Leading From The Center in The Central Valley

800 300 Ed Coghlan

(Photo: David Jon/CAFwd)

“How can thousands of Americans be lined up for blocks to get boxes of food, in the year 2020?”

That’s the question posed by Stanislaus Community Foundation President and CEO Marian Kaanon as she described a scene she witnessed in her hometown of Modesto in the wake of COVID-19.

“COVID-19 has illuminated the disparities that have been simmering just below the surface in our communities,” she said. “It requires all of us to do things differently.”

In Stanislaus County, they already are.

For several years, the Foundation has been working with leaders from the county’s K-12 and higher education systems, Head Start, non-profits and local governments on a cradle-to-career partnership that is aimed at positively impacting residents from birth all the way through obtaining a meaningful job.

To understand why she works so hard to change her community, it’s best to understand her journey.

Kaanon’s family moved to Modesto when she was 15 after a nomadic existence that started in Baghdad, Iraq, moved through Europe and ultimately to Canada when she was only seven years old.

“I had to learn English and my sister and I became translators for my parents, “she remembered. “My formative years were in flight and I learned very early that your voice is the most important thing you have.”

She’s been using it ever since.

Kaanon put herself through college, graduating from UC Davis with a degree in Rhetoric, “which didn’t thrill my father then,” she added with a smile.

An adventure in broadcast journalism, including being a one-person news department in Vacaville during El Nino and the 2:00 a.m. editor for KCBS in San Francisco, led her into public relations and a long stint as vice president of marketing at the Community Hospice where she learned “the most living people you can meet are those who are dying.”

But it was personal setbacks like a divorce and a serious health crisis within three years of each other that taught her that “leadership is not just doing, it’s being.”

And she learned by sharing these setbacks with people, people would share their own trials, leading to a much more honest dialogue about their deepest aspirations, both personally and professionally.

Kaanon’s aspirational desire to change the status quo is rooted in her real struggle as a child refugee and then a single mom battling a health crisis – experiences that left an indelible impression of what it means to live on the margins.

So, what did she do with this mix of optimism coupled with her lived experience of struggle?

Plenty it has turned out.

“Marian is a true steward, not only using her skills to make change, but helping others emerge as leaders as well,” said Micah Weinberg, CEO of California Forward. “The work she is doing in and around Stanislaus County is very impactful.”

Kaanon was one of 28 leaders from Stanislaus County who attended the California Economic Summit in Fresno last November. They went to the Summit to learn and to share.

“I know that real change comes when consensus is reached. That’s not easy to do when we are as polarized as we are today on the right and on the left,” she said. “I think leading from the center and including everyone is the way to make a difference.”

For Ruben Imperial, the behavioral health director for Stanislaus County, Marian’s ability to get people together effectively is one of her greatest assets.

“To be successful at cross-sector work takes not only big thinking but also investing in bringing people together,” he said. “Marian creates the support we need to have the right conversations the right way which is why we are making progress.”

The Stanislaus Community Foundation is releasing an ambitious two-year workplan later this spring that will address local and regional imperatives:

  • For economic development, it will explore and fund the creation of a Community Development Corporation as well as support the merger of two credit unions to become a CDFI that will result in better service to low income customers.
  • For education, the Foundation will expand its focus through the Stanislaus Cradle to Career Partnership to address the digital learning divide, teacher workforce diversification, and mental health.
  • For regional cohesion, the Foundation will work with colleagues in neighboring San Joaquin and Merced counties to develop a common agenda that drives the region toward inclusive economic growth and while nurturing the next generation of steward leaders.
  • For civic engagement, it will build on its work with the Irvine New Leadership Network to engage residents as co-designers to impactful solutions. The Foundation also recognizes that a key to civic education is community journalism: it already funds one reporter at the Modesto Bee to help the coverage of these issues and funding for more local reporters is planned.

That’s the two-year plan. What does she hope Modesto and Stanislaus County look like in the next decade?

“Our schools will be doing better, more and better paying jobs will be available and we will have a more entrepreneurial approach to our economy, “she said. “The result of all this will be a prosperity that is shared more broadly. We will truly be a community of choice for more people.”

In the meantime, she will try to lead from the middle, “trying to stay humble and curious about how we reimagine systems that center equity in the solutions for our communities.”


Ed Coghlan

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