Moving On is a series of Q&As with social impact leaders who are leaving their organizations for new opportunities. Here, they share what they learned and where they’re headed.
The North Philadelphia community between Cecil B. Moore and Susquehanna avenues near Broad Street can often feel overshadowed by the behemoth that is Temple University. But on the corner of Susquehanna and N. Carlisle Street, there’s a little pocket of sunlight called Tree House Books.
Tree House is a literacy enrichment center that fosters a “community of readers, writers and thinkers” with the idea that “people can read their way into being the person that they want to be,” according to former executive director Michael Reid, who left to become the ED of ACPPA Community Arts Center in Norristown this month.
Reid first began his career in theatre but made the switch to nonprofit work when he began volunteering with Tree House in 2008. When he became the ED in 2013, he made an effort to expand the organization’s definition of “literacy.” In his Moving On interview, Reid talks with Generocity Editor Julie Zeglen about the evolution of Tree House’s work, why African-American children need to read about people who look like them and why leadership shouldn’t be taken lightly. Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Generocity: How did Tree House’s mission change over the years you were there?
Michael Reid: Everything that Tree House does it really meant to enrich people’s lives with literacy intellectual, emotional, social and cultural. We really strategically made a change around 2012-2013 and focused more on literacy in the broadest sense of the word — the long-term battle of literacy [versus] the short-term battle of homework.
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We’re also much more culturally focused. Tree House is located in an African-American neighborhood. The Black/White achievement gap is a very real thing, and part of how we think we can eliminate that gap is for young people to see themselves reflected in the literature that they’re reading. If people are going to read their way into a powerful future, they need to understand that they don’t need to change themselves to be a part of that future. That [mission] was not as overt when I started at Tree House.
G: That reminds me of the saying, “You can’t be what you can’t see.”
MR: Absolutely, absolutely. We did a lot of reading about historical figures, and not just the historical figures everyone knows — like Dr. Martin Luther King, Harriet Tubman, Oprah, Barack Obama — but the lesser-known figures in African-American history.
I feel like many times when people are dealing with the education of African-American children, there’s this idea that we have to have to establish precedents of greatness that they have to live up to, and in reality, a lot of these precedents of greatness have already been established, it’s just that we don’t know about them. There’s a great history that goes beyond the typical figures mentioned during Black History Month. You know, there’s enough historical Black figures to fill an entire year, and a lot are from Philadelphia. So, we wanted to focus on that as well, because we wouldn’t be where we are today without the work of our elders, and we want young people to understand that, and books are a great way to do that.
G: Can you tell me about the People’s Assembly meeting series? It seems to take the values that Tree House tries to instill in the students and then applies them to the broader North Philly community.
MR: People’s Assemblies aren’t our idea — a lot of other communities are using it and we’re just modifying it to suit our purposes. The idea was, one, to let people know the concepts we were working on with Tree House students, and two, to show how those concepts can go beyond just the page. What we wanted to do was have the work of Tree House live not just within the walls of Tree House, and so, the idea was taking a particular theme and then exploring issues we felt were not going right in our community, or [were happening] to our community, that we wanted to change.
At Tree House, we’re not about theoretics. There’s a lot of philosophy that happens in certain circles but we wanted to [encourage] action. And once we can identify a problem, then we can move forward and come up with solutions.
G: What are some of the specific problems that are discussed in the meetings?
MR: One of the big, big issues was the development of the Temple football stadium, and the larger issues of development of Temple in general. Another issue that was discussed was the lack of Black-led nonprofit organizations. And that poses a lot of tough ideas for people to think about because a good number of the organizations that are receiving funding are communities of color, and many of the organizations that are dispersing funds are not communities of color. So, that leads to problematic politics.
There are a number of Black philanthropists and Black philanthropic organizations in Philadelphia, such as a chapter of the Black Philanthropic Network, but we need more. African-Americans are 43 percent of the city — there are more Black people in Philadelphia than there are White people, so we need philanthropic organizations that represent those numbers.
G: How would you characterize your time as executive director?
MR: I like to think that my contribution to Tree House was really to make it a more culturally focused, culturally centered organization. I’m very, very concerned with how people’s perceptions of themselves and of their communities affects their intellectual lives, and I think the cultural focus is something that makes the organization unique.
G: Can you talk about why you’re leaving — why now is the time?
MR: Eight years at an organization is a very, very long time, and I accomplished practically all of the things that I wanted to accomplish. I’m also a believer that it’s good to have new, fresh ideas come in to help an organization grow. I don’t think that an organization should be beholden to any one viewpoint or any one particular person. And I wanted new challenges in my life.
I am now the executive director of ACPPA Community Arts Center, which is actually out in Norristown.
G: You said that you started out in theatre, so it sounds like this move connecting back to your original profession.
MR: Yeah, absolutely. In reading about the organization, one of the things I was really struck by was that they weren’t necessarily trying to turn people into professional artists. It was really about improving young people’s lives through the arts.
To have the realm of artistic expression can do great things for your life. It did great things for my life. All of the things that I have been able to accomplish as an adult can definitely be traced back to the skills and the mindset and the temperament and the philosophy that I developed when I studied acting. I started really seriously when I was 13 years old, and if not for those theatre classes, I know that I would not have the success that I have had in my professional life, in my personal life, in my married life. I definitely wanted to be a part of an organization that was replicating that, giving that experience to other young people.
G: What does the transition process look like at Tree House — has a new executive director been appointed, and are you involved in that process?
MR: They have not named a new executive director yet. They have an interim director [June Bretz]. I was somewhat involved in the process, but mainly in doing the brain dump, getting all that information down and giving it to the remaining staff. But I’m going to be available to this person, whoever they are, so I can answer any questions that they have.
G: Is there anything else that you would like to share about your time at Tree House or this transition or leadership, or anything else?
MR: Just that being lucky enough to be in a leadership position is a great thing. It’s not to be taken lightly. I strongly encourage anyone who is thinking of being in a leadership position, definitely give it a try. It forces you to really be your best self. It can be very stressful and trying, but it can also be very rewarding and exhilarating. You learn a lot, you make mistakes, you have to learn to fall on your sword every now and then, but if you accept that, you accept the glory as well.
My time at Tree House was magical. We built something special there and I’m very excited to see what’s going to happen in this next phase of its life, and I’m very excited to see what I can do in my new work at ACPPA. I’m very excited for this chapter in my life.-30-
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