Forward Focus: Abigail Ellis on the importance of authentic relationships in our 'socially-distanced' world - Generocity Philly

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Nov. 7, 2020 12:00 pm

Forward Focus: Abigail Ellis on the importance of authentic relationships in our ‘socially-distanced’ world

In this ADVANCE interview, Executive Director of MENTOR Independence Region shares how mentorship helps affirm young people’s identities and provide opportunities for them to succeed.
“There is tremendous power in people coming together to learn from one another, teach each other new ideas and perspectives, and offer a mirror to better see themselves.”

Abigail Ellis joined the MENTOR Independence Region (formerly Mentoring Partnership & Resource Center) in 2015. She is responsible for setting the strategic direction, overseeing all operations and garnering resources and support for MENTOR Independence Region. Prior to joining the MENTOR IR, Ellis led the Campaign for Mentoring at United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey. She is a graduate of Temple University School of Social Administration, earning her master’s degree in social work, and received a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Penn State University. Ellis is also a proud Philadelphia public school parent of two amazing kids.


Generocity: Generocity’s ADVANCE focuses on “advancing” both your mission and your career. What are the benefits of hearing from other organizations in the Philadelphia social impact sector? How have professional development experiences helped you deliver on funding goals for your organization?

Ellis: Our work at MENTOR Independence Region centers on the power and opportunity in relationships. There is tremendous power in people coming together to learn from one another, teach each other new ideas and perspectives, and offer a mirror to better see themselves. Hearing from leaders in Philadelphia’s social impact sector offers a unique opportunity to do that — to learn how and what they’re prioritizing, how they’re leveraging the strengths of our city, and think more critically about the work of our own organizations.

Professional development experiences like ADVANCE can inspire big ideas and teach practical skills. It affords one an opportunity to reflect and prioritize on the mission and what needs to happen to take a leap forward. One might identify a collaborative partner whose strengths can change the way your goals are achieved. They can also inspire confidence in one’s own ideas and plans. I can’t identify one specific way that these have helped me to deliver, however I know that these opportunities re-charge me, challenge me, and make me a stronger leader.

From our Partners

Generocity: 2020’s economic turmoil has significantly impacted, largely in a negative way, the livelihood of our socially-driven organizations. Has your organization found any creative ways to preserve budget, raise donations, or acquire new funding? We understand this is a sensitive topic; please do not feel obligated to answer.

Ellis: We worked quickly to move all of our operations to the virtual space and focused on the parts of the work that were needed most. Mentoring programs needed help figuring out how to operate in the virtual space, and we have ramped up on the diversity, equity and inclusion training that we are offering to youth programs, schools, and workforce development programs. Now, more than ever, youth need supportive adults in their lives who can show up for them with authenticity.

Generocity: Did you attend ADVANCE 2019? If so, what was your biggest takeaway? What did you learn that you have since implemented in your own organization, and what were the results? If not, how can ADVANCE 2020 help your organization solve one of its current dilemmas?

Ellis: I’m looking for ideas on how to position our organization for the new post-covid normal, including funding solutions, organizational priorities, as well as ways to best support employees through these tough times. I’m a parent of a first- and fifth-grader and the realities of working and supporting everyone on my team, while schooling virtually and supporting everyone at home feels unsustainable. I am privileged with flexibility at work and a good set up at home, and it still feels hard.

Generocity: In July, Generocity launched TRACE (Toward Response and Community Equity), a year-long initiative tracking Philadelphia’s response to a pandemic, an economic crisis, and systemic racism. In the midst of COVID-19, how has your organization adapted to meet the changing needs of your stakeholders? What do you hope to learn at ADVANCE that will help you better serve our community?

Ellis: Many of our stakeholders are thinking about race and racism in a new way, and we are responding by expanding our offerings of training that help people on their path to cultural humility. We have created new learning opportunities for people working with youth to advance their understanding of racial power dynamics in a mentoring relationship and how to best create authentic spaces that affirm young people in their racial identity. Many are looking for a quick fix or a top ten list. But instead so much of it is about doing your own personal work and continuing the journey every day.

At 2020 ADVANCE, I’ll be looking for ways to push my own learning edge and ways to keep myself and the work we do on behalf of young people accountable for all these things we are teaching mentors to do. I’ll be looking for inspiration, for future partners, and for new ideas and frameworks that will help us advance our mission.

Generocity: Our nation is currently grappling with the many ways systemic racism infiltrates our society: it affects our policing system, our education system, housing, health care, and more. Through your work, how do you advocate for racial equity? How can ADVANCE help you create a more diverse, inclusive, equitable organization?

Ellis: For young people, pursuing their purpose and dreams are as much about who they know as what they know. Potential is equally distributed, but opportunity is not. We advocate for racial equity by preparing the adults working with young people across all the spaces they spend time to create environments for true self-exploration. This requires the adults to show up authentically and to affirm all of young people’s identities and contexts, including their racial identities and contexts.

Generocity: During these physically isolating times, innovative technology has become increasingly important. How has your organization used technology to solve the unique challenges posed by COVID-19? What has helped you, your team members, and your stakeholders stay connected?

Ellis: There is a great opportunity to reimagine the way that we do work in this environment. We have changed so much about how we connect, using MS Teams, Sharepoint and Zoom for much of this.  Someone said to me recently, “When someone is a vegetarian, you don’t just take a meat dish and make it with vegetables instead. You don’t give them a vegetable hamburger. You make a beautiful dish based on the vegetables.”

I love this because I am trying to break out of the box of doing all the things the same but virtually. To do this successfully requires great clarity of goals and objectives, and accountabilities.

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Ellis is part of our Forward Focus series, a series of stories highlighting the experiences and work of nonprofit leaders in Philadelphia. The goal of the series is two-fold: 1) to provide insight on shared challenges in the social impact sector and 2) to help nonprofit professionals get the most of Generocity’s virtual ADVANCE conference on Nov. 12.

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