Vanessa Philbert believes in Community Action Partnership of Lancaster County's (CAP) mission of transforming generational poverty into prosperity because she has experienced that life journey herself.
Philbert is the first Latina chief executive officer of CAP, having assumed the position in 2019. As she explains below, she first encountered CAP as a client, then worked there, then eventually returned to join the nonprofit's administrative team.
One United Lancaster sat down with Philbert recently to talk about her journey to becoming CEO, what it means to find balance in each season of your life and why she still loves the act of bagging groceries.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
OUL: What exactly is CAP?
Philbert: CAP is a community-wide organization that was established here in the 1960s along with other Community Actions started in the 1960s nationally.
President Lyndon B. Johnson was kind of famous for two things: the War on Crime and the War on Poverty, even though there's some interesting tension between those two strategies. But he was really trying to get curious about what was causing generational poverty and what the disrupters of that could be, so he sent a gentleman named Sargent Shriver out into the communities and Shriver assessed that those most impacted by poverty were kids.
In doing that, [the government] really started to think creatively about what services we could provide communities, so things like Head Start, AmeriCorps VISTA, Peace Corps, Legal Services and Community Actions were all birthed during the same time. It was during the heart of the Civil Rights movement; the Voting Rights Act and Economic Opportunity Act were also enacted.
There are 1,000 Community Actions across the United States and there are 52 in Pennsylvania.
OUL: What are some things to know about our Community Action Partnership in Lancaster?
Philbert: This CAP was established in 1966 as a small nonprofit and has evolved over time. Today we have over 300 employees and 20 different programs that we offer the community. We partner in the community in as many ways as we can with the idea that we are called to advancing this idea of transforming generational poverty into economic prosperity so that all people can thrive in Lancaster.
OUL: Are you originally from Lancaster?
Philbert: No, I'm originally from Brooklyn, N.Y. I came to Lancaster in February of 2002. I came here kind of on a whim; I had a friend here and I had just had my second daughter. 9/11 had just happened, and we decided to relocate. We were in our twenties and just trying to figure it out when we moved from Brooklyn to New Holland.
OUL: Tell me more about your career up to your current role as CEO.
Philbert: I grew up in a single-parent household and I was a teen parent. I had my daughter, Ashley, going into my senior year of high school. So I went right into the workforce when I had Ashley and I've spent most of my career in the nonprofit sector.
When we moved here, my first connection to CAP was on the customer side, getting support and services like many of our working families do today. I actually started working at CAP in the early 2000s as the after-school coordinator at Burrowes Elementary for maybe four or five years.
Then I went to the United Way [of Lancaster County] and I was the director of community impact, really beginning the collective impact process. I spent maybe four years at the United Way, and that experience was pretty pivotal because it was the experience in which I had to get clear about my next steps.
I was really supported by Susan Eckert, who was a long-standing president at United Way, who encouraged me, challenged me and ensured that I went back to school. I had finished up my education early and gotten my GED — which was fine and what I needed to do — but it wasn't going to give me a pathway to prosperity or to the impact that I wanted to make.
I was a full-time student for seven years, worked full-time and was married and then got my undergraduate degree from Albright College in organizational psychology. Then I took six months off and got my master's degree in strategic leadership and organizational development from Elizabethtown College.
I ended up coming back to CAP in 2016 in a senior role that had just been created as part of a restructure. We have lots of external programs, but there was not a lot of focus on internal collaboration the way that we needed, so our former CEO [Dan Jurman] really set off his first year as CEO in 2015 to get a new baseline of how we organize ourselves. That created the four impact areas, which are education and child development; health and nutrition; household stability; and safety and empowerment.
So when I came back, I was the leader of the household stability team. Then in 2018 I got promoted to Chief Operating Officer and in 2019, became the CEO.
OUL: I saw a photo of you recently as part of the Lancaster Equity Council. Tell me more about that.
Philbert: Back in the day, CAP had an entity called the CAP Housing Board that was really focused on community economic development and had partnered with organizations like HDC [MidAtlantic] to develop Duke Manor and other projects like that.
Dan Jurman really wanted to elevate the idea of collaborative efforts around community and economic development and asked, "What if we took the CAP Housing Board and created a consortium of organizations who are committed to community and economic development?" From that came Lancaster Equity. Mike McKenna from Tenfold was the sitting president and he wrapped up his term in December, so now I'm chair. But there's a whole bunch of organizations that are around that table.
OUL: What does being CEO of CAP mean to you?
Philbert: When I stepped into the role in December 2019, I had a very short honeymoon period before Covid was a thing. As an organization of over 300 people, [we had] to pivot to what can be virtual and how we deal with the unknowns of a health pandemic that no one had ever led through before.
The first 18 months was a lot of just responding to realities, but during that time we were able to calibrate a new strategic plan and get really clear about what our work looks like and what resources it takes to do that.
I see my job as being a really steady anchor for the team in what we are called to do now and holding the North Star about what tomorrow should be. Because I was in the operations role before, I think I lead a little bit more on the operations side, so as a CEO my big contributors are strategy, culture shaping and outcomes.
In between are all of the things that make an organization run, but really it's about making both customers and staff feel either hope or joy. Joy, celebration and hope are a good formula for compassion and an opportunity think creatively and show up in a creative way.
When I became CEO here, a lot of our staff had never seen a woman in the role, and not a Brown woman. So, I have a lot of responsibility to get it right, but also to do it so well that it won't be another 20 years before it happens again. There's this idea for me of keeping the gate open and making sure that we're bringing people along with us as we're pursuing life.
OUL: What is something that you've celebrated recently, either personally or professionally?
Philbert: What's so fascinating is that as a team, we've been getting clear that we have to do more celebrating. But even just feeling like we're coming out of Covid is a celebration. We had been pretty hybrid with our programs — some off-site and some on-site — until September 2021, when we came back to the office. I think people were nervous about that, but it felt really good to be back into a rhythm of being in the office.
I would also say that our strategic plan has been really clear in a forward-thinking way that gives us room to grow. But it's something that we are constantly tinkering with, which feels good. The way that we transform generational poverty is by asking three big questions: "What does excellence look like in terms of the services that we provide?" "How do we know that what we're doing is working?" and "How does CAP become the best place to work?"
OUL: Since we've talked a lot about your career up to this point, I'm curious about how it started. Can you tell me about the first job you ever had?
Philbert: My first job as a high school student, when I was 15, maybe, was being a summer youth employee at a job readiness resource center in Brooklyn, N.Y. I was basically the assistant to the assistant, and it was a lot of filing, but that whole work was around supporting individuals who were unemployed or underemployed to get employment.
It was through that experience that, when I got pregnant with my oldest daughter, I reached out to the supervisor and said, "I really need a job and I need health insurance and this is my situation," and he said that he would think about it and get back to me. He got back in touch, and my first fulltime job was being a receptionist in a nonprofit organization that really focused on individuals with a physical disability and helping them transition from the welfare system to the disability system.
But I did work for other organizations too, like the National Puerto Rican Forum; Safe Horizons, which is New York's largest crime assistance organization, and Triborough County.
I also spent many years working in a grocery store in my neighborhood and I still, to this day, love packing groceries. It's super satisfying, especially when you can get it all to Tetris itself in a bag.
OUL: One question I've been thinking about recently is this: How do you balance your work with your life outside the office?
Philbert: I don't think there is such a thing as a work-life balance; but rather that life has seasons. I think that it's interesting for women in leadership because I think a lot of us feel like we've got to do it all and do it all really well and do it all like we've always known how to do it really well.
Part of what's been most helpful for me is learning how to discern what season I'm in. When I think about having younger kids and having a professional career, I think it can all happen as long as there are realistic boundaries about what's actually going to get done.
In the season for me of school, there was no balance; I had zero capacity. I was working full-time with three small kids and I was in school full-time, so I wasn't on a board or volunteering or hanging out with friends because I was doing homework or hanging out with my kids or in class. That was the season and that's what needed to be done.
If we have a good understanding that we're in a season and what it's going to take in that season, I think we can find joy in that because when we don't acknowledge that, it feels like we're losing somewhere.
I give myself permission to be right here. To take it in, to enjoy it, to learn what I need to learn and then to know what it's over.
OUL: To wrap up, are there any new projects or initiatives coming up at CAP that you'd appreciate visibility and/or support for?
Philbert: What I'm really excited about and celebrating is CAP's clarity of position around how we support whole families, because that's where economic justice is. In the next few months, we're going to be coming out with more language and invitations to our community around what it means to support whole families. It's exciting for us thinking about how we can get clear about what equity means and what it means to be pursuing justice for our families. We have learning to do, but we're here for it.
We know that for a family that increases their income by $3,000, their kids are 17 times less likely to be poor. There's a lot of research and data around holistic family approaches and [CAP] is all the way committed to it.
In terms of ways to support CAP, think about the families we serve. We have over 10,000 families that we serve in a year. But that support looks different for each family, because we're really intentional about not prescribing a cookie-cutter approach.
We walk with families as long as it takes to get them to a place of more stability, then to a place of mobility where they get to see what's next for them. It's about helping families stabilize enough that they can take a breath and they get to dream a little bit about what they want for themselves.