Taking on the Tough Issues
Photograph by Stefanie Timmermann
It seemed all of Fairfield County wanted to do something—anything, really—when tragedy struck Newtown’s Sandy Hook Elementary School last December. But what would have a lasting, meaningful impact after the news trucks took down their satellite antennas?
Juanita James, executive director of the Fairfield County Community Foundation (FCCF), contemplated that question, thinking, as she often does, about the big picture. First things first: There were victims’ families, some of whom solicited the foundation’s staff for advice on enduring philanthropic memorials; things that would do good works for the long haul. For example, the family of art-loving six-year-old Grace McDonnell established a fund in her name, while school psychologist Mary Sherlach’s survivors directed memorial gifts to an established FCCF health and wellness fund.
And then there were the complex, pervasive questions raised about mental health after the senselessly brutal shooting of twenty-six children and educators by an obviously troubled gunman. “It’s a systematic and long-term problem that extends far beyond Newtown,” says Juanita. So, the FCCF organized a January symposium that brought Connecticut legislators and representatives of key nonprofits with mental health expertise to the table to brainstorm on these prescient topics. “These are big questions about what happens in the long-term if we ignore these issues. Our role is to be a convener, to start the conversation,” she explains.
This focused approach to problem-solving is typical of the foundation’s philanthropic style. FCCF has been best known in its twenty-one-year history for shepherding an endowment of approximately $140 million to support a network of carefully screened Fairfield County nonprofits. Since Juanita assumed the FCCF’s leadership in October 2011, there’s been a parallel emphasis on addressing specific regional needs; things such as affordable housing, long-term unemployment and the educational achievement gap. While advancing philanthropy is still paramount, she explains, “Connecticut is an unusual state in that we don’t have a county government. So we’re in a unique position of seeing the big picture and then …. being the catalyst for change.”
To that end, the Norwalk-based foundation is increasingly committed to taking on seemingly unwieldy regional problems and finding substantive ways to make a difference.
Juanita likes to break dilemmas down into manageable parts. Take education. It is a prime example of the FCCF’s knack for addressing a need in a way that achieves quantifiable results. Through its research, FCCF discerned there was a potentially disastrous shortage of qualified educators positioned to assume principals’ roles at schools in Bridgeport, Norwalk, Stamford and Danbury; urban centers striving to attain achievement parity with their more affluent, suburban neighbors. It was estimated that ninety-two of those cities’ principals were poised to retire by 2012. “If you don’t have great leaders, how can you have great schools?” Juanita asks. “We decided one way to tackle the problem was from the top down.”
The FCCF convened a yearlong Urban School Leaders Fellowship, which mentored sixty-three up-and-coming educators, with an emphasis on enhancing their abilities as dynamic urban school leaders. An exciting postscript was Juanita’s recent attendance at the Greenwich-based Lone Pine Foundation’s ceremony honoring three urban Fairfield County public schools for significant achievement advances. On the staff of one of those honored schools (Stamford’s Springdale Elementary) was an assistant principal mentored through FCCF’s fellowship project. “But what’s even more exciting is to think of the leaders who are poised to become principals when there’s a need,” Juanita says. As always, her eyes are fixed on the big picture.