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An Interview with Gina Hall, CEO of Uplift Northwest

At Ostara, we are honored to highlight and interview one of our special clients, Gina Hall, CEO of Uplift Northwest. Gina is a Seattle native with 25 years of experience in the nonprofit sector. She has served as Vice President, Community and Donor Relations at Seattle Goodwill, and prior to that, as the Resource and Community Development Director at Delridge Neighborhoods Development Association. Gina is the first black woman CEO at Uplift Northwest. She is the oldest of three siblings and daughter of two Louisiana-born parents who fled the institutionalized racism and oppression of the Jim Crow laws in the South. We’re excited to sit down with Gina to hear her story and get some insider tips on her success. 


Ostara: How do you balance work and personal life?

GH: When I graduated from the Seattle University Executive Leadership program, I loved their approach to that and I’ve carried it with me ever since, and that was – it’s not work-life balance, it’s work-life integration. Because if I’m at work and one of my kids calls with an emergency, I’m sorry, I’m gone. And if it’s the middle of the night and someone calls me and says your building is on fire, I’m going to say, husband, I’ll be right back. So, it’s work life integration and it’s a careful mix of art and science. It’s setting intentional boundaries and then also realizing that life happens. As a leader, what I’m finding in my role and experience is that you really have to plan how you respond to uncertainty and unexpected things. That’s what I do all day. You can have your plan, but the day never goes according to your plan.


Ostara: Where do you draw your inspiration for your work and life in general?

GH: I believe in God; I start every day with prayer and meditation. My other piece of inspiration comes from humanity. Humans can be so inspiring if you enter every relationship intentionally. Every interaction is a divine appointment and I’m like, okay, what am I supposed to leave in this interaction, and what am I going to take from this interaction? It changes the way you view every encounter and leaves you with endless inspiration.


Ostara: As a CEO, what are your main priorities in this role?

GH: As CEO, my main priority is understanding the mission and vision of this organization. Uplift Northwest is a 101-year-old organization. It has been around for a century, and many leaders have been through the doors of this organization. So, I don’t want to be egotistical or like I’m here to do something different because somebody has been here already. So, what is the vision? What were they doing? Uplift Northwest’s vision is that every single individual in this region has access to a decent job.


When you think about it, isn’t that what everyone human wants? Everyone should have access to a decent job because everyone should have the right to care for themselves and their families. That’s what every human wants, so as a CEO, it’s understanding the vision and how it aligns and resonates with my core values and keeping that my focus. My core values have been that since jump street. I was raised in Rainier Beach with my parents, who had only a high school education. They came to Seattle from the deep South, and they raised my siblings and me; I never knew I was poor; they were always helping people. People would come and stay with us and save enough money to buy their own homes. They were helping other people discover the American dream. Everybody wants to take care of themselves and their families.


When I got here (Uplift Northwest), and even before, I researched if I should join this organization; this organization is me. My family and I have done this my whole life, and I can join this vision fully. The mission is “employment and job training” to get folks on a living wage career path. My dad said you work hard, and you can achieve anything. I remember always working, and my dad always encouraged that in us. Before computers, he was the one helping me make my little business cards on 3X5 cards because I was a neighborhood babysitter. I made a bunch of these cards and passed them out, and I was babysitting. I was a little entrepreneur.


My priority here is understanding the mission and vision and then inspiring those around me to grasp that, to really understand that. If you’re not on board with the mission and vision, this may not be the organization for you. My priority is identifying folks that are on the same page, and if they’re not, try to get them there, and if they need more time get on board, then hey let me help you get on board somewhere else.


Ostara: Can you talk about the Uplift Northwest work, what the landscape looks like for those experiencing homelessness and unemployment, and how successful you have been in securing jobs for people.

GH: First, the landscape in this sector is divisive. There are antagonists, and it has become a political statement, which is wrong. As human beings, it should never be okay for someone to sleep on the sidewalk. That should not be the norm. When you pass them (the homeless), you shouldn’t look at them in disgust or judgment; it’s compassion that you should feel. You think about yourself at 5 or 10 years old; no one says, when I grow up, I’m going to live on the street one day and barely make it. No one decides that on purpose. Obviously, something has happened. We have all gone awry if we don’t have compassion and understanding for these individuals.


The sector is complex, and it’s sobering, it is exhausting, it’s traumatizing for the folks we work with. They are being traumatized. Can you imagine if you care about humanity and you’re working in this environment, and you see this on a daily basis? Hire the right people and take care of your team so that we’re okay because that’s a lot to ask for any human being to face daily. Do our programs work? Yes, our program works because the founder of Uplift Northwest believed that if you provide dignity and hope to people, they can get to the next step. And dignity is basic needs. If someone is hungry, feed them; if they need housing, let’s get them on track to get housing; if they’re not clean, let’s get them to a hygiene center. Then we can start to uncover what you want to be when you grow up, okay let’s find a way to get you there.


Any given year, we are serving about 1100 folks; 200-300 of those folks secure permanent or long-term employment, but our services still impact the other 900; we have a plethora of ways that we are impacting lives.


Ostara: Given that it’s Black History Month, how has the local African American community’s journey with issues like homelessness and joblessness been unique? How does that look today?

GH: I’m the chair of the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle; we’ve been highlighting black-owned and BIPOC businesses and supporting them. We highlight the programs and services available to all folks, but the Urban League’s mission is to identify the disparity that impacts African Americans in our community. As a leader, I have heard a lot lately, why are we just focusing on African American history, is this tokenism? I think there’s value in designating and being intentional during February because of the systemic issues that impact our community. Additionally, as a black person, I’m always about education and history and honoring the legacy of everyone, despite their racial ethnicity. But we (African Americans) have been purposely and systemically removed from history, and we must teach our people and society what happened to have lasting change. I have inserted in all my conversations and meetings lately, reminding folks that for many centuries it was illegal for blacks to come together and have a meeting.


When my parents came here (to Seattle), they left everything; I don’t even know what that would feel like to leave everything. They left everything to come here because they wanted liberty and to be free so that I could have freedom. I’m going to Hawaii at the end of this month. That wasn’t part of the equation for my parents; it wasn’t an option. So, let’s take some time to think of people in our own lives, African Americans who paved the way for us and the experiences we have access to because of their sacrifices.


I see young black people, my kids, my grandkids, and I have to remind them of how far we’ve come, to stop complaining and be thankful; because people died for our freedoms, all while encouraging them to stay focused on the work that we have ahead of us to ensure we continue to leave a more equitable future for those to come.


Ostara: What about your mission/impact continues to resonate with donors? What do your best funders and partners value?

GH: They value that we give a hand up and not a handout. They appreciate how we meet people where they are, we provide our neighbors tools and resources to figure out how to be self-sustaining to make it on their own.


I have to go back to my parents, one thing my dad said, “whatever you do, continue to get education,” and that’s what we do here. We teach folks, through our Uplift Northwest Learning Center. We provide all kinds of certifications, credentials and workshops; you’re going to leave here with something that you didn’t come with. No one can take education from you. We teach workplace navigation skills, in addition to certifications like flagging, OSHA safety training, food handler’s certification, pre-construction training and other longer-term certifications. No one can take your certification from you, that’s your entry to a living wage career path and that’s where we are trying to get folks to. That’s what resonates with donors, getting folks to a living wage career path.


Ostara: A lot has happened since you joined Uplift in 2020. What adaptations and leadership decisions have been necessary as an ED?

GH: When the Uplift Northwest Board of Trustees recruited me, they were cognizant about their intentionality around diversity, equity and inclusion. This was after the tragic George Floyd incident in 2020. They wanted a leader who would develop initiatives and integrate an inclusion plan into their strategies moving forward. Secondly, there wasn’t a strategic plan in place, to really look at the future of this organization. So, my priority was to get a strategic plan off the ground and to integrate a DEI workplan. Those were my priorities and I hit the ground running.


Ostara: What is the most common misconception from community members or potential funders about Uplift, or your mission?

GH: Many community members are not aware of the breadth of our program and services. My first two weeks here, I had a meeting with a few community members who were complaining about the long line in front of our building, because we partner with OSL, a meal service provider. They serve meals out of our facility, three times a day seven days a week, and this was during COVID so we couldn’t bring people inside. So, there’s that misconception, like why are all those people standing in line for food. It was a great opportunity for me to educate the neighborhood about the vision and mission of Uplift Northwest. We meet people where they are, we provide them dignity and hope. If people are hungry, we’ve got to feed them and then let’s figure out how to get folks trained and back to work.


Ostara: What pivotal moments and learnings from the past 20 years are you still carrying with you today?

GH: My first nonprofit role was working with the Delridge Neighborhood Development Association in West Seattle. I was a capital campaign director for a $30M campaign on three different development projects that included housing and community space. That was an emotionally transformative moment in my life, because we went from two to three individual donors to 600 donors at the end of the campaign. What that pivotal moment showed me was, we had people who donated $1 to people who donated a million; people are the same no matter what size their bank account, everyone wants to help, a lot of times they just don’t know how. It also showed me how resilient humans are, when faced with extreme adversity and obstacles, we come together and we can do such amazing things for our community.


Ostara: You recently hired a Chief Development Officer; what has this hire meant for your own work as an CEO?

GH: A large portion of my work has been fundraising, so to hire a CDO who really understands philanthropy and the culture of philanthropy, she’s a unicorn. It’s a relief and at the same time, so exhilarating to have a thought partner like my current CDO. It helps me to really see the future and provide clarity to the vison, to the organization’s vision and to my own vision for the future. It’s been rewarding!


Ostara: Many clients have been faced with a search for a Director of Development recently; any advice?

GH: Don’t give up, it took me two years. When I accepted this role at Uplift Northwest, within four months my CDO resigned and accepted a role as an ED for another nonprofit. I Iove those types of resignations, you’re going on to bigger, better things but it literally took me two years to fill that role. My advice is, don’t give up, don’t settle, you want somebody who really wants to do the work. Have the right job description and pay structure but more importantly get the right person no matter how long it takes.


Ostara: If you could go back and tell your 18-year-old self about where you are today, what would you say? What advice would you give her?

GH: I would tell her to stay focused on her vision and dreams, and don’t get distracted.


Ostara: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given about your career?

GH: At the Seattle University program for Executive Leadership, their mantra is that you’re already a leader, you ARE a leader, you just have to learn to bring yourself to the role. You can’t cookie cut a leader, Gina has to bring Gina there, that program helps you discover who you already are and then bring your authentic self to the role. The other piece is trusting your gut, you have to trust yourself.


Ostara: What advice would you give black women who are looking to be a CEO or ED?

GH: Take your time! I wouldn’t want this role even ten years ago. I used to tell myself I never wanted to be a CEO, and now that I’m here, at this season of my life, now I get it, because now I can bring my authentic self. I think if you’re too young, I’m not even saying just about age, I’m saying wait until you’re seasoned, whatever that means for you. You must be in touch with who you are as a person, as a human, because leadership roles are lonely, you are not coming here to make a bunch of friends.


I remember, earlier in my career it was all about work relationships, making sure people like you, all that kind of stuff. When you’re in this role, you’re here for the vision and mission, you’re here to leave the organization better than when you got here, you owe it to the people before you and the people who will come after you, so you’ve got to be healthy. I’m not saying I’m perfect, but you have to at least be self-aware and know your weaknesses. People are going to say stuff about you, you’re going to have haters, people who pretend that they like you, all that kind of stuff, and you’ve got to be able to be okay by yourself, have your own crew that you can lean back on that can tell you about yourself because the struggle is real.


The piece we as black women have to bring to the role is, I will speak for myself because this is how I was raised. You’re representing, come right, be courageous, sometimes there are teachable moments, and you have to be the one that’s teaching, and other times there are quiet moments, just be quiet. Choose your moments, you are representing, like it or not.


For more information on Gina Hall and Uplift Northwest, visit her website at: www.upliftnw.org.

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