Cha-Cha-Cha-Cha-Changes... A Note from ReFrame's Outgoing ED

Co-founding Executive Director, Joseph Phelan, on why he is leaving ReFrame and what's next.

What are you going to do next?”

From friends, to neighbors, to colleagues - this is the first question I get when I tell people I am moving on from my job as Executive Director (ED) of ReFrame, an organization I co-founded with Jen Soriano and Kim Freeman-Brown

The question should not be a surprise. Kim told me this would be THE question I would get. I was like, “Nah Kim, there are far more interesting questions.”  Kim said, “You will see bro, you will see.“

The truth is, I don’t know. 

I am not leaving ReFrame because I have some other iron in the fire, some amazing opportunity I just can’t pass up, a book I need to write, etc. There is nothing wrong with these reasons for moving on, they just aren’t my reasons. 

The more interesting question to me is “WHY” am I leaving ReFrame?

When I started as the ED at ReFrame I would tell anyone who would listen - I’m out in three years, I am here to get this organization up and running, scale it a bit, and then pass it on to whoever is next in the ED seat. I was naive on timing (and Covid had other plans) - but my internal indicators remained; in order to move on from ReFrame I wanted:

ReFrame hits the mark on all three. Everyday I go to work at ReFrame and I’m blown away by the training, research, creative content, network weaving, advising, strategic direction setting, philanthropy shaping work the team is moving. Everyday I get to work with people dedicated to putting the vision of ReFrame into practice. 

On Being an ED and Transition 

In 2017, Jen, Kim and I looked at each other across a table where we’d been scheming the next phase of the ReFrame Mentorship, and we knew it was time to build an organization. I felt the call (loudly and vocally from Jen and Kim in the room and metaphorically and historically from the people who invested in me) to take on the role.

Like many of my peer executive directors who emerge from organizing and movement, I took on co-founding an organization and serving as ED because it was a path to the realization of a vision that I shared across movements. In being the ED of ReFrame I feel it did not belong to me, it belongs to movement, and I am simply a steward of it for a period of time. It is time for the next steward. 

There is a George Bernard Shaw quote that puts my time at ReFrame into a longer and larger context:

“This is the true joy in life, being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one. Being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances, complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy. I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community and as long as I live, it is my privilege to do for it what I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work, the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no brief candle to me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.”

I am so excited that hermelinda cortés - a veteran of Southerners On New Ground, a ReFrame Mentorship Alum, a ReFrame Mentorship Mentor, ReFrame’s first program hire, and ReFrame’s current Deputy Director - is the incoming Executive Director. Beyond the credentials listed here, she brings creativity, a deep focus on developing those around her, a sustainable systems approach to building and organizing, and a dedication to getting her people free. With Alejandro Cantagallo - who brings decades in organizing, training, education, and private sector business development experience - as incoming Deputy Director of Operations, the organization maintains tremendous leadership.

The transition is serving as a great opportunity for ReFrame to reflect and set ourselves up for the next phase. Hermelinda will usher the organization through a ten year vision and strategy process and we will build out our staff bench - adding critical capacities at a variety of levels. 

Of course, moving on from an organization that I built with people I feel lucky to call friends and fellow travelers, comes with some grief and loss. I have been deeply lucky to share a vision with an extended set of leaders, and to be responsible for enacting that vision as best I could. I am buoyed by the lineage that came before me and inspired the creation of ReFrame, and I am excited for those that come after me to iterate, experiment, and win.

Read here for a more in depth history of ReFrame and what brought us to this moment of transition.

In the coming weeks and months we will share more about why we started ReFrame, lessons we’ve learned in building a movement facing organization, thoughts on the changing narrative landscape, and ideas about what ReFrame will do next to meet the moment, as well as introduce you more fully to the powerhouse that is hermelinda cortés.

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