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Wendi Goods Everson is a senior program officer at the Danville Regional Foundation (DRF). But people in her small Southside Virginia city are just as likely to know her as “coach.”
She has coached boys’ recreational basketball for the past decade. “It’s amazing,” she said. “Everywhere I go, it’s like, ‘Hey, coach.’”
Her volunteer work as a coach has created relationships she uses as a community leader and motivator in Danville. “What I found is I built a lot of my networks and connections through a lot of teams that I’ve coached and with the families,” Everson said.
Everson will be sharing her thoughts on leadership at the Rural Women’s Summit in Greenville, South Carolina, October 27-29. (Learn more about the Rural Women’s Summit.) She will be one of six rural leaders giving a short “Firestarter” address at the summit. Her subject: building community wealth in African American communities.
It’s something she knows a thing or two about through her work at DRF, where she focuses on community engagement and leadership development, while also managing the foundation’s internship program.
We asked Everson to tell us about her work in Danville and what it takes to make a difference in her town.
Highlights from this interview have been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Daily Yonder: Tell us about the work you do in communities and how it’s changed or evolved since you started.
Wendi Goods Everson: I’ve been with the foundation for 11 years now and it really feels like the first part of my work looks very different than what I’m working on right now … I managed a few grants where we were trying to think about earned income tax credits (EITC) and how we work to get more money in folks’ pockets, but … it was very broad. It was about platforms and systems. I won’t say the work I do now is not about that, but it’s much more grassroots, it’s much more individual. So over the last two to three years, we’ve been working in three different areas. They have the highest numbers of youth in poverty and they are suffering from a lot of different disparities. We’re trying to think about how do we close the gap for folks that live in those communities.
I think that now we are being more intentional about lifting up the individual, grassroots leaders, listening for long periods of time to get to the work. We’re starting with individual residents instead of institutional leaders and we’re really trying to think about how do we start to invest back in the communities, but in the way that the communities want to be invested in – helping them to define what success looks like and what they care about. So that’s been a little bit different, which requires us to have a different level of patience and also helping us rethink what leadership looks like, who’s at the table, who’s actually already doing the work but could use a little bit of support, just some of those same things.
It’s particularly important to me – because these are the communities I grew up in – really trying to change the way people think about people and what their place is in the community as a whole.
My earlier struggle is that we were heavy on a recruit model – recruiting folks in to define what success looks like. And I think this is much more about a nurture and grow kind of model, how you think about the assets that are already here, the human talent that is here in the community. I still try and think about my work as talent, but in the beginning it was more recruitment and now it’s more about growing the existing talent and making sure that folks have what they need to be successful in their communities.
DY: How do you define your community, and how has that informed or been applied in your work?
WGE: I spend a lot of my time coaching young boys [basketball], particularly because I have a 17-year-old. I started off coaching girls and I started coaching them at seven, so I spent the last 10 years coaching young boys. That has been amazing in so many ways for me, in that even at 17 they still want me to be their coach. I’m like, “Go, someone else can coach you,” and they are like, “No, you are our coach.” So, the fact that when it comes to gender, they don’t see that in terms of coaching, because when I came through it looked a lot different. You know, men coach boys. Even though men coach women, men coach boys. So I’m starting to see that shift … What I found is I built a lot of my networks and connections through a lot of teams that I’ve coached and with the families. It’s amazing everywhere I go, it’s like, “Hey, coach.”
I was just somewhere at a memorial service and this kid was like, “You remember you coached me in rec league when I was a 4-year-old,” and I was like, “Actually I do.” Then he said, “Yeah, I played the drums at the church.” So it was just this whole connection that happens between me and the sports and the lives that I’ve been able to touch through sports. So I either coached them or I coached their kids or their mom, which is interesting too [laughing].
In the early years I defined community more around religion and I spent a lot of time in church and not so much now. I joke and say my church is a lot of times on the basketball court or that’s where I do my vision work or where I connect with folks. I also have a very large family. My mom had 10 brothers and sisters, and they had eight, five, four children, so there’s like a clan of us in this community [laughing]. I think a lot of the work that I do feels like I’m working for my family as well to make this a better place for where they live in addition to just because I have so many connections through the sports. I just feel like I’m working really hard for people that I really, really care about that I have a deep connection to.
DY: Have you faced any challenges in balancing national narratives about what rural is doing, or should be doing, versus what you see in your life and the work that’s happening in your community?
WGE: We are looking at best practices across the country and the ones that show up just don’t fit, you know… Folks are driven by, “Oh, the J.P. Morgan challenge is out there and they want to select 10 communities that do this,” and then it tends to be very urban strategies that don’t work. The idea of patience and starting small and working at the individual level, it just looks very different than what we find a lot of folks are proposing. An example of this, we were thinking about our neighborhood work and the way I’ve thought about it looked very different than someone who’d done some different work. It was very challenging to be able to say, “Hey, let’s consider doing this in a different kind of way.”
Of course, we look at the best practice and try to take what we can from it, but it just seems like the way we’re going to have to approach this [in a small city], in my opinion, just looks a lot different. For me, it looks individual, it looks like growing human individual folks together. I just think it looks different.
DY: Going beyond financial resources, what are some of the main needs you see in these communities, particularly as it relates to women, people of color, and other marginalized groups? Are there additional, more emotional or cultural barriers and challenges you see? Are there areas that really need to be invested in and addressed?
WGE: Women are exhausted in these communities. They are exhausted. If I could just give them a vacation that would probably help. Because I’m exhausted! And to see that struggle between exhaustion and not being able to invest in themselves to continue to do the work … people talk a lot about that, but folks are exhausted. They feel very undervalued.
I feel like what I’m hearing from the young men and the young boys, even from my husband, I hear about the struggles that he has in this community as being an African-American man: work, his ability to get certain positions, the way he’s looked at. Helping them see a path, a real path… an individual path – because we like to create pathways and throw people in them – but there’s some healing that has to happen in the neighborhoods too, where people are going to start believing in themselves again. That there is hope and that there is value and that they deserve more than what they have or have been given and that they need to contribute and what they’re going to contribute is valuable.
There is more healing that needs to happen to get folks motivated and to get them believing that they’re part of the solution and they are a part of the community as a whole.
DY: Let’s talk about civic courage. Are there moments that come to mind, personally, professionally, or in your community, when you’ve been courageous? What has that looked like and felt like?
WGE: The crazy part is I don’t feel courageous in this work. Sometimes I don’t feel like I’m being bold enough… I often ask myself, am I doing enough? Am I being courageous enough? Am I being bold enough in the work? … I just think that my choices about where I work and how I work to tackle things, in my opinion is courageous. I remember when I decided that I wanted to work for the Boys & Girls Club and folks are like, “Why would you go there?!” It’s the kids that nobody wants to work with, it’s the poorest kids in the worst neighborhoods, why are you going there? You have a great government job, stay with your cushiony job.
But I felt like I had something to add and that it was a place I wanted to be and where I felt like I could affect some change and where I could make a big impact. I did it and I’m happy that I did it. Professionally, I’ve continued to try to take on the things that I feel are important to me in the places that I want to impact, regardless of what that looks like.
DY: What do you rely on to sustain you in your work?
WGE: Coaching energizes me. People ask me, “Why are you taking on another task?” I’m like, “You don’t understand, it’s been so much a part of my life for so long.” It’s the place where I feel comfortable and safe. It’s the place that has nothing to do with work. When I walk into a gymnasium with sweats, nobody knows me. I’m just Coach, Coach E or Coach Wendi.
And to see [youth] connecting and learning together and then accomplishing something together, that is huge for me. I’m so excited and competitive about the game, not for me, but the fact that these kids haven’t measured success for a moment. One of the young men that I coached, he had a drive-by shooting by his house, his grandparents and his mom had abandoned him. I have kids whose parents had passed away early and are being raised by grandparents. So, just to know there’s these varying levels of young men … and they’ve found their support system and to be able to help them navigate through the different parts of their lives, it’s just been awesome for me. I haven’t had that experience as much with my girls, but I’m starting to get some of those experiences. It is a place where I can hide a little bit from the world and to have that immediate success and gratification that you don’t get in the work right now that is long-term and takes time. It just gives me a balance of some hugs and some wins and to watch them grow up and that’s just been huge for me.
DY: What advice would you give to young emerging leaders, people who are trying to find a calling or really do good work in the world as a leader?
WGE: Sounds cliché, but I would say follow your heart and your passion. I think you have to be driven by your own motivation to do well in the way that you see. It’s important to be you … Really trying to understand why you are here and what it is you are trying to do – big or small. It does not have to be huge. There is also this tension between, you know, “I need this $5 million grant to change early childhood for every kid.” It’s not about your grant portfolio. I think I’ve been even more impactful in this last line of work, working small versus trying to, again, work in a huge way, and I think it’s just as significant to do that.
Lastly… that it is hard and it’s supposed to be [laughing]. Because I thought the more I did it, it would get easier and I would understand it more. I’m actually understanding it less and it’s getting harder. But I’m in a better position to show up because I feel like I’m accepting who I am a little bit more than I was early on.
I don’t want people to think when you get in this work it’s going to get easier and it’s going to get routine. I think when you do your best work, it’s just layering and it’s getting harder and you go to deeper questions and you challenge your own thinking over and over again.
Adam Giorgi edited this interview.