Powerful Women Let's Talk - 027: Bridget Clark Whitney

Jan 4, 2021

Bridget Clark Whitney

Bridget Clark Whitney is the President and Founding CEO of Kids’ Food Basket; KFB is the children’s food equity organization that nourishes thousands of children and families in West Michigan. Bridget talks about “leaning in to joy” as she continues to lead this dynamic organization.

She shares her incredible journey from college student to CEO.  Kids’ Food Basket has become one of the largest anti-hunger and childhood nutrition programs in Michigan.

Her Bridget Clark Whitney’s story on this edition of Powerful Women: Let’s Talk.

Powerful Women: Let’s Talk is created by WGVU NPR and made possible by WGVU NPR sustaining monthly donors. Become a sustaining monthly donor now at wgvu.org/donate to support WGVU NPR’s local programs, including Powerful Women: Let’s Talk.

Full Transcript:

Produced by women, about women, “Powerful Women, Let's Talk is a series of interviews with women who are trailblazers and have helped shape our world; transforming who we are and how we live.  “Powerful Women, Let's Talk” is made possible in part by Family Fare, keeping it real.

Jennifer Moss: Hello everyone. Here we are for another edition of “Powerful Women, Let's Talk.” We certainly want to thank you for tuning in today.

Today's powerful woman is Bridget Clark Whitney. Bridget is the president and founding CEO of Kid’s Food Basket. That, of course, is the well-known children's food equity organization that nourishes thousands of children and families in West Michigan, but not only that: Bridget was appointed by Governor Gretchen Whitmer to the Michigan Service Commission.

She's also an active board member for the Michigan Nonprofit Association. She's been awarded the Athena Young Professional of the Year and has been listed as the Grand Rapids Journal’s 50 Most Influential Women in West Michigan plus Newsmaker of the Year. Wow, that’s quite the list of accomplishments and so, with that, I'm very happy to welcome Bridget to today's edition of “Powerful Women, Let's Talk.” Hi Bridget.

Bridget Clark Whitney: Hi. Thank you so much, my goodness, that’s such a list, right?

Moss: But it's a great list.

Clark Whitney: Thank you. I just feel so grateful to be doing important work and, you know, any of those honors, what they mean is more awareness for our work. And that is what is most important to me is that our community can come together and really work on some of our most pressing problems and so any kind of awareness in my opinion is really important for the issues that we're trying to work on, the issue that we're trying to resolve here in our community.

Moss: Absolutely, and we have a lot of those issues too, so I want to start talking about your work at Kid’s Food Basket, which of course as we know offers so much hope to so many right here in West Michigan facing food insecurity and poverty. Give us a little bit of the background, if you will, Bridget, as to how you ended up leading Kid’s Food Basket.

Clark Whitney: Oh, thank you, yeah. It’s actually a pretty cool story. So, I guess to go all the way back, it started when I was really young. My parents are activists, my parents are social justice champions and they were always… it was really important for them to raise us to understand that we all have a role in the world and that was to be in service to others and that we could use our skillsets and use our gifts  and you are privileged to make the world a better place and to work on behalf of those that did not have the resources that they needed. And so that’s how I grew up and so I knew that this is the work that I wanted to do that I specifically wanted to be in that space where I could work on equity, where I could work for equity. I went to Aquinas College because they had a community leadership program. In the late nineties when I graduated from high school, there weren't many other programs like that around the country that were specifically around nonprofit management for undergrad. So, I went to Aquinas, which is an incredible institution and an incredible experience. My senior year, our capstone course, we needed to work on a pressing problem in community and gather the resources necessary to address that issue. And fortunately George Heartwell, our former mayor, was the director of my program. Now this was before he was the mayor. And so, our original founder Mary Kay had befriended George and told him about the program that she wanted to start with Kid’s Food Basket and George called me up and said, ‘Hey I think this is the right fit for you, for your internship. You can be, you know, right at the beginning of this movement. It's a huge need and you’ll have the opportunity to pull the resources together and create a program and create a sustainable movement to be able to address the issue of food insecurity and child hunger right here in West Michigan.’

Moss: Wow, that came right from George Heartwell. Wow.

Clark Whitney: Yes, yeah, it did. Just a really beautiful origin story. George is known as one of our great leaders in Grand Rapids. He spent so much time focusing on the needs of our community and creating movements and rallying the right people together to generate more resources for people in need and so I'm really honored that that George was my professor and that he was really the catalyst that brought us together.

The need,  came from teachers and principals and school administrators on the West side of Grand Rapids in the early part of 2000 and they were noticing a massive issue of hunger; kids coming in in the morning having not eaten since lunch the day before, children complaining of being tired, having headaches, because they were hungry. So, it was really a program, an initiative, that came out of our teachers and our pricipals and school administrators loving their children so much, love their students so much that they were not going to be okay with that.

Moss: I was going to say that's a blessing that they actually recognized that so you could start some movement for that to help them.

Clark Whitney: Exactly, exactly. It really was. And thank goodness they were such advocates for their children. Our teachers are such champions, such advocates. And because of that, this program got started. We started with a thousand dollars. We had $3,000 and a hand full of volunteers and got started providing healthy food to school at the end of the day, to different schools here in Grand Rapids. We were serving about one hundred kids a day and that was in 2002 and now in 2020 in the middle of the pandemic we’re in four different counties. We’re in Kent County, Muskegon County, Ottawa County, Allegan County and we're serving approximately 9,000 meals each and every weekday.

Moss: Is that daunting for you to think of how far you have come from the $3,000 beginnings to serving so many people now?

Clark Whitney: Yeah, great question. It’s been such an honor to do this hard work and it has been good and hard. We’re a grassroots nonprofit movement. We were not founded by philanthropic founders with large amounts of financial resources to make the work happen right away. We were, we still are scrappy. But I think that the values and the ways that we created the organization from the beginning have been what has given us the opportunity to continue to scale and address needs where they are. That’s a huge part of Kid’s Food Basket, we don’t see ourselves as chief heroes in this work, we see ourselves as chief hosts because our community is where the answers are, our community and the movement that we create in community is where our resources are, it's how we design our programming to meet the needs of our community members. So, I think that hyper-focused in community has always been the way that we've grown and has always been what anchors us.

Moss: And I would imagine all of that is what has then made this one of the largest anti-hunger and childhood nutrition programs throughout the state, in the state, of Michigan. I mean, that's a good testament to what you're doing.

Clark Whitney: Thank you. It is, but the reason I think, too, that we've been able to scale to this this level is because one of our focuses is engagement. We haven't been a silo organization where, you know, we're just serving a few locations with a few staff members. We've been so intentional about engaging our community and the work and, again, being that chief host to our community, our community champions, our community volunteers, our community donors are really the ones who are making the movement happen every day and we're really grateful to be the host and that's why we've been able to scale to the level that we have because we're so engaging.

Moss: Absolutely. And do you think that that work then led you to being nominated by Governor Gretchen Whitmer to the Michigan Community Service Commission? That’s quite an honor.

Clark Whitney: Yes, I believe so. Thank you. I am truly honored and during this stage in the world, in the middle of the pandemic, I believe it's more important now than ever because thousands of nonprofit organizations are struggling right now with lack of resources, with increased need, with decreased volunteers and so some of the insights that we've been able to learn over the past 18 year at Kid’s Food Basket, I’m really grateful to be able to share that and share that thought leadership with the nonprofit sector all over the state of Michigan. Because so much of what we’ve learned we can share and help organizations to scale and engage their community. I think particularly right now in the middle of the pandemic is why I'm particularly honored to have this position and have this opportunity to serve.

Moss: Absolutely. It's quite important as we continue to move forward through the pandemic. So, tell me, as we talk about powerful women, have there been any barriers that you personally encountered as your career and your purpose has continued to move onward and upward?

Clark Whitney: I think I’ve had an interesting trajectory in that my senior year of college we began the actual organization, and it is has been my job for 18 and a half years. However, I really have had… I think I’m on like my sixth or seventh job, right? It’s the same organization and I’ve pretty much had the same title, but this is the sixth or seventh job and that’s because of the continued evolution. And what I've had to learn that has always been both a challenge as well as a massive growth opportunity is what I need to give up to go up. So, you know, in the beginnings of Kid’s Food Basket I was doing all of the volunteer coordination and all the fundraising and delivering meals to schools then being engaged with volunteers all day long, had my hands deep in everything. The organization has grown and I’ve had to become more of a leader I've had to give up parts and pieces of the organization that I love so much in order to be a great leader. Or, on the journey to greatness, on the journey to greatness. I recently reread Jim Collins, “Good to Great” and he says that if you’ve reached greatness then you’re just done.

Moss: Yeah. Absolutely. Great book. Great book, by the way, yes.

Clark Whitney: Incredible, just incredible. And so many good lessons. You know, he wrote it 15 years ago, but it’s still so applicable.

Moss: It’s pertinent, yes.

Clark Whitney: He was just on Brené Brown’s podcast talking about it, just this week.

Moss: Yes, it is very impactful, impactful. And so you look at that, you've had to come, and I like your statement, ‘I need to give up, to go up’ and as you go up on this journey, and you continue to move forward, many women will say, as we’ve talked to so many powerful women in our community, you know, it takes a while to get comfortable, to kind of find your own voice. You've been involved in this since end of college it sounds like, so how did you get your own voice? Discover that, you know, kind of become comfortable in your own skin, getting your voice, how did that occur for you? To maybe encourage other women. How did that happen?

Clark Whitney: Great question. I’m an extrovert, for sure, and I really enjoy surrounding myself with people who I admire. I really believe that your vibe is your tribe, right? And the people who you surround yourself with, help to lift you up. And so one of the ways that I have journeyed and one of the ways that I found trajectory in really realizing who I am is surrounding myself with women, and men, men are mentors too, who I admire, and who I believe are smart, justice, equity-centered champions who I can learn from, who I believe are also on their journeys and committed to growth because we all learn from one another. We all learn from each other. And for me, the brilliant people in this community that I’ve surrounded myself with, I believe, are some of the greatest mentors and some of the greatest coaches. So, I'm really grateful for that. I've always, I sort of have my own personal advisory committee, right? I have somebody that I talk to about finances,

Moss: That’s awesome.

Clark Whitney: …business coach, right? And that always changes, it always evolves, but having lots of people that I can continually learn from and that’s really helped me state my voice. But I think, too, is, you know, this is a vulnerable moment, right here, I think having been instances where I wasn't doing  good, maybe I wasn't the best leader that I could’ve been. Because I was maybe too caught up in my head or I haven't given up enough or I had my hands too tight around an area where I should’ve maybe empowered other people. And this is 10-12 years ago, but those lessons were really powerful in helping me to grow as a leader. So, I just turned 40 at the beginning of a pandemic and I really feel like, you know, my thirties were the time where I really stepped into a leadership, which is called leadership level five, leadership with a clear direction and vision. And I'm so grateful for that. But it’s been the people I’ve surrounded myself with who’ve been just incredible mentors. But also, really being vulnerable about what it is that that I'm good at, what it is that I need to, again, give up to go up.

Moss: Those are good lessons that you're discussing and saying for other women to, perhaps, hear and say, ‘Okay, surrounding myself with a base that can encourage and then that helps me to grow as well.’ So being a founding CEO of Kid’s Food Basket. Large organization, of course. Daily task at hand. They're very large. You have a lot of volunteers. So, you talked about leadership and how you were learning to become a good leader. What leadership traits do you like to see? Perhaps in those who are with you on this journey, who are there working at a Kid’s Food Basket, or those perhaps that you mentor. What leadership traits help you move forward?

Clark Whitney: Yeah, I love that question. I think leadership is so much about not being in charge but caring for those in your charge and wanting and working for the people around you to be successful. I think that, especially this year in particular, I found that with both my own leadership and the leadership team at Kid’s Food Basket, the leadership team around me.

What an honor to see an experience and get to be a part of those around you who are succeeding. That in particular I think is one of the greatest traits that leadership is when those around you are on their journey and leveling up and becoming better leaders because of what they learned from you and because of how they developed, how they've been on their journey. We're all here for each other. We are all here for each other. And so, the journey with one another and helping one another grow is, I think, the most important part of leadership, the most important part of having a title as a leader. But we're all leaders. Everybody’s a leader. Everyone has an opportunity to be a leader in different facets of their life. But the other piece to that is, the leader themselves always need to be working on themselves, right? Just like what we said before, that journey to greatness. One of my favorite quotes is ‘When a leader gets better, everyone wins.’ When a leader gets better, everybody around them wins.

Moss: That’s good, that’s a good word there.

Clark Whitney: Yes, it’s so good. If you are taking on the responsibility of leadership, it is your job to consistently be working on yourself and consistently be working on getting better. Because the people around you are relying on you. The movements that you lead, need you. This past summer, I’m sorry, earlier this fall, Doug DeVos spoke at the CEO Summit to the Grand Rapids Chamber and his speech really stuck with me because he talked about the pandemic and how right now our community needs us more than ever and so if you are a leader, you have the responsibility to continue to get better. To get better for the people around you, get better for your mission, to get better for yourself and your family and that I truly deeply believe that.

Moss: Because you're modeling yourself. If you're going to be a leader than you have to continue to get better so that they can see the growth and know that they can do the same at some point.

Clark Whitney: Absolutely, absolutely. And that self-growth leads to a lot of clarity, too. I think it leads clarity in leadership, and clarity in decision making, it leads to better self-care, which is, again, so critical in leadership. And that journey of growth is critical to commit yourself, but then also surround yourself with people who are also on that journey and also committed to working on themselves. Our CEOO at Kid’s Food Basket, Afton DeVos, who is my best leadership partner in the world. She’s just incredible. The two of us, as two strong female leaders, we lead the organization together and we are both committed to our own growth and one another’s growth. And I think that that mutual commitment has been a catalyst for both of us to grow significantly - this year in particular at a time where our community and our team needed us now more than ever.

Moss: Yes, this is the year for that in so many areas. The pandemic has changed so many things and so you've got to change with it and change some of your style and different things that you have to add to help people along the way. With that, so many women deal with the daily pressures like you're talking about, you know, you’re constantly working in one form, shape or another. Getting it all done. You have kids, right?

Clark Whitney: I do. I have two of them. They are 100 percent virtual. My kids are in Grand Rapids Public Schools and they have been 100 percent virtual since March. And both my husband and I have very pandemic-related positions and so we’ve both been 55 hours a week since the beginning of the pandemic.

Moss: So, how are you balancing that work life with your personal family life? With the kids home virtual. You're the leader, the CEO of Kid’s Food Basket. How are you balancing all of that?

Clark Whitney: Yeah, thank you. It has certainly been a challenge, as I know it's been a challenge for all parents during this pandemic, right? It’s been a challenge for everyone. We have been very intentional about self-care for ourselves which is, I think, really critical. But then also we've done a lot of blend. A lot of blend. There have been many days where my children have been with me at Kid’s Food Basket whether they’re doing their schoolwork or, you know, occasionally they’ll watch Netflix on the iPad.

Moss: Right?

Clark Whitney: At Kid’s Food Basket, they’ve also volunteered, they've been helping to put together meals. Since March, they've been me quite frequently and also we're very grateful to have the resources to be able to pay for in-home childcare which, I know, is certainly a privilege and we're very grateful for the privilege to be able to do that. And at the same time, we've been able to give a few people pretty steady, steady income as well by being in-home childcare at our house. So, it's costing a lot of money to do that and at the same time right now we are committed to sharing. We’re committed to sharing. Because we believe we have everything we need. We’re humble people and we don't need a lot and so we are more committed to living with joy and not with stress than we are to wealth accumulation and so we've shared a lot of that this year in particular in order to really be able to live in joy and have self care and have a good, strong family life when we are together. So, it's been good and hard.

Moss: And, you know, Bridget, just listening to you talk about that, I mean what a giving heart you and your husband. I mean, because what you're doing is good at the Kid’s Food Basket but then again on the personal level when you talk about that everything counts in this pandemic time, employing someone that helps. There's always something that any of us can do to try to lend a helping hand, and a hand up for those who might need some additional things. So, another thing I wanted to ask you on a more personal side too, kind of bouncing off how are you balancing your life, what are some of the ways you like to relax and have fun? With your family, with your kids or your friends. What are some of the things you do?

Clark Whitney: Yes, I love that because I love our great state of Michigan. I’m going to start with that. This is, I think, the best place in the world. I really do. I’m originally from Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh is a great city, then I lived in Detroit. I just think the world of this state. West Michigan, wow, what a gem we have here. Having the Great Lakes, having Lake Michigan so close by all of our forests and preserves and this beautiful land all around us. So, we like to do a lot of hiking, we like to do a lot of trips to Lake Michigan.

Our family in particular, we are really interested in rock hunting and fossils and the reason is because it is so humbling to hold a Petoskey stone in your hand, for example, and a look at these elements that have been part of our Earth for 500 million years, right?

Moss: Absolutely.

Clark Whitney: It’s beautiful.

Moss: It sure is, it sure is.

Clark Whitney: It's one of those gems that we have here in Michigan. We really love rock hunting and not just at the lake but all over Michigan. We love geology, we love rock hunting. My husband is a scientist so we will bring a little bit of that in there. We do some making, we've made some hand sanitizer over the pandemic to share with friends and family.

I do yoga. I practice yoga. I feel like that is an important way that I can do self-care.

Moss: I was going to say, that the self-care movement right there. Yeah, absolutely.

Clark Whitney: Yes, and we've also gotten into meditation. We’ve gotten into meditation with our children as a way to just center and ground and remind ourselves that we are light, and we are love and our role is to be that for the whole world and to do everything that we can be light and love for one another.

Moss: Indeed.

Clark Whitney: Yeah, so the pandemic has… I know my children a better because of the pandemic. You know, prior to that we were working just as much and our kids were in school and daycare and, you know, without that, with them being home so much, it has been a real amazing, beautiful opportunity to create more hobbies as a family and to know each other better and to work together better. My kids are learning how to cook, and they’re learning how to empty the dishwasher and do things that they may not have otherwise done if we were in that super-fast pace of life prior to the pandemic. Really grateful, grateful for that silver lining even though there's so much pain in the world, they're living in that duality.

Moss: Well, we know this pandemic and what's happening with it is horrible. On the other end though, as you mentioned, spending more time with your kids. We do, as you say, want to look for the light and be the light because, you know, we still are here trying to continue to move forward with this. And so, you know, ground yourself. Your family sounds wonderfully grounded and that is, to me, that would be a good thing in a way that I could say that's fun, it's enriching, it’s, you know, it keeps the family motivated, I would imagine as well. That’s good to hear.

One of my favorite questions, Bridget, though is to ask folks, because I love to laugh, personally, because I think that is also something that grounds you and just keeps you moving. What makes you laugh? Because they do say that laughter is good for the soul.

Clark Whitney: Yeah that’s so good, I love it and, you know, interesting that you ask that question because over the past month, I feel like laughter keeps coming into my life. People are talking about laughter. You're talking about the importance of laughter, how critical it is and it's a real and it feels so good. It feels so good, right? It burns calories, it’s like that dopamine shot in your brain, I love that. So, we don’t watch a lot of T.V., simply because we just don't really have the time for it, but I do like getting goofy with my kids. I do. Just last night, in fact, we have a gate at the top of our stairs because our stairs are really steep. So, I put a gate there when the kids were really little because I didn't want them to fall down the stairs if they woke up in the middle of the night. Well, we just haven’t taken it down. Last night the kids stood behind the gate and would not let my husband, my partner, and I up the stairs until we answered their riddle.

Moss: Oh, my goodness. They put you on point then.

Clark Whitney: They did. And I’m still in work clothes, he’s still in work clothes, and we just wanted to get upstairs and take showers and end the day, but they were just cracking themselves up because they would not let us come up the stairs until we answered these really, really goofy riddles.

Moss: That is so fun.

Clark Whitney: Just living in the moment. Living in the moment and being in that space where we allow ourselves to just be present and just play. Just to play. And I think that I really learned that this year, 2020, is how to play and how to be present with play and that that is a part of who we are. We’ve all been children before.

Moss: Absolutely.

Clark Whitney: That is a part of our soul so that’s been really important. As a team, at Kid’s Food Basket, we’ve now started virtual happy hours.

Moss: Nice.

Clark Whitney: We have curated conversations. So, we ask like three or four questions throughout the virtual happy hour and it’s absolutely hilarious. Very simple things like, what’s your middle name and the origin? And there's just some really, really funny things that come out of that and so laughing together as a team has been really cathartic, too.

Moss: I was going to say, finding the laughter, finding the joy in all of this, getting closer to people. I mean, there are some good nuggets we can pull out of this. And final question for you, so, and it's kind of a repeat, you are going to maybe go back to something you said earlier, but with all this happening in the world we live today people are looking for that opportunity to laugh or that good word of encouragement. Any favorite sayings or mottos that you have to encourage yourself and others? I know you mentioned one just a few minutes ago, but perhaps there is something else to encourage people especially during this time and during this pandemic.

Clark Whitney: Yeah, I love that. I always, I remind people all the time, things don’t get easier, but you get better. You get better. You can't wait for something to get easier or wait for, alright well if I just get a new job then things will be easier or if I just, you know, earn that extra money things will get easier. Get better in the moment.

Moss: Absolutely.

Clark Whitney: Get better in the moment and then everything else gets easier, right? Finding that joy in the moment and then, I think, the other piece, too, is that really leaning into what you're good at it and what brings you joy, leaning into your joy. If you lean into your joy, many other facets of life fall into place. And I think that that is a really critical piece, finding the joy and, you know, treating one another with love. Starting with love. Starting with joy. And that it is much easier said than done, but it is a practice. And the practice, the root of that, is gratitude. Being grateful and having gratitude, having gratitude practice every day when you wake up, reminding yourself of all of the things to be grateful for. Starting your day that way is I think one of the ways to live in that joy and practice that joy. I think that that's really important. And then again, to surround yourself with people that bring you up and surrounding yourself with people that push you to be better. That is such a critical part of growth as a human.

Moss: That is a good word. And I love ‘lean into the joy’ because I guess if you do that too, you lean into so much that you bring joy to other people, as well, and that's another spark that we need these days. I'm waiting for your book, Bridget, because you have a lot of good inspirational points in your life that you’ve experienced and those are types of things where I’m looking for the book, that's going to be next for you, probably.

Clark Whitney: Oh, thank you for saying that. Yeah, you know, we actually, Afton and I, my partner in leadership, she and I are talking about potentially putting something together because…

Moss: See, I knew it, I knew it, I knew it, I knew it.

Clark Whitney: Thank you for that, what a compliment, thank you.

Moss: Well, wonderful. Bridget Clark Whitney, I so enjoyed this conversation. Speaking with one of our powerful women right here in West Michigan, thank you so much for joining us today.

Clark Whitney: Thank you, I'm so grateful. This was delightful and something so special to do right before the new year, I’m really grateful.

Moss: Well, thank you, and I also want to thank our listeners as well for joining us for this edition of ‘Powerful Women, Let's Talk.’ I'm Jennifer Moss.

Produced by women about women, these powerful podcasts focus on powerful women and how their strength transforms who we are and how we live. Want to hear more ‘Powerful Women, Let's Talk’? Get additional interviews at WGVU.org or wherever you get your podcasts. Please rate and subscribe. ‘Powerful Women, Let's Talk’ is made possible in part by Family Fare, keeping it real. It is produced by WGVU at the Meijer Public Broadcast Center at Grand Valley State University. The views and opinions expressed on this program do not necessarily reflect those of WGVU, its underwriters, or Grand Valley State University.