Tracey Wright: An Inspired, Relational Approach to Leadership

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Tracey Wright photo

Tracey Wright is a native of Dickson, Tennessee, who currently calls Russell County, Virginia, home. During her career in higher education, Tracey has served in the administrations of three regional institutions. As an educator, she strives to assist college students in developing into engaged citizens who care about their community and their environment. Tracey is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Leadership and Professional Practice from Trevecca Nazarene University.

Tracey, a wife and mother of two daughters, says she seeks meaningful ways to have a positive impact on our environment and better ways to help motivate others to do the same.

“The profound integrity, insight, and commitment that Tracey brings to her leadership of the board represents a really incredible gift to Appalachian Voices and everything we stand for,” says Appalachian Voices Executive Director Tom Cormons. “I am deeply grateful to her for enthusiastically taking on the board chair role and very excited about our work together going forward.”

As Tracey begins her term as board chair, we wanted to help our members and supporters get to know this influential figure at Appalachian Voices. Molly Moore, the editor of The Appalachian Voice, sat down with Tracey via Zoom to ask a few questions. Responses have been edited slightly for length.

AV: These are challenging times across our region. In addition to the pandemic and pressing economic and public health concerns, our climate and environmental crises haven’t gone away. Pollution isn’t any less severe for communities on the front lines, and fossil fuel companies are still looking to get away with more wrongdoing. How do you see Appalachian Voices meeting this moment?

Tracey: Even during this pandemic, Appalachian Voices has been vigilant in terms of continuing to fight the good fight. As John Lewis would say, you're continuing to find that “good trouble” to be engaged in. So it just warmed my heart to see the work Appalachian Voices was doing to help make sure that as more and more people were facing unemployment and hours cut back, that you all were taking the necessary steps to be a voice to make sure that folks were still able to meet their housing needs, to have electricity and utility services.

As we entered into this unprecedented election period, App Voices was doing appropriate work in terms of finding ways to encourage people to exercise their right to vote, finding appropriate and legal ways to engage in that process to help ensure that it took place in an appropriate and fair manner. To me, those are the types of things that an organization needs to be doing, while also not letting the pedal off the gas in terms of still holding utility and mining companies accountable.

I was able to participate in a fall conversation that [New Economy Field Coordinator] Austin Counts had arranged around land use in Southwest Virginia. And those important conversations — the pandemic doesn't make the fact go away that a significant percentage of land in my county and nearby counties is held by owners who don't even live in the state. And that land, what are they doing with it, and who has a voice in terms of those things? And so, even during the pandemic, continuing to be the leader that you are in terms of these important and key environmental initiatives and maintaining the equity piece at the forefront of that work is really critical.

AV: What do you want Appalachian Voices members to know about you and what you're bringing to this position?

Tracey: I believe in being inclusive in terms of how I operate and lead. To me, that's an important quality. I am one who is all about relationship-building. I think it comes out in my preferred leadership style, which is servant leader. I believe in giving back to the communities in which I'm a part of. Being a servant leader means getting in there and working side-by-side with the people in the organization that we're leading and taking time to learn more about them and what their personal needs and goals are, and then assisting those individuals in accomplishing and achieving those things. At the same time, it means listening to the wider community and doing the same thing, listening and learning what those groups offer and finding out how we can work alongside each other in order to bring about a positive change.

So that's me in a nutshell. If you were to pull a group of my friends and family together and ask them to tell you how Tracey leads and what she's about, they would say, “She's about the people, she loves building relationships.” Even though I am more of an introvert, over the years I have learned how to push that extroverted side out in order to build relationships and engage with people to make things happen. So they would tell you that I enjoy working with others and I'm relational. They would say that I love giving back to my community. That looks different in the different communities that I've lived in, and it looks different in the different organizations that I've chosen to connect with and given my time and resources to. But I love serving, and that's just something that's important to me, and I love our environment — we won't have communities without a safe, healthy, clean environment in which to live.

AV: You have lived in Southwest Virginia, Middle and East Tennessee, and Western North Carolina, and you are the first Black woman to serve as Appalachian Voices Board Chair. Can you comment about how your life experiences inform your service on the board?

Tracey: It is pretty exciting to be joining Vice President-Elect Harris in being a first!

I was brought up by a single mom and for a lot of years we lived with my grandfather, who had been denied the opportunity to get an education. In spite of that, he knew that education was important. So, he told us as we were growing up to put something in our heads, for it's something that no one could ever take from us. My older sister and I, we really embraced that from an early age. Because my grandfather had been denied an education, he could barely write his own name and he couldn't read. So when my oldest sister went off to school and started learning, she got to come home from school and help Grandpa read his mail and those types of things and I became jealous. I wanted to help my grandpa, too. And so I couldn't wait to go to school; I played school even as a kid. Educating myself was something that I knew was going to be a part of who I was from an early part of my life.

Growing up in Middle Tennessee, in Dickson, was very similar to a lot of the places that I have lived in my lifetime — very limited racial diversity, broad diversity across economics and social economics. It was the same with educational opportunities; it was broad and what people were choosing to do was all over the spectrum. I found myself again embracing the words of my grandfather, putting something in my head and wanting as much knowledge as I could, challenging myself to take those college preparatory courses. I often found myself being the only African American in the classroom. That followed me through my college years as a mathematics major. Many times I was the only person of color or Black person in particular in the classroom.

So I know what it feels like and means to be on the margin, and that having opportunities to lead comes with a different type of pressure. You've got the normal pressures — particularly if you care — of not wanting to let an organization or a group down, and not wanting to mess things up and wanting to make sure you leave it better than you found it. That’s if you care, and I think that's an important statement in our current environment as a society and a country. When you care, those are important things that you're watching for. You want to acknowledge the past history and what has been done and those legacies, while also embarking on new journeys and keeping your finger on the pulse of what's out there for the organization to look at and consider, because just staying in the past can get you to a bad place. When you are a leader who cares, those are the type of things you do.

But when you are leading as a person who represents a group that has been limited in terms of opportunity to serve in those capacities for whatever reason, you have another layer of making sure you don't mess it up for those to come behind you. If I were a White male assuming this role, the likelihood of another White male having this opportunity anytime soon is very great. But as a woman, as a Black woman, when you look at the composition of our board, that opportunity is not on the same level of availability.

I will add that one of the things I'm really excited about is Appalachian Voices’ work on equity. First of all, it was a staff-led effort. You all embarked on an important journey of doing some work around diversity, equity and inclusion. I think part of that came as an outgrowth of our work on the strategic plan that we're currently operating on. We built into that plan some important goals around being more inclusive and making sure that we were being more thoughtful in that arena. Equity has always been part of Appalachian Voices’ work, but we wanted to name it specifically in the strategic plan. And then as the staff formed the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Team, we started some important conversations within our board of directors along those same lines.

One of the things that is important is that I do bring a different voice to that table. I can't set aside the fact that I am an African-American woman who grew up in poverty — I’m at a very different place now in my world, but that is a part of who I am. I know what it feels like to be without and to suffer from having your lights cut off because your mom is a single parent and doing the best she can, but sometimes the dollars don't add up to what you have for bills. I know what that's like, and so when I come to the meetings, I try and bring all of who I am to the table where appropriate and where there are opportunities. Every conversation doesn't warrant that you're addressing and thinking about it necessarily from that lens, but obviously you never set aside the pieces of your identity. So it's being aware that my identity doesn't impede progress, but at the same time, it doesn't stop people from learning and understanding where something could be even stronger if we consider it through a different lens or multiple lenses.

I do try really hard — and I think it is because of my upbringing and past experiences and my multiple identities — I try to really look around the table and make sure that voices are being heard not just from one or two, but that everybody has an opportunity. And maybe Molly doesn't feel comfortable at that table to speak out. But can I get to you and build a connection so we pull it out in another way? Maybe I'm bringing it out because of a conversation I had with Molly, but it's important that Molly's voice is also heard. Those are some things that are part of who I am that are really important to me, and that impact and inform how I serve on the board.

AV: You joined the Appalachian Voices board in 2015 and served on the Strategic Planning Committee, Board Development Committee and on the Executive Committee as secretary before becoming chair in 2020. What aspects of board service did you find most rewarding during your first term? What inspired you to step in at this deeper level?

Tracey: What probably has inspired me the most has been learning more about the programmatic work of the organization and seeing a commitment to equality and finding ways to engage with populations that are on the margin that sometimes are not being heard or listened to, and the careful relationship-building utilizing outstanding listening skills. Not only has Appalachian Voices been able to help be a voice for those on the margins, but it has also developed the skill set and opened doors so that those individuals' voices can be heard. So that really is one of the most exciting and important things, I think, that has occurred and that I see.

Another point of inspiration has been hearing the accounts about how some of the barriers are being broken down, particularly on the national and state level, with elected officials in order to move the needle on some really key and important decisions that are impacting our environment and our quality of life. So efforts like getting some things to happen with Duke Energy and Dominion Energy have just really been heartwarming, along with the recent work helping to make sure that people who found themselves either underemployed or with no employment during this pandemic would not have their utilities cut off or their homes taken away, the places that they live. So it's watching Appalachian Voices learn how to respond to the basic needs as well as global needs that our communities are faced with.

What my service on the board has shown me is what an amazing, talented and passionate team of professionals we have. I am just blown away through everything I've learned about the work, the skill set of the team, and what everyone brings to the table — how they are engaging across the multiple states that we operate within, how they have developed strategies to work differently within the government and governmental institutions within those different states because they all operate differently, and then the national impact that the organization has been able to have. So it's really rewarding to talk to other people about being a part of a board that is connected with such a phenomenal group of professionals at every turn, who are making these significant things happen day in and day out.

And then within the board, I've come to learn that we have just an amazing group of volunteers who are giving of their time and other resources in order to aid App Voices in being able to have the tools that it needs in order to do this important work.

AV: One of the themes across our work is collaboration with communities, with partners, with people in power and people who don’t have as much power. Can you speak about how you view collaboration?

Tracey: I have a couple of different viewpoints on it. One is, none of us know what we don't know. So we're only as strong as the information we have access to and are privy to. When we collaborate, we bring in the perspectives that we would not normally have available to us in some cases. We bring in diverse ways of doing things and access to different resources, and all of those things can make an organization's efforts stronger and can allow us to reach our goals in a more timely and effective way than if we just tried to accomplish those things on our own.

But additionally, when we collaborate, we are relationship building. I have spoken about that before, but to me that's just critical. Collaboration allows us to learn more about other people, and while some collaborations lead to immediate success, sometimes it's just planting those seeds. So we reach out and collaborate, and maybe it fails and so for that particular effort, we're not going to be able to advance the cause or the goal we were trying to accomplish, but we have planted those seeds and developed some level of relationship. So if we continue to try and foster and grow that, then down the road it could lead to something that is more what we were trying to accomplish.

So when we collaborate, the efforts are stronger, and things happen sooner. The results are typically more sustainable and lasting when we collaborate because we have more partners that have agreed to that particular cause.

AV: What are you most excited about as you begin this new position?

Tracey: This transition period gives me the opportunity to reach out to the board members and gain some input, so that's probably what I'm most excited about doing and learning. I'm excited about surveying and having one-on-one conversations with the board members regarding their perception of their service. What are the things they would love to know more about the organization that they feel like they don't know? Are there things that they would like to see us do differently as a board, or do they want to keep things the way they are?

I’m looking forward to utilizing the board to help me figure out how the board can continue to further the mission and goals of the organization, because for me, it's not about what Tracey wants and what she feels is the right thing. For one, we do have a strategic plan and we have our bylaws and goals and objectives, but two, it's not just me. We have an amazing and talented board of directors and I want to make sure I'm representing them as well as the whole membership in the way that those forces would prefer.

Hear from outgoing Board Chair Kim Gilliam and meet the rest of the Appalachian Voices Board of Directors.