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History-making leadership marks Laurie Coskey’s reign at United Way

Laurie Coskey with kids from UWSD’s Readers in the Heights program | PHOTO: UNITED WAY OF SAN DIEGO COUNTY

Laurie Coskey made history last year when she took the reins of one of the largest-scale nonprofit, regional social-services organizations in the country. When San Diego LGBT Weekly first met Coskey, she was just a few months into her new job as president and CEO at United Way of San Diego County (UWSDC), serving as the entity’s first chief executive who is an out member of the LGBTQ community.

Apropos to publication of our follow-up interview, conducted a few days before the start of LGBT History Month 2017, this reporter found a quote from that first sit-down with Coskey back in March, which reveals how much the now fully acclimated leader of this region’s increasingly impactful United Way (who identifies as bisexual) views the history of philanthropy in America.

“Alexis de Tocqueville saw in the American experiment that the community took care of itself,” Coskey said, boasting about the philanthropic power to help and heal that her organization’s own Tocqueville Society leverages via its members’ $10,000 annual contributions and volunteer work.

“[A French philosopher and chronicler of early-American history,] Tocqueville saw and reflected back to us that we were all philanthropists,” Coskey continued. “He saw that there was outreach in the form of social services, not by the government, but by the community. The idea is that everyone can be a philanthropist. Remember, United Way started as ‘Community Chest.’”

Following is LGBT Weekly’s LGBT History Month Q&A with Laurie Coskey:

San Diego LGBT Weekly: How have you grown into the top job at UWSDC since we first spoke several months ago?

Laurie Coskey: Serving as CEO and president has been the most stimulating, enlivening, exciting epoch of my career. The joy and excitement I have encountered has been driven by a supportive, cohesive and dedicated board of directors; an exceptionally talented, competent and hardworking staff; and warm and welcoming sets of partners, donors and stakeholders who hold United Way of San Diego County in high esteem and are so pleased to see us as a driving force for children and families in San Diego County.

What’s been most surprising?

Laurie Coskey | Photo: Vito Di Stefano

For as strong as United Way’s brand is and as long as we’ve been in San Diego, since 1920, one of our biggest challenges is people have heard of us, but don’t understand what we do. I like to think of us as a 97-year-old start up as we have only recently taken a turn to working in education and closing the achievement gap for children and families.

The summer literacy camp seems to have been a huge success. How have you made it so, and why is it so important?

First, let me answer the “why” – and then I’ll get to the how …

Research shows that over summer break, children can quickly lose the skills they’ve worked so hard to build over the school year. In elementary school, low-income students can lose enough learning over the summer months to trail three years behind their more affluent peers. With that in mind, in summer 2016, we launched our pilot Readers in the Heights site, serving 40 students with engaging, enriching learning activities over 16 days of programming.

Not only were the outcomes promising, but feedback from students, parents and partners were all positive. With this success, we built upon our existing partnership with City Heights Community Development Corporation and San Diego Unified to engage three additional sites including the Copley-Price YMCA, Hamilton Elementary School and Cherokee Point Elementary School.

What should our readers know about what United Way of San Diego County does in City Heights?

City Heights is a mosaic of cultures, languages and diversity of every kind. The richness of the neighborhood fabric creates a positive mindset that includes an appreciation for family, for cultural differences and for community. City Heights has the highest concentration of youth in San Diego County – and consequently the highest number of vulnerable youth. Of the 13,000 students living in City Heights, 97 percent are students of color, 30 different languages are spoken in their classrooms and 54 percent are English Language Learners. Most students come from households where parents have a high school education or less – meaning families are often struggling to make ends meet.

United Way facilitates the work of the City Heights Partnership for Children, whose goal is to bring together a range of community groups to support children and their families from cradle to career – every child, every step of the way.

Photo: Vito Di Stefano

Can you tell us a little about your Attendance Intervention program, Every Student, Every Day?

United Way manages the Every Student, Every Day program which combats chronic absenteeism from multiple angles, using Bachelor and Master’s level interns, working on-site at schools to monitor and support students in improving behavior or academic performance and helping close the achievement gap by increasing school attendance. In partnership with San Diego Unified School District, and through monthly data tracking, we offer schools a unique set of supports and interventions for the most chronically absent students (chronically absent is defined as students absent more than 18 days during the school year).

For two years running, students on our interns’ caseloads have demonstrated an average five percent increase in their attendance rate – that’s about two more weeks of days in school. While five percent may sound modest, nationally, two percent increases get the attendance community really excited, so while we know we have much more work to do, we’re very happy to report those gains.

Last we spoke, you were preparing for a new event. The first-annual UWSDC Changing the Odds Community Breakfast. I know you raised more than $200,000, that Liz Murray was a hit (not surprising!). What I would like to know is how will you use those funds raised and how will you meet the high bar you’ve set for a great keynote speaker next year?

We were overwhelmed and grateful for San Diego’s support of United Way’s first friend raising and fundraising event. The funds raised have allowed us to scale the exact programs we’ve been talking about with you today.

Keynote speaker Liz Murray was so genuine and funny and inspirational. We are right now planning for next year’s breakfast, (May 11, 2018) and researching potential speakers. The perfect speaker has a compelling story about how her or his life was positively impacted by education and is someone who can captivate and inspire a large audience in how they tell it.

How are LGBTQ people helped by UWSDC?

United Way strives to close the achievement gap from cradle to career for all children in San Diego County. We focus our work on education and family stability and work with schools, community partners and agencies to put the right supports in place for families and children outside the classroom, so they can be successful inside the classroom.


When I came to United Way, I was able to bring deep relationships with LGBTQ serving agencies. Through conversations with Delores Jacobs at The Center, I realized that it was critical to train our in-school casework interns on how to be culturally competent to the needs of LGBTQ youth and their families. Carolina Ramos created a safe space for our interns where they could ask anything. And our multicultural, diverse interns asked sophisticated questions. This year, we are creating even smaller groups to be trained by The Center staff so that they can learn more deeply. We know this training became very important in the caseloads of our interns last year.

How can we as LGBTQ people be a bigger part of helping via the United Way?

Can I be tongue and cheek please? We really want an earlier slot in the Pride Parade next year. We ate too many doughnuts while we were waiting! Seriously, our LGBTQ communities have much empathy for being the outsiders and living through strife and hardship. The families we serve experience profound hardship every day just making ends meet and trying to care for their children. Sometimes they don’t have any books in the house to read to their kids. Their biggest hope is that through education their children can transcend their hardships to create a future filled with possibility. These families have sacrificed so much so their children can thrive. We need our LGBTQ community to join us in our commitment to close the achievement gap. We, more than anyone know, children deserve that chance to dream and succeed.

For more on United Way of San Diego County download their brand new app from the App Store, visit uwsd.org or follow UWSDC on social media: facebook.com/unitedwaysd; @liveunitedsd; youtube.com/UwsdOrg.

Short URL: http://lgbtweekly.com/?p=83359

Posted by on Oct 12, 2017. Filed under Feature Story, Latest Issue, Section 4A. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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