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Black Leadership Spotlight: Ron Waddell, Legendary Legacies

By Common Impact | February 28, 2022

In celebration of Black History Month, Common Impact is proud to highlight some of the outstanding Black nonprofit leaders we collaborate with and the ways they’re driving social change and equity through their organizations’ work.

Today we hear from Ron Waddell, Founder & Executive Director of Legendary Legacies, a nonprofit dedicated to equipping young men with the tools to maximize their potential and live better spiritually, socially, financially, and physically. Legendary Legacies provides mentoring via positive male adult role models, life skills development, case management, community outreach, family support services, recreational opportunities, and local, national, and international service opportunities.

Learn more about the organization, make a donation, and check out the Keeping it 100 podcast to hear more from Ron on relationships, fatherhood, mental health, spirituality, and overcoming.

Legendary Legacies offers young men in Worcester, Massachusetts the opportunity to develop skills and maximize their potential by providing positive male role models. What accomplishments or challenges overcome at Legendary Legacies are you most proud of?

The thing that I’m most proud of is the very fact that we’re here and we’re doing the work that we set out to do. The challenge from the very beginning for us was operationally starting this new organization, not giving up on the young people in our community that we had already connected with. Legendary Legacies is embodying what we hope to emulate for the brothers we’re working with: overcoming obstacles to achieve a goal, persevering, finding solutions, connecting, and really doing it from a heart of compassion.

One of the other things that I’m very proud of is the fact that we remain true to our values. When we founded the organization, we started with our values because we believe that culture really trumps strategy. We wanted to create a culture that highlighted emotional safety and connection, and so our values of integrity, innovation, compassion, relatability, empowerment, and “keeping it 100” are things that we don’t just do at work; they’re things that we endeavor for the entire organization – from the Board down to participants – to live out.

How have the needs of your organization and the communities you work with changed over the course of the pandemic? What are your biggest priorities today?

The pandemic exacerbated a lot of the same issues that our brothers were already dealing with. As we think about the mental health crisis, we think about the stresses due to furloughs, job loss, and all those challenges that made things hard for everyone. For Legendary Legacies, first and foremost, it was about trying to help our brothers walk through those things. We decided that it was important for us to stay in physical contact and not just go to virtual engagement. We knew that, as much as we could, we needed to be connected with them.

The biggest thing that we have discovered now in our work is just how serious the need for housing and employment are and looking at how, systemically, some of these structures make it difficult for some of these brothers. These are really hard issues that we’re in the middle of and the truth is there’s no one solution and each situation is kind of individual. Legendary Legacies needs to increase our advocacy arm, and that’s something we’re excited to be doing with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts so that we can advocate for structural changes as well.

How has Legendary Legacies tapped into skills-based volunteering to increase capacity and deepen your community impact?

Skills-based volunteering with Blue Cross Blue Shield and Common Impact has really helped us as we looked at what the key performance indicators (KPIs) are that we want to measure. Grants all have their own structures and KPIs they want us to measure, but as we were doing the work that is required of us, we felt that in some ways those KPIs weren’t the most indicative of the transformation that we were looking for. For instance, some of it was high level – “How many people are employed?” “How many people are in education?” – all important stuff. But there were a number of folks that we were moving into employment and education, but not being able to keep the employment or stay in the education and other challenges. We wanted to come further up the river and say, “What is it that we really need to measure before that to ensure that they can be most successful?” Working with Common Impact and Blue Cross Blue Shield, we were able to come up with a set of KPIs that we were interested in measuring, which we’re using and continuing to refine.

We’re also continuing to work with Blue Cross Blue Shield, through that relationship with Common Impact, on a data management project with a team helping us design and look for the correct customer relationship management (CRM) tool for all the things we’re looking to do. We’re really excited to start that process so we can improve our service delivery and be able to provide feedback – not just for ourselves, but also for the participants to show them the progress they’re making. It has been a tremendous partnership and I think it’s super cool that this early on in our organizational development (Legendary Legacies was founded in 2018 and fully launched independently in 2020), we’re thinking about data and really trying to implement that into our work.

Over the past few years, businesses, foundations, and other organizations have made big commitments to increase support for Black communities, but critics have pointed to widespread lack of transparency or follow through. What advice do you have for how institutions or even individuals can take action on their racial equity promises?

Part of our success as Legendary Legacies – and anyone’s successes – is hard work intersecting with timing. With the lynching of George Floyd and the result of the windfall of money that came from these racial equity promises, we really benefited from that support. But one of the things we’re always aware of is the “issue du jour.” Right now, racial justice and equity is the issue du jour, but what comes next and how do we sustain ourselves to be able to process through that?

What I will say is: if there’s support coming in the form of money, if we’re doing it out of charity instead of justice, then we’re never going to get the results we want. If I’m giving out of charity, that’s giving so that I can feel good about myself. If I’m giving out of justice, it’s about really disrupting and changing systems. And so, when we think about giving money from a justice context, I think a lot of times it can be really challenging because for some of the structures and institutions that are doing the funding, it may require them to take a hard look at “Am I part of the structure that’s producing the issue?” and so it’s almost like investing in the reduction of your power. That would take them operating out of a justice lens.

The other thing I would think about is: when you give, how are you giving in a way that is sustainable? We’ve been really fortunate with the number of grants we’ve gotten, but if we didn’t receive them or the support that we’ve gotten from Blue Cross Blue Shield and Common Impact, there’s no way we’d be able to be able to capture the data that we were capturing. There are many other organizations out there doing similar work at the grassroots level on the ground that are so invested in the work that they don’t have the infrastructure on the back end to be able to collect all the data that funders want to look for.

From a funding perspective, I think there are two ways to look at it: Do I fund in a way that supports that type of organizational growth and capacity building so nonprofits can provide the information and data that I’m looking for? Or do I shift the way that I’m giving and trust that these individuals are doing the work? I completely get the risk of investing like that, but the ability to work in these spaces is built off relationships, and when it becomes transactional, that can really create a lot of inequity. I think the funders should take the lead on that because for small grassroots organizations that are just getting into it, sometimes stepping into those boardrooms can be really intimidating. There’s a huge power differential and a lot of times you walk into those spaces with the idea that these folks have a lot of your ability to be successful and continue doing your work at their discretion. Walking into that space and understanding that is really challenging.

In celebration of Black History Month, who are some of the Black leaders, activists, thinkers, or educators who inspire you?

Frederick Douglass is a huge inspiration to me – an enslaved man who taught himself how to read and became an abolitionist and educator. And W.E.B. Du Bois – tremendous insights with his theory of dual consciousness, which for Black folks and people of color is this idea that we’re conscious of how we’re perceived, but we’re also conscious of how the dominant culture perceives us, so we’re very aware of this subconscious. That’s where we get the foundations of code switching and the ability to engage with the dominant culture – what’s accepted and what’s not. bell hooks – getting into her literature around feminism and the patriarchy has had a huge impact on me and the work that I do both within the organization, but also personally.

More contemporarily, Christopher Emdin wrote the book For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood and his new book, Ratchet Academic, is a tremendous tour de force on pedagogy and teaching in urban contexts – using hip-hop in education and concepts of mindfulness. Really tremendous insights and information from all of these folks.