Spotlight: La June Montgomery Tabron—Using Her Voice to Make a Difference
On a frigid morning in February, after traveling from the warmth of Atlanta, Georgia, to Battle Creek, Michigan, I sat down to speak with La June Montgomery Tabron, president and CEO of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, one of the largest philanthropic foundations in the United States.
I was excited to spend time with this amazing woman, who rose through the ranks to head up an $8.2 billion private foundation established in 1930. A visionary leader, Tabron began working at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation 32 years ago as a financial controller. Over the years, she has held increasingly responsible leadership positions and was named president and CEO in 2014. Since then, she has successfully guided the Kellogg Foundation to advance its work in support of thriving children, working families and equitable communities.
I had prepared extensively for this encounter, but I was not prepared for the remarkable woman I met.
Tabron entered the room in a striking winter-white suit and greeted me with such warmth and genuineness that I quickly forgot the chill I had left outside the foundation’s doors. Our conversation quickly took on a life of its own as she talked about her passion for the foundation’s work to advance racial equity, how she learned to use her voice, what keeps her up at night, and her thoughts on her legacy.
We started by discussing the creation of the Solidarity Council on Racial Equity (SCoRE). In late 2018, the Kellogg Foundation convened a global council made up of 20 influential leaders. Only a few months earlier Tabron had envisioned the creation of the council as a collective voice for unity and solidarity.
“It was one of those moments where the news was heavy,” she said. “The country was in a space where we were hearing all kinds of issues at the national level, and I started to think about leadership, and the lack thereof. What this country really needed was a greater voice from leadership. And it dawned on me that the power in leadership is in the collective. And so, I had a thought around how people tend to want to take down a leader once they become a voice and have a presence and a following. Almost immediately, there is this attack, and if we have a collective, it’s much harder.”
She started thinking about what this leadership would focus on: “What we need right now in the nation is a narrative around hope, solidarity and a connected vision, as opposed to what we’ve been hearing. I went to the team and said, ‘What if we built this council, this solidarity council, that would not only advise us but that would fill a void in this country in this moment?’ We wanted it to be diverse from an age and gender perspective, as well as national and international, because we are all addressing the same issues in our own ways.”
While there wasn’t a name for the actual group yet, Tabron continually referred to it as the “solidarity council on racial equity.” When her team noticed that the acronym was “SCoRE,” everything clicked, and she knew it was right: “It is time to keep score. And it’s time to be on the winning team. We’re building this leadership body whose voice and power will hold this nation accountable for the collective.”
For Tabron, the core of the SCoRE initiative is all about a “common humanity,” a place where all human beings can thrive. As she put it, “That’s what we were all fighting for. So, let’s fight together.”
The next challenge: narrowing down a list of 120 “iconic people” to 20. Tabron called each one personally to invite them to serve. “In each call, we had a personal conversation about their work, their passion, what the collective could mean, and they all said, ‘You know, nobody’s doing this, but it’s exactly the right thing to do.’” The conversations went deep, she recalled, and bonding took place. I wasn’t surprised when she reported that each person had said yes!
Tabron worked with her team internally and began to really shape what the coming together of SCoRE would look like. “The objective is to not only elevate all of their voices because they all have achieved significance in their own right,” she said. “But also to use their platforms to build this collective platform around unity and solidarity and move all the work forward. And I think that narrative is what we need to have right now, to continue to build these debates and discourse, because typically what everyone wants to talk about is, ‘Who’s fighting whom?’ I believe [that] is a strategy to keep us all back.”
Late November 2018 marked the inaugural meeting of SCoRE. The council members came together to identify key principles to guide their work to advance racial equity and continue their focus on racial healing.
A few months later, the Kellogg Foundation held its third annual National Day of Racial Healing, on the day after Martin Luther King Jr. Day, building upon decades of the foundation’s Truth, Racial Healing, & Transformation work to create spaces for people to heal from the past. Tabron said this annual national event is focused on encouraging people to build relationships with others that they haven’t generally worked with, lived with or known. The foundation has created communication guides to help with those conversations focused on healing.
The foundation’s work has evolved over the decades: “It started out with diversity, and then we thought, it needs to be about inclusion. What we now talk about is the work needs to be expansive because even saying ‘inclusive’ connotes a power dynamic. Somebody gets to ‘include,’ whereas ‘expanding’ is about bringing people together, expanding the circle, getting people involved who have not been engaged in the past, and making sure you have a space that’s safe for this conversation that emerges when you are learning new things with new people.
“And so, it really led to our truth, racial healing, and transformation work. We refer to it as TRHT—the acronym for our Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation effort. It is really about creating spaces for people to heal from the past. But then to take that new bonding and the connection that happens, the relationships that get built and use those shared understandings to build new futures for communities and children so together we can create a new reality for all of our families and children.
“We have 14 named TRHT communities. We’re expanding into other communities. But through that process, the collective said, ‘We need a day. We need some space for healing.’ This concept of creating a space for dialogue and building relationships—if you don’t engineer that space, it doesn’t happen. We’re all fighting the good fight, but we’re dispersed.” Tabron said the Kellogg Foundation intentionally chose the day after Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday for the National Day of Racial Healing. “We have a methodology,” she said. “It’s all about coming together and a process without blame or shame … focused on healing principles, which came from our grantee partners.”
The response to the event has been extraordinary. In 2017, the first year, the event garnered about 1 million social media impressions. This year’s event earned more than 500 million. “We are leaving people with this message of hope, which is what we want to have people embrace; to know there is a way out,” she said. “We don’t have to settle for what we are seeing. There is a way for us to come together to bridge these divisions, and we can create opportunities for all. Because at the end of the day, that’s what we want communities to do.”
Through her work with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Tabron has helped others find their voices. Ironically, when asked about what she wishes she knew earlier in her career, Tabron talked about finding her own voice. “I’m number 9 of 10 children. There were always more dominant voices and people in my life. As I’ve risen up, this is something that really resonates with me. As an African American growing up in Detroit, there was always this struggle to rise. In that space, I’ve learned a lot from my family—that in order to rise, you don’t have to be the loudest voice, you have to be the most respected voice. You had to think very deeply about how that voice could be a strategic positioning. And with any strategy, you don’t wear it out, but you strengthen it. You use it to make a difference.”
What keeps Tabron up at night? “It’s thinking about the future that we are leaving for our young people, our young males of color,” she said. “I have two sons, and they are at the age where they are making lives for themselves.”
She went on to describe how she worries about disconnected youth, and she talked about a powerful moment in the aftermath of the fatal shooting of Michael Brown Jr., an 18-year-old African-American man, by police officer Darren Wilson in the city of Ferguson, Missouri. Tabron described how the Kellogg Foundation hosted a meeting with young demonstrators from Ferguson and national legacy civil rights organizations. “We brought the young people in the room, and we said, ‘What do you want to tell us?’ And the first thing they said was, ‘We’re disappointed in you all. You let us down. We shouldn’t have to be out here fighting as hard as we have. Some of these things should have been done.’”
She remains profoundly affected by that moment. “I can’t squander this place that I’ve been put in,” she said. “I must serve for all those young people.”
I had one final question about envisioning her last day at Kellogg: After turning off the lights and giving the office one last glance, what will she want people to know about the difference she made?
“I would say, ‘She took on the most entrenched issues that needed attention but everyone else avoided—internally and externally, within our organization, that allowed us to stand in that space in our work.’ And that’s what we’ve been doing.”
Birgit Smith Burton is the executive director of foundation relations at the Georgia Institute of Technology and a respected leader in the fundraising profession, having raised more than $500 million during her 30-year career. Birgit is a well-regarded speaker on the topics of fundraising and diversity. She has authored articles on diversity in the fundraising profession, co-authored the book The Philanthropic Covenant with Black America and contributed to the book Five Minutes for Fundraising: A Collection of Expert Advice. She serves on the international board of the Association of Fundraising Professionals and is vice chair for membership engagement.