Welcome to our blog post series, Conversations with Courageous Changemakers, where we interview inspiring social justice leaders. In this series, we invite people that inspire us to share their stories - their career and leadership journeys, how they incorporate equity into their work, and what motivates them to sustain the work. In each post, we will focus on a leader in an issue area we care about. We hope these conversations provoke your thinking and inspire your work!
We are honored to highlight Mordy for our inaugural post of Conversations with Courageous Changemakers.
Mordy Walfish is the Chief Operating Officer for Leading Edge, an organization founded in 2014 to foster a stronger talent pipeline for the Jewish nonprofit sector. Leading Edge focuses on onboarding new CEOs, strengthening partnerships between lay leaders and professionals, and helping to create leading places to work. Over the last 18 months, Learning for Action has partnered with Leading Edge to provide strategic recommendations for the organization and evaluate two of their core services/programs: the CEO Onboarding Program, a 15 month cohort-based program for new CEOS, and Leading Places to Work, which includes an employee experience survey offered to hundreds of organizations in the Jewish sector with the aim of using data to improve organizational culture.
1. Tell me about what you do and why you do it.
In a nutshell I support leaders and organizations to create environments that enable people to thrive and bring their full selves to the workplace. I see this work as a moral imperative: the way we treat each other at work can impact who we are as people – psychologically, spiritually, and emotionally. Work can give us a sense of purpose. It can be amazing, and it can be hard. It feels like one of the ways to heal a fractured world is to bring our full selves to the table and use tools at our disposal to make the world a better place.
2. How did you get into this work?
I accidentally fell into the Jewish nonprofit world. Straight out of college I started and then I quit a PhD program in Comparative Literature at Northwestern University. I entered the program thinking that academia and justice were tied together, but I ended up feeling a chasm there. I ended up getting a job at NYU, starting a new masters in nonprofit management and was lucky enough to receive the Wexner Graduate Fellowship that set me on the path towards nonprofit leadership. I feel lucky to have been invested in deeply in my career. I spent five years in leadership positions at Repair the World, where I was given the opportunity to help lead an organization – at a pretty young age – through a major strategic shift. I was able to stretch, grow and make mistakes and learn from them. I also received the Schusterman Fellowship, which enabled me to take my leadership to the next level. I’ve experienced amazing workplaces and challenging ones and I realized what a difference it can make when the inside truly matches the outside. I’m excited that I get to work on this at a sector level. It’s been an amazing journey.
3. What does equity mean to you?
On a basic level, it means equal access to equal opportunities. And any efforts towards equity need to account for the history of a lack of access and lack of opportunities. It means reparations and an intentional process to enable opportunities.
4. How do you incorporate equity into your work?
First, I strive to be self-aware of what it means to be a white cisgender man in a leadership role. In our work at Leading Edge, we try internally with our staff to ensure multiple voices and identities have the space to express themselves. More broadly, we think of equity as a moral imperative. We are naming current inequities, including pay and gender and racial inequities. For us, we think about context we’ve inherited, what can be done, and the most inclusive way to address it.
What are the ways those inequities can be addressed?
We use a data-driven approach and making the case through data. Part of it is through intentional ally building. People are scared to do this work because there is a fear of loss of power. For better and for worse, we try to make the business and outcomes case for equity and how it drives better outcomes.
5. What is authentic leadership to you?
Leadership where the behavior matches the professed values. It’s much easier to talk a good game than it is to act in a way that aligns with your values. But authentic leadership means owning up to your own mistakes and shortcomings and it is never a solo endeavor. It is about building a team around you that and together working towards something greater than what you could achieve on your own.
6. What keeps you up at night?
How sometimes we can be our own worst enemies. We often let pettiness or deeply personal power dynamics get in the way of the work or the long game.
7. What is one thing you would tell your younger self about what you know now?
There are diverse forms of leadership and there are many different ways to be a leader. As a soft-spoken gay kid, I never imagined I could be a leader. I’ve been told I don’t have gravitas or that I take up enough space. But I’ve also been told that there are so many different ways to lead and that the world needs us to lead in different way.
8. What is one thing your future self would tell you now?
To take risks and stay true to myself.
9. What advice do you have for people who need to be inspired to sustain their social justice work?
Try to incorporate joy and pleasure in your work and ensure that your life outside your activism gets attention too.
10. If you got to invite someone (dead or alive, famous or not) to a dinner party, who would you choose?
Harriet Tubman. I was obsessed with her as a kid and as I’ve grown older, I want to know more about the inner resources she had to be able to do what she did.