CJ Callen, CZI’s community leadership and capacity building director, has spent her career advocating for and partnering with communities to create opportunities and resources that help residents thrive.
The people closest to our society’s most pressing issues should be the ones to inform solutions and drive change. So when we say to “stay close to the work” at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, we mean it. Our teams partner with diverse educators, families, community leaders and organizations, scientists and more to ensure the voices of those most impacted are always heard.
In this edition of Stay Close to the Work, get to know CJ Callen, CZI’s community leadership and capacity building director. Learn how her experiences and values inform her work and how her deep commitment to communities extends beyond CZI.
My lived experiences shaped me into a deeply empathetic professional who can build the relationships needed to be an effective grantmaker who understands that the ‘more than the grant’ theme of capacity building can be transformational for our partners.
Tell us a little bit about what you do at CZI.
As the community leadership and capacity building director on the community team, I oversee a new grants portfolio that invests deeply in community leadership and solutions to increase socioeconomic opportunity and build shared prosperity in the Bay Area of California. Additionally, I manage a capacity-building program that helps our partners build thriving organizations where their people are taken care of and where they are able to achieve game-changing results. I round out my duties by leading internal learning for the team.
It’s a complex role that builds upon my decades of experience in the social and philanthropic sector. I work across the team to elevate best practices in strengthening leadership in place — a term we use to describe not only a physical location but also the relationship between people, communities and places — or around a core issue, such as housing affordability.
How did you come to be a part of the CZI team? Tell us about your journey.
My journey to CZI was unexpected. I left New York City for the first time when I ventured to Stanford University. Attending Stanford was also unexpected because I grew up in a housing project and was raised by a mother with a first-grade education. After I graduated, I was on track to start a legal career until I began volunteering at a YMCA after-school program. I decided to quit my job to work for kids.
That decision took me on a journey. In my career, I’ve served as a youth worker, policy advocate, program officer, nonprofit chief executive, and philanthropic consultant. Eventually, I arrived at my CZI role on the movement and capacity building team. During that time, I wore many hats. Working for social change and justice always reminded me of my journey — from my family losing our home to living in the projects to knowing hunger.
My experiences shaped me into a deeply empathetic professional who can build the relationships needed to be an effective grantmaker who understands that the “more than the grant” theme of capacity building can be transformational for our partners.
We know balancing the demands of work and life can be challenging. What are some of your favorite ways to prioritize your self-care?
To be transparent, as a caregiver, the demands of work and life are particularly challenging. I show up at work with a smile on my face and with a spirit of optimism. To care for myself, I practice meditation regularly. Although I was born in the concrete city of Brooklyn, NY, when I moved to California, I fell in love with the natural world. So, I try to get out and into it as much as possible.
This year, I am giving myself a spa vacation for my birthday! And I’m taking another vital part of my self-care with me: my pandemic pup — the one and only Pote! (Pote is named after my favorite character in a telenovela, Queen of the South). I’m also a wine lover and love exploring the world of wine. I love how wine tells a place’s story, and at CZI, I work on a team that values place and invests deeply in its hometown.
I was once a professional stage manager, so I love the theater. I recently went to Shotgun Players in Berkeley to see Dream House, a play about Latina/x sisters exploring gentrification, family, and sisterhood.
Travel feeds my soul as well because I never got a chance to travel when I was growing up. Maybe I’m making up for lost time. I’ve toured the U.S. coast to coast on my bicycle, while riding to raise funds for a charity. I also lived in North Africa when my husband, an ethnomusicologist, was a Fulbright scholar. I’ve been to many parts of the world that I could’ve only dreamed of as a child. And I cannot wait to see where my travels will take me next. Traveling is more difficult now, but I found an excellent disability travel agent who’s helping me plan a trip to Barcelona next spring!
How does your work at CZI relate to who you are and your values in life?
My values are embedded in my experience growing up poor and often feeling powerless. Those values are love, kindness, and compassion — from which everything else flows, including my unshakeable commitment to justice and equity. The work I’ve done all my life centers on people affected by problems, addresses structural inequities, and seeks to unleash opportunity. It is opportunity that gets people out of poverty.
My work at CZI reminds me that, as a leader, I am in service to other leaders who are directly involved in making changes to increase economic, social, and cultural power in their communities. This year, I am privileged to launch a new grantmaking portfolio focused on community leadership that speaks to my core values. The opportunity to invest in grassroots leaders who are on the frontlines of change is close to my heart.
I also work to build a more robust ecosystem where individuals can develop leadership skills, connect to opportunities to apply those skills, and work collectively to shape the decisions that impact the economic viability of their communities. The growing body of evidence shows that community-driven change increases the odds of lasting change. At CZI, we invest in community leaders because we are in this work for the long haul and provide capacity building needed for transformational change.
One of my other core values is creativity. CZI allows me to create new, powerful strategies that support creativity in community spaces, providing them with space to imagine and dream.
The work I’ve done all my life centers on people affected by problems, addresses structural inequities, and seeks to unleash opportunity. It is opportunity that gets people out of poverty.
What do you enjoy most about the community team?
I love how the community team puts communities first. We take the time to build the relationships needed for success. We understand one of our superpowers is to listen, listen, and then listen some more to people in the communities we serve. That is the only way we can craft strategies and approaches to meet their real needs. Our team strives to be humble. With acknowledgment of the privileged position we are in, we strive to work in restorative ways. Our shared values give me tremendous freedom to be of genuine service to our partners. I love how our commitment to place enriches our relationships with partners.
What’s a project that you really enjoyed and why?
Our team recently completed strategic planning, and while it was challenging, I loved it! The strategic framework serves as inspiration and now I get to work on one of our three pillars: community leadership. The project has opened up so many doors, allowing us to connect to practitioners and thought leaders, providing us with key insights into how we might serve our partners and our North Star: an equitable, inclusive and just California.
The strategy gave me an opportunity to pick up old relationships and build new ones. I enjoy creating meaningful relationships that help inform my thinking and make me a better grantmaker. In a nutshell, the project was a source of joy, and I am prioritizing joy in my work — and hoping to bring joy to others, too.
How do you hope to see CZI evolve and grow over the next five years?
Over the next five years, I would like to see CZI evolve into a philanthropic leader that values and models risk-taking by developing an ambitious leadership plan that is centered in servant leadership. What are the creative ways that CZI can use its leadership tools in service to our partners and the places or issues we care about most? I’d also love to see CZI take a big giant step forward in the racial equity grantmaking space, determined by what we are learning from the field and our philanthropic colleagues.
What does staying close to the work mean to you?
Staying close to the work is about being my authentic self, which I strive to do every day. In addition to my CZI work, I serve on boards as a way to stay close to the real challenges of running a nonprofit enterprise. I’m part of the RSF Social Finance board where we are doubling down on our commitment to BIPOC entrepreneurs. I’m also a board member for a small, emerging grassroots organization in East Contra Costa County, California, called Healthy Hearts Institute, which helps to eradicate food deserts and empower individual and community transformation through health and wellness. I joined that board because I was inspired by a community leader with a vision and the passion to power it. Since I grew up in a food desert (where the local supermarket was caught selling rotten fruits and vegetables from suburban markets), his vision certainly resonated with me.
How do I stay close to the work? This is who I am.