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Class of 2024

President and CEO, Martin Luther King Jr. Family Services

She Wants to Galvanize a Community to Effect Positive Change

Shannon Rudder

For her 12th birthday, Shannon Rudder didn’t want a present from her mother; instead, she wanted to redecorate her bedroom.

So she did, and she remembers some of the things she hung on the walls, like the Indigenous Ten Commandments and a picture of Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi, along with the quotation, “live, think, and act. Be inspired by humanity evolving toward a world of peace and harmony.”

She remembers that message because she internalized it at a young age, and it has informed every stop along her career journey — and the difference she has been able to make at each one.

“It’s embedded in me,” Rudder said as she sat with BusinessWest in her office at Martin Luther King Jr. Family Services in Springfield. “I feel like I can be a part of creating humanity in my immediate area. I might not be able to change the whole world or the whole city that I’m in, but I’ve always felt compelled to make an impact in a positive way with compassion and love. And I’m responsible for my thoughts because those become actions. Very early on, that idea led me to be a person of integrity, of deep compassion, and of advocacy.”

Perhaps that’s why, after considering a corporate career in college, she eventually embarked on a series of roles at organizations with a social mission, from MotherWoman and Teach Western Mass to Providence Ministries and, now, MLK Family Services, where she stepped a year ago into the very big shoes of the late Ronn Johnson, who steered the ship there for more than a decade (and was also honored by BusinessWest as a Difference Maker in 2020).

Simply put, Rudder said, “I just think I have been called to contribute to important causes, and I go after that.”

Her first nonprofit job was in Buffalo, N.Y., where she grew up, for an organization called Women for Human Rights & Dignity. “It just like cracked me open, like, ‘oh, the skills that I have and the compassion that I have … they can be aligned, and I get paid to do awesome, impactful work?’

“I might not be able to change the whole world or the whole city that I’m in, but I’ve always felt compelled to make an impact in a positive way with compassion and love.”

“That was all about women’s empowerment,” she added. “We did alternatives-to-incarceration programs and domestic-violence support and non-traditional education and housing. I was really young, and I had a little baby, and I was doing this good work, but also learning how to run a business.”

Since then, Rudder has taken care to align with causes that are important to her, moving into work with fair housing and civil rights in the Buffalo region before moving to Western Mass., where her first pathway to organizational leadership was at MotherWoman, a nonprofit focused on maternal health and well-being, where she served as executive director.

Later, she was executive director for Providence Ministries Inc., a nonprofit advocating for and supporting marginalized populations across programs dedicated to food security, addiction recovery, housing, clothing, and workforce development. That role opened her eyes to many types of need and further honed her sharp sense of empathy.

“I remember my grandmother saying, ‘but for God’s grace, there go I’ — meaning, in a blink of an eye, your situation could change, and you could be on the other side of needing services like that,” she said. “We’re all part of the same journey.”

Shannon Rudder

Shannon Rudder with the two youth emcees from last month’s MLK Day celebration.

She also served as deputy director of Teach Western Mass, a nonprofit startup working toward educational equity in partnership with more than 30 schools. Her duties included fiscal and operational oversight, knowledge-management systems, data and impact, communications, equity and belonging, human-resource management, overall team culture, and supervision of cross-functional teams.

“I’ve been really intentional about the causes that make a difference to me, approaching it from the perspective of, ‘OK, this agency’s mission is really clear, the heart and the compassion are here, and I get to make sure it lasts for a long time by building the infrastructure, the operations systems, the fundraising and return on investment, and all the important scaffolding that needs to be in place so that the business aspect of it can thrive.”

The clear thread woven through all these roles has been a focus on equity and making sure everyone has access to the resources they need to live healthy, meaningful lives, she explained. “I picked causes that are doing the important work of amplifying the voices of those that have often been silenced or marginalized.”

By using her own voice, compassion, and business acumen to do so, Rudder has become a true Difference Maker.

 

Lifetime Support

At MLK Family Services, she shares with Johnson, her late predecessor, an approach to the work from a public-health standpoint, considering how the social determinants of health affect all areas of life.

“Sure, we can triage and put Band-Aids on stuff — people are hungry now, so let’s make sure they have food — but let’s dig a little deeper: how do we actually get a grocery store in an area that is in need?” she said.

“I remember my grandmother saying, ‘but for God’s grace, there go I’ — meaning, in a blink of an eye, your situation could change, and you could be on the other side of needing services like that. We’re all part of the same journey.”

“I also want to make sure that MLKFS as a whole, operations and programs, is operating from a trauma-informed place,” she went on, citing a philosophy that takes into account the unique, often traumatic experiences of an individual’s life and how that informs what they need.

“How do we approach our programs and ensure that the people working with our kids are helping to break that, or making sure that those kids have resources like mental-health counseling? How do we make sure we’re helping to embolden and empower them, and then actually building the bridge to get them access to the things that they need?”

The current programs offered by MLK Family Services are many and diverse, and include:

• The Family Stabilization Program, funded through the Department of Child and Family, offers support to families to keep their children safely at home and in the community by advocating for the well-being and rights of all children and ensuring parenting support.

Shannon Rudder’s work at MLK Family Services lifts up children in many ways.

Shannon Rudder’s work at MLK Family Services lifts up children in many ways.

• The MLK Food Pantry provides emergency food services to community members in Hampden County. The program relies on donations from grocery vendors and is a member of the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts. The pantry operates at the MLK Community Center weekly and also hosts the Food Bank’s mobile market twice monthly.

• The Clemente Course in Humanities is a transformative educational experience for adults — an opportunity to further their education and careers, advocate for themselves and their families, and engage actively in the cultural and political lives of their communities.

• The Historically Black College and University (HBCU) Tour helps young people explore their academic journey by visiting multiple college campuses in a single trip. These tours equip participants with a solid understanding of the history, culture, and traditions that have shaped the schools’ collective legacy. In addition, students, parents, and counselors are engaged in a year-long series of workshops.

• The King’s Kids afterschool programs serve up to 130 children at two locations. Programming is aimed at helping students become academically successful by nurturing their character building, critical-thinking skills, and creativity. Students are offered homework help, STEAM enrichment, literacy support, cultural experiences, and recreational and holistic well-being.

• Youth between ages 13 and 22 are invited to participate in the weekly Night Spot program, which empowers them to be critical thinkers and community builders while preparing them for life in high school, college, and beyond. Night Spot offers advocacy services for a variety of needs, including handling life’s complications, navigating the court system, and ensuring safety in a safe, drug-free environment.

• Beat the Odds is a Springfield-based youth mental-health coalition led in partnership with the Public Health Institute of Western Massachusetts. Hosted at MLK Family Services, the program focuses on breaking the cycle of stigma and barriers to youth mental healthcare. In 2023, this program launched a public-awareness campaign called “I Am Not My Mood.”

“How do we make sure we’re helping to embolden and empower them, and then actually building the bridge to get them access to the things that they need?”

• King’s Kids Summer Camp is a full-day camp for children ages 5-12. Meanwhile, a new partnership with Springfield Empowerment Zone schools provides summer enrichment programs to Springfield middle- and high-school students in partnership with agencies across Massachusetts.

• DCR Summer Nights Program is a transformative, statewide initiative that enriches the lives of urban youth ages 13 to 21. MLK Family Services is one of the sites providing safe, inclusive, and fun activities (both recreational and educational) during evening hours. Participants enjoy gaming competitions and tournaments in a variety of sports, enriching arts activities, health and wellness workshops, career explorations through guest speakers, and off-site excursions.

“I can’t wait to jump in with the community and do a strategic plan where they begin to inform us what they need, so we’re not sitting here thinking, ‘oh, I think it would be cool if we created this experience,’” Rudder said. “Does the community need that? We know that the community is ever-shifting and changing. So to really meet the needs of the community, we need to hear from them, and I’m excited about doing that.”

The MLK King’s Kids dance troupe performed at MLK Day this year.

The MLK King’s Kids dance troupe performed at MLK Day this year.

It’s a way to go beyond Johnson’s ‘teach a man to fish’ credo and make sure people are fishing in the right ponds.

“If we say we’re going to listen to the community, then we have to go into the community and say, ‘OK, we heard you. How are we going to work at this together?’” Rudder said. “It’s our job to provide the resources and the tools, but I want them to be a part of that solution, whatever that looks like.”

 

Thinking Ahead

Rudder has plenty of goals for the center, from broading the trauma-informed piece to launching a full capital-needs assessment.

“I want to make sure our center is there for decades to come, so that means a lot of capital improvement. Our food pantry needs a new home; we’re just bursting at the seams.

“I also want to do economic-development training,” she added. “We do a really good job with HBCUs and also college readiness locally, and I want our kids to dream big — but college might not be for them. So how do we equip them to realize their dreams and potential? I want to do some vocational training, some entrepreneurial things, all STEAM-based approaches to things.”

One idea from Providence Ministries she’d like to being to MLK Family Services is ServSafe training. “We can get them certified in management and actually have hands-on teaching of kitchen skills and culinary skills. And then, how do they make money off of that? So, we’ll teach them business acumen and then link them to opportunities for jobs,” she explained. “I’m just excited to hear what our community’s needs are and finding a way — again, through the public-health lens — of making sure that we meet those needs.”

To accomplish all that, Rudder relies not only on the center’s staff, but also about 120 volunteers. And she finds it gratifying that she’s following King’s philosophy of not working solo, but galvanizing an entire community to accomplish positive change.

“One adage I grew up with is, ‘to whom much is given, much is required.’ And I’m really blessed; I’m really fortunate in my life,” Rudder told BusinessWest. “So that’s my responsibility — to leverage those things that I’ve been blessed with into doing good, into impact. This is fun, and it is fulfilling to me.”