Delivering Value: Vanessa Gaston, Director, Clark County Community Services
What is your primary charge as Director of Clark County Community Services?
The Clark County Community Services is responsible for managing certain social services for Clark County. We work in partnership with other community groups and nonprofits in different jurisdictions to accomplish that. In my role, I primarily oversee mental health, drug and alcohol services, weatherization and heating help, and housing and homelessness programs. We manage a veteran’s relief program, a small youth program,
I have a staff of 86 and an annual budget of $76 million, with lots of difference funding sources. Majority of the funding we receive come from the state and federal governments.
What was your career path leading up to your current post?
I’m blessed to be where I’m at, and it’s been a long journey. I started out being in the military. I was in the Army for three years, and five years in the Reserves. I was stationed in Germany. My mother has always been in social services, and that’s why I chose to be in this field. I started out as an executive assistant for a nonprofit that ran homeless shelters in Tacoma. After nine months, I worked as a ward clerk in a mental hospital. As you can see, I started at the bottom, and worked my way up.
I had to go to school at night to get my bachelor’s degree from Evergreen State College and my master’s from University of Washington. I worked in almost every aspect of social services, from housing and homelessness issues, alcohol and drug abuse, mental health. I’ve taken on a lot of jobs where sometimes I didn’t get paid to be in a managerial role. But I sought out those opportunities because I wanted to learn. I‘ve been very fortunate, and at the same time, I’ve worked very hard and paid my dues.
During your career, what are some of the challenges you had to overcome?
When I started out in supervision, there weren’t a lot of women of color in management. There were white women and men of color in supervisory roles. The first struggle was breaking through that ceiling in institutions run primarily by Caucasian men. Convincing people that I can do the job, with some grooming. I was fortunate to have a mentor who really worked with me.
Once I got into those positions, then the challenge became my age. I was much younger than people I supervised, that many thought I didn’t have the experience. I supervised people while working in the military.
I felt I had to show a lot and prove a lot. The staff was very supportive, but I felt that I constantly had to prove myself to the higher-ups – who, for some reason or another, thought I wasn’t quite ready.
What are some of the most valuable lessons you learned along the way?
Know your skills and abilities, and your self-worth. You’re going to be told a lot of things about you that may not be true. Be willing to look in the mirror and do your own self-assessment. If you know your strengths, also know the areas you’re weak in. Learn how to mitigate those weaknesses.
No one can do a job by oneself. For me, finding a mentor and learning how to ask for help were important. Professional development is not necessarily the responsibility of your employer. It’s your responsibility to seek out training, classes, or having an executive coach.
Don’t forget who you are, even though you’re working in environments led by people from the mainstream culture. Learn how to maneuver in those environments without having to give up your culture. Don’t change who you are – don’t try to assimilate.
How does your cultural background impact the way you lead?
I’m multiracial: my mother’s Native American, and my father’s African-American. I’ve managed to stay close to both my cultures. I don’t let people assign any identity to me. I know who I am and I’m very proud of where I came from.
Being close to both my cultures has really enhanced my leadership. Both are very focused on family. They’re focused on being open, transparent and being honest. I grew up understanding the importance of truly respecting people and listening to them.
I believe I brought all of that to my job. I respect differences, and understand that I do not have all the answers. I believe that being direct and honest is important, even though that’s not the popular thing.
In your current role, how do you promote diversity?
Hiring a diverse workforce is important because we serve a diverse population. I’ve been in this job for two years, and we’ve done some new things. In our hiring, we try to bring in as many diverse candidates as possible, using different ways of outreach. I’ve instituted diverse interview panels, which hasn’t been done in the past. We look for diverse skill sets, even going beyond technical skills.
We’ve done quite a bit, but we still have plenty of room to grow. When I first got here, the percentage of minority employees was about 5 percent. Now, about 13 percent of our employees are people of color. In reality, we are more diverse because that figure doesn’t include people with disabilities, or those who are gays, lesbians or transgender.
Primarily, we serve people in poverty, but really, we serve people from all walks of life. Making sure we work with our nonprofit providers to ensure they are trained. We have a diversity committee that helps decide what training needs to happen. For our employees and partners, we offer a lot of diversity training in all aspects. We also make sure that our partners hire diverse staff.
What do you consider as the most challenging aspect of your work?
What do you enjoy most about the work that you do?
I grew up in poverty. I still have a lot of family members in poverty. I also had to deal with barriers as a woman, and as a person of color. For me, this is my way of giving back. To be in a career where you can make a difference in someone’s life, and get paid to do that – that’s the ultimate gift. That is why I’ve stayed in social services for 19 years, because I have the opportunity to use my skills and abilities to give back. I feel that I’m successful, but I realize that I have not yet reached full success, since so many in our community are still suffering. Everyday, the chance to help someone gives me drive, gives me the motivation to continue doing what I do.
Spring 2010 Colors of Influence