From organizer to executive director

Juanita Lewis, executive director of Community Voices Heard.

Juanita Lewis, executive director of Community Voices Heard. Submitted

Juanita Lewis has had a long history with Community Voices Heard, an organization focused on advocating for low-income communities of color. Starting out as an organizer in the Hudson Valley, and then as a deputy director, Lewis has grown to understand the ins-and-outs of organizing and is now ready to tackle her role as the new executive director of the organization – and making it last for another 30 years.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What are some of the most memorable moments of your work thus far?

Oh wow. I've been at Community Voices Heard for 12 and a half years, there's just so many different things. The first one that comes to mind is our big electoral campaign that we had in Yonkers back in 2013. We supported a young woman, who was a first-time candidate, and decided to take on an incumbent who was super connected to the political establishment in Yonkers. We were one of the only two organizations that endorsed her. And not only did she win [but] those votes came out of public housing. 

The other proud moment is when we launched our Westchester People's Agenda that really encompassed concerns that local folks of color in Westchester were feeling, all the way from housing access to barriers to employment if you're formerly incarcerated to increased funding for afterschool programs. Not only did we win, we were able to get more funding than what we were asking for that first turn and got more funding added to the second run in the next year's budget. 

And then the last one is our Follow Black Women project. That was something that I'm super proud of, something that started under our current executive director. Starting from a conversation that we had on the phone, talking about this idea of being able to have a survey of Black women across New York state to ask them what their political concerns were and what that can actually build into. Beyond just the political agenda that says Black women, but being able to train and develop the next crop of Black women who want to be organizers or policy makers. 

How has your experience with different geographic areas, like the Hudson Valley, translated into working with the state as a whole – first as deputy director and now executive director?   

It's interesting because all of my work with Community Voices Heard has been in the Hudson Valley. We're looking at how those electeds relate to us in the region and how our members relate to the electeds in New York City. What we were seeing is the way that they related to us in the Hudson Valley and New York City was similar. There were definitely some electeds who were much more willing to work with us to hear and really work with us on policy changes and solutions. Then there were others that don't always take into account the voices of our membership. 

So now coming in as executive director, I have now the advantage of being able to sit and look at the whole field. So where do we really need to build in order to have that complete story of what's happening to low-income folks of color in the state. Now, being solely focused on being able to connect those dots, and then start to plow out and think through a strategy of how we reach our goal, is going to be exciting. 

How do you kind of imagine your previous experiences will inform your work as the new executive director?

I'm always going to be an organizer at heart so I just see being an executive director as an extension of that. I have to be able to listen deeply to people about what their concerns are and be able to put a plan together to move to action. 

The ability to walk and chew gum at the same time is definitely something that I've learned as an organizer and see that they'll be a handy skill as the upcoming executive director. But the thing that I'm going to be able to do more as an executive director that I wasn't always able to do as organizer is be able to take that step backwards and look at the whole picture. Because how I'll still be in the day-to-day work but differently. And so being able to step back, look at the whole picture and be able to connect those dots.

Also, I have the blessing and the curse of being at the organization for so long. So I know our membership, I know our history. Our two previous executive directors are still around and are super supportive of the organization and of my leadership, so that's wonderful.

What’s your vision for Community Voices Heard’s future?

The biggest priorities that I have right now, one is definitely supporting our organizing staff with the development and growth of our membership, and the creation and building of our upcoming campaigns, and making sure we have those resources to make that available.

Also, modernizing our technology. The thing that I would say COVID taught us is that we have to quickly pivot to being online and we weren't always used to being online. Not just being able to add resources to our membership so we can still connect with them, but for us to think about what are the best platforms that we need to use in order to communicate with our membership. What we're starting to do now and what I want to prioritize going into this next year is doing a full analysis of those tools in order to reach the optimal level of our work and connection with our membership.

And then really just thinking about this last piece around developing our strategic plan, what does the next five years look like at the organization. Part of the conversations that I'll be having are the beginning of that right to start to see what are one of the thoughts and feelings about the organizing landscape as a whole, where is Community Voices Heard in that landscape, where are there opportunity for us to really dig in on and how does that set us on a course for the next five years, All the way from additional expansion to continue to grow our financial support to staffing and things of that nature.

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