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Breaking Silos to Enact Change

A conversation with Common Future co-CEO Jessica Feingold


Two months ago, we announced a big change at Common Future: former Chief Strategy Officer Jess Feingold, Managing Director of Community Credit Lab and Common Future Investments Sandhya Nakhasi, and Chief Operating Officer Jennifer Njuguna took the helm as the new, multi-racial, all-women co-CEO team of our organization.

Our conversation has been edited for clarity:

Cristina: It is so great to hear from you. It’s been almost a month since you took the helm as co-lead at Common Future after your previous role as our Chief Strategy Officer. What would you say to our friends, listeners, or anyone reading today? What has the transition been like for you? And what has been the biggest change?

Jessica Feingold: So I’ve been here at Common Future for five-plus years. That means I was here when we used to be called the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE), and it’s been an act of evolution ever since I joined. Whether it was narrowing our equity lens, rebranding and creating our name and identity, or living into the promise of what it means to be a Common Future, we’ve been in a constant state of change here in the organization. And we know that change is constant in the world, there is a lot of flux.

We’re thinking a lot at Common Future about how power is held and how it can be held differently. We’re always about modeling a new way of working and co-leadership. I would like to say we were [the] first movers here, but we’re quite on trend at this moment, several organizations in our space, [and] many peers are moving to co-leadership structures. 

And it’s happening, particularly at this moment, I would say for a few reasons. 

Number one is just the fact that the role, the singular role of a CEO, comes with expectations that are impossible for humans to meet. Number two, if we’re going to be in justice work with longevity, we’re going to need to take risks, we’re going to need to pause, and we’re going to need to share the load that it takes because this work again, is intergenerational. And then thirdly, the thing that I found most interesting about co-leadership that I didn’t know going into it is just the natural way that power moves differently. 

And in fact, I find it as a natural check and balance. I have a particular personality point of view, a way of approaching the work, and my co-CEOs Jenn and Sandhya approach the work differently. 

Cristina: Speaking about evolution, I think folks would like to hear a bit more about you. What was your evolution? And how has that background led to this current role?

Jessica: I think [for] anyone who’s going to pursue a career in social impact and social justice, it’s not going to be a path that has been walked by others. Even [our] ancestors and the folks that we stand on had to prove themselves, move their own way, and move against the grain. And so it’s an act less of careerism and ascension, and more of response to the moment in a way that requires what I would call I guess, 21st-century skills—or soft skills—the ability to listen, the ability to learn and connect dots, the ability to act and react when the moment or the context shifts—these are the kinds of skills that I think I’ve brought into my career.

I had a degree in Interdisciplinary Studies because I was the type of person who couldn’t choose which I think a lot of folks can relate to. But also because the idea of a solo discipline is actually where I believe our society’s greatest thinking or potential for greatest thinking can break down. When we put ourselves into silos, particularly as those I experienced in academia, we weren’t able to see around the corner in the inherently intersectional spaces. 

My career has been interdisciplinary. It’s been one of just applying the skills of reading the tea leaves and trying to do what’s most necessary at the moment. But my background has taken me from being a nonprofit social enterprise founder to a member of founding teams in social enterprise startups. 

So it’s with these experiences of starting, leading, and also redistributing, that I come to Common Future really thinking about what is the role of our institutions and our movements in ceding that capital access—and doing so at a share at a scale that is truly redistributive? Also, how does one think about entrepreneurship enterprise—and then really take out the nonprofit industrial complex to examine in its parts. What is effective about the type of work that we do and what needs to change? So for me today, it’s hard for me to categorize in particular, any way of working or any type of sector, I continue to be interdisciplinary; continue to shrug off those distinctions. Because I find that in those distinctions, we silo ourselves in our silos. We lose each other.  

Cristina: Wow, Jess, for many years, you’ve held so many different roles at Common Future, particularly leading our fundraising and storytelling arm, can you share a bit about how you see both evolving in the coming years? And what are you most excited to explore with this new leadership role?

Jessica: So when I think about the work of fundraising and communications— areas which I led in my previous role as Chief Strategy Officer—I think about the organization I came into, and the fact that [it was] lacking a development and communications department at the time. I have walked each of the jobs that focus on this much-expanded team, in a greater vision now hold. 

And what has been so important to me is with each growth stage, we have hired folks much better than myself with much greater expertise. What I can always lean back on is knowing what that work entails, but not quite knowing how to do it. I am so grateful for the folks we have on this team who just bring that expertise and have helped us truly get to levels that I could not have anticipated. For fundraising, we went from a nonprofit that was in a turnaround—reliant on institutional philanthropy—to one that is truly a multi-entity enterprise that has acquired two other organizations: an accelerator with Uncharted, and a fund Community Credit Lab. [We] can leverage that more complex infrastructure to bring capital up the capital stack and deploy it in ways that are truly redistributive by design, meet communities, basically dictated by their needs, and allow the capital that has been turned over to Common Future control to be one that is distributed to communities in a radically different way. 

In terms of communications, when I came in, we called it “marketing”. And I was reticent because I’ve never led a marketing team. Social media, I’ll admit, I barely use it. I have a distrust of what folks on the internet are saying to one another. It can be polarizing, or frankly, it can be mean. So, as someone who is an inherent skeptic of what new media was, I knew that we had to tell our story. But, we had to do it on our terms, in our way, unapologetically. And in a way that didn’t invite the kind of criticism and opposition that further crushes the type of work we’re endeavoring. 

And so our work has been framed as influence because that’s what it is: it isn’t transactional, we’re not looking for likes and clicks. We need to change mindsets and the audience that we have prioritized as a communications team speaks to the change that we’re seeking to create in the world.

We’re working with power brokers, we’re working with investors and philanthropists and policy leaders—folks in government at the state and national levels.  We need these power brokers to think about power differently, and to do so as a result of their interaction with us. That interaction might be on social media, it might be through reading, either earned media or an op-ed, something that we’ve written or posted. All of these touch points today, they’re communication, but I really see this as the future of how organizations need to move. 

Cristina: That’s amazing. Jess, what do you think is the most important story that needs to be told within the economic justice space?

Jessica:  One of the things I’ve been thinking about most lately is as we look at systemic racism and how it’s affected access to land and farming, how products get to market, who can access financing, and who cannot. I was reminded just yesterday that two of our biggest grocery chains in this country, Kroger and Albertsons, are looking to merge. 

We cannot do our grassroots work without talking about monopoly power. Because we will not succeed in building a better and more just food system, as an example, until it’s dismantled. 

I am heartened at Lena Khan and the FTC and our federal government being more anti-monopoly than we have seen in decades. And I know we have to work [on] these problems from both angles. The economic justice story needs to be told is that, yes, we’re absolutely needed at the grassroots, whether it’s opening up access—to markets, to financing, to land—there’s a ton of work to be done in that place. 

So what Common Futures aims to do is use the stories of what’s happening on the ground, to speak truth to power, and show how structures must be dismantled. The justice story that has to be told is that these things need to be worked from both angles—the grassroots and the grasstops—and I think folks need organizations like Common Future who are willing to endeavor in both.

Cristina: In your announcement for your transition to co-CEO, you spoke about your journey within the organizational leadership for the past five years, and the firsthand change you’ve seen that Common Future can influence when we demonstrate what’s possible. Can you describe a moment in your Common Future tenure where you are most inspired by the work we do?

Jessica: In terms of moments that inspire me at Common Future, the general theme would be responsiveness. Doing loudly and proudly the things that folks basically have told us, “You can’t”. And to prove that those barriers, those expectations are absolutely self-imposed and that the rules can be rewritten. 

And I think about it most acutely, because during the first and early days of the pandemic, we had been Common Future for about four months. Our website had been up for about six weeks, and as we all know, the world shut down. When the world shut down, Rodney and other team members were at a Food and Farm conference in New Orleans that got canceled as everyone had to go home and lock down. Rodney chose to take a stand and say we’re deploying 10% of our organizational net assets. Tomorrow. Now at that point, we’re about a two-and-a-half million dollar organization—fourfold smaller than we are today. At that point, I couldn’t necessarily say where our next big round was coming from. We had a hunch we had some hopes. But we, looking at our annual budget, did not have that 10% to give. It was not secured, it was not yet earned. We committed it and put it out within seven days of collecting the applications, vetting the need, and understanding not just how the food system would have to change to serve needy families overnight, but how the work that Black and Brown individuals and organizations were leading around the country was uniquely threatened. And we only saw that worsen around the inequity that was PPP, the paycheck protection program, we moved much faster than PPP and philanthropy. 

If philanthropy can only allocate 5% per year of its endowment, and the rest is capital preservation and growth, we just showed that an unendowed nonprofit organization without a clear sense of where our next big check was coming from, we can double that. So if we could double that—where are the excuses and what are they?

We show that you can give differently in ways that yes, others—like MacKenzie Scott—have shown are possible, but too few are doing. We did it on a shoestring budget with no endowment. We knew we had to do it for a common future. I think in so many ways that evinces what we’re all about—taking risks, sticking our necks out, because whether we can afford or not the consequences—we’re gonna do it or die trying. And I think that’s very much what Common Future is.

Cristina: That’s so inspiring, Jess. On that note, could you name some folks and organizations that you look to for inspiration?

Jessica: I remember being on a panel with Derek Braziel of MORTAR Cincinnati, and thinking this was the clearest vision I’ve seen for community development and entrepreneurship that I’d ever heard of. It felt like an ephemeral honor to share a stage with someone like Derrick—Derrick was a BALLE fellow. Then at one point, I was still at Kiva and I went to a Nathan Cummings-hosted afternoon where Jessica Norwood was talking about what would become Runway. I remember thinking that it is so easy for any credit union to take its certificates of deposit and leverage them for a much greater advantage in the community. Why wasn’t anyone doing this? Jessica Norwood that day made me aware of some of the data around wealth in this country, the Pew data that are so often cited to say that a white family has often eleven times the wealth of a Black family. What does that mean for the work that I was doing at the time? And what did that mean for the work I wanted to do? Well, I knew I had a lot to learn from Jessica Norwood. Rodney Foxworth organized capital down in Baltimore, a place where I was spending a lot of time launching programs. My work was based in Silicon Valley. It wasn’t grounded in these communities, but I knew these community leaders had the expertise. So I joined Common Future, then known as BALLE, because I thought the BALLE fellows were the smartest people I’d met. 

And I feel so grateful now to—in this co-CEO role—be somewhat still a peer of them, but they’re still folks I look up to tremendously.

Cristina: Thank you so much. For our final question, can you describe your vision for an equitable, common future?

As an organization, it is hard not to be swimming in the water that surrounds us and what happens in the world we’re vulnerable to in the organization. But with that, what we demonstrate as possible here, we’re proving that it’s possible for the world. We’re living in a particularly challenging moment—we just saw the dismantling of Affirmative Action a week and a half ago, equity at Common Future is something that we have to get right. In a world where we’ve never seen our utopia, we’ve never actually achieved the equity we strive for. Every day is an endeavor to get clearer on what that vision is and how we move towards it. A multi-racial democracy—if we can evince it here, and I see us doing that—through our employer policies, through our benefits, and other field-defining interventions, other experiments that we have not even yet conceived of or piloted—these are the ways that we build towards equity that we have been set that we try it. 

And in many ways, like the society that we live in, things risk falling short, our commitment here at Common Future is to do better than that, to do better than yesterday, and to use the fact that it’s possible as evidence for others.