‘Black institution at risk’ story mischaracterized 180 Degrees, Inc.

By Richard J. Gardell
and Sarah Walker
Guest Commentators

The article published on June 30 by Vickie Evans-Nash, “Is another local Black institution at risk?” presented a picture of 180 Degrees, Inc. that is both inaccurate and a disservice to the many African Americans within the organization. 180 Degrees, Inc. supports and values the role of African American institutions in Minnesota and has a long history of partnering with these agencies, supporting their efforts and working collaboratively on policy solutions that reduce racial disparities.

In March of 2011, 180 Degrees, Inc.’s CEO, Richard Gardell, received a phone call from [Lissa] Jones and [Freddie Davis] English requesting that he stop by a local restaurant for an informal discussion. Gardell responded to the invitation from Jones and English and met with them.

At this meeting Jones informed Gardell that she was leaving African American Family Services. The primary purpose of this discussion was to seek guidance about transition and succession planning from Gardell, who five years earlier had overseen a similar transition as he joined 180 Degrees, Inc.

The conversation covered a range of possibilities for the leadership of African American Family Services to consider. But, primarily the discussion focused on how to ensure smooth transition and provide for long-term success of African American Family Services. Naturally, in the current economic environment, mergers, strategic alliances, sharing infrastructure and back-room processes were discussed along with more traditional executive replacement strategies.

This informal discussion was the only time any such processes were discussed. There have never been any formal discussions regarding enhancing the partnerships between 180 Degrees, Inc. and African American Family Services. In fact, there has been no follow-up to that brief talk in the restaurant.

It was both a disappointment and a surprise to read that Jones says that her decision to leave her position was a protest against a possible merger. It is disappointing given a long and positive relationship with both Jones and African American Family Services, and it was surprising because Jones had already informed the board of African American Family Services of her impending departure prior to any meeting with 180 Degrees, Inc.

The article also characterized 180 Degrees, Inc. as having a limited range of services. Nothing could be further from the truth.

180 Degrees, Inc.’s mission is “turning lives around to ensure safer communities.” While we have always worked with individuals who are in the criminal justice system, we also believe that to ensure safer communities you must provide a broad range of services that address disparities in not only the criminal justice system, but also in education, mental health care, child protective services, and employment.

180 Degrees, Inc. works with both youth and adults implementing preventative and supportive services that range from transitional housing for individuals returning from prison to youth mentoring programs. For example, 180 Degrees, Inc.’s youth programs include mentoring services, girls’ and boys’ gender-specific programming, school-based interventions and support and WRAP services.

180 Degrees, Inc.’s subsidiary, Su Familia Multicultural Counseling, offers cultural and language-specific mental health services. In addition, 180 Degrees, Inc. has served as the administrative home of the MN Second Chance Coalition since its inception. Amongst the primary goals of the MN Second Chance Coalition is to reduce racial disparities in our criminal justice system.

180 Degrees, Inc. shares Jones’ concerns that historically Black institutions may collapse and fail in this period of economic hardship for many nonprofits. Our interest is to serve the individuals in our programs and by doing so the larger community. To best serve the community, we rely on partnerships with many culturally specific agencies and believe that those partnerships strengthen not only our communities but, most important, help those in need of services succeed.

While maintaining and supporting culturally specific organizations is critical to the health of communities of color, 180 Degrees, Inc. also believes that it is our responsibility to ensure that our staff reflect the community we serve. To that end, we are proud that today approximately 60 percent of our staff are from communities of color, and those individuals are represented at every level of the organization beginning with our chief operating officer.

Having a culturally competent and representative organization does not replace the need for historically Black institutions. But, the two are not mutually exclusive, either. Making that assumption does a disservice to the many talented African Americans who work at 180 Degrees, Inc. and see themselves as both part of the community and part of the solution.

Richard J. Gardell is the CEO and Sarah Walker is the COO of 180 Degrees, Inc. in Minneapolis.

[Editor’s note: Contributing writer Vickie Evans-Nash informs us that in preparing her story she left several messages phone messages for Freddie Davis English that were not returned. She also called 180 Degrees and was referred to someone who reportedly could respond to her questions, but that message was not returned.]