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Driving Social Change: Joan Garry, Keynote Speaker at the Fifth Annual Fordham Women’s Summit

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From helping launch MTV as a recent Fordham grad to becoming a precedent-setting plaintiff for LGBTQ rights and a media-savvy champion for nonprofit leaders, Joan Garry, FCRH ’79, has long been a trailblazer. Along the way, she’s learned many lessons on leadership, communication, the need for mutual support, and the power of the media—some of which she will share during the 2021 Fordham Women’s Summit, to be held virtually on Oct. 20.

“I think one of the reasons you’re here is to make the world a better place than the one you arrived to,” she said. “And philanthropy is an incredibly powerful tool for that. I want the women at the Women’s Summit to own that. I want them to see that. I want them to evangelize that.”

Making the World a Better Place

For Garry, the desire to make the world a better place stems, in part, from her personal life. In the early 1990s, two decades before the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges legalized same-sex marriage, she and her partner, Eileen, were discussing the next steps for their family.

“I believed really deeply that if we were going to have a family that it was incumbent upon us to do what we could to make the world as safe as possible for them,” she said.

They became plaintiffs in a precedent-setting case in New Jersey in 1993, and Garry eventually became the first woman in the state to legally adopt her partner’s biological children.

“It was a huge ‘aha moment’ for me, recognizing, cheesy though it may sound, that one person can really make a difference,” she said on an episode of the Fordham Footsteps podcast last summer. “And it was huge news,” she added. “The story of our family was educating people about members of the LGBT community in a very different kind of way. In the early 1990s, gay families were not common at all, and I realized that the media had this incredible power and responsibility to tell these stories and really shape how the LGBT community was perceived and understood.”

At the time, Garry was an executive at Showtime Networks, but her family’s victory in court inspired her to take her career in a different direction a few years later. In 1997, she was named executive director of GLAAD, a national nonprofit organization that aims to “rewrite the script for LGBTQ acceptance” and tackle “tough issues to shape the narrative and provoke dialogue that leads to cultural change.”

“Because GLAAD focused on the media as an institution where we could change hearts and minds, the bridge from corporate media to the nonprofit sector was a no-brainer for me,” Garry said.

Garry said that when she started at GLAAD, there were “precious few images at all” of LGBTQ people in the media, and when they were featured, the depictions were usually negative. She built partnerships with media executives to change that, working with the producers of Survivor to help get a gay man on the popular TV show in 2000 and successfully lobbying The New York Times to feature gay and lesbian couples in its “Vows” section.

“We are part of the fabric of society,” she said. “The object of the work was to ensure that the media representation reflected the diversity of our society that included LGBTQ members.”

Lessons Learned

Garry said her work at GLAAD was influenced by her previous jobs, particularly at MTV, where she began her career soon after graduating from Fordham College at Rose Hill with a degree in philosophy and communications.

At MTV, Garry learned the “dynamics, energy, and the urgency of a startup,” which became valuable to her as she transitioned to leading GLAAD.

“Running a nonprofit organization, they have a very similar energy [to a startup]—moving quickly, often too quickly, under-resourced,” she said. “The other piece that corporate America provided me was an understanding that numbers tell a story.”

And even before MTV, while still a student at Fordham, Garry said she learned about the value of having a mentor.

She got her start at MTV, several months before the network launched in 1981, thanks in part to her mentor James N. Loughran, S.J., FCRH ’64, GSAS ’75, a Fordham philosophy professor who later served as dean of Fordham College at Rose Hill. Father Loughran encouraged her to reach out to a Fordham graduate who was looking to build a team for a new project at Warner Communications.

“All I know is that one moment I was unemployed, and the next moment I was sharing an office with someone and looking at the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center, and feeling like I had won the lottery,” she said with a laugh. “Little did I know that we were creating the business plan for what would become MTV.”

The ‘Accidental’ Consultant

All of those lessons helped prepare Garry for another career transition—starting her own consulting firm for nonprofits.

After working at GLAAD for eight years, Garry decided to focus more on helping raise her three children, who were in middle and high school at the time.

“We believe that older kids need you even more than younger kids,” she said with a laugh. “And so I went home to be on the ground when they got home from school.”

She began to take on some jobs as a way to “maintain my sanity,” Garry said, adding that she became an “accidental” consultant. In 2012, she launched a website to share tips, advice, insights, and lessons she learned from her time in the corporate and nonprofit worlds. The site “took off,” she said, and eventually led to a full-time consulting business and a book, Joan Garry’s Guide to Nonprofit Leadership: Because the World Is Counting on You (Wiley, 2017).

Garry said that she found that many nonprofit leaders don’t have advocates and supporters for their work, which is why she also launched the Nonprofit Leadership Lab to help provide support, networking, and professional development to leaders of nonprofits.

“These jobs—whether you’re running a food pantry or whether you’re researching the cure for a disease or you’re advocating for the Latinx community—these are hard jobs,” she said. “They’re really hard to get right and far too often these leaders do not have champions.”

Inviting People In

Garry said that one of the pieces of advice she plans to give those who attend the Summit, and one she often shares with nonprofit leaders, is to invite people in to be a part of their causes and work.

“It makes people feel good to give money to causes they care about—it is an invitation, an invitation to get closer to those things that drive meaning and purpose in your life,” she said. “And why wouldn’t you invite people to do that? They can always say no. But I’d like to be invited. And so I have grown to understand through all of the work that I have done raising money, that it is  [about]  offering someone the opportunity to bring meaning and purpose into their lives in a different way.”

In particular, Garry said that she wants to invite women to use philanthropy to support the causes they care about.

“Women have not been socialized in the same way as men to be philanthropic; they have had fewer opportunities,” she said. “And I would like them to leave feeling inspired to be engaged in philanthropy in whatever way it makes sense for them.”

On Wednesday, Oct. 20, Garry will co-headline the Fifth Annual Fordham Women’s Summit. For the full schedule and to register for this online event, go to fordham.edu/womenssummit.

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