Alumni Spotlight: Katharine Dixon, Rebuilding Together DC Alexandria
Katharine Dixon is the President and CEO of Rebuilding Together DC Alexandria. The Center for Public and Nonprofit Leadership spoke with Katharine about the ways her organization works to build healthy homes and communities for residents of DC. Katharine participated in our Spring 2020 Nonprofit Management Executive Certificate Program.
CPNL: The nonprofit sector is vast with many important causes to champion, what led you to pursue a career in your particular field?
Dixon: I have always loved picking up a hammer, I like to work hard and work in that way. The nonprofit that I lead is involved in housing construction and renovation. I have loved doing renovations in my own house, and this was just a natural progression to work in the nonprofit sector doing something I love. And that’s how I got where I am.
CPNL: Rebuilding Together works to create healthy neighborhoods for residents of DC and Virginia, how would you define a healthy neighborhood and what protections need to be in place to build a healthy community?
Dixon: When we work to build a healthy community, we start on the homefront. We want to make sure that people are able to live in a safe and a healthy home. That includes everything from secure handrails when people go up and down steps, so people aren’t falling down or struggling to get up the stairs. That includes working smoke detectors and fire extinguishers in case of emergency. It includes ensuring that there is no moisture in the home and that there is proper ventilation so a person’s home isn’t exacerbating any respiratory conditions they may have, like asthma or COPD. So once we are able to build a safe and secure home, that is just the first step. It is great to have a safe and stable home environment, but we also need to make sure they have opportunities to engage with their communities. A lot of our work focuses on rehabilitating rec-centers and building parks in low income neighborhoods to provide more green space. We also build huge community gardens so people can grow their own foods locally and sustainably and have access to healthier options. All of these aspects work together to create a healthy neighborhood.
CPNL: Rebuilding Together’s mission is to restore pride, dignity, and hope to our communities. What are some ways your organization has worked to fulfill this mission in light of the challenges of COVID-19?
Dixon: Unfortunately, we cannot make as many repairs as we would have been able to pre-COVID. Still, we are finding ways to rehab and help people stay safely in their homes during the pandemic.
While our volunteers cannot go into homes to do things like hang drywall or install smoke detectors, volunteers have found themselves staying active in other ways. They have mailed grocery gift cards to individuals and families, delivered home safety kits to clients, and even sent homemade holiday cards to those that live alone. With people spending so much more time in their homes, we are trying to keep them safe and healthy in every way we can.
CPNL: What is one significant challenge you have faced as a leader in the nonprofit sector?
Dixon: Tangibly, the challenge I face is being able to physically go into clients homes and perform all of the repairs that we need to accomplish. Intangibly, a challenge has been making sure that all of our staff are mentally taken care of, that they are not stressed, specifically with COVID. They are not feeling pressure or feeling overwhelmed. With COVID, we all have a different workload, and we want to ensure that people are working to the best of their ability without undue stress. Now, more than ever, there are so many clients that need our help. Due to safety restrictions and funding restrictions, we just can’t help everybody, so that has been a challenge in the last few months.
CPNL: How has the Certificate Program helped you in your career?
Dixon: My final paper addressed what working at Rebuilding Together looks like during COVID. That project really helped me get down on paper all the precautions we would need to take; the specific order of decision making, the staffing decisions we would need to make, budget allocations, etc. I was able to look at how we would ensure the safety of our staff as they returned to work. Unfortunately, because we could not hold our last couple of classes in person, I haven’t been connecting with my fellow class members as much as I would like. In this time specifically, I feel like we are all dealing with a crisis of our own due to COVID, but I was able to create a network and I prepared sufficiently for this pandemic through the Certificate Program.
CPNL: What advice would you give to other professionals considering participating in the Program?
Dixon: When I thought about applying for this program, I started thinking “wow, I have been in my role for 17 years now. Am I really going to learn something new through this experience?” I absolutely did. Not only did I learn new things, like the concept of social return on investment – our organization is actually in the process of studying social return on investment right now – there were also refresher moments and moments to gain a new perspective. Throughout the program, I was able to take note of what we should be putting on our balance sheet, or elements we should include in our strategic plan. I learned so much from the program and it was so well worth it. I am very grateful to have participated.