Sherece West-Scantlebury: Asking ‘Why?'

Sherece West-Scantlebury has led the nonprofit Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation of Little Rock for about six years.

As president and CEO, West-Scantlebury is the leader of a staff of nine and oversees an organization that through year-end 2011 had received $25.6 million in funding from the estate of former Arkansas Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller. The philanthropic organization was created using money the former governor left at his death in 1973. The organization’s website calls the foundation “the late Governor’s perpetual gift to the state he loved.”

In 2011, the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation awarded more than $5.7 million in grants to other organizations working in the state, including the Arkansas Humanities Council, Arkansas State University at Mountain Home, Food Bank of North Central Arkansas and the Rural Community Alliance.

West-Scantlebury joined the staff of the Rockefeller Foundation in 2007 because “the organization’s mission and values match my own,” she said.

The Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation is a grant maker and organizer of partnerships with the goal of eliminating poverty in Arkansas through efforts that leverage philanthropic giving to improve “education, economic development, and economic, racial and social justice,” also according to the foundation’s website. Endeavors of interest to the nonprofit include the town of Eudora (Chicot County) and its community initiative to ensure its elementary school students are reading at grade level.

“It’s about commitment, neighbor working with neighbor, sticking with it because it isn’t easy and it takes a long time,” West-Scantlebury said. The foundation provides “private dollars to facilitate those processes. The role of philanthropy is to provide resources to catalyze change.”

The foundation’s goals include increasing high school, college and vocational graduation rates and reducing the number of Arkansans living below 200 percent of the federal poverty line.

West-Scantlebury came to the Rockefeller Foundation after about 14 years working in philanthropy. She previously was CEO of the Foundation for Louisiana, an organization formed to invest in rebuilding Louisiana after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Her career in philanthropy began prior to that when she took a position with the Annie E. Casey Foundation in Baltimore, a group that funds efforts to help disadvantaged children.

“Philanthropy looks at the questions of ‘why?’ and ‘how do we best use resources?’” West-Scantlebury said. It’s a “huge undertaking and we’re making progress.”

Among the challenges she’s faced in that undertaking are people who are resistant to change and the groups fighting over limited resources and differing ideologies.

“I also have learned that collective action makes change,” she said. “I’ve also learned that it can happen.”

West-Scantlebury has found herself in nonprofit leadership in Arkansas due to most of a lifetime of fighting poverty.

“I just set out to use my time, talent and skill to really ask the question: How do you decrease poverty and increase prosperity among the disadvantaged? My career has pretty well been a quest for that question,” she said.

Born to a 16-year-old mother who raised her in public housing in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Baltimore, West-Scantlebury said she spent her whole life thinking of blighted communities and asking, “Why is this community the way it is?”

Many people from her old neighborhoods stayed stuck in their situations, even though they wanted to get out, she said. She, then, can empathize with people who want help — such as many of those served by Rockefeller Foundation funding — but struggle to change, she said.

Excelling in school was part of what propelled West-Scantlebury from the depression, drugs and violence of her childhood world.

“I made up my mind I wasn’t going to do it,” she said. “The unhappiness and lack of hope and being down day in and day out. I just didn’t want to do that.”

West-Scantlebury earned a bachelor’s degree from Bowie State University in Maryland, a master’s in public policy from the University of Michigan and a doctorate in public policy from the University of Maryland.

“I don’t think of myself as a person of influence,” West-Scantlebury said. I think of myself more as a person in a team, in a communal effort, to improve Arkansas.”

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