As WRAG President, Tamara Copeland (’04) is the organization’s primary thought leader, helping to envision and implement work that meets the needs of the sector and of the region.
She came to WRAG with extensive experience in nonprofit management, policy and children’s issues as well as having been Congressman Bobby Scott’s (D-VA) Legislative Director. In 2017, Tamara was appointed as the Visiting Nielsen Fellow at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy to explore the role of philanthropy in addressing racial equity in the DC region and co-teach a graduate seminar on philanthropy and racial justice.
Can you give us some background or insight into your personal leadership path – including your sources of inspiration and most important lessons learned?
I started my career as a foster care caseworker in Richmond, Virginia right out of college. I was not much older than many of the young people on my caseload and completely unprepared to provide them, their biological parents or their foster parents with the guidance and support they needed. All that was required to be eligible for this position was a college degree. That direct service experience shaped my understanding of social justice and my awareness of social injustice and led me to a public policy/community organizing focus in graduate school. Following graduate school, I worked in state government in Virginia in both mental health and child advocacy. A move to Washington honed my professional direction. I was a child advocate. I worked as an infant mortality prevention advocate with governors and state legislators in the South, focused on advocacy for school-based health care, worked for a Member of Congress who was an avid child advocate and ultimately led a national child advocacy organization before coming to the Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers (WRAG). My most important lesson learned is to speak out. We must use the platforms that we have to gain visibility for problems and to work toward change. We can’t wait for change. We truly do have to be the change that we want to see in the world.
How did you first become involved with Leadership Greater Washington and the Signature Program?
Ironically, I was working for a national organization, Voices for America’s Children, when the head of our DC organization recommended me for the program. I say ironically because I have always commented on the three parallel universes in the Greater Washington region – local, national and international. These communities rarely interact; so, I knew very little of the local Washington region. LGW opened my eyes to the region, both geographically and to the plethora of programs and opportunities here.
How would you describe LGW - the alumni, leadership, staff, and overall mission of the organization?
When I went through LGW in 2004, I would have described it as a networking organization. I feel that LGW was the most powerful networking organization of which I have ever been a member. You learned about individuals as people before ever learning about them as representatives of the organizations for which they worked. I loved that. I connected with the members of my mindtrust and with the other members of my class with depth and with an immediacy that I had not experienced before.
Now I would describe LGW as an evolving action network. It is educating members more deeply on issues challenging the region. That understanding is leading to actions to address regional problems.
Can you describe an extraordinary LGW Moment from your experience - a connection you made, something you pursued because of LGW, or a distinctive memory?
Oh, I could describe many special moments. About twelve or so of my 2004 classmates remain in touch. We talk, email and regularly gather in the region at members’ homes, at restaurants or for theater outings. So far, we have spent time at members’ second homes along the Chesapeake Bay. We’ve had beach time in Delaware and on the Outer Banks in North Carolina. And, we’ve traveled as a group to Jamaica, Portugal and to Spain. Too many memories are rushing in for just one to surface. So, let me just say that my LGW experience was life-changing. I have lifelong friends whom I would never have met.
How do you envision the future of the region? What about LGW’s role in that future?
I hope that the Greater Washington region will become more of a cohesive region with far less intra-regional competition. Greater Washington should be competing against Miami, Philadelphia or Chicago, not Fairfax County against Prince George’s County. We are too porous a region with people having significant interaction/roots across the region. When one part of the region succeeds, we all succeed – jobs, affordable housing, entertainment, etc. Relative to the role of LGW in the future of the region, that is a tough question. With all of the influential leaders who are members of LGW, it is difficult to imagine significant change without LGW members playing a part. While I do believe that members will be critical to any change occurring in the region, the difficulty will come with LGW as an organization adopting a specific position. For example, while we might all agree that affordable housing is needed in our region, we are less likely to agree on the strategy to make that happen. The devil truly is in the details. I hope that LGW will continue its current path of coupling its traditional niche of networking with its new focus on impacting regional issues. I just don’t see a clear path for moving beyond education to collaborative action. That being said, I believe that the educational component is a vital role for LGW to help members more clearly see the need, so they can take action as influential leaders in the region.
How do your efforts and leadership at your current organization impact the future of the Greater Washington region?
Right now, at WRAG, we have two organizational priorities: affordable housing and racial equity. Demographers and economists across the region have suggested that the growth of the region will far surpass the available housing, especially housing to meet the breadth of financial realities for families. WRAG has made a commitment to working to preserve and produce affordable housing units. Currently, through a loan fund established through Enterprise Community Loan Fund, five projects are underway, one in Northern Virginia, three in DC and one in suburban Maryland. We are proud of that work, but we want to do more. Our current efforts focus on rental units. For the future, we are exploring what role philanthropy might play in producing and preserving homes for purchase at an affordable price. Another issue facing the region and our country is racial inequity. When we look at statistics about college entrance and graduation rates, home ownership, business ownership and a host of other variables that suggest having achieved the American dream, people of color rank lowest. Since 2015, organizationally, WRAG has been undertaking a broad body of work under the header “Putting Racism on the Table.” The focus has not been on personal animus, but on the structures, that inequitably advantage or disadvantage one group over others based on race. We believe that the depth, breadth, and impact of racism is not known and that through knowledge gain, individuals in positions of influence collectively will work toward the change that is needed to create a racially equitable region.
Tell us more about the upcoming Thought Leadership Series: Expanding the Table for Racial Equity.
Expanding the Table for Racial Equity is an effort to broaden the pool of leaders knowledgeable about issues of racial equity/inequity and primed to act both collectively and individually to effect change in our region. Over six months, a combined group of LGW members, members of the local philanthropic community and social profit (nonprofit) leaders will first learn how to co-create a safe space in which they can discuss a topic that has proven difficult for us to talk about as a society for decades. Then we will explore structural racism; white privilege; how to identify and prevent implicit bias; the role of government in advancing racial equity; and, finally, how to build a regional, multi-ethnic movement for racial equity. All of this education is intended to move a core group of leaders toward planning and leading a 2019 Summit on Race and Racial Equity in the Greater Washington Region. We want to define what a racially equitable region would look like and then act to make that vision a reality.
In what ways has LGW been able to shape the region since you joined?
LGW has created and cemented connective tissue among people from different sectors and across the multiple jurisdictions in our region. The change and progress that has occurred because of an LGW connection will probably never be fully captured. That lack of evaluation data should not minimize the untold significance of this organization as an agent for change.
What do you love most about your LGW Class? Class of 2004.
The cohesion. They’ve got my back, and I’ve got theirs. We’re a unit. We’re truly friends.
What are some of your tips for success?
• Recognize the strengths of your team, build on those, and let your staff shine.
• Don’t sit back and watch injustice, do something. We each have a platform. Use it.
• Follow your gut. It’s usually right.
• Be a lifelong learner and recognize the multiple people who can be your teachers.
• Don’t be too rigid in your plans. Flexibility is needed to adapt to reality.
• Don’t be afraid to fail.
• Always have balance in your life. Enjoy your friends. Spend time with your family.
Please tell us something most people might not know about you.
Gosh, I think I’m an open book. I share a lot about me through A Voice from Philanthropy, my professional blog that appears in the Daily WRAG, WRAG’s daily electronic newsletter. In it, I often use my family, my hobbies, my readings, and my friends as frames for how I see issues facing the field of philanthropy. However, if you want a small glimpse beyond that, check out my personal blog, www.daughtersofthedream.org. Through that vehicle, I chronicle my life’s experiences and those of seven women whom I met in the first grade in a segregated, elementary school in segregated Richmond, Virginia, my hometown. Our friendship is shared, within the context of the civil rights movement, from its beginning through the challenges that continue to face us as adults today because of the color of our skin.