Gail Snowden
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Gail Snowden

Chief Executive Officer, Freedom House

When you look at how Gail Snowden grew up, you might not be surprised at all that she chose to dedicate her life to helping inner-city youths get the education they need for a chance at a better future. What might surprise you is the path that took her in that direction: banking.

Her grandparents moved from Virginia to the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston in the early 1900s. Because of his race, her grandfather was denied the opportunity to become a clerk at the Army base where he worked as a janitor—until the base commandant gave him a chance to prove himself. He rose to the rank of Colonel in the then-segregated Army.

Gail herself grew up in Roxbury, where her parents were strong community activists. Her father rode the bus with young students on the first day of Boston's busing crisis of the 1970s. Her mother worked for many years on the Boston School Committee to create an international high school, which was named for her just before she died: the Snowden International School.

And her parents had another important accomplishment as agents of change: in 1949, they founded Freedom House, a non-profit organization with a focus on supporting people through their educational careers, out of a desire to do something to transform their community.

Gail reports that, "through osmosis," she learned how her parents dealt with the political world, how they dealt with the local community, and what leadership meant. She even met civil rights leaders of the day, when Martin Luther King, Jr., and John F. Kennedy each visited Freedom House.

"It was an exhilarating way to grow up," Gail says. So, naturally, you would expect her to follow in her parents' footsteps, right? She did attend Harvard, where her mother was one of the first black students (at what was then Radcliffe). "But when it came time to go to college, I said, 'Enough of this social work! I'm going into banking!'" Gail laughs. "My parents were like, 'Oh my God, where did we go wrong?'"

Banking on personal values to make a difference in the inner city
Gail enjoyed a 36-year career in the banking industry—even finding a way to follow in her parents' footsteps by leveraging finance to make a difference for residents of the inner city. In 1995, when she became Board Chair for Freedom House, she was working for BankBoston, where, as she puts it, "I was convincing people that there was good business to be had in the inner city. I called myself a social worker in finance."

Her ambition was to create a branch network in a part of Boston where most banks weren't invested. "You had to be innovative, you had to treat it like a market segment and respect it like a market segment," she says. "At a time when things were tough for the bank, we were creating a bottom-line business—not a social welfare business—but a bottom-line business with a P&L, that showed that you could build a branch network and you could do lending responsibly."

The project began with seven branches in the Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan neighborhoods of Boston—the communities at the heart of Grand Circle Foundation's education initiative. The program grew until there were several hundred branches stretching from Boston to Harlem.

From the counting house to Freedom House
It was a background that has served Gail well at Freedom House. "My experience in the corporate world has been invaluable in bringing a new business discipline to the nonprofit world," she says. "I learned so much in the financial world, in terms of accounting, profitability, and creating and executing strategies, and that's a discipline I think is really needed in the nonprofit world, particularly around measuring results, and measuring and understanding your cost structure. All of that I think is as important as the mission and the work, because you can't do the work unless you've got a solid foundation."

Even so, Gail's transition to Freedom House was not what she initially expected. When the position of Executive Director became open, the Board initiated a search for a replacement. Given her lifelong familiarity with Freedom House and her position as Board Chair, Gail decided that, while the search was going on, it would be easier for her to take on the role rather than train an interim director. She quickly realized, however, that the professional skill set she had developed over the years was exactly what Freedom House needed. "Straightening out our cost structure, making tough decisions around which programs we were going to keep and which ones we were going to shed, working with the board to create a new strategy around college access and college success—those were skills I could bring to the table," she explains.

Educational building blocks: partnerships with colleges
For 63 years, Freedom House had responded to the critical needs of inner-city communities through its programming and through convening citizens around pressing social justice issues. While that has involved everything from block clean-up and urban renewal to education, the organization over the last 30 years or so has become laser-focused on educational issues and educational reform—issues with huge impact on Boston's high-risk communities. As Gail puts it, "Our programs are structured to help young people with the skills, navigational strategies, and support networks necessary to complete both high school and college."

Toward that end, Gail is focusing on scaling the program and building a capable leadership structure. Among the recent programs developed to encourage college success and college persistence is what Gail calls an "embedded model," developed in partnership with the University of Massachusetts Boston. "It's a model where we're part of the UMass staff," Gail explains. "We work very closely with them, we attend their meetings, and we have access to the system so we can quickly see what's going on with the students. It's really a holistic approach, where we're connecting students with campus support. What UMass values is that we're dealing with the social, emotional, non-academic barriers that get in the way of persistence, so it's a really wonderful partnership."

Using this model, Freedom House is building from its current base of 100 students to 650 students in the High School and College Programs by the year 2015. For that, the organization has launched an investment campaign to raise $2.5 million to support both the college program and newly piloted programs for high school students.

These are programs that help students like Elton, who moved to the U.S. while he was in high school and was automatically placed in an ESL program, despite his command of English. Nevertheless, Elton graduated high school and enrolled in Boston's Bunker Hill Community College, where he tested out of the ESL program, was on the honor roll, and gained a place on the soccer team—all while juggling his responsibilities as the father of a one-year-old son.

Then, partway into his first semester, he announced to his Freedom House mentor that he was dropping out of college. Subway fares were going up, and he no longer could afford the commute to school. "It's a huge barrier for a lot of students," says Kim Amyouny, the manager of Freedom Houses' PUSH program (Preparing Urban Students for Success in High School and Higher Education). The staff at Freedom House was able to find a discount that enabled him to return to school, where he earned straight As and his soccer team reached the championship. "If he wasn't connected to a program like ours, he wouldn't have been able to go back to school," Kim says.

And there's Amber, who, as a freshman at UMass Boston, is the first member of her family to go to college. Her family is struggling, however, as her sister battles cancer and her mother faces development issues. On the second day of school, Amber disclosed that her family was being evicted from their home and that there wasn't room for her with the aunt who would be providing a home to her mother and sister.

Freedom House worked with Amber to find housing for the family near the campus, and the new college freshman is so dedicated to being successful and setting a good example for her sister, she even showed up for class the day after a blizzard paralyzed Boston. "I'm sure if she wasn't connected to us, she would have fallen through the cracks," says Kim.

Partnering with the Foundation's Community Advisory Group
These are the kinds of stories that motivate not only Gail, but also her fellow members of Grand Circle Foundation's Community Advisory Group (CAG), a coalition of leaders from the Foundation and its long-term nonprofit partners in Boston. Though new to the group, Gail is excited to be working with community partners who share her interest in collegiate success. She especially sees a profitable connection with Bottom Line, an organization that not only to helps students get accepted into college, but also helps them succeed after they get in—just like Freedom House. "We feel we can be a partner to Bottom Line, because some of their students will go to community college and not a four-year school. So we really would love to work with Bottom Line on handling those students well who are not meeting their model but are perfect for us," Gail says.

Freedom House is particularly focused on Bunker Hill Community College because of an arrangement the two-year college has with UMass Boston to accept Bunker Hill graduates who wish to go on to get a four-year degree. "We're still committed to people getting a four-year college experience," Gail explains. "You don't have to recreate the wheel. You just have to figure out when and where you partner."

Investing in the community
Engaging the wider community—and especially parents—is central to Gail's vision for the future of her organization. Freedom House is building a new facility near its current location, and she hopes it will become an educational resource hub, or what she calls a "one-stop shop" for entrance exam tutoring, preparing for college, and more.

Through what Gail calls "communiversity," Freedom House is already partnering with UMass Boston to offer college-level courses to the community at large. That's because, to Gail, education isn't just an important anti-poverty tool, it's a community development tool, as well. As she puts it, "This explicit linkage between individual success and community development has driven our mission over the decades."

Characteristically, she brings it all back to her financial experience. "To me, it ties back to my work at the bank: you really need people wherever they are, whether they're living in the community or living someplace else, to remain connected to the issues that are impacting the lives of inner-city residents," she says. "The thing that has always distinguished Freedom House is connecting the individual back to the community. That way, an individual success story becomes a community success strategy. We're creating a cadre of future leaders."

A fitting thought from an exceptional Gutsy Leader.

Featured in our January/February 2013 E-Newsletter. Read the full issue here.