On January 1, Okpara Rice began his service as the Community Foundation’s Board Chair. Okpara is the CEO of Tanager Place and is the first Black Board Chair in our organization’s history. During Black History Month in February, President & CEO Les Garner sat down with Okpara to talk about the Community Foundation’s racial equity work, why representation matters, and the path ahead for our community.
Les: For those who have not had the chance to meet you, tell us a bit about yourself.
Okpara: I grew up in Chicago. I grew up in a community that continues to struggle to this day with poverty, with gang violence, with a lack of resources. I’m one of those young people who I guess maybe should not have made it, but really worked hard to get where I am and also had a tremendous amount of support in that effort. I got my bachelor’s in Social Work from Loyola University, Chicago, and I went to graduate school at Washington University in St. Louis, which was a wonderful experience. That really started me on my trajectory in social work, always focused on young people and families. That work took me out to New York, then back through Ohio and eventually to Tanager Place, which has been one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
Les: What was it about Tanager Place that appealed to you?
Okpara: It’s the rich history that’s here at Tanager Place, the level of advocacy that’s built into the DNA here—we fight for what we know is right for young people and families. The focus on treatment was something that really spoke to my heart as a treatment professional. People here are very mission-driven. That is one thing that is true throughout every aspect of this organization, people are here because they want to make the lives of young people and families better. That something that really resonated with me, and it’s been an amazing experience.
Les: What has it been like as a Black man to step into a leadership position in this community?
Okpara: Well, that’s a tough one. There are not a lot of African American leaders in this community. I think these issues of diversity in senior ranks and management is something that we are looking at as a community. Coming into this community, I was very welcomed. There are many people who believed in me and opened the door and said, hey, we want to talk to you about this community, we want you to understand the impact you can have in this community. They wanted me to understand how I should and could use my voice, and I was embraced by everyone in this role. I have really appreciated that. I’ve tried to do that for others who entered the community as well.
Les: Well, you’re the first African American to lead Tanager Place, you’re the first to be a Board Chair at the Community Foundation. Why is that important to you?
Okpara: Every time I hear that it makes me smile a little bit because that’s a ceiling that’s broken. I do believe that it’s very symbolic. I tell the story sometimes about my two sons: about five years ago, they were in my office, and they were playing CEO. For them, they don’t know any different, they don’t see a ceiling; a black person can be a CEO, and they can aspire to that. But as I look at my own childhood, I didn’t see those examples around me. And so the symbolism for young people is huge, and it opens the doors for the people behind you. I am not special; I don’t think I’m the greatest CEO ever. But symbolism does matter, and I think it’s important that we have people who are examples that you can achieve and you can impact the community.
Les: Of course, you could not have broken any barriers if those barriers didn’t exist. Do you see other barriers in this community that we need to address?
Okpara: I think we have a lot of disparities. I’m a social worker by trade, so I look at things from a systems perspective, and when you look at the social determinants of health, about what makes a community thrive, we see that we have challenges on every single level. The Advancing Racial Equity report that the Community Foundation generated shows some of those issues. Part of improving anything is admitting that there are issues and then moving that acknowledgement to action. I think there’s more of an open acknowledgement of that disparity now, and we have to push people to action.
Les: You’ve been very active in the work we’ve done at the Community Foundation on racial equity; as board chair in 2022, what do you see that the Community Foundation might be able to do?
Okpara: I think the fact that the Community Foundation took that on, knowing that there would be some in the community who may not be pleased about it, speaks a lot to the desire to do the right thing because it’s the right thing. We have a group of people at the board and staff levels who are committed to advancing equity and making sure that everyone has an equal playing field in this community. I think we’re leading that conversation and can be leaders in convening those conversations. Again, symbolism matters, right? The Community Foundation is very highly respected, so the fact that we took that on also helps other organizations see that maybe they can take it on as well.
Les: What excites you about the future of the Community Foundation?
Okpara: Literally everything about it. It’s so interesting, being in the room with such talented people who are so passionate, talking about where we want to go as an organization. There’s a very clear roadmap that’s being followed that’s making sure we are meeting the needs of our donors, our community and our nonprofits. I think those things are very impactful. I kind of see the sky as the limit. I think that the Community Foundation will continue to be a leading voice in this community for many, many years to come.
To watch the full conversation, click here.