Interview with Amanda Parrish Block, Independent Civic & Social Organization Professional
Remember Tara – our authentic leader interview. Tara has an eye for connecting with great people – and has nominated Amanda Parrish Block as our next Inspiring Interview. Amanda has the heart of a servant and the drive of a powerful leader – making her an advocate for those who need it most.
WeInspireWe: Amanda, it is so great to meet you. Please, tell us a little about yourself.
Amanda Parrish Block: My name is Amanda Parrish Block and I founded an outreach initiative called GRACE, which stands for Giving and Receiving Assistance for our Community's Essentials.
I’m a community organizer, a connector, and a helper. I use my unique connecting skills to solve social problems in my community.
I left my job in marketing 15 years ago to become an advocate for street-homeless people in New York City, and ultimately created a service to help individuals access services and broaden their network of support that they wouldn't have otherwise.
GRACE is a service intended to fulfill any basic need within our community. It was founded on the idea that whatever need exists in our community can be filled within our community.
WIW: What gave you the vision to start this?
APB: I did a lot of volunteering after 9/11. And one of the things that I did, that provided me with the greatest joy, was volunteering at a soup kitchen.
One day, I was serving hot chocolate to some of the homeless men, and a gentleman asked me to sit down with him for a moment, and I did.
He asked me, “What do you do for a living?” And I said, “Oh, I do marketing communications and media relations.” And he said, “That sounds boring. You should use those same skills and help people like me.”
And a light went off in my head, like, “That's what I want to do! I want to help people!” Because, throughout my life, that's all I wanted to do — help people. But I got a “real” job and shifted away from that. My real job was not making me happy. It was not fulfilling me. And I realized those same skills really could be used to help others.
And I thought about it and talked about it with my husband. And he said, “If you have this idea, no one else can fulfill it but you. You are the only one who can actualize this vision. You need to go do that.”
And so, I found a willing partner in the Washington Square United Methodist Church, and they believed in my vision and gave me a platform and an office and the necessary supports.
I went into this venture thinking, “Okay, what if I forget what I already know and claim to know nothing?” I want these people that I'm trying to serve to teach me what they know. I'm going to be better at what I do if I understand what they understand, and then we can work from there.
So that's how I started. Eight years later I returned to Summit, which is my hometown, I did a lot of volunteer work as well. I joined the board of Bridges, an organization that works with street-homeless in New York City, and Newark, New Jersey, and in our home base of Summit.
And I kept asking community leaders, “Well, what about the families that are just on the verge?” And everyone would shush me. They would say, “No, no, no, that doesn't exist here. We need to focus on places far away from here, or a few towns over, or in the City. That's where the need is.” And I'd say, “I'm seeing things that don't make sense to me. Why aren't there more families at the pool that are receiving services? Where do kids go in the summertime if parents can't afford camp? What about meals during vacations? What happens on snow days?” All these different things that I would wonder about, and people would just quiet me, because that was not part of the discussion then.
And then, while working with the Junior League, I realized that the United Way conducted some really interesting studies on the ALICE population: Asset Limited, Income Constrained, and Employed people and families. And finally, I had the data to say, now let's dive a little bit deeper and find out who are the players here that can give us the information that we need.
We learned quite a few things. First of all, people, especially kids, are very worried about food security on snow days, during spring break, and during the month of August. And, in addition to being food insecure, we learned that nutrient-dense food was beyond people's budgets.
So, we started little pilot programs. First, we made meals for children who risked being hungry on snow days. We do that to this day. We now share that task with Bridges Outreach, where I served before I founded GRACE. And Bridges, of course has lots of meals to provide to homeless people that are handmade and filled with all kinds of nutritious things that anyone would want to eat. Bridges delivers those meals to the schools in the event of a snow day.
And then we launched April Groceries. Spring break is rarely on the same week twice and so people can be caught off guard. These extra expenses blindside people who are living paycheck-to-paycheck. School breaks can be extremely expensive with added childcare costs. If a family relies on school food-service, that's 10 extra meals that the parents have to find a way to provide.
And so, with the Junior League, we created the April Groceries project. It started with just one school, and now the program is in its third year and covers all the primary centers and elementary schools in Summit. And every family that is enrolled in free or reduced-price meals, breakfast or lunch, can receive a full bag of fresh and shelf-stable groceries.
WIW: That's amazing. As you evolved professionally and built this great organization, how did you decide what kind of leader you want to be?
APB: Growing up in this marvelous town, there were lots of really great role models, and one of whom founded Bridges Outreach, where I served as board chair. Her name is Ginger Worden, and she was the person who convinced me to attend my college alma mater.
Back in high school, she took me out to lunch and she sold me on Randolph-Macon Woman’s College. She asked me, “Who do you want to be? What's the type of person you want to be when you become an adult? When you graduate college, what is it that you envision?”
And I remember looking at her, so accomplished, and having really met this incredible need in the world. I thought, “I want to be like her! I want to go someplace that will enable me to blossom, help shape my worldview, and enable me to be a better leader.” So, it started there.
Then, the summer after my freshman year of college, I interned at the White House Office for Women's Issues and on the first day of orientation, they taught us that a good leader is someone who works with their team. We would never be asked to do something that our bosses wouldn't do themselves.
Also, a good leader anticipates their team’s needs, and all of the members of the team do the same. And if we work together, then that is how we succeed. This mentality extended even to how do we worked with other agencies and other offices, too.
Madeleine Albright was the Secretary of State at the time. A rallying cry we’d use when either someone would cooperate, or someone wouldn't cooperate at all: “There is a hot place in hell for women who don't help other women.”
The boys club then and the boys club now—The boys’ club is a very real thing. We were all women, and we had to be able to embrace each other's humanity. We were as friendly as officemates could be. The office culture enabled us to want the best for each other, and we wanted to see the best in each other. That philosophy helped me become a better leader.
Also, my boss, Mary Dixon, would motivate by acknowledging my good points. She would tell me that I'm unflappable, she would tell me that I'm resourceful. Then she'd give me some impossible task and expect me to do it with excellent results.
And I lead in a very similar way. I ask a lot of the people around me, even if they're volunteers. I am there to tell them, “Oh, you are an excellent problem solver.” Or, “You understand the best qualities that people have. Can you create a team for us to achieve X, Y, and Z?” I manage people the exact way that I was managed when I was 18. I do so because we all succeed when the individuals on our team thrive.
WIW: It's incredible that you learned all this at such a young age, too. What other thoughts or tips do you have for women as they're thinking about their leadership style and how they could grow and develop?
APB: Well, first, if she is not in an official leadership position already, with the actual title, she should remember that she is a leader. And she should act as if she can still shape the culture where she is. If she is working with someone whose leadership style doesn't work with the team or is somehow divisive, she should use that as an example of what they don't want to be, which can be just as helpful when she becomes a leader.
Look for mentors. My family called it “finding your Rabbi.” You find that person that you can tell all your work triumphs and challenges to, someone who can help you progress. A Rabbi is someone who can help you see above the chaos and who can help you find opportunities for development, find your path to actualization.
These opportunities for development and advancement might not exist exactly where you are but there are opportunities within your sphere. It doesn't have to be at your company. It might be through a volunteer opportunity. There might be another organization that you're a part of, like your church, or your college alumni organization. The opportunity may exist within your friend group.
I also have a little mantra of personal empowerment that I would love to share.
A - Attitude: attitude shapes perspective, perspective shapes experience. Optimism can be a superpower; it helps us to see the good in every situation and in all people and embrace possibilities.
E - Effort: that optimism has to be paired with actionable strategy and tactics. I try to put my backbone in the place of my wishbone. Effort may not be the biggest predictor of results, but it will make or break any initiative. In addition, a leader must be willing to do anything she asks of her team. She must be willing to lead from the front or from the back. No person is too important for a task.
I - Imagination: dream big and there are times that the impossible will happen. What would happen if we reached for our imaginations as many times a day as we reach for our phones? How would our thinking, or problem solving, change if we exercise our mental faculties? A key component in problem solving is imagination. The willingness to embrace an extraordinary idea, even momentarily, is how progress begins.
O - Openness: are you game to new thinking, new processes, new people? If we do what we’ve always done, we will get what we’ve always gotten. In addition, listen to criticism. Receive all feedback, and do not let any negativity poison you, let it shape your goals. Figure out a way to say yes to the people and institutions that are important to you and let them help you grow.
U - Understanding: it is important to seek to understand before we are understood. To be an authority on a subject, we must absorb information, ask good questions, and continue to refine our understanding and our procedures. This path, this life, is a process, not a point. If we continue to shape our understanding, we can stay with the ever-changing times.
WIW: Wow! Thank you so much. One last question for you. With the spirit of giving back in mind, is there anything that WeInspireWe readers can do to help support you, or groups that they can be involved in in their local area?
APB: You are all the experts in your experience and if you keep your eyes open, you will see where it is in the world where you can contribute. Trust your observations to figure out where you fit. If you notice a problem, chances are very good that you are uniquely positioned to solve it. Whether at your company or in your community, you have that ability, even if you need other people to help you realize the solution.
In terms of helping the things that I work on, if food security is something of interest, or if you're interested in just some good hands-on volunteerism, I strongly recommend that people look to Feeding America, which manages an incredible network of food banks.
If you are looking for a network, the Junior League is the vanguard for women to do meaningful volunteer work with like-minded people while they grow into the people they aspire to be. The Junior League is a training organization. The Junior League prepares their volunteers, all of whom are women, for whatever role it is that they take within the organization and in the community. This training and this environment of positive encouragement enables women to blossom personally and professionally.
When you look at Amanda’s history and where she is today – the one common denominator is never giving up. She has worked tirelessly to create her vision and connect to her passion – and has reaped the fruits of her labor. She has navigated political waters, marketing jobs, built non-profit organizations and has fed and met the basic needs of thousands of people. Amanda is unwavering in her desire to do more, be more, give more. Amanda never gives up.