January 26, 2022
Considering our place in the world
“What is the world as it is and how do I think it ought to be?”
These are just two of the many questions Lee Stuart hopes her students will reflect on in the College’s Master of Arts in Nonprofit Leadership program, poised to launch in September. Stuart was hired to serve as the program’s director in 2021 and will bring nearly four decades of nonprofit organizing, development and engagement experience to her new role.
“Joining St. Scholastica is a good way to put a capstone on all that I’ve learned to do; starting organizations, working all different roles and remaining deeply grounded in community.”
And now, she looks forward to a new adventure: applying those experiences in the classroom by empowering emerging leaders to consider their impact and place in the world.
From ecology to advocacy
Coincidentally, Stuart always thought she’d become a professor. She earned a bachelor’s degree in environmental studies at Prescott College in Arizona, where she was also one of the first women on a “hotshot” fire crew, and completed her senior project while working at the US Forest Service Fire Lab in Riverside, CA. She earned a master’s degree in biology from San Diego State; and a doctorate in ecology through a joint program at the University of California, Davis and San Diego State.
She was working on her dissertation when tragedy struck and her major professor died unexpectedly. Stuart described it as a period of deep mourning. But she found a way to turn her grief into action.
“I was looking for something to take my mind off grief and saw a call for volunteers for a UNICEF fundraiser,” she said. “I thought, well that sounds fun, so I went there and met people who were very active in a variety of hunger-related issues.” Her new friends invited Stuart to volunteer with them at a food distribution project in Los Angeles and she jumped at the opportunity.
This experience led Stuart and her friends to establish SHARE, the Self-Help and Resource Exchange program, in which participants would register through their church or other organization, pay a nominal fee and agree to two hours of community service. In turn, the organization would pool these resources to purchase meat, fruits, vegetables and other staples directly from farmers and producers for participants. It was an instant success with 8,000 people signing up the first month.
During her post-doctoral studies at Virginia Tech, Stuart would go on to create SHARE programs in Blacksburg, Virginia and eventually the South Bronx. It was there, she had a realization about her vocation.
“I realized, standing on the corner of 169th Street overlooking blocks of burnt out buildings, that there were far more people willing and able to teach ecology and biology than there were to rebuild the Bronx. But I could do that. I felt like Ruth: South Bronx, your people are my people and your God is my God. I had grown up in Appalachia when it was the spectacle of the nation’s poverty, and now was in the Bronx taking its turn as the spectacle of the nation’s poverty. I couldn’t do anything about Appalachia as a child, but I could take on the Bronx as an adult.”
Stuart credits three mentors for her success: her dissertation advisor, the late, Dr. Philip C. Miller for showing her how to use systems analysis to work at the 30,000 foot level and also at the super detailed level; the late Jim Drake, a community organizer in the South Bronx, for teaching her how to build relational power for the public good, and her pastor, Rev. Robert A. Jeffers, for providing a spiritual base for thought and action. These three pillars are approaches she hopes to share with her students, too.
Leading with vulnerability and curiosity
While she is a newcomer to the College, Stuart is no stranger to Duluth. She joined the community in 2011 and worked as a program officer at Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) before transitioning to become the executive director of CHUM. Since 1973, the organization has brought people of faith together in service of its mission: to provide basic necessities, foster stable lives, and organize for a just and compassionate community.
After eight years of service, she is especially proud of the organization’s low-barrier emergency shelter program, advocacy efforts for affordable housing and collaborative, thoughtful COVID-19 response.
Again, her work revolved around big questions. “How do you build a better community for the people who are at the bottom,” she asked herself. And just as importantly, “how do you engage people who aren’t at the bottom to recognize disparity and power?”
Throughout all of her experiences, Stuart acknowledges that sometimes she had the qualifications to do the work and sometimes she didn’t. These gaps inspired her to consider the role she can play in building the capacity of emerging nonprofit leaders with an emphasis on vulnerability and lifelong learning.
“I want students who can say ‘I don’t know,’ ‘please help me’ and ‘I’m sorry,’” she described. She also hopes the program’s holistic approach on relationship building will attract students who aspire to do “fantastic good” in their communities and beyond. Ideally, nonprofit leadership students will be able to draw from their current position for projects and papers which means the coursework will have real-world, applicable value, as well.
And while the transition to higher education might have come later than Stuart imagined it, she knows she’s in the right place.
“Four and a half billion years of earth evolution have put me in this moment, at this time, in this circumstance. I should make the most of it.”
About the Master’s in Nonprofit Leadership program
The Master’s in Nonprofit Leadership program combines the creative strengths of the School of Arts and Letters and the logistical knowledge of the Stender School of Business and Technology, preparing students with theoretical, practical and experiential knowledge that will allow them to lead nonprofit organizations with courage and grace.
Designed for four-year degree holders interested in leadership roles in the non-profit sector, the program features an online synchronous structure, allowing the maximum amount of flexibility for students already engaging in non-profit or other work. Learn more about the Master’s in Nonprofit Leadership program.