‘Of Dreams and Mountaintops’ Interview with Decker Ngongang

BPM LOGO (FINAL)BPM 2013 | Of Dreams and Mountaintops

In observance of Black Philanthropy Month, interviews in this series feature African Americans engaged in multiple facets of philanthropy and focus on interests and concerns, 50 years after Dr. King’s iconic “I Have A Dream” speech.

DECKER NGONGANG
Senior Associate, Black Male Achievement Fellowship Program, Echoing Green

IMG_4478_Decker

HOMETOWN: Charlotte, NC

YEARS AS A CHARLOTTEAN: 1981 – 1999, then from 2003 – 2008

EDUCATION: NC State University, BA Law and Political Philosophy

PREVIOUS POSITIONS: Compliance and Operational Risk Manager, Corporate Investments, Bank of America; Executive Director, Generation Engage; VP of Programs, Mobilize.org; Director of Community Engagement, Communities for Teaching Excellence (Project of the Gates Foundation); Senior Associate, Echoing Green

PHILANTHROPIC INVOLVEMENT: Currently I work for Echoing Green, which provides seed support to a diverse group of emerging social entrepreneurs every year. Specifically I manage the search, selection and support of the Black Male Achievement Fellowship Program.

BLACK PHILANTHROPY IS . . . Required

Q&A

What is your first memory of generosity?

My mothers family; with nine aunts and uncles I grew up knowing a communal family where everything was rooted in common benefit. I just remember whenever there was a problem it was like an episode of House where we all chipped in to think about a solution. As a kid, it’s not too fun but when you get older you appreciate how important this support is both emotionally and for your confidence.

How does that memory influence your philanthropy and your work in philanthropy?

I think about the changing nature of family life and the need to ensure there is a village of support for young people to be able to think and dream with confidence. I didn’t mind taking risks because I knew I had a support system to both protect me but also hold me accountable. I think about the role of philanthropy as risk capital to influence the innovation and creative thinking of solution makers to know they will be held accountable while also be supported in their work and life.

Tell us about Echoing Green—its history, mission and program of work.

Echoing Green (EG) is a nonprofit global social venture fund that identifies, invests in, and supports some of the world’s best emerging social entrepreneurs—society’s change agents.

Echoing Green invests deeply in these next generation change agents as well as works to create an ecosystem around them that supports and celebrates social innovation as a high-impact strategy for social change.

Since our founding in 1987 by General Atlantic, a leading private equity firm, Echoing Green has provided more than 520 emerging social entrepreneurs working in forty-nine countries with $31 million in start-up funding, customized technical and other support services, and access to our global network of champions.

What can you share about the emergence of the field of Black Male Achievement? And what’s your current work in the field?

I am proud to support the Open Society Black Male Achievement Fellowship at Echoing Green. Established in 2011, in partnership with the Open Society Foundations Campaign for Black Male Achievement, the OSF Black Male Achievement Fellowship is the first fellowship of its kind targeting new and innovative organizations dedicated to improving the life outcomes of Black men and boys in the U.S.

The 18-month fellowship offers $70,000 in seed funding, mentoring and support from Echoing Green staff and experts, skills-building conferences and access to our global network of Fellows.  With Fellows participating in both Open Society Foundations and Echoing Green activities and convenings, they are solidifying their permanent place in the network as Fellows and eventually as alumni.

What aspects of the philanthropic realm or “third sector” drew you from your initial career in banking? And what keeps in this sector?

I was on the board of a non-profit in Charlotte when I realized my personality and skills were suited for the types of organizations I interacted with during my civic involvement and at 25 years old, I feared never having an opportunity to see if I could be impactful in this sector.

In 2007 when I left I immediately missed the intangibles of working at a large corporation—the systems, processes, and access to a knowledge-sharing infrastructure. What people also don’t think about with corporate spaces is the level of inclusive meritocracy. In philanthropy and non-profits so much is based on relationships and networks that it can be frustrating navigating the sector. In the six-plus years I have been in this sector, I see some of this changing with the increased dialogue about impact but it is still a challenge.

A share of your work has focused on Millennials and your generation’s philanthropy and civic engagement. What have you experienced and learned that could benefit other Millennials as well as other generations?

Don’t disqualify your potential role in solution making but also don’t assume your age makes you smarter. We went very quickly from saying young people are dumb and naïve to all the sudden referencing Facebook and assuming young people have all the answers. Like with many things in life, the answer is in the middle. Millennials have unique skills and perspective due to their proximity and relationship with new technologies but there is also vital context and knowledge that comes with experience and scenario testing. All of this poses new challenges but also opportunities that will require we are intentional about building the necessary nuance into the public conversations being convened by people like foundations and corporations.

What are some of your thoughts on where America stands 50 years after Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech?

I feel like we should stop calling it a speech but reference it as a strategic plan. I like to think of it that way because it provided a pretty clear framework for how we should order society and how we should hold our democracy accountable—many tactics we have ignored (many of them here in NC).

When it comes to society or our community, what is your “dream” or aspiration?

I think about my family and how we don’t always get along and we don’t always solve everyone’s problems but there is a prevailing sense of togetherness. It doesn’t get rid of drama or get rid of hurt feelings but there is a deep and almost innate sense of “we are all in this together” and we hold ourselves accountable to that. It isn’t a political philosophy but more something that seems natural in that it allows our senses to work on as blank a canvas as possible. I aspire to provide for “my sense of community” as blank a canvas as possible. When I started out in non-profits, I worked on Central Piedmont Community College’s campus where so many young people took extra time out of their day and found ways to push through the challenges and distractions in their lives to come talk about how to get involved in their community. I imagine how many of these young people couldn’t participate because of things out of their control that were in the way. I aspire to live in a society that sees our role as getting as much out of the way of these young, brilliant community members as possible.

In terms of your philanthropic endeavors, what’s your “mountaintop” or highest achievement to date?

Seeing some of the first students I worked with at Central Piedmont Community College doing amazing things and paying it forward. They are so smart, thoughtful and driven and will do so much more than I could dream of—because they have lived it.

Name a book that has shaped your philanthropy?

Lies My Teacher Told Me, by James W. Loewen (2007)

How can readers with an interest in Black Male Achievement help advance this expanding field of work?

Visit the Open Society Foundation, Campaign for Black Male Achievement site: http://www.opensocietyfoundations.org/topics/black-male-achievement and the Echoing Green Black Male Achievement Fellowship page: www.echoinggreen.org/bma

Please leave us with a favorite quote that characterizes an aspect of your philanthropy.

Some (insert young, marginalized, etc) people suffer not from a lack of interest but from a lack of access. — Decker Ngongang (It’s a mantra I used when I worked in Charlotte.)

***

BPM SPACE 1Nearly a dozen interviews compose the series “Of Dreams and Mountaintops” and are slated for multiple media outlets including: Charlotte Viewpoint,Collective InfluenceMosaic Magazine,QCityMetro.com, The Charlotte Post (print version) and thecharlottepost.com. To get connected and involved in BPM 2013 during August and beyond, visit BlackPhilanthropyMonth.com and follow the hashtag #BPM2013 on social media. 

About Valaida Fullwood

Described an “idea whisperer,” Valaida brings unbridled imagination and a gift for harnessing wild ideas to her work as a writer and project strategist. She is author ofGiving Back: A Tribute to Generations of African American Philanthropists. Follow at valaida.com, @ValaidaF and @BlkGivesBackCLT.

‘Of Dreams and Mountaintops’ Interview with Men Tchaas Ari

BPM LOGO (FINAL)BPM 2013 | Of Dreams and Mountaintops

In observance of Black Philanthropy Month, interviews in this series feature African Americans engaged in multiple facets of philanthropy and focus on interests and concerns, 50 years after Dr. King’s iconic “I Have A Dream” speech.

MEN TCHAAS ARI
Chief Program Officer, Crisis Assistance Ministry

Men Tchaas Ari | Photography by Charles W. Thomas, Jr.

Men Tchaas Ari | Photography by Charles W. Thomas, Jr.

HOMETOWN: Bloomfield, Ct

YEARS AS A CHARLOTTEAN: 17 years

EDUCATION: BA, Morehouse College

PREVIOUS POSITIONS: Various at Mecklenburg County DSS

PHILANTHROPIC INVOLVEMENT: Currently a Mentor for the Y Achievers Program.

BLACK PHILANTHROPY IS . . . The key to eradicating poverty and all of the other ills plaguing the African American community.

Q&A

What is your first memory of generosity?

When I was a small child, I can remember accompanying my mother, once a week to visit Ms. Shepard.  Ms. Shepard was an elderly blind woman, who had no family in the area.  My mom made it a priority to look after her and to get her out of the house.  During these weekly visits we’d often venture to the local grocery store.  As I grew older, and got used to accompanying my mom on these visits, it became my responsibility to navigate Ms. Shepard through the aisles of the grocery store.

How does that memory influence your philanthropy and your work in the field of philanthropy?

It instilled in me the commitment to help those less fortunate than me.  It also taught me to value the gift of time.  When people think of philanthropy, they often think of making a financial contribution.  Observing my mother’s gift of time to Ms. Shepard, long ago, reminds me of how precious the gift of time really is.

What can you share about the history, mission and services of Crisis Assistance Ministry? 

Crisis Assistance Ministry was created in 1975 as a place of financial recovery for families in urgent financial crisis.  Its mission is to provide assistance and advocacy for people in financial crisis, helping them move toward self-sufficiency.

Tell us about your work and responsibilities at Crisis Assistance Ministry.

As the Chief Program Officer, I am responsible for developing, planning and directing the operations of all client programs.  It is my responsibility to ensure that the provision of services is done in a manner that is dignified and in accordance with our goal of helping customers reach financial stability.

Why and how did you become involved in this field of work?

Sixteen years ago I started working at DSS as a bilingual Case Manager.  It was through that role that I learned the importance of having a safety net in the community.  I also learned first hand how systems could help or hinder someone getting back on their feet.  Some sixteen years later I am still committed to building systems that will help people become self-sufficient.

What are some of the issues and challenges that Crisis Assistance Ministry is focused on addressing in 2013? Are there trends or patterns that you’ve observed of late?

The customers that we serve were the first to feel the effects of the Great Recession and they will probably be the last to feel the recovery.  It doesn’t help that our state has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country and has just made significant cuts to unemployment benefits. Two years ago Crisis Assistance Ministry underwent a strategic planning process to ensure that its services focused on helping people reach financial stability.  A direct result of that planning has caused us to focus on building strategic partnerships with other organizations working to  help customers become stable.  Through these partnerships we are able to expand our reach into the community and help more persons become financially stable.

What are some of your thoughts on where America stands 50 years after Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech? 

It seems that the racial barriers that divided  our country 50 years ago have been replaced with socio-economic/class barriers.

When it comes to society or our community, what is your “dream” or aspiration? 

According to a 2012 Nielsen study, African American’s annual buying power will reach one trillion dollars in 2015.  My dream is for that money to circulate in the African American community a few times.  This would stimulate the economy in our community and improve its infrastructure.  My ultimate goal would be for African Americans to collectively invest a mere 1 percent of that (i.e. $10B) annually.  From this collective pool we would be able to address many of the ills in our community and, ultimately, the ills of the world at large.

In terms of your philanthropic endeavors, what’s your “mountaintop” or highest achievement to date?

I would have to say that it is giving of my time to teens in the Y Achievers mentoring program.  This program focuses on curtailing the drop out rate at three local high schools.  This year, all of the high school seniors that participated in the program graduated from high school.

Name a book that has shaped your philanthropy?

Negro with a Hat: The Rise and Fall of Marcus Garvey, by Colin Grant (2010)

How can readers play a part in addressing the critical needs of people struggling with limited resources? 

I encourage them to find a cause that is dear to them and make a contribution of their time, talent and treasure.  I would also encourage them to find opportunities to formally and/or informally mentor someone less fortunate than them.  Studies have shown that the key to getting out of poverty, is to have significant interactions with someone who is not living in poverty.

Please leave us with a favorite quote that characterizes an aspect of your philanthropy. 

Charity is no substitute for justice withheld. — St. Augustine

***

BPM SPACE 1Nearly a dozen interviews compose the series “Of Dreams and Mountaintops” and are slated for multiple media outlets including: Charlotte Viewpoint, Collective Influence, Mosaic Magazine, QCityMetro.com, The Charlotte Post (print version) and thecharlottepost.com. To get connected and involved in BPM 2013 during August and beyond, visit BlackPhilanthropyMonth.com and follow the hashtag #BPM2013 on social media. 

About Valaida Fullwood

Described an “idea whisperer,” Valaida brings unbridled imagination and a gift for harnessing wild ideas to her work as a writer and project strategist. She is author of Giving Back: A Tribute to Generations of African American Philanthropists. Follow at valaida.com, @ValaidaF and @BlkGivesBackCLT.