting firms, healthcare companies—a wide variety—engineers, pharma.

Actually, one company that was fascinating to work with was a mining company. They sent miners all over the world to mine for gems. It was fascinating how many different verticals there are in the staffing industry. I work with all kinds of vertical markets.

I normally work with small to mid-sized to mid-to-large companies. I really don’t work with national companies. They have their own internal training department. Staffing companies from $10 million up to about $300 million. That’s my sweet spot where I focus

Staffing, if you get in at the right time, has a fairly low entry threshold to get into the market. You do have to have the funding because we’re payroll-driven—we pay people every week—but it’s pretty easy to get into staffing. Many people who get into it don’t have staffing experience.

Tell us a “fun fact” about yourself.

I played football. I was a starting running back and starting quarterback. I also ran track. I won the 100-meter dash my senior year, and I came in third place in the 200-meter dash. I was also a four-year senior for musicals in the Arts department, in high school. That’s not something you usually see-–the star football player also being the star on stage. Not only that, I had a love for math and science, which is why I ended up going to school for electrical and computer engineering. At Morgan State University School of Engineering, on the first day they told us, “once you finish this program, you will understand that you can take these skills anywhere. Because engineers fundamentally are problem solvers.” So in essence, I am still doing engineering work, just trying to solve the problems in my community. All of it was a really great experience. I thank Schenley high school in Pittsburgh, PA and Morgan State University and Baltimore, MD for creating those unique opportunities for me. 

What advice would you have for other nonprofit leaders of grassroots organizations?

Stay the course. You have a vision. Make sure it’s clear to you. If it’s clear to you, you can take the steps that are necessary to make them clear to the team. Don’t be arrogant enough to believe that the way you see the path is the only way to get there though.

Create space for your leaders to grow and also opportunities for them to be a part of leading the way, too. We have a responsibility for the development of those folks. Yes, we have our businesses, we have our organizations, we have the ideas of what we’re trying to achieve, but if it’s all about what you see, then you’re not really here for the work that’s meant to be done. You’re in the way. I would say, be mindful. Have heart. Be fearless.

How has it been working with VaVa?

VaVa is amazing. I was just talking to someone earlier today, and they said, “Working with your assistant was really easy to schedule, but you have to use an assistant?” And I said, “You don’t understand the ability to not have to think about how my calendar is put together.” My assistant is someone who understands who I am and is putting my calendar together in a way that’s very thoughtful for me. They also are such a tremendous support for taking on special projects that free up my time and attention. 

My VA is amazing. She also supports me in board meetings and keeping track of what’s going on in the spaces—organizing time and space for other folks to be able to convene. It’s been an amazing experience thus far. It’s not even just about time and managing calendars, but it’s also about different projects that are necessary, like creating a series of documents that need to be done quickly. My VaVa experience has been great. I’m a proud proponent of it. When people ask me how my experience has been with the service, I’m out there as an evangelist, letting people know about the value of this type of tool. I think it’s been a great experience.

Find out more about the Social Justice Learning Institute.

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