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An Interview with Sterling Speirn

Sterling Speirn took the helm of the Kellogg Foundation in January 2006. In this interview he shares about his experiences so far as president and CEO as well as the experiences that have shaped who he is and have led him to this point in his life.

Tell me about your roots in Michigan. How does it feel to return to your home state after being away?

It was an adventure. I left Michigan at age 18, when I graduated high school, and went off to college in California. I came back four years later to go to law school, so I was also here from age 22 to 25, in Ann Arbor, but had not been back. I have no family living in Michigan anymore, but still have good family friends here and there – some that I’ve reconnected with since coming back.

I guess the most wonderful thing has been just reconnecting with the landscape of Michigan, and also the people. There’s something about the Midwest. When you grow up in a place, it sort of frames the landscape of your soul. The smells, the look of the trees, the greenness compared to the dry west or other parts. It’s all so familiar, even though it’s from a long ago, now that I’m 58, a receding childhood. It’s just great to be back in the cradle of my own upbringing. And growing up, your elementary and middle school and high school years, your teenage years, your summer jobs, and just being there, those are powerful connections that I think never really drop away. 

Can you talk a little bit about your hometown?

Well, I was born in Detroit, and was there for the first five years. We actually moved down to a small town in Ohio – Ashland, Ohio, when I started kindergarten through 5th grade. Then we came back to Detroit. I lived in Plymouth, Michigan for just one year, the 6th grade year, and then we moved to Orchard Lake – a little house on Pine Lake, which was very rural Oakland County at the time. There were still working farms between me and the high school I went to.

Pine Lake was in our front yard, so my grandfather gave me his old little wooden row boat and an old five-horsepower Johnson outboard motor. It had forward and neutral, and to go in reverse you actually swung it 180 degrees on its axis to go backwards. I don’t know, back then, that’s all a kid needs is a little boat and a little motor, and then you’re on your own out on the lake. That’s a lot of great independence, if you can just go down to the dock, unhook your boat and head out onto the lake. So it was pretty. Definitely all my interest in ecology and in the environment came from growing up in a really beautiful place with access to water, lots of woods right there. Working farms for running and walking. That, and a few summers of camp up in Northern Michigan, I think really sort of connected us. We would go up to Torch Lake and other lakes. Even when we were in Ohio we had been up to Mullet Lake and to some other lakes. But hometown was Detroit suburbs. Now that area is quite suburbanized, but back then it was still rural and a very small town.

Did you ever come to Battle Creek when you were a kid?

Princeton, Illinois is where my mother grew up, which is right along Interstate 80 now. For summers we would often go out to the corn country and have this wonderful experience on the farms with my mother’s high school friends who all stayed and were farmers. And so we’d get to visit and stay on farms. So we would come through Battle Creek, either before Interstate 94, when it was Michigan Ave., or when it was built. I know we’d stop at Schuler’s, over in Marshall. Some of these names come right back to you, in terms of the stops along the way.

So when you left Michigan, can you kind of talk a little bit about your career path and your education?

Well, you know, we just went west. I never had been west of the Mississippi when I drove across the country to go off to college at Stanford, in the San Francisco Bay area. I just wanted to see some other part of the country and it was a great time to go to college. From 1966 to 1970, there were just so many big issues facing the world. The first Earth Day; riots and civil unrest in Los Angeles and Detroit in 1968. Every summer during college I’d come back and work on union construction jobs. Back then making $6.25 an hour was really good money. You felt really grateful to have a job like that and to work with union laborers and work with brick layers and construction, heavy equipment. We built a lot of schools and school additions and school renovations around the Detroit area.

That was a great experience, and seeing California. But then coming back to Michigan, I also had a great three years at the University of Michigan. Michigan was one of the first states to pass an environmental protection law and I really wanted to study environmental law, and I just had a great time at the University in law school those three years. We helped start the Michigan Public Interest Research Group at that time. We created one of the first undergraduate classes in environmental law, through the college there. So we had experience teaching, and that’s sort of part of my interest in becoming a teacher. After law school I became a 7th and 8th grade English teacher for a few years, in a private boy’s school. I had been bitten by the bug my senior year in college, so really the classroom and working with kids and teaching seemed to be a really challenging and stimulating work. So I got to do a little bit during law school and then got into the classroom after that.

Can you tell me a little bit about your family?

Well, I recently remarried. I’ve been married just about a year. I got married right after the announcement of my coming to the Kellogg Foundation. I’ve got two boys from my first marriage. One is just starting college this fall. And the other is starting high school. He’s been in the same school since kindergarten and is now going to go to the high school where he’s grown up in California. They, too, love the outdoors. They participate in sports and just love to do all the things teenage boys like to do, I suppose. My wife, Diana Aviv, is the President and CEO of Independent Sector, one of the large umbrella non-profit groups in the country, of which the Kellogg Foundation is a member and also a supporter. Diana is from South Africa, but has lived in the United States ever since 1975.

How does your experience with community foundations help with working at the Kellogg Foundation?

My first job in organized philanthropy was actually in corporate philanthropy, working at Apple Computer in the late 80s when the Macintosh was young and the company was just starting to grow. The Apple II was being given away to schools. But the Macintosh was being given away to non-profits with the first integrated software packages and the first PCs coming out.

But when I was offered my job at the Peninsula Community Foundation, having worked nationally in philanthropy for a few years, I really was sort of hungering to have a closer connection to a real specific community. So going to the community foundation gave me access and a way to be involved in a community, over time and over all the issues communities work on. It was great being in a community foundation. Every hour, the subject you were talking about might change. It could be health, it could be education, it could be a local group working on a park. It could be neighborhood work, it could be systems level work at the county around early childhood. You had access. We said we were trying to solve the world’s problems in our own backyard, because I think any community probably runs into all the same problems that we might read about in the national news or something. But, you know, many times these things get tackled in the most creative ways in community. And you have access to local leaders and regular citizens and volunteers. So you sort of span the best ideas from the field and then the local leaders that are going to make it happen.

That, plus the fact that there was a movement of over 600 community foundations around the country all trying to do the same kind of work, it is a very wonderful field to be in. And, that we had to be generalists, or as the new word, versatilists. We had to be quick studies, whether it was a philanthropic dream of a nonprofit leader or a volunteer or a donor. If they cared about the recidivism rate of women in the county jail, well, we had to be pretty agile. How we could go talk to the judges and the probation officers and the non-profits and figure out what was the best thinking among that group if we were going to tackle something like the recidivism rate of women in the county jail, because we were not experts in criminal justice or recidivism rates. But we could become very quick studies in some areas. And then along the way, I think you do develop some expertise or some insight into some issues, you know, neighborhood issues, school issues. Counties are so much the place where federal programs are actually delivered, so the creativity of a local civil servant, within the guidelines of a federal or state law, you could see a lot of creativity at the local level where civil servants really wanted to try to put categorical funding to work in the most creative ways.

You’ve been in Battle Creek for, what, 10 or 11 months now?

Yes, just since January of 2006.

Any early thoughts about the community?

Oh, I just think it’s a fantastic community. There is so much happening here. Almost too much. You know, I travel quite a bit with my job and I read the paper about the cultural events and the events happening outdoor this summer, or indoor, and too many times I realize I’m going to be out of town and can’t take advantage. I did go to the Battle Creek Central Follies. I think that was in January. I was in town for that. That was great. And that was in the auditorium, which is, of course, getting a wonderful face lift and renovation from the inside out. It was great to be in that venue. What a tremendous resource for the community.

A few months later, the Howard University Choir visited and sang at one of our churches. That was just great. I mean, the congregation was entirely full. Here it was, right here in our town, this fabulous musical concert. But there have been too many things I’ve missed.

I was also able to go to the Airshow and Balloon Festival this summer. I had my first ride in a hot air balloon. I got to go up in the big Tony the Tiger balloon, courtesy of the Kellogg Company, which was a real special treat. My wife and I got to do that. It was my first air show. But as I said, there are just so many things happening. I’ve really enjoyed just the physical downtown of Battle Creek.

My wife and I also love to ride our bicycles. We’ve been up and down the Linear Park, the entire length. I also just love how quickly you’re out of town and into the country in Battle Creek, whether you go north or south. You’re out on the country roads. It’s just great to be out pedaling early in the morning, watching the corn grow. Between the soy beans, the wheat and the corn, there’s just some beautiful country all around the city. I’ve really enjoyed it, but I feel I’ve just scratched the surface of the cultural and physical and human resources that the town has to offer.

I understand you made it out to the Maranda Park Party, too.

Oh, yes. That’s right. Absolutely. That was great. I’m just one by one trying to see the parks. I haven’t been to Leila Arboretum. I think we may be doing some volunteering out there with United Way’s Day of Caring. That’s one of our options. There are some projects out at Leila Arboretum and I’ve been meaning to get out there on my bike. It’s going to take a couple of years, I think to get out and see all this. I haven’t been over to Full Blast. I’ve been in the arena for some events, but no sports events. I know there have been a lot of sports competitions that have gone over there. I’ve been out to Bailey Park and looked at our boundless playground out there. I went out one evening, early in the summer, a beautiful evening. Love the river, both the Kalamazoo and the Battle Creek Rivers. I just love driving along them out in the country, too. There are also just some great neighborhoods in Battle Creek. We often will go out riding our bikes and just cruise the neighborhoods. We’ll just go down a street and back out and go down the next street, back and forth. That’s been fun.

What would you say are the greatest strengths of Battle Creek? Have you identified some that stand out?

I think its history and its pride in its identity, and how much people are committed to the city and the community. The spirit I see. Take the school districts, you know, the five districts that are here. I see people are really committed to their schools. Loyal volunteers, passing these millage initiatives, building these brand new high schools. A lot of great volunteer spirit. I’ve had a chance to slowly meet with a variety of nonprofit groups. Bob Long [Directory of Greater Battle Creek Programming and Senior Program Officer] has gotten me out. I’ve been to meet Pastor Hess and been on his radio show.

There’s just a really wonderful spirit of commitment and involvement in the community, and a willingness to take on the challenges that we face like any other community. But the legacy, the leadership, and getting to know some of the history of the civic leaders in town. The history of the downtown, the rise and fall and change and rebirth. That kind of thing. There is a lot of history to learn in Battle Creek. For me it’s a great place just to think about all the things that are to be discovered and connected to the present. I think our best work in the present is always really connected to the past and the opportunities that maybe were missed or attempted in the past, or achieved, and to make sure that we’re taking advantage of some of the legacy that’s there. I feel that in the foundation, and certainly in the community.

What would you say are some of the greatest challenges facing this community?

Well, similar to many communities – our ability to give every kid a quality education, and every family an opportunity. Opportunities to work and to thrive and succeed as families and as individuals. Our economy. Our whole state is really challenged in this globalization and the challenges facing the auto industry. I think we’ve got some great strengths in our industrial park and Battle Creek Unlimited, you know, some of the creative things the community has done. But the challenges of just our economic system, having good jobs for people here and having our youth and our adults well trained through our public and private schools. I think those are all there. And talking with leaders, too, about how important the Midwest is to the whole country, that we really can’t afford to just be a bicoastal country, you know, it’s East Coast or it’s West Coast. The heartland of the country has always been so critical to its success, and the Midwest has such resources and such leadership. It’s just the challenges of economic development and growth, I think, in a globalized economy are ones I think this community is stepping up to, and I think the Midwest will, too.

What role do you see the Kellogg Foundation playing in the community as it moves forward and addresses some of these issues?

Well, you know, we’ve always been wonderfully joined at the hip with the community of Battle Creek, given Mr. Kellogg’s commitment and legacy here. It’s been great, I think, for the foundation to be so strongly rooted in a smaller town, in a smaller city, rather than being in a big city, to be really connected to the real challenges that ordinary people face, because that’s the kind of people we like to work with at the foundation. So our grantmaking and our philanthropy, I think, has evolved over the years as the community’s opportunities have come to it. There is a great legacy of the things the community has done with some support from the foundation.

Just this morning in the newspaper, reading of what the leaders that helped create Legacy Scholars did just this morning by taking a good idea and making it better. They just announced the expansion of the program to every 6th grader in the Battle Creek and Lakeview Schools. That’s just fabulous. One, how bold it was to launch that less than a year ago, and now so quickly to say we can make it better. Rather than limiting it to 500 6th graders, why not all the 6th graders in those two districts?

Our work is about being engaged and being responsive, and investing in people, investing in leaders. We can support leaders. We can help stimulate leadership. But we don’t really create them. And when you find leadership, you know, that is when foundations really need to support leaders. And when you can’t find leaders, then you have to do other things to sort of slowly create leaders or encourage leaders. But when leaders do step forward, I think we need to make it as easy as possible for them to get support so we can get out of their way and let them lead, let them build community. Our job is to just get them the resources to support that work. So, you know, I think as the community picks issues it wants to tackle, just as they did Legacy Scholars, I think we need to be there to support them.

And if there are issues that people aren’t really working on, we can also act, as we have, as a convener or as bringing people together just to talk. In the future, I hope the Foundation will really promote and support more active and widespread civic engagement among ordinary people, among voters and constituents and citizens and members of our community, to participate in public conversations, public problem solving. I don’t think people here do believe that all our problems will be figured out by our elected officials or our current leaders. I think our current leaders really can only do the best job if ordinary people are involved in taking on the issues and struggling with their own value conflicts. If not conflicts, you know, the trade offs you always have to make about what you value and what you really care about and what you really want to support, whether it’s schools or parks or various other issues.

And so I hope we’ll be supporting that kind of active civic engagement in the issues of the day, to be as inclusive as possible and to bring as many different kinds of people into the public square, places where people do really talk. And that’s what I think is really exciting, because in a place like Battle Creek, that’s happening and we can build on that; where people really do have access to one another and their elected officials. They’re not far away. They’re right here and they can come together on any evening or weekend, as we’ve seen some wonderful projects bringing people together. I hope the foundation is really going to support more of that.

Let’s shift just a little bit to the larger role of philanthropy. How is that changing in recent years?

Well, I think philanthropy is definitely having to cope with, right now, a reduction in the government’s role or the public’s investment in public solutions, you know, publicly funded solutions. The first thing we always say is that there is just no way that philanthropic dollars can substitute for public dollars. Our coffers, while they seem large in some respects, are really quite tiny in relationship to government budgets and tax supported programs.

So it’s been interesting that over the years philanthropy has tried to go out and experiment and demonstrate innovative ways to find people doing the innovations, support them and then be able to go back to government or to the citizens and say, we’ve found a better way. We’ve found tutoring programs. We’ve found job training programs. We’ve innovated around healthcare. And we’ve expected that we could then go to the people, the voters, the elected officials or the governments and say, here are some experiments that we’ve been doing with great leaders, with philanthropic dollars, and we offer them to the publics, to the governments, you know, free of charge. We’ll finance the experimentation. We’ll take the risk. And then we hope our best ideas will be picked up and taken to some other kind of scale.

And there are good examples of that in the history of philanthropy. Everything from scientists, rocket builders like Goddard going to philanthropy to get their first money to see if they could build a rocket, and now NASA takes us to the moon. The invention of the PAP smear or disease reductions, the way the Gates Foundation is now being financed by private dollars. But the budgets of our tax dollars are at their best when they’re really looking for the best, most efficient ways to be spent. So that has been a tradition in the United States, between philanthropy being out there, being the R & D of society, and then governments and tax dollars sort of harvesting the best ideas from that research and development, across all kinds of issues, educational issues as well.

But sometimes we develop great models but there’s no public that is willing to pay for then implementing that at a larger scale. So I think we really need to stimulate the conversations about what is the public will. What are the aspirations of our citizens? What do they want to accomplish? What experiments would they have us do to find better solutions to current issues we’re struggling with? So that’s been a challenge, I think, that we will continue to be society’s R & D, but we need to make sure there is a public over there that wants to put the ideas and models that we might develop to good use. And if we’re not experimenting on the right things, we need to go back to the public and say, well, what are your aspirations? And sometimes it might be, as I said earlier, if we stimulate civic engagement and get people to talk more creatively about what is they really care about and want to accomplish, then we can go out and do the research and development to find the best ways to accomplish those things. So it’s interesting. We’ll continue to do the model building and the research and development and innovate with leaders, but I think we also need to go back and stimulate the public conversations about what is it that people would like us to be experimenting on. What larger goals do we have as a society? And sometimes it’s not clear in every jurisdiction, whether it’s the state or our community or around the country, and sometimes internationally. What are the public’s priorities? What do they really value?

So there has been not only a reduction in the size of public budgets, investments in public services and public education, but also a diminution of the clarity in which the publics are deciding what it is they want to accomplish as a people. And so I think we need to stimulate both the goal setting and visioning of ordinary people as to what they want. And then if they decide they want to spend more public dollars to accomplish something, that’s something that they need to work out in the political process. But in the meantime, philanthropy will continue to be experimental. But I think more philanthropy is probably being pulled into charity, which is really the relief and the care, the human services part of it. You know, what we did with post Katrina. The Foundation has made a big, bold response. It’s probably one of the largest funders in the country now, and made one of the largest commitments to not just the relief of Katrina and Hurricane Rita victims, but also the rebuilding efforts, and to really step up. But I think philanthropy needs to have an active part both in relief and in rebuilding, but then not waiting for disasters, to ask ourselves, what is it? We’re not just trying to rebuild, but we’re really trying to build in terms of developing the people to become active and productive citizens in our democracy.

You have an interest in poetry. Could you just talk a little bit about where that interest comes from and what it means to you?

Well, it’s interesting because I have found I’m not alone here at the Foundation in my love of poetry, or just enjoyment of poetry. I’ve had many good friends along the way that shared poetry over dinner, and a wide variety of different kinds of poetry, from Shakespeare right up to many of the great modern poets. More recently, I attended some workshops called the Heart of Philanthropy, that actually our friends at the Fetzer Institute over in Kalamazoo have sponsored in several places around the country. They’re workshops in trying to help professionals, and they’ve done a lot of work with teachers and some with people in philanthropy, to call people to draw on all their resources inside their humanness; their minds, their bodies, their souls, their conscience, their intellects. And in those workshops, they found it was very, very stimulating to have people share poems. Every hour or so in a workshop a new poem would be passed around the room and people would take turns reading aloud. And it was interesting just sort of stopping the rational mind for a minute and going into a different kind of thinking or just being, the resources and the inspiration it calls up in a person. And so I’ve really found that has reawakened a long time love of poetry in me.

I think also in the country, it’s really probably not at all unique to us, or to me, but that there is a real renaissance going on in poetry, both in the poetry slams, things like cowboy poetry, and just poetry on the Internet. One of our colleagues gets a poem a day delivered to her at her computer. The recent $100 million bequest to the Poetry Foundation, Poetry Magazine. These amazing things. And so a lot more anthologies of poetry are coming out, which is kind of exciting, sort of have the ordinary people take back the fun and joy of language. It’s not something that you only do in English class. In fact, it may be that in English classes, it’s probably been the place we’ve done the worst with poetry. We’ve sort of made it be an object of esoteric interpretation rather than something fun and engaging.

So, we have many people here that write poetry, on the Kellogg Foundation staff. I’ve just found that whenever you ask someone, or invite them to do a poem or share a poem, almost everybody has a favorite poem. We’ve shared poems at staff meetings and at smaller meetings and at board meetings and at all different times. I’m speaking to the Kellogg retirees. We’re having a dinner tonight and several staff have said, “I hope you’re going to do a poem, Sterling.” And I was like, well, okay. Have poem, will travel, I guess. You know, we have a site on our intranet now in the building, a little poetry corner where several people have posted their own poetry or their favorite poems.

Is there something I haven’t asked you about that you’d like to talk about? Some message you’d like to give to the people and leaders of Battle Creek, the residents?

It’s a great opportunity for the Kellogg Foundation to have its roots here in Battle Creek. In the United States we work in health and healthcare,in, food systems and rural development and philanthropy and volunteerism and youth and education. We’re always looking for the readiness of communities to work on some of these challenges. Again, as I said earlier, when we find leaders, we’re attracted to those communities. We try to find the communities that are ready to try something new or have their own dreams and have just been waiting for a chance to catalyze that.

And so we’ve had an interesting experience in Battle Creek. Sometimes our urge is, well, if we’re doing this project in 10 other places, why not also do it in Battle Creek? I think we’ve had some experiences where we’ve just said to the community, hey, we’re doing this so we’re also going to do it here. I think there’s been a genuine impulse there, to do whatever we’re doing elsewhere, to do it also in our backyard. But I think that’s probably had mixed results because sometimes the issue we’re working on in Santa Ana, California or Albuquerque, New Mexico is not an issue that the people of Battle Creek are particularly ready to work on, or passionate about, or it’s not a high priority, because we work across so many things. So sometimes it might be more appropriate to make sure our Battle Creek programming is customized and appropriate for what the leaders and the people of Battle Creek really want to take on. What is the next issue?

At the same time, as we roam the country looking for the best ideas, often times, just as we do in other communities, we can be the Johnny Appleseed. We can say we found this great idea over here, and share it always with the people of Battle Creek, or at least say, you know, we want to be a resource to our local community. Again, we have many great projects underway here – the Yes we can! project and Legacy Scholars. And again, the meetings I’ve had with some of the leaders and nonprofit leaders and volunteers in the community, I expect the people of Battle Creek with continue to come to the Foundation with their agenda and their priorities. The fun thing about our Battle Creek programming, it is probably some of the most flexible. You know, we really can be responsive to Battle Creek and not necessarily follow any particular subject matter. Again, we’ve funded many areas, but there may be something entirely unique in Battle Creek that we wouldn’t consider in another community because it wouldn’t fall within our program focus areas. But the fun thing about Battle Creek is, anything is a possibility here. And that’s exciting.

I think also it matters to us that being rooted and being here in our hometown, we’d love to be able to say that there is something remarkable about the achievements of our hometown. And you can see it in some of our key institutions and some of our key projects. But really, it’s up to the community to set that agenda and set those priorities, and for us to respond to that agenda and try to add value where we can. So, as I said, it’s exciting that there is creativity and flexibility we have in our Battle Creek, which probably doesn’t exist in the same way in our others areas of work.

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