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ASU Lodestar Center Blog

Taking nonprofit leadership to new heights

AmEx Leadership Academy Class 11

Janey Pearl Starks is the Equity, Diversity and Community Engagement Officer at Mountain Park Health Center, a nonprofit community health center that aims to provide affordable healthcare to people from all stages and walks of life.

Janey Pearl Starks speaking at the 2019 NLASA Senior Celebration

Pearl Starks was a part of the 2018-19 class of the ASU Lodestar Center’s American Express (AmEx) Leadership Academy. She was later admitted to the prestigious AmEx 2.0 Leadership Academy program at the Aspen Institute, comprising competitively-selected alumni of AmEx leadership programs around the world. 

Following a 14-year run in its original form, the Center’s Leadership Academy is currently being redesigned to better serve today’s nonprofit professionals as they grow as leaders, build new networks and advance their careers. Each year that it ran, the Academy accepted a cohort of Arizona's top emerging nonprofit leaders for a 10-month program that provided the knowledge and tools needed to take on top leadership roles within the nonprofit sector. The Academy consists of best-practice approaches to leading and managing nonprofits, from renowned professors and practitioner instructors at ASU, as well as established nonprofit leaders.

After her 10-month cohort ended, Starks went on to the Aspen Institute experience. Every year, fifteen outstanding nonprofit leaders are nominated from their local programs and receive capacity-building support from this values-based leadership development program.

The Aspen 2.0 program provides participants with a neutral platform in which to consider timeless human values, seek common ground and develop a fuller understanding of the human condition using the text-based discussion method pioneered by the Aspen Institute. They then use these realizations in their jobs as nonprofit executives. The ASU Lodestar Center has had a nominee selected from a cohort every year the Aspen 2.0 Academy was hosted, from 2016 to 2021.

In this Q&A, Pearl Starks shares with us her nonprofit background with the Mountain Park Health Center, and how both of the Academy programs impacted her nonprofit career.

Q: Can you tell us about yourself and your current position at Mountain Park Health Center?

A: I've been at Mountain Park for 9 years. My entire career, I've either worked on issues I care about or worked for people who are working on issues that I care about. And so I've never worked in the for-profit sector. It's always been nonprofit, or government, city, state and federal levels. And at Mountain Park, initially, I started on the communications aspect. And now, like I said, I'm the director of equity, diversity and engagement. So I'm responsible for all our DEI initiatives and ensuring health equity for our patients, ensuring that it's a good place for our employees to be as well. 

Q: What is your nonprofit background?

A: I'm originally from Jalisco, Mexico. I came to the U.S. when I was eight. And I'm a product of Mesa public schools. And then I went to ASU for my undergrad and originally ever since I was eight, I wanted to do bilingual education. And that was because of the impact that my teacher had on me. And then when I got to ASU and I was part of the teachers college, I just realized that it wasn’t going to work with the regulations. That was the year that they passed “English only.” So I thought, “Okay, let me see how else I can make an impact in people's lives.” And that's when I got involved with, back then, it was called American Humanics, now the Nonprofit Leadership Alliance at ASU. And that was part of my coursework. So I got the certification. I worked at a small education nonprofit as well, working for folks who were doing things that I felt were right.

Q: How did the ASU Lodestar Center help you and your organization advance?

A: So I've been involved in a few ways. First, the Leadership Academy program here, delivered by ASU, where we had our cohort, our class became very close. We were the class, I believe, right before the pandemic. But then during the pandemic, when the world shut down, we continued to be close via Zoom. And so for most of it, a long time, we had Sunday Zoom sessions, where we would just check in with each other and see how we were doing, long after the program ended.

From there, I was contacted by ASU and invited to apply to the program at the Aspen Institute. And at first, when I heard that only 15 people were being chosen worldwide. I was like, “Okay, well, I'll apply, but probably not a chance of me getting in.” And so I was thrilled to learn that I was accepted to the program. And it was amazing. It was an amazing experience, where I met people from all walks of life, all across the world. And again, where a lot of us are still in touch. And we're about to plan our reunions.

Q: Why did you apply for the programs? 

A: So at that point, I had been at Mountain Park for several years. And I feel like every few years, my job has been completely different with new learning experiences also, depending on what's happening in healthcare at that time. But I was ready to learn from other people and learn what other folks are doing in the nonprofit sector. So that was why I applied to that, and I got exactly what I wanted out of it.

I feel like it's important to sometimes do things or we'll get accepted to things or we'll sign up for something and we're still busy with our lives. But then when that experience is over, we wish we could have just invested a little bit more or participated a little bit more. And so with each of these experiences, I said at the beginning, “I'm gonna give it my all. I'm going to be involved as much as I can, I know this is temporary.” And for both I'm so glad that's what I did.

Q: What were your motivations/goals going into the Aspen opportunity? 

A: For the program at Aspen, because it was something with people from all over the world, I really wanted to just understand and learn what are the issues they're dealing with, and the issues they're working to solve. And then the problem fields they’re in, so I was very open, I asked a lot of questions. I did a lot of listening. Again, I think sometimes we're excited to share what we're working on but for that experience, you know, I thought that it was important for me just to listen and see from there, what I could learn from what other people are saying and other people are dealing with.

Also, the problems, there are a lot of similarities. Even people who are in India, people who are in Africa, people across the country here, there's people who care about a problem. There's people who are dealing with that problem. And a theme that came up over and over is the more you engage the folks who are with the problem that you're working on, the better outcome it'll be. And so the times of a bunch of people who don't reflect that community trying to solve problems for them and hoping that as a society, we're getting away from that and we really say, “Hey, who are the ones most impacted by these issues? And how do we make sure that their voices are being heard and not just in a way that we slap their face on a flyer and call it a day. But how do we ensure that we're really engaging? To help?”

Q: What was your favorite/most important part of the programs?

A: I think my favorite part with the program at the ASU Lodestar Center was the relationships. I mean, there was obviously a lot that I learned, that I think people learned, but meeting people and knowing that they care about “x” issue, and they've devoted so much of their life to that issue, to solve it. And seeing that people had that courage to just jump to something completely new. That was refreshing to see, too. And then just the support that the group had with each other, encouraging people when, you know, they were nervous about applying for a big job, and folks that were willing to sit with them and do interview prep and coaching with them. And again, it was just a nice experience that so many people from all walks of life came together, you know, not knowing kind of where it would lead, but a lot of folks have had the journey together.

Want to be a part of the new and improved Leadership Academy?

The Lodestar Center is working hard on bringing a new iteration of the Leadership Academy to nonprofit leaders looking to take their skills and knowledge to the next level for an even greater impact within their organizations and the communities they serve. Sign up to be the first to know when the Leadership Academy opens for the new class.

Get certified as a nonprofit Executive Leader

The Nonprofit Executive Leadership Certificate is designed to meet the professional needs of executive directors, senior-level managers and emerging executives of nonprofit and public organizations, offered in a cohort format to promote skill-building and peer networking among seasoned leaders facing challenges just like yours. Now accepting applications for the new cohort, starting May 2024. 

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