mp_504 Justin Pasquierello

Reinventing a Brand from the Inside Out with Justin Pasquierello

Justin Pasquierello is a relentless and visionary thinker, working tirelessly to make the world a more peaceful, joyful, and sustainable place. He joins us to talk a bit about his work, his love, and some of our past work together.

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"Joy can be a matter of life and death."

So says our guest this week, Justin Pasquierello. You could say his career started as a child, in a townhouse, meeting a team of paramedics on his stairs. His birth mother had a reaction to her medication. That was the last night he had lived with her, and the night that set him off on his career working in nonprofits on behalf of children.

We first met Justin Pasquierello when he was serving as executive director of Children’s HealthWatch working with leaders around the country to improve children’s health in America. From there, he’s moved to East Boston Social Centers, taking the reins as Executive Director serving not just the diverse residents of East Boston, but the powerful legacy of 104 years the organization has served its community.

And Justin has done it all with joy.

"Joy lives in community," he says. "It is literally contagious, and so we can most effectively pursue our own happiness, and that of our society, together. Recognizing when all give, all gain, we can collectively make the world a better place by pursuing what matters most for joy: long and strong relationships, purpose, physical fitness, meditation, and fun."

He is a relentless and visionary thinker, working tirelessly to make the world a more peaceful, joyful, and sustainable place. We’re honored to have Justin with us today to talk a bit about his work, his love, and some of our past work together.

Learn more about the work of East Boston Social Centers, and if you haven’t had the opportunity, make sure to watch his TEDx Talk, "Why Joy is Not a Solo Sport", today.

Episode Transcript

Carrie Fox: Hi there and welcome to the Mission Forward podcast, where each week we bring you a thought provoking and perspective shifting conversation on the power of communications. I’m Carrie Fox, your host and CEO of Mission Partners, a social impact communications firm and certified B Corporation.

Carrie Fox: This season we’re talking with an impressive mix of nonprofit and foundation leaders, along with some of my favorite communications consultants about some of the most common communications challenge points and barriers to moving missions forward. Today’s guest has spent his career working in nonprofits as a consultant to nonprofits on behalf of children and families. I first met Justin Pasqueflower when he was Executive Director of Children’s Health Watch. I’ve loved watching his career. He has taken the head stage in such a powerful way. Search ‘Why joy is not a solo sport’ if you’re looking for something to feel good about today.

Carrie Fox: And in his current role, we’ve had a chance to see him work firsthand. Now he’s the Executive Director of East Boston Social Centers. You have heard me talk a few times on the show about how much I love when people center their purpose, and Justin has a very clear one as a relentless vision level thinker working to make the world a more peaceful, joyful, and sustainable place. Justin, thanks for being here.

Justin Pasquierello: Carrie, it’s awesome to be here. I have loved listening to the podcast and I’m really excited to have this chance to be with you. So thank you.

Carrie Fox: Yeah, thank you. Well, I gave folks a little preview there, but there is so much to you, Justin, that I could not fit in a quick bio. So I’d love to turn it to you. Tell us about this amazing adventure you’ve had and journey you’ve had that has now taken you to the wonderful community and of East Boston Social Centers.

Justin Pasquierello: Yeah, in many ways I think my story starts with my experience of having been in foster care. I was incredibly fortunate in many ways. I have loving birth family, half sister and her family and my birth mother, other birth relatives who were really supportive. And my birth mother wasn’t able to take care of me all the time. So I spent some time with her, spent some time with family in England in foster homes, and ended up with my family who adopted me when I was nine years old. And so as I was in my last year in college, I was in a community action class and knew that I was wanted to do something for foster kids. Thought that I wanted to write a book, went to the bookstore, saw that there were a lot of books. And so I’ve been working on that for the last 24 years or so, but I found that there was a real need for mentoring for youth and care and had the opportunity to move back home with my parents and start a mentoring organization for youth and care.

Justin Pasquierello: That was a really foundational experience for me. I continue to be on the board of Silver Lining Mentoring and am proud of the work there. I think one of the biggest lessons that I took from that experience as someone who had been in foster care was the importance of people with lived experience, people who are from the community being part of change as partners, as leaders in an organization and not just people receiving that support. So I talked with someone who was running another mentoring organization for youth and care who was doing outstanding work, but we had had this model of mentors who had been foster children themselves. And the person said to me, "Can you find good mentors, who’ve had that experience?" And that has always stuck with me as that kind of light bulb moment of the importance of centering the voice and the leadership of the community that you’re working with, because yes, there are great mentors who’ve had that experience.

Justin Pasquierello: And for an organization who doesn’t believe that, I think it’s really hard to have the change that we’re hoping to have for youth and care. So I took that experience and wanted to think about how do we reduce the need for child welfare entry in the first place, wanted to think about the difference I wanted to make in the world and really wanted to, as you said, figure out a way to increase joy in the world. And that was kind of marinating in my mind. I didn’t know quite how to get there, but I found joy in the community of East Boston. And then had this opportunity to come and lead the East Boston Social Centers and to bring that vision of joy, to work on issue areas where we can have huge impact. We know that early child is one of the areas with the greatest opportunity for impact and we do work there, so I’m able to be part of that on the ground and do policy work. And so I’ve been excited to be there for nearly five years now.

Carrie Fox: Justin, thanks for sharing that background and that experience that brought you to where you are. I often think that with any individual, to a person we are a collection of our experiences that we have been through. And it makes so much sense if I think about how I have experienced you as a leader. And I mentioned this before we started, that I think you distribute and share power better than just about anybody I’ve ever seen. You are a really, truly inclusive and thoughtful and caring leader. How you think about the importance of the role that you sit in and how some, I am sure, very difficult early experiences informed now how you show up at work and the gift that you are as a friend and a person and a peer.

Justin Pasquierello: Well, thank you.

Carrie Fox: So let’s pick up on that because you know we are talking this season and in this set of shows about this power, and specifically power of communications to advance justice and equity. And for folks listening, they should probably know that we had this great experience to work really closely with you over the course of this last many months in the rebrand and the refresh of East Boston Social Centers as an organization that had had the same logo and the same messaging for decades. For a long time that you knew, you knew inherently that it needed to be updated.

Justin Pasquierello: Yes.

Carrie Fox: But there was a really clear way that we said about doing that together and it was designed every piece of it to be community led. Talk to me about what that experience felt like for you and as much as you want to, what that meant for your community too?

Justin Pasquierello: Well, that was a big part of why we wanted to work with you and Mission Partners. We talked with few potential groups that we could work with and you did such an outstanding job of bringing a proposal that would allow us to have these in depth interviews with community members, these focus groups and allow us to bring as much community voice as possible into this work. And that was hugely important for the social centers. We have been around for more than in a hundred years and we have people who’ve been part of this organization for generations. And it is a home for them, it is a family. So the way that we talk about our work, who we are means a great deal to them.

Justin Pasquierello: So it is a really great experience too they recognize this need to refresh, as you said. The logo was decades old, had been updated with clip art decades ago, but reflected work that we didn’t do anymore. People didn’t name the organization, name the same way every time that they talked about it, sometimes it was the social center or the center. People said it in different ways. So people recognize the need to update, to refresh, also to keep that historical thread. Yeah, it was great to be able to bring people who’d been with us for generations, people who are much newer to the organization, board staff, community members, people didn’t always agree, but they were able to hear each other and everyone was happy with where we landed.

Carrie Fox: And I will remember that about that experience with your community, that there was a connectivity, a deep connectivity to your existing brand that folks weren’t willing to get rid of because of how much, it wasn’t just a mark, it was the history of everything that you all stand for was in that mark. I even remember someone saying that that initial mark was drawn by some of the children decades ago and that informed the logo and that was hard for people to move away from. But ultimately you’re right, we spent a lot of time listening to your community and heard over and over again the spirit of joy, the spirit of optimism, the spirit of change and come community was so deep that community decided that could be presented in a different way but still mean the same thing.

Justin Pasquierello: Yes. And your team did a great job working with all of us to process that some people questioned should we have a new name, but there was this really strong commitment to what that name meant that there was really strong attachment to it and that it was important to keep that name, but that we could refresh and update the brand to be more relevant with a logo that’s more reflective of this time and of who we are now, and with messaging that better captures our history, but also helps us to talk about how we’re moving forward.

Carrie Fox: And there’s a lot of organizations who have considered going through similar processes you’ve just gone through, who also have stakeholders and communities that are evolving and changing rapidly. If we think about changing demographics of most communities, they are changing. And so that acquired you in this process to think really deeply about how to make sure we were hearing from a wide swath of constituents in that process. Was there anything about that that surprised you or that you heard that you didn’t expect to, or maybe that reinforced to you anything about your community?

Justin Pasquierello: It was really helpful for me to hear the reflection on the word joy, because joy was a way that I had been talking about the work that we were doing at the social centers that I think really embodies what we have done for more than a hundred years. That we have been a place that built strong relationships, we have been a place where people enjoy the social activities they participate in, but joy was a new way of talking about that. And so I think that was something I learned through this process. And also this process was an opportunity for people to understand that connection and to own that word joy in a different way.

Carrie Fox: I had the opportunity to join you all for your annual event when you unveiled the mark. And I have never been part of an experience, again, that was a virtual experience that we joined. I’ve never been part of an experience that felt more authentic and full of love than I felt in that East Boston Social Centers. And it reinforced to me that for us, the words are never just words, the words have to mean something. They have to mean something to not just the writers, that’s the role we play.

Carrie Fox: But we think about ourselves as kind of the funnel from community to organization and making sure that we are hearing and understanding and listening so deeply to turn those words into something that really means something deeply to your community. And it so powerful to then see that play out in a way that it wasn’t anymore about a communications campaign or the roll out of a new mark. It was really the rebirth of the organization and what you all stand for. Tell us a little bit about how that rollout has played out, what that has looked like in your community, what reaction you’ve gotten to that process.

Justin Pasquierello: It’s been a lot of fun for people. Cookies have been a great way to share the new logo with people, to be able to share those with all of our staff and include them in a delicious way, in the announcement of the new brand. To then send them to our funders and donors and other supporters, we just sent some more cookies with the new logo with Valentine’s to some of our supporters. And so it’s a great way to convey how our brand is about love and connection and community. I’ve been really happy seeing how the staff have taken on simple things like just the email signature. People had a variety of different ways that they were using the email signatures in the past.

Justin Pasquierello: So it’s been really good to just bring that increased consistency and we recognize that there’s still more work to do. There’s still more practicing, how talk about our work, being unified. We’ve made a lot of progress on that. We have found that we can more powerfully communicate our impact by anchoring it, that we are a place that cultivates community belonging and joy and that everything comes from that. So it’s been really powerful to have those words as we explain the programming that we deliver. And there’s more opportunity to keep practicing that together, which is fun for people.

Carrie Fox: I’m thinking about folks listening to this thinking, "Gosh, that sounds easy. They went and did some community listening and they rolled out a new brand and now they’re putting it on cookies and it’s all good." But the reality is, Justin, is you have to taken every piece of your role, like communication’s even aside, to heart. You think about that intentionally, you plan and you communicate and you engage people in that process, and being a nonprofit leader I imagine has never been easy, but probably is harder now than it’s ever been. So as we’re living still in a pandemic, as you’re thinking about a community that can’t come together the way it used to, as you think about how to build consensus, what have you learned about what it means and needs to mean to be an effective leader in this process?

Justin Pasquierello: Definitely I feel like we can never be totally experts in this and that’s part of what’s fun and it’s exciting about this role of leading a nonprofit organization is that opportunity to keep learning and to keep improving. I think communications are at the heart of effective leadership in nonprofits. And one of the most important lessons that I need to keep learning is that I might feel like I’ve said something or might feel like I’ve listened and responded to something, but the need to keep relaying the same messages to make sure that people are really hearing, particularly in times of change to make sure that people really hear how the change is happening and to keep listening, to keep understanding the ways in which change is exciting and the ways in which change is challenging and how we can be supportive in that.

Justin Pasquierello: So that is something that I always want to do more of and grow in. One thing that I think I’ve been learning a lot about recently, I appreciate you talking about inclusive leadership and that is really important to me. And I’m also learning about as we move forward those times where we need to reflect that we’re seeking input, but also that we need to make a decision about something. So I think that’s another really important piece of communications as a leader is being really straightforward about the ways in which input will be used, but where the ultimate decision making will happen and how it will happen.

Carrie Fox: So let’s maybe take on one more question. And what I want us to think about is we started at the top about thinking about a community led process. We’re coming off a question where you’re talking about the importance of inclusive leadership. We know that organizations everywhere are still figuring out how to address issues of equity and inequity in their organizations and in their practices. And I’m curious if there are any lessons or insights that you might have from nonprofits or even sharing where you are in that process, as you think about moving toward that vision of a just and joyful community.

Justin Pasquierello: Our JEDI work is definitely, and I love the term JEDI, justice, equity, diversity, inclusion, which we took from Mission Partners. So thank you. It’s work that we need to grow. So I think as I came into the organization, we were an organization with a pretty diverse frontline staff. But first just starting on the diversity, we recognize the need to increase diversity at the board level and the senior staff level and that’s been a commitment that we’ve all shared. We have had this commitment that as we bring on new board members, we want to have approximately 50% at least identify as people of color and have found that that’s been really helpful is we brought cohorts of board members in together that were increasing the diversity of the board in a way where we’re not at individuals to carry the weight of being a representative, but really trying to have a much more diverse sport.

Justin Pasquierello: And senior staff similarly, we’ve been very intentional about increasing diversity, but we know that’s only the first step. We know that we need to do more internal work identifying what our strategies will be for diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. And what we found is that we have a lot of staff passion for it, but I know I’ve read this and have experienced it that we need dedicated staff time. We need to make sure we’re creating that time. So we’re really excited that we are hiring a director of Community Joy. We’re near the end of the hiring process and one of the important parts of that role is going to be helping to facilitate the staff JEDI work. It’s not necessarily that this person will have to lead the initiatives, but we’ll make sure that that work is moving forward, that we’re making sure that we have the staff time to make meaningful change there.

Justin Pasquierello: In our work with you I think we thought a lot about inclusivity in our communications. So one thing personally, I’m not fluent in Spanish and I need work on that, but I’ve at least identified what I think is the best translation tool and I’m translating everything that I send out to all staff into Spanish and other staff are doing the same and our communications coordinator is bilingual, English, and Spanish. So we’re working on increasing that in our communications there. I think one of the most important things we need to do is have a learning mindset and just always be open in this JEDI work and always thinking about where there are other places where we need to be more inclusive. So we have a community with a significant and growing Muslim population.

Justin Pasquierello: And as we think about events that we have, some of the members of our Muslim community cannot be in a place where alcohol is served, at the same time alcohol is a really important part of the traditions of other members of our community when celebrating. And so there are things like that we just need to surface and discuss and be intentional about. And maybe sometimes there aren’t easy answers about the way to be most inclusive of multiple traditions, but we need to keep wrestling with that so that we can do better for our community.

Carrie Fox: And I was just thinking about this this morning, that sometimes the questions that you don’t have an easy answer to are the most important questions. It’s going to take some time to stew on that and think about that, but at the end of it, you’ll come to a place that I’m sure will work across your community.

Justin Pasquierello: And one thing that we hear from community members is appreciation even for asking the question and I almost feel bad saying that because it feels like we all should be asking those questions. But people really do appreciate just that we’re thinking about how to be more inclusive and that we’re asking for their input about how to do that.

Carrie Fox: We have to wrap up, before we do, I’m going to give you the mic back and say, take us home and tell us what’s going on at East Boston Social Centers right now that’s got you excited and that you would hope people learn more about after this conversation.

Justin Pasquierello: Thank you, Carrie. There are a few big initiatives that we’re really excited about. We are working to ensure that all children in East Boston enter kindergarten, joyful, thriving, ready to learn, and we want to make sure that we’re really rigorous about all three of those things. And we have had some opportunities to significantly grow that work recently. So we’re centering parent leadership in that, we’re working across sectors, and we’re using a data platform for case management and support so that families don’t experience supporting their young children as something that is so overwhelming, but really feel like they’ve got the support they need to get there. So that’s one initiative we’re super excited about. Making a lot of progress, hiring new people on.

Justin Pasquierello: A second thing that we want to do is demonstrate the impact of an early education system where all children and families have access to high quality, affordable, early education and care taught by equitably paid teachers. There’s so much work to be done there, but we’re working on a concept to significantly increase the pay of our early education teachers and to make sure that all families are paying no more than 7% of income for access. We want to demonstrate the impact of that. We’re partnering with a research group [inaudible 00:21:22] and Touchpoints, and we’re partnering with Social Finance to demonstrate the financial benefits to government, to business and others. And I know Mission Partners is part of work to advance early education and care, so thank you for that shared commitment on that important issue.

Justin Pasquierello: And then the third thing that I’ll say, I mentioned that director of Community Joy that we’re hiring for, we’re seeing this as kind of an internal entrepreneur to really to catalyze is our movement to demonstrate that we can significantly measurably increase joy and wellbeing at a community level. And we know that has to start with the staff. So the first place this person starts is doing everything we can to increase staff wellbeing and joy, from there, continuing to increase what we’re doing across programs, things like bringing in mindfulness, strengthening relationships, helping with fitness and wellbeing.

Justin Pasquierello: And then finally to move from there to say, what can we do across the full community so that we can actually measure? And when there are those international happiness reports, our goal is that East Boston is happier than Denmark or Finland or whoever is ranking at the top internationally. So we’ve got some exciting work to do and we’re grateful to have awesome partners like Mission Partners helping us to move that work forward.

Carrie Fox: Justin, this conversation, and you especially are the epitome of this idea that anti-oppression work and anti-racist work is heavy, it is weighty, it is complicated, but it can be joyful. Every step we take forward, that more just an equitable future is moving us toward that vision of joy that I know you carry with you and lead through that vision every day. So thanks for the work that you are doing and the community you are leading. And as a reminder, if you want to do a follow up to this conversation, go on the Ted Talks website and search "Why joy is not a solo sport" for a really great presentation by Justin. Thanks for your time, Justin.

Justin Pasquierello: Thank you so much, Carrie.

Carrie Fox: And that brings us to the end of another episode of Mission Forward. Thanks for joining us. Mission Forward is produced with the support of Sadie Lock hart [inaudible 00:23:34] and the Mission Partners team, in association with Trustor FM engineering by Pete Wright. Music this week is by Foster and Josh nick. If your podcast app allows ratings and reviews, we hope you will consider doing just that for our show. But the best thing you can do to support Mission Forward is simply to share the show with a friend or colleague. Thanks to your support and we’ll see you next time.

Carrie Fox: Checking in on you, I can’t seem to focus. I’m just so distracted. It’s all so much to process. If your workplace is like mine, the mood starting this week was decidedly different from the last. By noon on Monday, comments like these began showing up in meetings, over Teams and on Slack. As we watched a massive Russian invasion on Ukraine take over our feeds, our conversations and our mental focus. As Ellen Munger noted in her fortune column this week, "A realtime fog of war has descended on the world and observers struggle to process events on the ground while deadly scenarios are anticipated and discussed." The reality is this situation is complex and heartbreaking and bound to get worse before it gets better. The harder reality is that it’s not the only pressing matter on our minds these days.

Carrie Fox: These days, in fact, there are no shortage of pressing matters and each one of us is experiencing our own set of them each in our own ways. But how to acknowledge or communicate this truth in the workplace even you should, short answer, yes, you should. What is happening in Ukraine is affecting us all in many ways. And for those with family or friends in the region, it is a deeply personal issue. What we are experiencing is heavy and hard to process made no easier by trying to actually understand the situation. By checking in with your colleagues and acknowledging that it’s normal and expected to be feeling the effects of a far away conflict on our own hearts and minds is a compassionate and empathetic response in a time when many are just simply trying to process it all.

Carrie Fox: If you are struggling to find the words to check in with your colleagues, I’ve offered some starter words here. They’re not perfect, but designed as a reminder of just how important it is to communicate with compassion and empathy in the workplace these days and every day. Here we go. I can feel how much you’re holding on your heart and your mind these days, but it helped to talk. I know we called this meeting for another reason, but I wanted to start simply by checking in, how are you feeling today? I know how difficult it can be to focus in uncertain times like this, perhaps we consider shifting some timelines to give us all a little more mental breathing room.

Carrie Fox: It’s normal and expected to be feeling this way, is there anything I can do to support you? This isn’t everything, but it is something. As my daughter says, "One kind act matters, but many kind acts can change the world." Do what you can, where you can from wherever you are to check in on those around you this week. It won’t change the big things, but it will matter deeply to those around you, and maybe that’s something good to hold onto in these uncertain times.

This season, we are taking you on a journey to meet ten people influencing and shaping how we communicate at scale for social change. From advertising executives to coalition directors, news editors, campaign managers, and authors, they're all people who are shaping and challenging the deep power of communication. If you’re working to become a more inclusive and thoughtful communicator, there’s nothing holding you back—except you.

Carrie Fox

Carrie Fox is the founder and CEO of Mission Partners, a woman-owned strategic communications firm and Certified B Corporation that guides high-potential nonprofits, foundations, and socially responsible corporations in realizing their greatest social impact. Since launching her first firm in 2004, she has guided hundreds of organizations around the world to lead with purpose, fueling organizations and their missions forward in new and more impactful ways.