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John Brothers is a lifelong do-gooder. Born into deep poverty in Minneapolis and growing up in and out of homelessness, Brothers “got out,” as he puts it, and has since committed his life to serving others, dedicated to living, it seems, by the Toni Morrison quote, “Your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else.” 

For the last five years, Brothers has worked as the President of the T. Rowe Price Foundation, the charitable arm of global investment management firm T. Rowe Price, on a series of projects that seek to first identify and then assist in bringing resources to some of the region’s most underserved communities.

While his job description is a lot to wrap one’s head around, Brothers’ intentions for the foundation are crystal clear—find people in communities who would benefit from financial and human capital investment and then work with them to support what they may already be doing. Human capital, Brothers explains, is “the people side of making this work“ and he and his team identify people who live and work in the communities they serve to function as navigators and connectors to the larger population. They are currently piloting a program with the artist (and past subject of this column), Nicoletta de la Brown, to work as an art navigator in West Baltimore.

Despite common misconceptions, there is more to foundation work than giving money away. And Brothers is aware of the savior complex rife within that work. “No one is sitting in any community saying, ‘I can’t wait until John or whoever comes to help us,’ ” he says bluntly. Instead, he sees successful community organizing as sharing resources that are already within communities and empowering people to help themselves and their families and friends directly. Growing up receiving similar services informs this work every day for Brothers. That experience “lives and breathes in my work and shows up in how [the foundation] shows up in communities.” 

 

Artwork: “Protest” by Norman Green, painting

 

Prior to moving to Baltimore to work for T. Rowe Price, Brothers ran his own small consulting business and cut his teeth doing community organizing work in the Midwest. That work led him to believe that a foundation’s role is in part to help existing nonprofits become more organized and results-driven. 

The two-time author of Rebalancing Public Partnership: Innovative Practice Between Government and Nonprofits from Around the World (2015) and Building Nonprofit Capacity: A Guide to Managing Change Through Organizational Lifecycles (2011) with Anne Sherman, Bothers has also taught college classes on nonprofit organizing and writing. As an educator, Brothers teaches his students using case studies that philanthropy chiefly requires you to be a good listener and that primarily you have to let the community partners lead. If you’re after long-term results and change, you’re there to serve.

Over Zoom, Brothers and I talked about what it means to let a community lead a foundation, what he’s learning from his children during COVID-19, and that time he got to hang out at Prince’s house.

SUBJECT: John Brothers, 47
WEARING: “I was wearing jeans and a sweater but most importantly to note is that I wore Purple Air Jordans, called Prince Jordan’s after my favorite artist, Prince, who is from my neighborhood in Minneapolis.”
PLACE: Zoom

 

"Jazzed" by Akia Jones, painting
The lesson was to listen to the community and what is important to them. Use their voice to make a change and create victories that they can rally around.
John Brothers

Suzy Kopf: What is the most important book (or books) you’ve read or are reading? 

John Brothers: I just reread We Speak for Ourselves by Baltimore author D. Watkins, which is this years’ One Book Baltimore selection, which T. Rowe Price Foundation founded a few years ago to get 15K middle school kids reading the same book and then sparking local conversations and actions by those young people. I am also starting The Upswing by Robert Putnam and love the way he combines storytelling and data. I have written two books and know how hard it is to take technical and historical information and make it digestible in bites. Putnam amazingly makes it a page-turner. 

What was the worst career or life advice you’ve ever received? What is the best? 

The best career advice I ever received was when I was a community organizer and was working in Chicago. The training institute would take new organizers and pair them with experienced ones and go into specific neighborhoods to work. My lead basically pointed to a group of buildings and said, “Go organize and I’ll watch from over here.” My first job was to organize community members around a specific issue they cared about and so I set up shop at a local church that was central to the neighborhood and decided that we should have a community meeting about poverty. I hung up flyers all over the community, bought great food, and assumed hundreds of people would show up. Three people arrived.

I decided that maybe poverty wasn’t a good topic and maybe education would be better and so I hung up flyers and got even better food. The meeting came and the same three people showed up. With my lead organizer staring at me from a distance, I decided to change my tactics and asked several dozen community members what was the biggest issue they had been facing, and they stated that a large number of shopping carts had flooded the nearby playground, causing kids to ride and hurt themselves. I was surprised and begrudgingly set up a meeting at the local church around shopping carts, and fifteen people showed up. We worked to get the local shopping center to put up a gate that would prevent the shopping carts from getting out. When we organized our next meeting around a fallen stop sign, nearly fifty people showed up.

The lesson was to listen to the community and what is important to them. Use their voice to make a change and create victories that they can rally around. There is not a day that goes by where I don’t think of that day.

The worst advice I received was from my fifth-grade teacher. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to attend public schools that had such a diverse mixture of people of a lot of different races, cultures, and economic classes. Being from a very poor family, seeing kids with things that I did not have was very eye-opening for me. I wanted to be with and among them and desperately tried to engage with them. One day my teacher pulled me aside and stated pretty forcefully, “John, those kids are not the kids you should be playing with. You should stay with these kids—they are more like you.” These were kids from my neighborhood, whom I knew well, played with, and enjoyed, but I also wanted to meet these new and interesting folks. I knew she was wrong and the big “ah-ha” was that people in authority can be wrong and do damage.

 

African American Quilters of Baltimore & MICA collaboration, Quilt
The one thread of advice I would give to young people is to have people who will push their thumb in your side—whether offering feedback you don’t want to hear or holding you accountable to what you said you wanted to do or be.
John Brothers

You grew up in Minnesota and lived in New York for a while before moving to Baltimore five years ago to accept your current job as the President of T. Rowe Price Foundation. How does Baltimore compare to the other places you’ve lived?

In a previous life with my consulting firm, I traveled roughly 250 days of the year. I did a lot of travel, so I got to see a lot of really great places around the world. In comparison, I don’t think there is a better place in the world—I just love Baltimore.

[Before moving here] I had been to Baltimore before for client work, but I’d never spent a considerable amount of time here. When I was doing T. Rowe’s interview process, I had 22 conversations and so I came down to Baltimore from New York many times, and I would always spend an extra day on the front or the backside. I would just walk neighborhoods. When I first got here, I thought, “Oh, I’ll just get a taxi back.” Then I realized that’s not how it is in Baltimore. So I would end up walking a different way back and I fell in love with the city really early on. I think Baltimore for me has beauty, grit, and grace all at the same time, which is rare for a city. 

How would you describe your relationship with failure? Have you ever experienced a notable failure in your career that you felt set you back for a time? Is there any advice you give to young people about dealing with the disappointment that is a natural part of any career?

I have failed a lot. I had a small business for over fifteen years, and I think for the first several years, I heard the word “no” so much that I thought it was my name. Following a rejection, I would just go “back to the lab” and tinker away until I started hearing “yes” more, and then suddenly my little firm had a trajectory where folks all over the globe wanted our work. Our firm doubled in size each year over the last several years and we had dozens of consultants in offices and efforts around the world doing interesting and amazing work. 

That said, for me, the failure was not one incident but a collection of smaller incidents and so learning and iterating from them each time led to a vision that I knew was out there and eventually became realized. 

Lastly, the one thread of advice I would give to young people is to have people who will push their thumb in your side—whether offering feedback you don’t want to hear or holding you accountable to what you said you wanted to do or be. The pain from those thumbs was always short-term, but the rewards continue today from having those kinds of accountability partners.   

What work is the T. Rowe Price Foundation doing in the arts in Baltimore? What do you think is the most important or impactful part of the work you are doing? What are you the proudest of?

There are several areas that we are working on but in the arts space, we are a lead funder in trying to ensure that all public-school students get access to quality arts education. Imagine a city that values the place of art in our children’s school day and what that creativity and innovation will bring to the city of Baltimore. It’s breath-taking to think of the possibilities.

Additionally, we are working on a model adapted from the healthcare industry for the arts community, basically creating “Arts Navigators” whose role is to work on helping artists and creatives knock down barriers that prevent them from taking their art forms and practices to the next level. 

The area I am most proud of is the relationships that we have been able to create and maintain in communities and neighborhoods throughout the city and how we have brought different voices and efforts together around joint interests. For our sector, partnerships and collaboration has almost become a jargony term, and I am proud that in a few instances we have been able to see real connections in impactful areas.

Portraits by Amit Shimoni

 

True “sugar sharing” takes effort and intention and I want to create pipelines that bring resources together more effectively and re-establish the tissue that facilitates sharing.
John Brothers

What do you predict is going to be the next big trend and when are we all going to catch on to it? 

I can see trends daily if I am just watching my kids and how they live their lives. It’s been interesting to see them during COVID because they both have approached their education and hobbies through technology with such ease. What I’ve noticed most is how much age is a non-factor to the requirement of real learning. Both my kids are artists—my 15-year-old son is a musician (guitar and electronic music) and my 11-year-old daughter is a singer and actress, appearing before COVID in shows at Center Stage, Toby’s Dinner Theater, and the Maryland State Theater in Olney. During COVID, they have engaged in online arts instruction with folks of all different ages. I loved how it brought community together around the interest and love for an art form.

I wish I was smart enough to be some kind of futurist but I guess I would hope that COVID-19 might bring a continued advancement of combining creativity and technology to form stronger senses of belonging and community.

In our conversation, we spoke a bit about models for urban renewal that other American cities have piloted such as the San Antonio project, Prospect New Orleans, Project Row House in Houston, and Detroit knocking down vacant buildings and reclaiming the space for urban farming, among others. Could any of these models work in Baltimore?

We must think about how art and creativity should be part of Baltimore 2.0 or 3.0. I go to a lot of meetings and discussions around Baltimore’s future. I rarely see in those meetings folks that are leading arts efforts. I think we’re not going to get to these solutions unless we have these folks at the table and more times than not leading those discussions. And I see other communities thinking deeply about that and creating solutions like the one in San Antonio that is meaningful in so many ways, from economic development, workforce, community empowerment, etc.

There are two things that need to happen for that to happen here. One is I think the arts community must find its voice and continually demand a place at the table. There are amazing people like Jeannie Howe and others that are working hard in that space, but there should never be a meeting in Baltimore about the future of Baltimore without leading arts efforts there. It’s my responsibility, as an arts advocate, when I notice that to fight for that too, which I fail at sometimes.

Then, two, as the solutions are mapped out, bringing the arts community into thinking about what that solution could be. When you think about environmental justice or food deserts, or any of these areas, art shouldn’t just be in one place. It should be across all these areas and figuring out what is the place of art to be there, whether it be to highlight this issue or fix this issue. Right now, that doesn’t happen as much as we need it to, and it should be moving forward.

I’m a big believer that our hobbies, in some ways, reveal a lot about who we are. Is there anything else you have time to do right now? I imagine you still listen to music, even though you’re not deejaying, but what other hobbies do you have that you can actively cultivate while raising two kids?

My wife and I agreed early on in our relationship—and we’ve been together for over 20 years—that my work, ever since I was little and I started working in social good and social justice, has always been a big thing in my life. The agreement that we’ve had is if it ever gets in the way of me being a great father, she’s going to let me know. She’s never had to let me know. It’s been a couple of times on the tip of her tongue, but she’s never had to. For me, this work is my hobby. I know someday I should get back into deejaying. I try to meditate. I work out now. I’ve lost 85 pounds, which is awesome. So, certainly, taking care of myself has become a hobby, but eventually I’ll get into reading all the books that I have on my wall and deejaying again. But up until then, it will be my kids and my work, which I love so much.

If you had unlimited funding and time, describe the project you’d make or the show you would curate.

I am a heavy believer that any community has the resources it needs to solve its problems. The challenge is that as a community we have often forgotten the mechanism to share, or “borrow sugar.” Breakdown in our communities is because of our inability to truly share and in order to bring ourselves back we are going to have to get back to basics on sharing and find out how we lock arms to achieve our goals. In my past life, I led hundreds of simulations on partnership and collaboration and it failed almost always for the reasons we see today.

True “sugar sharing” takes effort and intention and I want to create pipelines that bring resources together more effectively and re-establish the tissue that facilitates sharing. The great thing is we all know it when we see it—we just need to remind ourselves and repeat it more and more.

What advice do you have for someone who wants to get involved in Baltimore community improvement efforts but doesn’t know how to get started?

I moved to Baltimore during the week of the [2015 Baltimore Uprising] unrest and had several people ask me, “What should we do in West Baltimore?” The community organizer in me kicked in and I stated that the community should be leading us on what they want to see. My job was to listen and so I sat in the back of churches, community centers, and sometimes living rooms to hear about what is important to them.

I know this: No one is sitting in any community saying, “I can’t wait until John or whoever comes to help us.” What communities are asking for is to be heard and to determine their own futures. For anyone who wants to get involved, they must start by being a good listener and be willing to be led by the community.

Does your astrological sign match your personality? Is astrology just silly?

I don’t get too dogmatic about anything but also don’t think any beliefs that bring joy and direction are totally unreasonable. I am a Libra and when folks have highlighted traits of my sign to an action I did, I always thought it made sense. That said, I also have a part of me that says, “doesn’t everyone have these traits?”  

I know Libras are about balance and partnership and so I can agree that those are strong traits within me. 

Who are your business heroes and what do you look to them for? Do you have anyone whose work you’ve always admired or whose career you’d like to emulate or just someone you think would be a cool person to have coffee with? Why are they the coolest?

I’ve been fortunate to have worked up close with and for national and global leaders and my big takeaway from those times is that we are all largely the same. Everyone has beauty and we also have our little bug-a-boos. Recognizing people as people seems to be a good way to start with anyone, no matter who you are.

I have been star-struck a few times though—I was able to hang out at Prince’s home following a concert once because I had a roommate that led his security team. Funny thing was that you could hang out in Prince’s home, but I was told that you couldn’t look directly at him or someone would immediately come up and ask you to leave. So, I am at Prince’s awesome house and I remember playing an old school video game and he walked right by me and I could see him out of the side of my eye. It was awesome and frustrating all at the same time. What I remember is that I was around a true genius and was so fortunate to be able to see it. If I could go back, I probably would have looked and maybe asked for a sit-down and likely would have been kicked out. 

What would your teenage self think of you today?

I think my teenage self was so committed to getting out of poverty and “making it” that if he met me now, he might be proud that he did “make it.” He would also say, “I do turn out to look like my dad.” I am sure he would also probably look at my two kids and call them lucky.

Did you have a formative and/or terrible first job? What was it?

My first job, I was a caddy, when I was in sixth grade. You had to be in seventh but I looked older and so they let me work. I worked as a caddy until college. It was an amazing job—I made great money, had access to amazing people, got exercise, and learned the game of golf. The local golf pro gave me the name “Super Caddy” because I was such a devoted worker. For a young person trying to understand the world, caddying was one of the best experiences I could have hoped for. 

What have you learned recently that kind of blew your mind? Or if you haven’t learned anything new recently that was mind-blowing, what did you learn the hard way?

I have a professional coach and we have talked a lot about “The Ladder of Inference,” which outlines how someone can make assumptions about how people react or treat you based on faulty premises. For example, if someone doesn’t return my call, I could assume several things without facts or reality like they don’t respect me, they are too busy, or they had a problem with me. I had made it more of a habit of jumping to conclusions that I am not proud of and working through this has brought me some great revelations and made me a more effective team member.

 

header photo: John Brothers at home with quilt by the African American Quilters of Baltimore, wearing purple "Prince" Jordans

This story is from Issue 10: Power,

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