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Karen Minkel, WFF Home Region Program Director

After graduating from college, I became obsessed with the idea of finding my voice. I was intrigued by how others were able to recognize their authenticity and power. During my soul searching, I happened to attend a poetry festival where Gwendolyn Brooks, poet laureate, gave a reading and then signed books. I waited in line, and when I finally reached her, I asked, “Was there a moment when you discovered your voice?”

She paused and then said in her gentle, melodic voice said, “Well, I don’t know. It was just always there. But all that time you spend thinking about your voice, you should be writing poetry.” The truth she shared was this: You won’t find your voice unless you use it.

What’s more, using your voice for impact is an art, whether in a debate or to convince a room full of people to invest in a project or vote for a particular candidate. All powerful artists, no matter how naturally gifted the individual might be, hone their craft through discipline and practice.

I’ve been in my role as a director of the Home Region program for over four years, and our team works to improve quality of life both in Northwest Arkansas and the Arkansas-Mississippi Delta. Every year we provide more than $50 million to support these communities. Before leading this program, I evaluated programs at the foundation and worked in local government, leading strategic and long-range planning for the City of Fayetteville and developing municipal policy. I’ve worked as a fourth-grade teacher in West Harlem, received a master’s in public policy, and completed a stint at a public sector consulting firm in London. Influencing 25 children in my class, making recommendations to a mayor, and now in making decisions about how to make grants in the most impactful way possible are all different and important ways I’ve had the opportunity to use my voice.

How do I practice using my voice in my current role? I practice speeches, but my practice goes far beyond speaking in public. I practice for speaking in challenging meetings—both one-on-one and small groups. I think about my specific audience and the key pieces of information that need to be communicated, I think about what questions they might have, and I write down responses and practice saying them out loud. This practice helps in so many ways—it builds confidence, I can ditch the elements that sounded eloquent in my head but ridiculous when spoken out loud, and I develop my style and concrete point of view.

I think this type of rehearsal can be even more critical for women. Fewer women hold positions of power relative to men, which means there are fewer examples of how women in leadership sound. According to music cognition research, we tend to prefer music we’ve heard repeatedly. Just as when new genres of music emerge, and the audience questions its value or relevance because they feel more comfortable with familiar sounds, new speakers at the table can generate the same effect. It can mean that speaking up requires more courage and sometimes more conviction when you are a woman.

In the wake of the #MeToo movement and greater public awareness about implicit bias in the workplace, I feel fortunate to have never personally experienced explicit sexism in any of my jobs. In fact, I’ve had a pivotal male boss or colleague advocating for my advancement in each stage of my career growth. Yet, I’ve seen women interrupted more frequently than men, and I’ve seen ideas suggested by a woman be ignored and then championed by a man in the room without attribution to the woman who originated the idea. These dynamics helped me realize it’s not enough to simply have a seat at the table. You have to use your voice.

Karen Minkel

Home Region Program Director

Walton Family Foundation

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