An Interview with Community Engagement Director Katie Stone

I met Katie when our shared friend Heidi Huerta brought her to a Friday morning Pancake Run. Pancake is a tight-knit group, but we immediately fell in love with Katie and welcomed her into the Pancake fold. That was around the time I started doing triathlons and Katie wanted to try them too, so we started training and racing together, which is when I really got to know her.

If you've met Katie, you like her, because she's awesome. But if you know Katie, then you know the depth of her character and the soul-to-soul real talk she can throw down. Katie's answers in this post are what we bitches need to be shouting from the rooftops:  "You don't have to have all the answers! You are allowed to fail!" I wish I had learned earlier in life that you don't have to know what you're doing, you can quit fancy jobs that you went to expensive schools for, you can try new things, you can fail at those new things, then you can try a different new thing, and sometimes you can check the fuck out and get your mind right. Meet today's bitch, Katie Stone!

What is your job title and where do you work?

Director of Engagement, Leadership Tennessee -- I implement a grant from the Gates Foundation to create community engagement events on education, economic development, and healthcare issues in Tennessee. Essentially, we try to bring people back to the public square to discuss issues and work on data-driven, fact-based solutions at the local level.

When did you first learn about this field of work?

Eight months ago, I was a stay-at-home mom and desperate to get into the (paid) working world. I spent every day online searching for jobs and networking my butt off - anything to break up long days of breastmilk and poo. I had no idea what I wanted to do other than A) not practicing law, and B) anything that gave me a daily excuse to shower. I randomly came across an Internet posting for my job, and I still had no idea what it meant or entailed when I was offered the job 3 weeks later. 

How did you know it was what you wanted to do?

I still don’t know that it’s my dream job, or a field I will stay in forever, but I love doing something totally new (to me) and I really adore my colleagues. Community engagement work is different than anything I've ever done, but yet something I knew I would be innately good at. I love schmoozing and I love connecting people with other people and resources. I love empowering people to take charge of the community in which they live, and it’s very humbling to see the challenges facing both large and small communities in Tennessee. I really do love this state and I love working to make it a better place to live, even in a tiny tiny way. 

And to be perfectly candid, I like my job a lot, but I love the work-life balance it provides at this point in my life. Flexibility for my family is hyper-important to me, and I love that I can work on a fulfilling project but still have the time and energy most days to be the wife and parent I want to be. 

What was your path that lead you to the job you have now?

When I was 22 and completely stupid, I decided to go to law school so I could “be a lawyer to help kids.” Little did I know that being a lawyer for kids meant A) being a trial attorney, something I had little interest in, and B) unethical caseloads of emotional brutality. 

I started my career as a trial attorney for the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services, and that wasn’t quite masochistic enough, so I become a Public Defender for juveniles in Davidson County. It only took 5 years of depression and wanting to ram my head into a cinder block wall before I realized I was so unhappy, if I stayed in this line of work I would be dead, either actually or emotionally. I have little ability to compartmentalize, so I brought every case home with me, every night. 

I moved to a job in non-profit administration just to get out of practicing law, but in a sick way I missed the challenge of making all the pieces of a case fit together. When my son was born a few years later, I knew it was the right opportunity to take some time to figure it all out and reset myself after almost a decade in jobs that made me actively miserable. One thing lead to another and after a year of wearing yoga pants and making up excuses to go to Target, I joined Leadership Tennessee. 

Favorite piece of advice, business or otherwise?

Just confront conflict head on. As women, I think we are so often conditioned to avoid conflict, smooth things over, or be polite and likable. It still isn’t second nature to me (I’m a Midwesterner by birth - we HATE conflict), but I’ve found that things almost always work out best if you just put issues out in the open and say what’s on your mind. People often respond far better and gentler than I expect, and we usually reach a resolution sooner. You can be frank and honest and still be polite!

Also, STOP SAYING “SORRY” for everything. We have got to stop that, ladies. No man says, “Hey, I’m really sorry to bother you, but...” Don’t apologize for existing. 

And finally, ask questions. Ask all the questions, all the time. Knowledge is power. 

Failure you learned from or that helped you improve the way you work?

When I first began practicing law, I was a 26 year old girl-woman, greener than grass, and scared of everything. I let people - especially old, white, men - run me over instead of trusting my instincts and believing in my own abilities. I had one particular pre-trial hearing against a very intimidating attorney who was a known bully, and I was physically ill just thinking about going up against her in the hearing. The case involved a badly shaken baby and I begged another, older attorney at my agency to cover the case for me because I was so scared I would be too intimidated by the opposing attorney and lose the case. The other agency attorney handled the case, but he didn’t admit key evidence and the child was essentially sent home to the abusive parents. I knew that I would have admitted the evidence and likely would have kept the child from returning home, or at least we would have given the court every bit of information to protect the child. Years later, I learned that child was severely abused again by the same parents. I think about that case - that child - almost every single day. I failed her by being intimidated by someone who isn’t even worth my effort in typing this. Often, when I’m scared or intimidated, I say that child’s name to remind myself to stop being a wuss, to face scary or uncomfortable moments, and to trust my experience and knowledge. 

What would you do with 2 more hours a day?

Ugh. Exercise. Someday I’ll tell my kids that I ran full marathons and swam miles and did bendy yoga things, and they will laugh until they can’t breathe and then point at me and say LIAR. Glad I have some photo documentation of the time when I was a physical badass. 

What is your greatest success (or something you’re most proud of) in your professional life?

Walking away from a career that I know I was good at, but that made me very unhappy, and not being afraid to make non-traditional, non-linear moves. One of my favorite mentors shared with me that she never thought about career paths or climbing ladders, instead she just took jobs that interested her - She’s been an editor of a magazine, a nonprofit fundraiser, and she’s now a VP at a large Nashville bank and an overall badass. I’ve done some job-hopping, but it all lead me to a place where I have a weird skill set and know how to use it. Sometimes I miss working in a field I will always be very passionate about, but I learned the hard way that there are other ways to be helpful, find meaningful work, and create positive community change without sacrificing my own mental health. I still don’t even know how to explain what I do, but I’m having fun doing it, and that’s good enough for me.

What’s the first app or website you open when you wake up in the morning?

Ugh. Instagram. Effing Instagram. I love and hate her so. 

How do you decompress at the end of the work day?

Spending time with my son, Jasper. He makes everything better at the end of the day. It sounds cheesy even to me, but it’s so true! The simplicity of blowing bubbles or watching him giggle at his own farts is such a beautiful counterbalance to all the other bullshit of adult life. Sometimes when I’m really sad or overwhelmed, I sneak into his room when he’s sleeping and just watch him. It makes everything feel okay again.

And wine, of course.

What’s the hardest thing about your job that isn’t obvious?

Working on soft money is its own form of stress. There’s a lot of pressure to create successful programming, not just because I want to do a good job, but also because I want to keep my job. Grant-based jobs are great because of the flexibility, but stressful in that you’re always figuring out how to keep the program funded in addition to doing the actual work of the grant focus.

What is one thing everyone gets wrong about what you do?

Community engagement work can be so mind-blowingly frustrating. Everyone wants to complain, but very few people want to do the problem-solving work. Part of our strategic focus is to have broad community-level input on the type of events we put on, which means I run planning sessions for groups of community leaders across the state. The first few sessions are often a stage for people to complain about a community or statewide issue, but when my team tries to create a solution to address the complaint, people scatter. 

Part of my job is to empower people to make change in their own community, but we are so conditioned to think that most problems are too big to solve that we’re scared to take them on. I spend a lot of time and effort just listening to communities, and it’s hard to inspire and encourage people to be brave enough to tackle an issue, even at the local level. So many people are afraid to change the status quo or take on the establishment, but we really do have the power to create change in our own communities if we’re just willing to put in the effort (or at least try). Never underestimate the power of the proletariat!

Lastly, and most important, what is your favorite TV show and what is your favorite snack?

TV:  FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS. All I want in life is to be Tami Taylor.

Snack: How do you pick one snack??? I tend to gorge on one thing for weeks at a time and then burn myself out, never to really love that particular snack again. Currently, I cannot stop eating a freakish amount of fresh blackberries and strawberries, but I’ve also been known to eat popcorn for multiple meals a day. And coffee. So much coffee.

All photos courtesy of Katie Stone

P.S. Meet last week's bitch:  Hairstylist, Courtney Risse!

P.P.S. Full list of My Bitches here.

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