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A Message from President and CEO Akilah Watkins

September 14, 2022

The staff of the Center for Community Progress stands on a stage in front of a blue curtain at the 2022 Reclaiming Vacant Properties Conference

Dear friends and supporters of the Center for Community Progress,

With great sadness and great gratitude, I announce that I will be departing from the Center for Community Progress at the end of 2022, to assume the role of President and CEO of Independent Sector.

Over these last five years leading Community Progress, I have had the privilege of working with some of the most dedicated and mission-driven staff in my entire career. Since its founding in 2010, the organization has grown so much, but it has retained many of the people who were there at its beginnings. The loyalty my colleagues demonstrate to serving disinvested communities, to helping one another, and to bettering the organization makes it hard to say goodbye, but also helps me feel secure in Community Progress’ future.

This continuity is so important because of the very nature of our work. Systemic vacancy doesn’t happen overnight and neither do the solutions. What I love most about the on-the-ground work Community Progress does in rural, urban, and suburban neighborhoods is that it is deeply rooted in relationships. Not just relationships between people, but relationships with places.

The places where we work—disinvested communities, legacy cities, neighborhoods battling racist stereotypes of being “the bad part of town”—have deep and justifiable mistrust of national “experts” who swoop in claiming to know how to do things better, only to vanish when they’re done. The respectful, deliberate, collaborative, and long-term relationship-building approach of the team at the Center for Community Progress makes me proud to have been able to call this place home.

So, while I will miss being so close to the work and being in community, I could not turn down the opportunity to share these lessons with an organization like Independent Sector, which touches so many nonprofits and social mission-focused organizations. I also carry the responsibility of being the first Black woman to lead their organization and look forward to advancing conversations about equitable community development and the role of philanthropy in that.

As we heard at the closing panel of last week’s tenth Reclaiming Vacant Properties Conference, where nearly 1,000 attendees spent three days learning about the best strategies to tackle vacancy, leaders of three national philanthropic organizations demonstrated they understand that vacancy, race, health, economies, and homeownership all intersect. Community Progress has grown these last three years, despite the pandemic, because funders recognize this connection. I am eternally grateful for the organization, its supporters, its staff, and its board for preparing me to take this next step in my career.

So what’s next for Community Progress? Stay tuned over these next few months as we work with our board of directors to select an interim CEO and begin the search for the next leader who will steward this organization to its next phase of greatness.

With love,

Akilah Watkins

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