United We Stand

United We Stand

August 31st, 2012 Merrell McGinness in Local Regional News

NAME: Alison Lebovitz

AGE: 42

NEIGHBORHOOD: North Chattanooga

BIO: From interviewing celebrities to penning her memoirs to co-founding her own nonprofit, Alison Lebovitz is one of Chattanooga's most dynamic and engaging women. As a powerhouse for positive change, she's served on numerous boards, recently accepting the position of United Way Campaign Chair. The energetic mother of three shares how she's found balance (and humor) along the way.

Alison Lebovitz

I'M SURE YOU GET ASKED THIS ALL THE TIME, BUT HOW DO YOU DO IT ALL?

I don't. It's all a fa├žade.

I do sometimes wish I had that thing that Hermione has in Harry Potter where she can be two places at once. I like being busy. I know that sounds weird; it's like the same as saying "I like fundraising." But some people get that stressful feeling if they've got a lot going on. Really I get that stressful, uh-oh feeling if I don't have something going on. And it's a balance. I want to make sure as much as possible I'm there at the bus stop or picking my kids up from school and there to help them with homework and take them to activities. My office in my house so when they're out of school it's a little more precarious. I think you know it when it happens: when I'm working hard enough and I'm playing enough and with the family enough and also giving of my time enough. You can feel it. Everybody overextends at some point in their day or their week. It happens and then it's just a matter of regrouping and figuring out how to get back on track.

YOU'RE INVOLVED WITH SO MANY WORTHY CAUSES, BUT I'M SURE YOU GET APPROACHED BY SO MANY YOU CAN'T POSSILBY SUPPORT ALL OF THEM. IS THERE A METHOD TO CHOOSEING WHICH ONES TO GET BEHIND?

I think as you get older you get a sense of what you like to do and what you really want to avoid. Getting better at saying "no." I haven't gotten great at it but I've gotten a lot better. I also feel like as much as people say "I'm too busy to do that" when it's something they care about, when it's something they're passionate about, if it affects their family, their community, their faith whatever that may be, they take it on without hesitating.

I kind of go by my gut. There used to be a recurring theme of things that affected children. Even before I had kids, The Creative Discovery Museum was one of the first nonprofits I supported in town.

I want to go some place where I'm not a token member; I'm not an honorary chair. I want to do the work. I want to make a difference. I want to not only be able to create a vision for the organization, I want to have the opportunity to act on it. I'm not about the prestige of serving on this board or that board or working on this or that event. I want to do it because I know it'll make a difference. And a lot of times I want to do it because it's fun.

My friend Terri Holley and I started this fundraiser called the Moth Ball. That didn't come out of me wanting to change the world. It came out of us wanting to find an opportunity to wear our wedding dress again or the prom dress. It came out of a fun idea but true to form we figured out a way to make that fun idea into a concept that would also engage people philanthropically. And it worked. We had 450 people there and we raised $20,000 for the Women's Fund. And that was with not a ton of effort; just a ton of enthusiasm. I love starting stuff that has legs, that is worthy...because Lord knows we don't need any more fundraisers in Chattanooga.

WHO WOULD YOU SAY INSPIRED YOU TO GET INVOLVED WITH PHILANTHROPY?

As trite as it might sound my parents are my greatest role models. They set a foundation for me and my siblings. I used to say, "When I grow up I want to go to meetings just like my dad." He was always at some sort of board meeting and my mother was president of Hadassah. They were always involved and part of the community. In the torch relay of life my husband really took that. He's the one who inspires me. He's just amazing. He doesn't like the center stage as much as I do. [laughs] He's not as much of a show off as I tend to be but he is the most dedicated, conscientious person and he cares. Everything is with a gauge of how will it affect this person? Am I doing the right thing, even if it doesn't feel good for me is it best for everybody? And he constantly uses that as his gauge - effortlessly. And I think that's been the most impactful part of my life is just understanding that and how we talk through our philanthropic goals in the community in terms of real specific areas we want to give back in but also just a general sense of how we want to raise our kids and what we want to do. How do I do it all? The real reason is my husband. If I didn't have a support system, someone who's a partner really all the way...it's not that "well the woman has to do it all." I've never felt that way. He is there I would say more than 50 percent of the time. If I have to leave on a study mission to Argentina or if I'm going to a meeting or conference for a weekend, he never guilts me, he never hesitates, he doesn't pause he says "You go - I'm so proud of what you're doing." And it's right back at him. I support everything he does too because he's equally involved.

Get the inside story from celebrities and local personalities! View full episodes of The A List with Alison Lebovitz at wtcitv.org.

WHAT EXCITES YOU MOST ABOUT THE UNITED WAY CAMPAIGN?

When I was asked to be United Way campaign chair, as much as I've been involved philanthropically in the city I didn't know if I was qualified. It's just a huge role and it really is taking on a job in this community that I think is vital and visible. Going back to how I decide what to do. Not only that gut reaction but I have to believe in it. If it's not a labor of love then it's just labor, and who wants to do that? I really had to think about it. I really wanted to talk to other community members, I wanted to talk to the staff, I wanted to talk to board members. I wanted to get a sense of what the needs were, what the goals were, what the mission was and I really researched it more than any other non-profit position I've ever accepted and once I did I felt really good about it and every day since I've only felt better. To see from this view the strength of our non-profit community, to see how social service agencies are helping educate our kids, build stable lives, support the most vulnerable. It's incredible. And they don't do it in silos; they don't do it by resting on their laurels. They do it every year by proving what they do, changing the way they do it, and working in partnership with each other. And United Way is structured so we're helping them. We're helping them measure what they're doing, helping them set goals. Helping them be that sort of not only convener but active supporter and engaging in what they do to make this community better. I know I sound almost evangelical in my approach, and it's hard not to.

In the past three weeks I've gone to over half of the agency partners we have and I've been able to talk to the people first hand and see the work that they can do and really understand the value that we have. Great quote - I was at Fort Wood Center the other day and she was talking to me about the incredible work they do in this community to serve mental health needs of youth and adults. At the end she said, "You know Alison, the United Way dollars we receive even paired with what the city gives us is less than 2 percent of our budget. And a lot of people ask me why I'm working so hard for United Way funding. Because I know without that 2 percent, we have to cut 2 percent of the people that we serve, and 2 percent of the programs that we provide. And I know that 2 percent is just as important as the other 98 percent, and every bit counts."

It's such a tribute to what I've seen in this community, is that it's this sense of a collective. It's not about what can I do for me, it's about how can we get together to benefit the larger community. And if we don't, you know...when I talked to Blue Cross the other day I said, "You'll understand this: United Way is our best insurance policy. It's the best way to make sure this community is going to be strong in the future, it's going to be supporting those who need it, it's going to be the best that it can be."

I KNOW YOU HANDLE A LOT WITH HUMOR. WHERE DOES THAT COME FROM?

They used to call it Goldstein humor - my maiden name is Goldstein. I used to see that as really a liability, but now I see as long as I can contain some of the more quirky or bad jokes my dad has passed on and use them in limited quantity them I'm OK. It goes back to if I'm not laughing, if I'm not having fun...even our three boys understand that. We want life to be enjoyable; we want life to be fun. They understand whole-heartedly the concept of giving back and making the world a better place. But they also know that it's also about finding the humor in not only our surroundings but in ourselves. I might be the first one to make a joke about something we're doing but I'm also the first one to laugh at myself. I take my work very seriously and I don't always take myself too seriously. I think keeping that balance is important.

WHAT'S IT LIKE SHARING YOUR LIFE WITH EVERYONE THROUGH YOUR COLUMN?

When I started it was - and it still is - kind of this cathartic avenue for me. That once a month I could really just write about something that happened. Finding ways to turn an incidental moment to an extraordinary learning opportunity. Or something that could've gone the very wrong way and making light of it and finding the humor in it. And working over the past few years - more so as I've become more self-aware of my writing style and what I'm trying to convey - of making it everybody's story. Of finding ways everybody can read that and it's not about what happened to me, my husband, our three kids or what's in my closet, it's about men and women or even kids who read it can look into it and say "That happened to me. Or I see myself in there." And it's more a reflection of a larger community.

Writing the column was not so weird for me, and I know people would come up and say this is funny and I love that. Writing the book I put myself unintentionally in a much more vulnerable position. And I think exposed me in a way that, luckily, I really didn't consider or over think before I published it. My husband has been asking me for years to do a compilation, really just for us, and then it turned into something greater. But I submitted it to a self publishing competition and they got the reviews out the other day - and I thought, I've never been reviewed. Which I do welcome constructive feedback, and one of the first lines the reviewer wrote was that she found it so funny that I write as people know me. I thought it is something I take for granted. When I write it's very personal. It's all I know. I'm a terrible fiction writer. I tried it in graduate school and I'm terrible. I did like a 30-page treatment in graduate school for a film and it was like some single woman in L.A. who had a drug problem. And the only L.A. I know is Lower Alabama. So, you know, who's writing this? So I realized if I can't write fiction my only other option if I want to write is to write what I know.

Read more about Alison, her writings, and her life at alisonlebovitz.com

WHAT ARE SOME LESSONS LEARNED WORKING FOR SOME OF CHATTANOOGA'S MOST DYNAMIC NONPROFITS?

And they are. I travel around the country a lot for some of the work I do, and even around the world and I still find it remarkable what a philanthropic and giving city Chattanooga is. I've been here 15 years so I consider it home but I didn't grow up here. But I know being somebody who's come from outside to be part of this community, really when you raise your hand, people call on you. And not only that, they're willing to hear what you have to say and they want you to get involved and be part of it which is amazing.

This is a community that cares about making a difference. This is a community that cares about everything from education, to the arts, to the environment, to our downtown, to engaging people on every level. It's about making sure our emerging leaders - our young, entrepreneurs and professionals that are here - feel like they have a voice. As Lex Wexner says who owns the Limited and Express, "What got us here is not going to take us there." And it's easy to say that but it's hard and challenging to embrace that and really do it. I've seen some great minds who think way outside the box - way beyond the bridges - and their ideas have been embraced by those who probably got here by a more traditional format.

But the people who inspire me in this community are everybody from a Mai Bell Hurley, and a Rick Montague, and the people who were the foundation of creating the vision for Chattanooga 40 years ago. The Bob Corkers. The people who had the foresight to understand what this community could be, and not only that but are willing to light the torch of the next generation. I say light the torch and not pass the torch because their job is never done. I still see Mai Bell at every UW board meeting she's able to come to. You still hear Bob Corker, even in his political ads talking about CNE as the basis for what got him involved in community. And they're not done; they're bringing people into the fold and making it so that they're creating a community of philanthropists, of activists, of believers, of people who have hope. The Josh McManus's. The Sheldon Grizzles.

The people who are now merging that entrepreneurial spirit with philanthropy. What do they call that - social entrepreneurship? I love that. I think it's even a new major in college. It's this idea that people want to make a lot of money and make a difference and they want it to happen simultaneously. And it's brilliant. I'm meeting kids from all over who care, and they not only care about being successful but they're equating success with their ability to be impactful. And I think that's, maybe not a new concept but certainly something that's on the horizon of how you measure success. And that's inspiring.

I don't know if I answered your question of what I've learned. I think the lessons I've learned are if you want make change, get involved. If you want to pinpoint what's wrong then you have to be willing to jump in and fix it. If you have an idea, the only bad ones are the ones you never expressed. The only bad questions are the ones that are never asked. It's not the vocal majority who are going to rule. It's sometimes the silent minority who has the best ideas and only speaks up when they need to. But it's a community that's about making the individual as strong as they can and knowing that's going to make the collective the best that it can be. And that's the only way to make a healthy community.

"I like being busy. I know that sounds weird; it's like saying, "I like fundraising." But some people get that stressful feeling if they've got a lot going on. Really I get that stressful, uh-oh feeling if I don't have something going on." - Alison Lebovitz

WHAT WOULD YOU SAY IS THE SECRET TO MOTIVATING PEOPLE TO GET INVOLVED?

I like to say volunteering is like CPR. If you've ever taken a CPR class they never say "Someone get help!" They point to someone and say, "You in the white jacket, go get help." I can really look at my volunteer efforts and credit certain individuals for looking at me and saying "We need you." The Pregulman family is a great example. Helen Pregulman is the first person who asked me to be on a board. She asked me to be on the board of Siskin, what is now the Siskin Children's Institute. And it was one of the most remarkably moving opportunities for me. And you think, "To be on a board?" But really that I was probably 28 years old and that she believed in me and thought I'd be an asset. I know you may find this shocking but I didn't talk for months because as my father said, spend time listening before you take any time to comment. See what's going on before you ever suggest where you want to be, which is great advice. And ironically her husband too was the one who, when we started a Jewish preschool here, took me to lunch and said, "What are you going to do about this? Here is the need. How are you going to make sure it happens?"

I get a lot of people say I want to volunteer, what should I do? The first thing I ask them is not what they're good at. It's not how much time they have. It's not even what organization they think they're aligned with. It's what do you love? What gets you excited? Where does your passion come from? What's something you could wake up every day and say I want to do? And when you find that passion. Someone said at a conference, you know you can't teach passion. And it's totally true. As much as we try to incentivize and inspire and motivate people to get involved at the end of day it has to come from within. But conversely we have to be willing as a community to point to those people and say "We need you." Because the power of empowering somebody else is incredibly important. And our responsibility not just to do what needs to be done from our own perspective but to engage others in that work.

When we talk about fundraising, we say a fundraiser is someone who goes out or gets on the phone and asks other people for money. They're actually giving two gifts. Because they're not only giving ideally a donation to that organization themselves but they're giving their time in order to inspire others to give. And when you look at the spectrum of what you're able to give, you're time is the most valuable thing because your time is your life. So you're literally willing to give your life to inspire others to give of their money, their resources, their time. And that's an incredibly powerful message.

WHAT'S NEXT FOR YOU?

I'm still doing the "A List" on WTCI. We're starting to film our fifth season. I feel like that is the best privilege to be able to interview people and get to know them. I've also been running for the past five years a nonprofit based on the Paper Clips project and film and is a way to inspire service learning and student activism. And we're in classrooms across North America and Canada. And that work will never be complete. It uses the Paper Clips film as the basis of a curriculum that's basically five one-hour lesson plans. And it's really simple when you look at our youth - and it's geared at fifth grade and older - but when you ask them ways they want to change the world they will come up with lists, I've seen it done, that are magical and 50-60 items long. And then when you go back and say if you know what you want to do to make this world a better place why aren't you doing it? They come back with two things: we don't know how and we don't have the time. So One Clips' objective is to overcome those two challenges. We want to give them the opportunity to make a difference and we want to teach them how. And we can't take for granted that even though someone wants to make a difference, that they know how to do it. It's a way to really frame this discussion that allows them to figure out what their passion is, what the needs of their community is, and then to create literally an action plan that's going to identify their opportunities and challenges, that's going to set a time line for them and really give them the opportunity to put it in motion and create change. We have more than 200 educators now in probably 20 states and Canada who've been implementing this since 2008 and you think about the 1,000s of students they've taught and the 1,000s of lives that they in turn have affected. It's like the perfect pay-it-forward model.

I'm also incoming chair for a national board, it's called National Young Leadership Cabinet. I'm also very involved with our Jewish Federation. It's a network of 147 Federations across North America and our work is done to support Jewish and non-Jewish communities both here and abroad. We raise money, we go on trips, advocate and volunteer. So I'm on a young leadership board that's comprised of young leaders across the country ages 30-40 and we raise a lot of money, we raise a lot of awareness. I'm incoming chair for that and will spend the next two years on that board.

The boards here are very exciting between Tennessee Aquarium, Lyndhurst and Read 20 and Jordan Thomas foundation which are keeping me busy.

What's coming up next is kind of like creating a strategy for a nonprofit. We like to create these strategic plans that are 18 months to 3 years because the world's changing. I like to joke three years ago iPads didn't exist. When I look at what I'm doing I try to balance my goals personally, professionally and philanthropically with the opportunity to really live in the moment. So I never want to be so full that if that opportunity comes about, if I get that call, if somebody says to me, "We need you to do this," and it's something I feel immediately passionate and drawn to I want to be able to say yes. So I always want to keep my plate just full enough that I'm busy and engaged and active and creating impact but always leaving room for that dessert - just in case there's that opportunity you really couldn't anticipate. So when people ask "What's next?" I have the same question. And I'm excited to find the answers.

WHAT'S SOMETHING A LOT OF PEOPLE DON'T KNOW ABOUT YOU?

I really have curly hair.