We had the good fortune of connecting with Marcie Gilbert and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Marcie, is there something that you feel is most responsible for your success?
What is the most important factor behind your success / the success of your brand?
Marcie Gilbert, Executive Director and Co-Founder: Our organizational culture is built upon the the program we deliver, Connections. Connections is a listening circle and storytelling process that invites us to come together in a safe, brave space where we can speak and listen from our hearts. All aspects of our organization are integrated and shaped by Connections, e.g., how we conduct meetings, how we share leadership, our emphasis on relationship, community, and celebrating each person’s contributions.
Charletta Johnson (“Ms. J”), Director and Co-Founder: Calibrate’s success is because of our foundation, which from the onset, has been built on solid rock, from connecting with each other at our human core, at the level of our soul. There might be a hiccup, but the foundation is solid, the soul is solid, and that’s the way it was designed. We are expanding, and we may branch off into developing other programs, but no matter what we get into, as long as we still have Connections and connect with people wherever we branch off, it will all come together — all those threads [re: logo] will come together — because of the foundation.
Marcie: Calibrate’s logo represents our collectivism and connectedness. Each person who connects with Calibrate is a piece forming our nest/sun, and the circle itself becomes its own solid entity. The logo symbolizes the strength of our community when we come together in equity, authenticity, and appreciation for one another’s gifts. Coming together in this way, then like the sun/nest, we become both a sustainable organization and sustenance for one another.
Ms. J: When I think of Calibrate’s logo, what stands out in my mind is the circle. Around that circle all those tentacles represent everybody coming from all different directions, and when we connect, that circle becomes darker and stronger because we have all touched.
Marcie: Our brand is built on decades of direct, lived experience of our program. Though our nonprofit is young, our roots are deep. Since the 1990’s, Ms. J was a principal at schools where she mentored me and our Connections Specialist / Trainer, Marcos Vann. Ms. J, Vann, and I were trained in Connections and ran Connections for our students. Calibrate’s team is composed of our former students + alumni from orgs we’ve served since becoming a nonprofit. Everyone on our team has experienced the magic of Connections, its potential for transforming lives.
Our team spans 7 decades ~ i.e., our youngest team member is 19 years old, and our oldest team member is 70. Our multigenerational perspectives add to the strength of our organizational culture/brand.
Ms. J: We currently partner with nonprofits working with youth [after-school, summer, weekends], and we are seeing the same results as when we conducted Connections in our schools. Connections creates a bond within the student body that I have never seen any place else I’ve worked. It is the key. Students connect in a way that’s indescribable; it’s magical. The hour that they spend every week in Connections is tantamount to being in church: an hour that is sacred, where youth get the chance to speak from the heart and leave feeling lighter. Normally in life, we only talk to our friends, whereas in Connections, everyone gets a chance to connect in a way that is unique. It’s a really, really powerful tool. Typically students bond within an interest groups, and even then, there’s no guarantee all students within that interest group will feel a sense of belonging and community. That’s why Connections is so vital, so important, because it connects everyone who participates, regardless of their personal affiliations or affinities.
When we have Connections within Calibrate, to see everyone — from all our young people to high-powered, mature White and Black men — we’re all sitting in a circle as equals. We find out our strengths, weaknesses, what we like, what we don’t like, what we’re struggling with — there’s a bond that develops between all human beings within that circle called Connections. When you hear others speak from the heart, you realize that it doesn’t matter how much money or prestige we do or don’t have — we are all just passing through this thing called life, and we are all vulnerable. We all carry our stories and burdens. We find our common link, our common humanity, when we can just be ourselves, let down our guard, and not speak from the position of ego. Connections does that. Period.
Can you open up a bit about your work and career? We’re big fans and we’d love for our community to learn more about your work.
I feel like I answered this in the first field… . Today is a perfect example. I’m writing this on Juneteenth. Calibrate won a grant from the 15th district to provide social-emotional learning to youth in Watts. Standing on the stage today to receive the recognition were Ms. J, myself, Vann, and De’Anthoney. I met Ms. J back in the 90s when she was my principal and mentor; Vann was a teacher at her school in the early 2000s, and De’Anthoney was a student (graduated 2009). Here we are many years later coming back together again nurturing the next generations, handing down to them a program that laid a precious, positive foundation for so many people’s lives. It felt poetic.
Yes, our organization is diverse in terms of each of our personal backgrounds and ways in which we identify ourselves, but our org culture of shared leadership feels unique, particularly when that crosses teens, 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s. My observation is the greatest growth for all of us (so far) has been working across age/experience.
On my way back from Watts today, I was saying to Calibrate’s board chair, Richard Robinson, that there have been three moments in Calibrate’s life when it could have collapses like a house of cards:
The first: We started out with an amazing vision that contained a universe of interlaced programs, taking place as an exchange across states, and one of our Calibrate advisors, Michael Leonard, gave us a game-changing nugget: When you start fundraising…If you walk into the room trying to sell that vision, then the first question asked is, who are YOU. You’ve put yourself into a position of selling yourself. How will YOU pull this off? However, if you select one thing, one specific, bite-sized product, then when you walk into that meeting, all you have to do is sell the product. He was right. Ms. J chose Connections because as she said, it’s the foundation for everything. We have dreams of future programming, but for now, Connections is our focus.
The second: The pandemic. Over the decades, we’ve only experienced Connections in person. We had to pivot FAST. We had to figure out how to deliver the same impact virtually. Essentially, we had to devise what protocols need to be in place in a virtual environment, in order to encourage the same feeling of safety and bravery. We were stunned that it worked. Of course, there were other hurdles, such as the fact that there is a digital divide. The kids we serve don’t necessarily own their own device, have WiFi, etc. — whatever it takes to do Connections virtually.
Third: How nonprofits are pressured to become corporatized. Most of the people on our team are educators. We define “impact” differently. Folks working in corporate sectors typically see ‘impact’ as numbers; consequently, nonprofits can feel they need to be a factory of reaching as many kids as possible, in order to get funding. Of course, the efficacy of the numbers game depends on the product or program that we’re trying to bring to kids. Our program is an intervention — my background is Educational Therapy, so that’s the lens I use. As an example of what I mean by ‘intervention,’ think of a kid who has dyslexia and needs a reading intervention — you’re not going to do a weekend workshop with a hundred kids and know that you’ve had “impact” on those kids with dyslexia. To Calibrate, “impact” means lasting change. My MA thesis was a study of our own students 10 years after they graduated high school. I wanted to be able to explain why Connections works as a social-emotional (SEL) intervention for youth in underserved communities. In my thesis I identified specific factors, which we use to evaluate both the facilitators of Connections + the orgs we partner with. Now that we’re coming out of the pandemic, suddenly everyone knows what SEL is and wants to jump on the bandwagon and tout that they provide SEL. Buuuttttt…I have sooo many questions, starting with: Are you just checking a box, or are you implementing this in a way that truly provides an intervention? How are you evaluating the ‘impact’ you’re having?
Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
– ocean, ocean, ocean – DTLA: Grammy Museum, FIDM museum, neon museum, Hauser & Wirth, self-guided walking tour of both historic murals + newer murals around the arts district, Edison, Redbird, Factory Kitchen, Redwood, Golden Gopher…It’s endless
– Hollywood & Highland to do the yellow brick road to the casting couch; Max Factor museum; cheesy, but come on, gotta do one of the hikes up to or near the Hollywood Sign
– Someplace to get the views ~ either Griffith Observatory, Elysian Park, Nike Missile site in Encino Hills
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
The last field of this form asks only for my name, so I want to make sure that Charletta “Ms. J” Johnson, Co-Founder and Director, is named as well for the response provided. Ms. J is the dearest friend one could have, and through our friendship, she has mentored me to aim towards my best and highest self. She has taught me compassion and present-mindedness among so many, many core, positive qualities. In our response you’ll read about how Calibrate is a collective, so our team is inextricable. There is always someone who walks alongside you, who has your back, who shows up when you need help, who listens and advises, who has the needed talent and the capability to take charge… . So, it only feels right to share with our team any opportunities to receive recognition.
Just a shout-out to our alum and facilitator, Becky Jones, who created the graphic superimposing in-person Connections with kids (kids’ feet) in the center of a virtual Connections for facilitators during the pandemic.