AN: Welcome everyone. My name is Andy, I am community leader at L'Arche Portland. I'm here with my friends Frances Sexton, who is a board member at L'Arche Portland and Tom Soma who is a former board member at L'Arche Portland. We're here to talk about our experience of creating a diverse board of directors. So, I'm here with my friends and I first want to ask the two of you; Frances, how long have you been with L'Arche and how did you get involved?
FS: Since the beginning, maybe back in the 1980's. I met my good friend Tom White, he's the one who introduced me to L'Arche.
AN: And you've been involved in friendships ever since?
AN: And sometimes you've taken your friends from L'Arche dancing?
FS: Yes, I love to dance!
AN: Thank you Frances, that paints a great picture. So Tom, how did you become involved with L'Arche over the years?
TS: You know, I've been on the periphery of L'Arche ever since it began. I knew some of the founders and participate in little things here and there over the years. But it really wasn't until, Andy, you approached me, four and a half years ago to consider getting involved in some other ways. First, facilitating the board retreat and then ultimately coming onto the board.
AN: Four years ago next month, we had a board retreat which we have every January. It was a half day we shared together and the board of directors asked Tom Soma to be our facilitator. Tom is a local non-profit leader and professional and we really wanted him to lead us to how we could become more and grow as a board. We came out of that board retreat with the question; could we invite someone who experience an intellectual disability to be on our board? So we took that question and we asked some people in L’Arche is there a precedent, can we do this? And the answer we got is yes, but you have to make sure that person is a director and that they have full agency over their decisions as a director. And that it should not be someone who is just a token member representing people with disabilities. So we took that to heart and maybe the next month, that February-March, we had a discussion about L’Arche USA’S business plan which we were working on at that time. Frances was at that meeting as a friend and part of our extended meeting and she asked lots of questions that night. To the point where, at our next executive committee meeting, all we could talk about was all of the questions Frances asked, how good they were, and that some of our executive committee members wished that they had asked those questions. So then we said, maybe Frances is the person that we are looking for to be on our board. So, I made an introduction. Do you two remember that?
FS: Yes, we met at the coffee house. And you introduced me to Tom.
AN: And how was that?
FS: I was kinda nervous when I met Tom.
TS: I was nervous too!
FS: Oh! I didn’t know you were nervous.
Partners on the board:
TS: First of all, I want to say something about the diversity thing. We came out of that board retreat and it was a very strong sentiment toward wanting the board to be more diverse. Now what is diversity?
FS: What’s that mean?
TS: Having different kinds of people represented. For different organizations that means different things. For all organizations seeking diversity these days it does mean having the people that you’re serving be represented on the board. Which is why we wanted to have someone with an intellectual disability on the board. As Andy said, we wanted to be very thoughtful about the way we did that. Now what Andy, and I’m going to give Andy a great idea of credit here, decided was, let’s bring someone on but let’s partner them with another person. I wasn’t going to be on the board. I wasn’t looking for a board, I had already told Andy I’m not quite ready for that. But Andy said, what if you came on the board as a partner with someone that we’re going to bring on with an intellectual disability. And that what got my interest, not coming alone but coming in partnership with someone that this organization really wanted to have on the board. And Andy’s the one who orchestrated a match that he really thought would work.
FS: You have a perfect match, thank you Andy!
AN: So you two, after that coffee, I went back to you individually and asked if you would both be interested in serving on the board together. I went to you individually and you both said yes.
TS: Yes! Absolutely. I just thought Frances was the greatest and it would be a learning experience for me. If it had been just a serving experience that wouldn’t have done it. But a learning experience was really intriguing. The thought of working with Frances was really compelling.
FS: I want to ask you- are you nervous when you go out with me by ourselves in the restaurant?
TS: No, absolutely not.
AN: I want to go back to the first board meeting. In the summer of 2016, you two started coming to board meetings together. Could you share with us both the preparation for the board meetings as well as the experience of those meetings.
TS: I’ll start. We decided that, as a way to prepare ourselves for the meetings, we would go out to dinner before the meetings and I would always make two copies of the board packet, and I highlight areas that I thought were of special interest to Frances or that we needed to delve into before the meeting.
FS: You did really good with it, you explained everything to me. Really good, each time we go out. I had no trouble understanding it.
TS: So we would go to dinner and we would go through the whole agenda and we would look at the financials, we would look at the pressing issues, and we would talk about them. And we would often prepare questions. You would ask me a question and I would say Frances, that’s a question you should ask everyone at the meeting.
TS: Yes, I ask good questions! A lot of people are afraid, who don’t have a disability, and I wonder why? Why don’t they ask good questions? They get scared or something.
TS: Boards can become a little bit lazy. Especially when there is a good executive director. They just kind of allow things to happen. Frances kept us all on our toes. Because she asked questions, it forced us to pay attention to things that maybe we wouldn’t have paid attention to. It was something different every time. Sometimes it was something that merited a little bit of explanation and sometimes it was deep. Especially as we got into planning phases. Then it was more than questions, Frances started offering perspectives. Just as she was good at asking questions, she was very bold about her desires for the community.
AN: Yes, we were leading a process of discerning what the future of L’Arche Portland would look like and what does growth mean. Frances offered bold vision. That bold vision was way out there, and it was courageous, and it was limitless.
FS: L’Arche people should work for the restaurant, or the bowling alley, or the theater, they’ll earn more money that way.
AN: What it allowed us to do for our community is let go of the idea that growth means creating another home, growth does not mean replicating what we are already doing, it means doing something more that can impact more people.
FS: And I hope it will happen in the near future, maybe in five or ten years.
TS: I would underscore what Andy just said about impacting more people. Frances does not live in one of the homes. Frances participates in the community. This was part of our planning process. How do we engage more people in the life of the community? How do we build a bigger community? Because there are people who would like and benefit from all of what L’Arche is. Frances, partly through her vision, and partly from her participation, helped with that.
AN: I would say four years ago, our core members, or adults with intellectual disabilities who live in our homes, welcomed people into their homes to experience L’Arche and would go out and speak at schools. That was really the opportunity for leadership for adults with intellectual disabilities. Now, through your leadership and example, we have people throughout Portland who are able to participate and lead in monthly gatherings. We have a new home that is not based on residential care. Which again, you live independently, so it was kind of based on your experience of living. So L’Arche is now available to a lot more people, and I think there are a lot more people representing L’Arche in the wider community because of that.
A Lasting Friendship
AN: Just this past summer Tom ended his three-year term and stepped off the board. We a grateful for his leadership over the past three years.
FS: I miss Tom at the meetings.
AN: Frances, did you step off the board?
FS: No, I’ve got Andrew, he’s my friend too.
AN: So Frances signed up for a second three-year term and now Frances is supported by Andrew.
TS: I would say more Frances supports Andrew.
AN: But does that mean your friendship has ended? Do you still go out to dinner?
TS: Lunch, dinner, breakfast, one a month. And now Paul joins us often, my wife joins us periodically.
FS: Yes, we still continue our friendship!
AN: So board members are able to remain involved and in relationships in the community beyond their participation on the board which is so important as well.
TS: Frances said something a little while ago about representing people like her. There’s no one quite like Frances, but you do thoughtfully represent other people. Like your brother, like some people who don’t live in the community. But you also know everybody who is in the community individually and personally and you care deeply about them. It’s through that caring that you represent their interests very well and very effectively.
AN: Well, I am grateful for both of you. I am grateful for your friendships and your leadership and I don’t think L’Arche Portland would be where we are today without either of you.
FS: Well thank you.
TS: The last thing that I would like to say is what a gift this has been. It’s been a gift to me personally, it’s been a gift to the board, it’s been a gift to the whole community, to have this kind of diversity represented in the organization.
FS: It is fun to be a board member, and it is fun to go out with him and explain the piece of paper to me. It was fun and I ask good questions, I will always go out with him to the board meetings and be a board member.
TS: And I would encourage any organization to go out and do the same thing. And if they need help, we’re here.