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Lee Roper-Batker Honored with 2019 Mary Lee Dayton Catalyst for Change Award

Lee and John Roper-Batker_LL2019 feature
Lee Roper-Batker, WFMN President and CEO, with husband, John Roper-Batker at the 2019 Leadership and Legacy Luncheon.

The Women’s Foundation of Minnesota has named Lee Roper-Batker as the recipient of the 2019 Mary Lee Dayton Catalyst for Change award. The Women’s Foundation President & CEO was presented with the award at the annual Leadership & Legacy Circle for Women and Girls Luncheon that honors leadership donors on September 26.

Established in 2009 in honor of its namesake, Mary Lee Dayton, the Foundation presents the award annually to elevate and recognize philanthropists who use their resources and leadership to advance gender equity in Minnesota.

The WFMN Board of Trustees awarded the honor to Lee in recognition of her 19-year tenure of impact and leadership with the Foundation, which includes: raising more than $70,000,000 in funds to fuel WFMN’s mission; growing WFMN’s annual community investments from $319,000 to $3 million, an 840% increase; building WFMN’s total assets from $8 million to $26 million, a 213% increase; launching vanguard programs to drive equity: girlsBEST, MN Girls Are Not For Sale, and Young Women’s Initiative of Minnesota; creating and launching the Wenda Weekes Moore Internship and Reatha Clark King Fellowship to build a pipeline of women of color in philanthropy; leading state and national initiatives to advance gender and racial equity and grow the women’s funding movement: Prosperity Together, Partnership for Women’s Prosperity, National Philanthropic Collaborative of Young Women’s Initiatives.

Lee has also given more than $200,000 to the Foundation and, with her husband, John, has committed a seven-figure planned gift to the foundation.

Below are remarks Lee shared upon accepting the award at the Leadership & Legacy luncheon:

Wow, I’m overwhelmed. Thank you, Joyce and Dick. It means so much to follow you in receiving this award. (Thank you, Saanii, for your kind words. Of course, I paid her to say those things.)

Thank you to the board of the Foundation who, despite my protests, insisted that I receive this award. So here I am deeply humbled & honored to be among this incredible list of past awardees.

My remarks today are both a thank you and goodbye as CEO. Probably the hardest speech I’ve ever written, and almost an impossible task to deliver in 8 minutes. If you could all just turn to the 50-page essay I wrote…I’ll sit down now.

I was so attracted to join a Foundation that was born of paradoxes: of hope, of structural inequities, of revolution, and of wealth to resource community solutions. I believe that we are always in revolution, both as we circle the sun on this beautiful planet and in how we create a new path toward gender and racial equity.

At the Foundation we have evolved our understanding that we can’t achieve gender equity without racial equity, and the converse is true, too. Mary Lee, and our founding mothers—all 500 of them—understood that. They created the base for an intersectional, multi-issue Foundation.

I have learned each day from our partners whose communities face unfair structural barriers. They hold the women and families who are harmed from these inequities, and they hold the key to change. That’s why every initiative we do starts with taking our research to communities across this state…to steep it in community wisdom of what women and girls need to thrive.

Let me give you just one example of many that I’ve experienced over the past 20 years. I was in Cold Springs, MN, in Stearns County visiting with Mayuli, the exec director of Casa Guadalupe, a girlsBEST grantee. As we were meeting a little girl ran in crying. Mayuli stroked her hair as the little girl explained what was wrong. She was the only one in her entire 4th grade class who wasn’t invited to a birthday party.

Her little classmate explained that he wanted to invite her but couldn’t because his dad hates Mexicans. The tears rolled down her face, down all our faces. We colored and talked together and told her she was beautiful, and that some people are not beautiful of heart. When she left, Mayuli turned to me and said, that boy’s dad is our chief of police. Think about that.

Before the little girl came in, I had been listening to Mayuli describe her frustration. Why? She had been to a planning meeting to survey the county. The input would set the health and social services agenda and county funding for the next 10 years.

Mayuli raised her hand at the meeting. Would there be questions in Spanish? No. How would they survey people? They would call homeowners. Mayuli expressed concern over who would be excluded: a growing immigrant community and people who rent their homes. The survey methodology was not changed.

This is a clear example of exclusion that will never produce equity in outcomes. I’m grateful that our Foundation leads with equity in design in all we do.

This award means a lot to me because Mary Lee meant a lot to me. Mary Lee was a revolutionary, and she was an early mentor. I first met Mary Lee when I was 27 years old and held my first role as an executive director. I had no idea what I was doing.

I grew into leadership through Mary Lee’s mentorship – and I have continued to grow and learn from every person in this room. I thank you.

About five years before Mary Lee died, I designed a t-shirt for her that read, “This is what a revolutionary looks like.” Mary Lee wore that t-shirt proudly. And, since I’m receiving an award in her honor today, I took the liberty of getting a few more printed.

Many of you know that I have a daily practice. Each morning, I ask myself five questions. I’m going to use a few of these questions to reflect on the past two decades:

First question: What am I grateful for?

Well first, I’m grateful for an amazing board and staff who leads this organization with radical imagination, vision, excellence, healthy communication, and joy. I’m grateful to everyone in this room for your generosity and for believing with us that a better world for women, is a better world for all. I am grateful to my remarkable husband of 32 years who supports my dreams —“go for it” — loves me unconditionally, and co-parented our amazing daughter, Astia, with far more patience, humor, and homework help than I.

Astia – my gratitude for who you are, for your big, dazzling, kind heart and brilliant mind, and for how you serve in this world. In case you don’t know, my daughter is a medical doctor. Is there anyone who doesn’t know that? Yes, I’m one proud mama.

To all of you, my friends, I’m grateful to you for filling my life with joy, love, and laughter. For our deep conversations and debates. And I’m especially grateful when I’m beating you adventure croquet, or strategy games.

Next question: How did I experience beauty?

At first my reflections to this question surprised me because my answer was most often NOT in the physical beauty of this world. I pictured the strength, hope, and courage of our community partners, like Mayuli, whose passion and courage changed me and changes this world.

Some of our grantee-partners who I so admire are here today: Verna, Ruby, Betty, Beth, Cheniqua, Robin, Raie, Kandace, Gaye, Amy, Molly, Sarah, Kelly, Jeff, and Patti. You are all beautiful revolutionaries – and I have t-shirts for each of you, too.

Next Question: What were my goals?

Simply put, my goal was to grow the Foundation. Grow its focus, visibility, and inclusion, and grow its grantmaking, endowment and impact. And you know what? As George W. Bush famously claimed, Mission Accomplished.

And the last question: What did I learn? Well, how much more time do I have?

Here are just a few things.

I learned that systems don’t exist outside of us – that we are the systems — our collective behaviors either reinforce systems of inequity or create new, fair systems.

I learned that overweighting evidence-based outcomes in systems change work – this isn’t medicine – can perpetuate status quo, or – let’s name it – white supremacy and squelch community innovation.

I learned about the power of cross-sector collaborations to solve complex problems.

And, I learned that equity is a long-game and our rewards are the wins along the path.

Now, what’s in our future? When I think about the future of the Women’s Foundation, a house metaphor comes to mind.

The Foundation has been my political home for nearly 20 years. More than a place of work, it’s been the vessel that carried my hopes and dreams for women and girls. The foundation of our house is strong and enduring. Because we built it together, with the women and men before us, and with community in the lead.

We have all been a part of creating this strong, enduring home so let’s make it welcoming for the next CEO. Let’s look forward to her remodeling and the new additions she’ll build with her bold vision. And I will be her biggest champion.

Thank you all for this very special recognition and for these past 20 years. I could not have done any of this without the support, love, and grace of every person in this room— and money.

As Chief Wilma Mankiller called upon us: “Look forward, turn what has been done into a better path.”

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