Looking back and ahead with SAFE leaders Kelly White and Julia Spann

Written by SAFE
Image description: A photo of SAFE Co-CEOs Kelly White and Julia Spann. Kelly is standing at a podium with a microphone in front of her. Julia is at her side.

After nearly 40 years of nonprofit leadership and anti-violence advocacy, Kelly White is retiring as Co-CEO of SAFE, where she has worked diligently to create an agency that holistically responds to the cycle of violence.

What follows is a conversation with Kelly White and Co-CEO Julia Spann, who reflect on how they came to this work, challenges and opportunities for SAFE, advice for up-and-coming leaders, and more.

Early days

Kelly and Julia, what first got you into doing this violence/abuse prevention and intervention work?

Kelly — I didn’t really choose violence/abuse prevention and intervention work. I chose nonprofit work, including leading a nonprofit focused on early childhood. When I was escaping an abusive ex-husband, literally fleeing the state, and I needed a job to take care of myself and my two children, I responded to a blind ad for an executive director and was hired to run the Denver Safehouse. I stayed in this work because I was never done—there was always so much more to do. Violence was an issue that I knew intimately and I knew that I had an important voice to share as a survivor of violence and abuse. I believe at the core of my being that I was meant to do this work. Call it destiny or cosmic coincidence, I just kept getting put back into this work.

Julia — My earliest memory of what I wanted to do was to run a children’s shelter. During and immediately after college I worked in a children’s shelter and eventually worked in other programs for abused kids—I loved it! But I was also always deeply aware of and bothered by the inequity of opportunity that our society creates for folks. I fell into this violence prevention work because of Kelly. She and I worked together at United Way in Fort Worth and I learned from her that family violence is another way that opportunities can be stripped from people.

Kelly, what was the biggest challenge at the start of your time at Center for Battered Women?

Kelly — Actually, the Center for Battered Women was not a hard place to work when I started—it had a good foundation. The challenges then were what they always are—too few dollars and too many people needing services and not enough shelter beds. We didn’t have a staffed 24/7 crisis line yet, but we received funding for the hotline from Austinites, Bob and Gail Hughes, and we hired the first paid staff for the hotline. That was Erin Clark, who is still our Senior Director of the SAFEline.

Looking back and ahead

Kelly, what are some of the accomplishments you’re most proud of?

Kelly — I feel like the most profound, transformative impact I have had is at the Children’s Shelter. When I arrived at the Children’s Shelter, they had a facility that was created to serve a population that no longer existed; it was built for babies to age 3, but the foster care system changed and we were now caring for teens. So immediately we had to work to shift the policy, philosophy, and the mindset. With teens in the shelter, the most important thing was—and is—connection. We might be the most important and long lasting relationship in their lives to that point. There was a mindset that the primary customer for the Children’s Shelter was the Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS); we had to work to get everyone to understand that our primary client was—and is—the families and kiddos we serve.

Kelly, is there something you didn’t accomplish during your tenure that you wish you had?

Kelly — I feel like we have some systems that get in the way of us doing the right thing for the people that we serve. Too often there are rules or impositions being dictated to us by some governmental entity that don’t truly understand the needs of the people we serve. Our Child Protection System at all levels is in need of some deep learning, with more operations and decision-making closer to the community, and with better understanding of what these kiddos actually need. We need a child welfare system that is focused on community solutions—and solutions look different for different communities and different people. But we know that healing happens in community.

Something you are excited for SAFE to accomplish?

Kelly — I am excited for SAFE and Julia as CEO to realize some of these amazing strategic goals that we are working on right now, like opening the new community shelter to add desperately needed shelter space, realizing the affordable housing projects that we are creating with community partners, and doing better at embedding diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) into everything that we do. I am excited about the SAFE team’s focus on creating a new community movement to integrate violence and abuse work with anti-oppression work, because it is all one and the same.

What do you see as the biggest opportunity for SAFE in the next 3-5 years?

Julia — It is imperative that we really look at family systems and how child abuse, family violence, sexual assault, and trafficking become a huge intergenerational cycle in people’s lives. We still see so many family violence programs that do not incorporate child abuse prevention. If our SAFE Futures program could be the basis for every single child welfare and family violence program in the state, or the country, it would be transformative; it would truly change our society. Yes, we absolutely need to find homes for people and serve survivors of sexual assault and really support the services we provide so well. We have to respond to the growing need in the community, which will push us to challenge ourselves. And we need to be smart about when and how we seize opportunities that advance and spread this SAFE model program.

Words of wisdom

What is your advice for up-and-coming leaders?

Julia — If people want to really make change, they can’t sit on the sidelines. I recommend that people seeking change get involved and get to work. It’s also important to consider the work that went on before them. Every single one of the great collaborations that SAFE has is because Kelly or I or other leaders I admire said, “Yes, I’ll pull people together and volunteer to chair the meeting” or whatever else is needed. I also think that you have to dive in when you can—and know when you can’t.  If you have too much on your plate, you might risk flaming out. And there is a balance within balance. When I was a single mom, I had a group of friends who swapped babysitting. And when I started as the Executive Director of Caritas, I was in a group of EDs that supported each other. My husband Paul is now an amazing support for me, helping me take on the solo role of CEO at SAFE. Taking on leadership is dependent on finding the right purpose, at the right time, and with the support you need.

Kelly — I never set out to be the boss. But I have always had a passionate, fierce vision about what I wanted to see happen—and I realized that I would not get there unless I was in a leadership role. And I agree that you must, must, must find your support system. When I first started at the Denver Safehouse, people were burning out from working too hard. But I had to get my kids from daycare at 6 p.m., so I had to leave. And their cadre of caregivers were the second most important people in my life. I think my children saved me in many ways.

What do you want the community to know about SAFE?

Kelly — At SAFE, we are creating a movement that holistically addresses the cycle of violence. We are combining sexual assault work, and child abuse prevention, and anti-oppression, and trafficking, and family violence—bringing together all these movements into one to support a healthy, safe community. I came from a home that had deep generational violence; I still hear horrid stories about my grandparents and great-grandparents. But I know that I have stopped that intergenerational cycle of violence for my kids. I want people to know that SAFE is helping to stop that cycle of violence for many families.

Julia — The reality is that our team at SAFE is doing so much more than what most people might imagine! That’s why we invite our community to sign up for our newsletters, listen in on one of our coffee chats, or take a tour (after COVID calms down). Yes, SAFE’s work is about providing a social service, but more importantly, this work is about providing a holistic means for supporting families and chipping away at the cycle of violence. It makes a huge difference for individuals, for families, and for our whole community.

If you could travel back in time 10-15 years and tell yourselves one thing, what would it be?

Kelly — Wear comfortable shoes. Listen. Be willing to change your mind. Be open. Being incapable of changing your mind is folly.

Julia — Stay focused on where you are going, be kind, and trust that people have good intentions. What a great place we would live in if we all focused on helping others recognize and realize their good intentions.