Carl R. Lavender Jr. joined the staff of the Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg in 2018. He served as the senior director of programs and then our chief equity officer before taking the reins as interim co-CEO last summer. Barbara Green, who serves as communications manager for the Foundation, recently sat down with Carl to learn about his history in nonprofits, his belief in mentorship and in the importance of professionalizing one’s calling, and his plans for the future.
So let’s start at the beginning professionally. How did you get started in the nonprofit world?
I’ve spent 48 years in nonprofits. My father was an evangelical pastor, and our home was the gathering place for all kinds of people, ministry, and support. I just came to be a part of that energy, and it’s carried with me throughout my life. In childhood, I was imprinted by my father’s passion and commitment to community. That was the moment, the time, when I knew I wanted to do this also, following in his footsteps in terms of being in service to community, in service to people, to change. I found a calling that eventually became a profession and here we are 48 years later.
What did you do when you first started?
When I first started, it was community youth, it was serving the elderly, it was public housing – families in distress, in severe circumstances. I started in Cleveland, Ohio, then in Columbus, Ohio, and then on to Chicago where I truly cut my teeth on my calling and my profession. I learned to be a professional in Chicago. It was too big of a city, there was far too much for a young man out of Columbus, Ohio, to tackle in a calling. You had to know how to scale.
Can you say more about having a profession vs. a calling?
I was married then divorced. My children were growing up. My calling had to become a profession to satisfy the demands of being a father, a big brother, the eldest in my family. I swallowed my calling pride and said to myself it was time to be a professional, and Chicago was the place. My mentor at the time was a very powerful leader in community organizing and he said, you’ve got to go to Chicago and learn your profession.
So you did.
Yes, I applied for a job as a club director with the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boys and Girls Club on the west side of Chicago. It was a true learning curve, and I had to adapt right away or I wouldn’t have survived. I learned to put my smile away for a while and be far more studied in how to survive in the big city. Truly, truly, truly, I will always love Chicago. It was there that I realized I could do more than just show compassion, although that’s important. I learned I could compete; I could raise money; people were drawn to my personal brand. I could captivate an audience and sell an idea to diverse audiences and systems leaders on behalf of a nonprofit.
What was the impact of that lesson?
I was part of the team that had the Michael Jordan account and built the James R. Jordan Boys and Girls Club and Family Life Center. In the movement of Boys and Girls Clubs, it became a model of how to raise money from a celebrity and how to add family life centers to a club. When you staff a project like that, at the end you’re mentally, emotionally, and spiritually exhausted. So at the end I felt like, okay, now what am I going to do with my career?
I’ve always believed in the power of mentors. And my mentors said, you need to scale back and then you need to move into a chief leadership position. So I came to Pinellas County to be the executive director of the Boys and Girls Clubs here, and I was there for 10 years.
It seems like you were very intentional with your career and your choices.
I’m a praying person, a person of faith. But I also believe in setting up my plan, working my plan, evaluating my plan, and determining the next best steps to make. And I believe in having mentors who I can bounce these things off of, people who love me and trust me, from whom I can get advice and counsel. I’m a firm believer in that.
I had a mentor say to me years ago that there are two abilities for effective leadership: number one, knowing how to pick good people, and number two, knowing when to move on. Those two things have framed a lot of my professional choices.
How have you gotten the mentors that you’ve had? Did you seek them out or did they seek you out?
It was a combination. In Chicago, I was assigned the task of raising money from the Cook County corporate sector. I wasn’t really the corporate type, but I wanted to be successful, so I watched the news, I read the papers. I would go to the business section and circle the names of movers and shakers, and then I’d look for connections to them. Sometimes I’d cold call them and try to schedule lunches. I learned that people enjoy talking about themselves to someone who is genuinely interested. I met some very powerful people that way who gave me advice and counsel on how to navigate corporate Cook County.
What did you think when you first arrived in St. Petersburg?
I had to reengineer myself here. I’m an African American in a majority white southern city that at that time was not accustomed to someone like me coming off Michigan Avenue. I came from high rise corporate executive suites to these laid-back plazas. It was quite an adaptation. I would wear my suits and my ties and carry my briefcase and people would look at me like, what? I began to ask around, follow leads. I relaxed more. I took off my tie, changed my shoes. I wanted to fit in, I wanted to raise money. I will say that I learned racial equity more deeply in my experience as a CEO of the Boys and Girls club than I had in Chicago.
Can you say more about that?
Confederate southern traditions had in so many ways hindered Black professionals from scaling their competencies into the C-suites of companies here. I realized early on I was often the only Black person in meetings. I was told by one white woman I was the first ‘colored person’ in her house ever. I remember she said, ‘not even my help has been colored.’ And there’s this moment – do I speak for the race? Do I speak for myself? No, I can’t. I’ve got to raise payroll. That experience was so powerful. Going home that night, I was stopped by a police officer. He told me that my car fit the description from a rash of break-ins. It was a reminder to me, someone saying here’s how I see you, and I won’t forget that.
What did you do?
It was a wake-up call. I went home thinking I wasn’t sure I wanted to be here. But then I said, Carl, you’ve got to figure this out. I reached out to some key Black leaders in St. Petersburg. I made some very dear friends, got some assurances, got some hugs, some love, some soul food, some soul light, some soul wisdom. And I said, okay, Carl, begin to adapt and move forward. I survived from that patrol car moment for another eight years through the recession, through the Obama election, and then to my retirement from the Boys and Girls club and life after that.
You retired – but that doesn’t mean you stopped working or being involved. What did you do after retiring that first time?
I had begun to get fatigued. I was so tired that I suffered a mild heart attack and had to have a pacemaker put in, which gave me a new lease on life. It wasn’t my diet or exercise; my cardiologist said it was a birth defect. But it was a wake-up call from God to step away from the vigor and the demands, to try to slow my life down, so I retired. I consulted on some projects, served as a marketing director for technical colleges. Then I came to the Foundation.
What brought you here?
I was recruited. I said no at first, told them to ask me again in a year. When they called me back a year later, I accepted. And I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunity. I’ve been here five years now.
What are you most proud of about your time here?
I’m most proud of the Center for Health Equity. The board made a significant investment to build that out. That the city of St. Petersburg can have a destination for conversations, debate, struggle, laughter, tears around racial equity, around race and gender equity is to me a powerful addition to our city’s inventory for a strong, focused cultural expression. Our downtown museums are fabulous but neighborhood spaces are woefully under resourced and don’t have a destination for people. Now with a place like the Center, you can establish a truly well thought out destination.
I am also most proud of being appointed by our Board of Trustees chair to serve as interim co-CEO for the past year (with Carol Martin Brown). For my children and for the community that loves me and believes in me, to see that in my career trajectory is really very important to me. To have young people see me and say to themselves, I can do that, is important to me. It’s not ego. It’s efficacy around administration, and what that means to black and brown people when so often we are not scaled to this level. The percentage of administrators of color in philanthropy across this country is so abysmal that it’s disturbing. I had a first in Columbus, a first in Chicago, a first here: in 100 years of Pinellas County history, to be the first Black chief executive officer of a philanthropy is an accomplishment I’m very proud of.
You mentioned the importance of having young children see someone like you in a leadership role like this. Can you say more about the importance of seeing people who look like you in positions you might want to have one day?
There are moments of inspiration that come with clarification. You look at the role of a leader – whether it’s classroom teacher, principal, pastor, administrator. There are people who listen to you speak to find clarity on something that’s perplexing them in their own lives. You’re seeking clarity, and most of the time, you will get that clarity from a person who looks like you, whether it’s your priest, your rabbi, your doctor, or your lawyer who looks like you. You receive clarity, you feel inspired by it, you move on with your life. What about the person who says, I want to hear from someone who looks like me – and doesn’t have that person?
A person who looks like you, or from your community, might be able to say, hold on, let’s have a real soulful conversation about where you are because I have lived experience. Possibilities open up. Often times, Black children in particular in public life, k-12, post-secondary, don’t have a lot of that. It’s the same for Black professionals. Growing up in my profession and in my life, many of my mentors were white men and white woman. I used to think to myself, they give me good advice, and I look forward to being the person that could talk to me. That I can now give that type of advice to people as a Black man, and that I have done so in the latter part of my life, I’m very proud of that.
Last question. What’s up next for you?
I’m coming out of the day-to-day grind. I want to move from marquee life, from starring life, to supporting cast. I’m ready for that. But I’ll still be here. I live in the CRA (Community Redevelopment Area). This is my community. And I’ll be around one day a week until December as a senior advisor to the Foundation. I’m here to help if I’m needed. And I’m so pleased I’ve been able to help hold down the fort until Dr. Kanika Tomalin gets here next month. She’s a phenom — one of the best in the country. So we’re in good hands.