Jen Carnig, the Brand-Spanking-New Head of Spitfire Strategies – Transcript
Kirk: Welcome to Let’s Hear It.
Eric: Let’s Hear It is a podcast for and about the field of foundation and non profit communications, produced by its two co hosts, Eric Brown and Kirk Brown. No relation.
Kirk: Well said, Eric. And I’m Kirk.
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Eric: So let’s get onto the show.
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Mr. Brown, we’ve got some ground to cover today. It’s been an absolute pleasure to listen to our recent roster of guests. And this is the old and the new. This is the legacy and the future. This is the backbone of our field. And we said recently about somebody they may have done as much as anybody to improve philanthropy.
I really think the people we’re about to talk to, the person we’re about to hear from, this organization maybe has done as much as anybody to improve social purpose communications in the history of the world. It’s possible.
So, uh, set this up, set this up. Who are we about to listen to?
Eric: Well, I spoke with Jen Carnig, who is the brand spanking new president of Spitfire Strategies.
Many of you will be familiar with the name Kristen Grimm, who is Jen’s immediate predecessor. Kristen has kicked herself upstairs or sideways or something. She will still be at Spitfire, but she will no longer be the president. And Jen steps into her incredibly huge shoes. And all I can say about…
Actually, I wanted to say something slightly broader about the community of consultants. I Kirk, you’re a consultant. I’m a consultant. Jen is a consultant Spitfire, a great consultancy. We actually, David Brotherton, who was on the show recently. He’s a consultant. We, we all love each other deeply because we are all in the same boat and we’re all pulling in the same direction.
And that’s why it’s such a pleasure to talk to Jen and to talk about Spitfire, which is a firm that I’ve. Known and loved and worked with for the past 21 years and to see Kristen pass the torch to Jen is gratifying and wonderful and Jen as you as you will hear is warm and kind and deeply committed to the work and I have no doubt that Spitfire is in excellent hands
Kirk: And let’s acknowledge that Kristen has been a prior guest on Let’s Hear It so go back and actually one of our earliest guests so go back and uh and listen to that episode if you need to relearn that conversation but this is Jen Carnig, the recently appointed president of Spitfire Strategies.
Very gracious, Jen, of you to join us on the podcast and, um, we’ll listen to you and then we’ll come back. There’s a lot to talk about in terms of what you, you mentioned you’ve been working on at Spitfire. So this is Jen Carnig on Let’s Hear It.
Eric: Welcome to Let’s Hear It. My guest today is Jen Carnig, the brand spanking new president of Spitfire Strategies.
And boy, oh boy, did Jen earn this new position, I would say. So Jen’s a veteran of social change communications. No surprise to me that you were named president of Spitfire. I would say she’s one of the nation’s leading strategists on things like policing, police accountability through your time at the New York Civil Liberties Union, easier for you to say, working on community safety, the fight to protect our rights and humanity in the face of new technologies like artificial intelligence, which I am told might be a challenge coming up, you’re stepped into this incredible battle. Thank you. position. And thank you so much for coming on.
Let’s hear it. Jen Carnig.
Jen: Thank you. Thank you. You know, if you can’t see it or maybe you can, I’m blushing. You’re making me blush. It’s very kind of you to have me and I’m incredibly grateful. It’s such a pleasure to connect.
Eric: Well, it’s great. And we haven’t met yet. So this is one of the fun things about doing a podcast. You just get to talk to interesting people and make new friends.
Jen: And I love that. I was a reporter. This is the, this is the good part.
Eric: Totally. So you are just named, wait, you started two weeks ago. Maybe. This is as we, this, we made air this later, but we are in the –
Jen: Day 18.
Eric: Day 18. We’re in the middle of July right now. This may come out in November. The way the pace of this podcast goes, but two weeks into the job. Although you are no stranger to Spitfire Strategies, you’ve been there for, what is it, nine years almost.
Jen: That’s right. Almost nine.
Eric: Can you talk, just talk a little bit. Let’s just for the, for the nine people who don’t know what Spitfire Strategies is, can you just talk a little bit about the work that you do there?
Jen: Sure. Well, Spitfire is a communications firm that works exclusively with progressive social change organizations. So what that means is it’s overwhelmingly non-profit and foundation organizations, but we also do work with a couple of for profit companies like Ben and Jerry’s is my I shouldn’t say my favorite exception in case others are.
We love all our clients. We love everybody. We partner with every one of them, but that’s a fun one. Right? I like to think that they’re actually the ice cream, you know, on my plate of activities, yeah.
Eric: On the plate of Marmite and, and liver.
Jen: But we work with progressive social change organizations have for 21 years since Kristen Grim founded the organization.
And we really were created to strengthen the capacity of those in the progressive social change space. So I think that’s kind of one of the things that makes us a little bit different from some of our peers.
Eric: And I remember, actually, I remember when Kristen started Spitfire, way back when. First, she was in an enforced period of, I believe she called herself a lady of leisure for, I think it was a year.
She had to be a lady of leisure for a year. And anyone who knows Kristen knows that that was kind of hard.
Jen: Can’t even imagine.
Eric: But the idea, at the time, there was Fenton. That’s right. Which is where. Kristen came from. She had run, run Fenton Communications. There was Fenton and maybe one or two other firms that were working on, more or less working on social change communications.
And, and Kristen came in and I think helped to, and Spitfire, not just Kristen, but the thing that she helped to create, Has, I would say almost built an industry of social change communications. Can you talk a little bit about how that industry works? How does it work with grantees? How does it work with activists and others?
Where do these, do firms like yours fit into this new world of communications?
Jen: That’s a very interesting question. I love to get like under the hood with someone who actually knows what we’re talking about here. Thank you. So that industry, well, I’m not, I want to answer your question and I’m not quite sure how to do it.
What I would say is that one of the things that I think makes Spitfire incredibly unique, one is this notion of like building the field. So actually increasing the capacity for individual leaders and organizations to actually communicate and advocate. In a stronger way so that even when they’re not working with us, although of course we always want to continue the relationship that they are learning something from that experience and are going to be better equipped to be successful, right?
Like we want to win, we want to see our causes and leaders win and grow, right? And the other thing that I think makes us really interesting is kind of that 21 years of relationships. And I think that’s what gets to your, maybe your question is that we have this really deep stable of relationships, be it from individual leaders, academics who have done the research, the foundations and, you know, philanthropists that you mentioned, and then the change organizations themselves.
And I think. You know, that’s kind of, what was your specific question about the industry? I mean, like, that’s kind of what it is. And I think one of the, the pieces that’s so interesting about that is this notion of building. all of that together and strengthening all of that together. And, you know, my background, you mentioned is the ACLU and kind of almost an organizer perspective of communications.
And so to me, it’s very exciting to come to a place like Spitfire, even I’ve been here almost nine years, but to really watch. To understand that role, that, for example, philanthropy does play, right, like that they see the need and then build the capacity and invest in the work of a whole emerging field, one that doesn’t even exist yet through the work of, you know, organizations like us, like Spitfire to really double down and help ensure that even emerging, emerging leaders have the skills that they require to break through and make the change they’re
seeking to make.
Eric: Well, you, and as you said, you came from the New York Civil Liberties Union or the New York chapter of the ACLU.
Jen: That’s right.
Eric: And, you know, this is during Mike Bloomberg and stop and frisk. And so you were, it seems to me you had a rather, let’s call it a busy day job. And, and from there you went to Spitfire.
What was it like? I would say that when you work either as a consultant or, or God forbid at a foundation, you’re like the kids watching the other kids playing on the playground. It’s like, Oh, that kid is doing the swings wrong. And, and so coming out of this like really down and dirty experience and going taking a half a step back, what was that like?
Was that hard or did it give you the opportunity to take the long view or both?
Jen: I was really lucky. I’ve watched other people come into consulting and come into Spitfire specifically later in their career like I did and really kind of go. What is happening here? And for me, coming from the New York Civil Liberties Union, I was accustomed to working on a lot of different issues while I focused deeply in the policing and criminal legal reform space.
I worked on every issue one could imagine from immigrants rights to, you know, immigration reform. And so I was comfortable and confident in a lot of different areas, and I was used to doing a whole lot of things at one time. And that was really what I found when I got to Spitfire. You know, you’re right.
On the one hand, you are kind of taking a step back. You’re not directly out in the streets as much. But I know that my work allows others to be the ones now that are doing that and carrying it out in the streets, that if I can make their burden a little lighter, that they can now do that. And I’m still working on a lot of different issues at one time.
So that adjustment was actually less so for me because I had fluency with a lot of issues and different leaders. A lot of different kinds of leaders too, right? I was working with organizers from across New York City, and I had a comfort and a willingness that I think has served me well to see other people step into their leadership and help them do it.
And, and it’s been really exciting to get to do that on kind of a bigger level.
Eric: I’ll stop talking about Kristen right after this last question.
Eric: I just like to follow kind of a legend. I mean, it’s like, you know, whoever takes over for Megan Rapinoe, it’s, it’s gonna be a little tricky. But yeah, her, clearly her reputation and her activities precede her and stepping into that role must feel like, uh, a, a big deal opportunity, but a little, I’d be, of course I’d be scared to death, but what does that feel like?
Jen: It’s a great question. And I swing back and forth all the time in a pendulum. I’ve actually known, so it’s July when we’re speaking and this has become public and, and it has taken effect, but I’ve actually known since I think around November that I was, you know, lucky enough to be able to step into this role.
Which is great because she really carefully onboarded me and was so generous with her time and, you know, really helped me think through different challenges of the job that I may not have been aware of yet. But it also gave me a lot of time to kind of freak out. Right? So I went back and forth on this pendulum.
Like, you know, I can’t do this. I can’t, I don’t, I don’t have the relationship she has. I don’t have that experience. I don’t, I don’t have this. I don’t have that. You’re right. Kristen’s a really special and spectacular human being. You know, she’s truly the greatest. Uh, I’m so lucky that she has chosen to mentor me and invested me and believe in me.
And what I’ve really come to realize partly through her mentorship and guidance is she is Kristen and I am Jen and I don’t have to be any of the things that she is. And in fact, for Spitfire to be even stronger, I just have to be the things that I am. And, you know, Kristen can leave Spitfire. We haven’t talked about that.
She’s still present. She’s just kind of stepping into a different role. Right. So she still gets to do all of those incredible things and I get to do the things that I’m really strong at. And I, she has helped me believe and understand that the strengths I bring to the table are very different and, you know, help us out and make us really successful.
So all of this is a way of saying, you know, it’s terrifying and. She believes in me and I accept that and see that I bring different talents and strengths and experiences that I, I think will also really serve our partners in the field and our colleagues at home at Spitfire.
Eric: Well, I’ll, I’ll, let’s go there.
What, what are you going to do? What, what does the Jen Carnig regime act and feel like? What are the things that you bring that you think that you can help the organization strengthen and obviously the organizations that you support strengthen?
Jen: Sure. Well, you know, Kristen created something that is truly genius, right?
You know, 21 years ago, she saw the value of. Strengthening the field, you know, teaching the field, really improving the field of communicators doing the work. And that was, you know, truly genius. I think it is really genius and it was a gift to everyone who’s in this work now and I’m eternally grateful to her foresight in doing that.
I think the moment we are all living and working in now is much different than it was. You know, a couple of decades ago, we are facing some of the biggest challenges of humanity. Honestly, you know, when you and I are speaking now, you said it’s July. I can’t go outside right now in New York because the smell of smoke is so strong.
You know, we just had affirmative action overturned by the Supreme Court and the. The protest that day that was planned with some of our field partners had to be canceled because the air quality was so bad. We are fighting on every front and I think that’s actually what’s different. We are still here to meet the needs of the field and serve the leaders of tomorrow.
And we need to go all in on what that direction that tomorrow is going to look like. And I think that is. My experience helps set us up to do that well, because, you know, we’re picking a side and we’re, we’re going to go all in and that doesn’t mean we’re not bringing along with us partners who maybe are not in the same place in their journey as we are, but.
We are really going all in and defining what progressive change looks like. This isn’t public interest comms, something that you can kind of define this way or that way. This is, we really have to do whatever it takes. You know, we’re fighting fascism. We, people don’t have bodily autonomy. We need to do whatever it takes to move us along and take care of each other.
And so I think we’re just really leaning into the vision that Kristin created and kind of taking it a step further. And our team has changed over that time too, right? The FIRE is now an incredibly diverse workforce with people from all different kinds of lived experiences and I think that requires then us to be really mindful of the world they are each seeking to create and how they, you know, have the space to show up and take care of their families and what they want to see in the future.
And I’m just. So privileged that we have that kind of leadership on staff, that they are willing to lead us in to really interesting and urgent areas of work.
Eric: Well, after the break, I want to start with how do you manage in this changing world? Not only about where people work, but how people work. And so we’re going to take a very quick break with Jen Carnig, right after this.
Eric: You’re listening to let’s hear it a podcast about foundation and nonprofit communications hosted by Eric Brown and Kirk Brown.
Let’s Hear It is sponsored by the Stupski Foundation, a foundation returning all its resources to the communities. It calls home in Hawaii and the San Francisco Bay Area by 2029. To support just and resilient food, health, and higher education systems for all. Because change can’t wait. Learn more at Stupski.org. We are also sponsored by the Conrad Prebys Foundation. Check out their amazingly good podcast, and we’re not just saying that, Stop and Talk, hosted by Prebys Foundation CEO Grant Oliphant. You can find them at stopandtalkpodcast. com. And now, back to the show.
Eric: And we’re back with Jen Carnig, the brand spanking new president of Spitfire Strategies.
We’re talking about, I mean, we’re getting into this conversation about how do you work with a different team? And I think everyone is facing up with the reality that the work, the way of work is changing. And so the, how we work with our clients and how we work in our communities has, has changed a lot in a really short time.
I think COVID was certainly the catalyst for that, but it was something that was coming. Can you just talk about how do you, how you are now? Face with managing in this different, completely different world, you’re not in the Washington office, I don’t think. Kristen is in Bozeman, Montana. Folks are kind of scattered to the four winds.
It’s not like you were going to stand around and look at her office from November to till now. She’s kind of sizing it up for what color curtains you were going to put in. So what is the world of work in public communications or public interest communications? Like these days and how do you work with your team?
And how do you build community? How do you help people better connect with each other in the work that they’re doing?
Jen: I think there’s a couple of different answers to that and one is just how kind of we have approached things. So, we have always, Spitfire has always hired the individual that they thought was best for the work.
And so while we were always concentrated in D. C. and San Francisco, for example, when I came around, there was no one in New York, but they hired me and I worked out of my apartment that 1st year until there was enough of us that it made sense to go get an office and create a presence. And we’ve kind of always operated that way.
So there have been kind of some satellite folks through the years in North Carolina in Mississippi, wherever it may be. And I think we were able because of that to really, it was very difficult, of course, but we were able to adapt. And, you know, 1 of the lessons that I personally learned from when I started was that I could really maintain relationships.
From a distance and that that was okay to do and could really, you know, as long as you put the time in could really cultivate and and allow those relationships to flourish. But I really did need to put that time in on the front end to get to know someone ideally in person. And so. While at the height of the lockdown, that was not something we were able to do.
We have chosen to invest in in person gatherings as much as we can so that our team can really get to know each other and develop those really meaningful relationships just last week. Actually, we were all together in Tahoe. So that was where none of us were 50 some folks travel there from every corner of the country and.
It was so inspiring to see that because of some of the touch points we’ve created in our culture that while we hadn’t all met each other before, really quickly, we were really vulnerable and also really ready for fun with each other and it carries you, right? Like, having those moments really, really does carry and so for pride a couple of weeks before we all get together on zoom and did drag trivia.
Yeah, so. We also build in those kinds of moments, just so that even if we’re not all together, that we’re still having, you know, really deep community and fun. We have a lot of opportunities for folks to come together and learn, um, be it kind of learning about communications to doing work on equity, or there’s, uh, you know, an anti-blackness working group, or we have a juntos pod for our colleagues who are Latinx and, you know, we have all these pockets where people can come together and really connect as humans.
And I think it makes our work so much stronger when you have that kind of relationship and understanding with each other, how it relates to kind of the bigger picture and the client work. That’s interesting. I really kind of went into withdrawal when, uh, in many ways, right. When we all were stuck home.
But one of the hardest parts for me personally was I really loved going into a room and, you know, being able to feel connected with people that really filled my cup in a really deep way. And I couldn’t figure out how do I do that on a Zoom, you know, like if I’m going to be facilitating a session with people I really respect and I, wow, I just want them to really either like me or, you know, learn something, have some sort of feeling that wasn’t a yawn.
It really required a whole different approach. And we have learned a lot from that as we all have, right, during this work. I think now those. Opportunities while we’re doing some things more in person now, you know, a lot of our partners still prefer to do things in this kind of remote way. And I think we’ve.
I wouldn’t say we figured it out, but I think we found some strategies to make it feel really meaningful and still create opportunities for connection and reflection and just do things differently. And I guess some of that is you just have to throw out the old playbook, right? Like. It can’t look like it used to before.
We’re not going to do a day and a half together, you know, maybe we’ll do six, two hour meetings or something. And it has a whole different, you know, the outcome may be the same, but the process looks a lot different.
Eric: One of my favorite things ever when I was at Hewlett was we would bring our grantees together and Spitfire would run our communications academy. And that was my favorite three days of the year by far, because I got to sit with. The grantees, I got to learn what they were doing. And then I got to learn from Kristen and the various other folks who would participate in the academies. And so basically everything I learned about communications, I learned from Spitfire.
And that notion of learning has become, has really settled with me and I still use your smart charts. I still use your tools. I recommend you all sorts of folks. And that kind of learning is, it’s so powerful and I still do it in different ways, but it’s not the same as it used to be. Sure. How do you learn, especially when you get at this stage in your career and in your organization, how do you as an individual learn about.
What’s working, what’s not, how to improve yourself, all that stuff.
Jen: The reason I came to Spitfire was exactly that, right? Is that opportunity to learn. I was leading communications for an organization and was in a space. Now, don’t get me wrong. This could come off a lot different than I intend, but on my narrow issue on communication, I felt like after a certain point, you know, 8 or 9 years that I really, I knew I was, I was always the smartest in the room on this 1 narrow place.
And I went to Spitfire because I wanted to be around people who were just so much better than me and. I appreciate I bring a lot of experiences and insights to our work and I’m able to share that with my peers. And at the same time, I still feel like I’m never the smartest in the room. And part of that also really is how we’ve intentionally hired and filled out our team.
We have people from every background, both professionally and personally, people who have lived all over the world, who have had so many different life experiences and bring all of that to the table for how they approach. Their work and their clients and, you know, the world that they want to see, and they’re willing to share that.
And so I learned constantly, always just from kind of doing from being near them from listening to them. One of the ways I have. Sought to adjust my approach. You can’t tell by this conversation, but I’m trying to be a little more quiet actually.
Eric: And well, you are the interviewee. You’re supposed to talk. Don’t feel bad about that. It’s really, really quiet.
Jen: Often I listen to them and, you know, maybe I’ll be 1 of the last ones to speak because I know if I say something, it’s going to change the conversation. And I think that’s 1 of the ways I most learn is just from hearing how different people with different experiences and perspectives and skill sets approach.
A problem and seeing what they think about it or what they would do. And it doesn’t mean it’s always going to be exactly what we do, but it always means I’ve learned something or checked myself or my approach in response. You know, the other thing truly is just I have two children and they are teaching me things all the time.
I live in Brooklyn, so I’m always around all kinds of different people. And I have the privilege to be able to attend different cultural events and, and, you know, arts and, and museums. And, um, I spend a lot of time at the library because I’m a big nerd. Um, And so it’s, it’s those things Kristen wakes up really early and does all this work and writing and I have come to appreciate that that she reads 5 books a week, you know, to bring the conversation full circle.
I’ve come to appreciate that. That’s not how my. Brain works and that that is okay. I don’t have to, you know, be that voracious consumer. What works for me is to engage with people in the world around me to ask a lot of questions, to listen to them first. I do a lot of reading. Might be a little bit slower than she does, but I really seek to just have a variety of resources around me and really hear different voices.
And I think, um, we’re lucky enough to do the work we do so that we can test it all too, and just see what actually moves the needle, right? Like what’s actually really effective. So I’m just really grateful to have the clients and partners that we do too, who, um, believe in making sure we’re actually.
Making change and not just saying the same things to the same people.
Eric: Well, you had talked about some of the big challenges that are going on right now. It feels to me like you open up a newspaper and I am one of the last people who actually gets a newspaper that hits my front door and I open it up and, and I can point to five stories on climate and five stories on AI as, as these looming existential and physical threats.
A, since you have a background in the effect of technology, what do you think, how do you think about activism in that context? What are the kinds of issues that you think the field can begin to focus on so that we can coalesce around ensuring that we are well protected or that we can begin to push back against some of these big challenges?
And then I’ll ask you one more question to take us out.
Jen: Great. So we work with organizations just. Dozens and dozens of organizations across the country who are seeking to ensure, first of all, that technology can be used to expand and promote civil and human rights. And that sounds so nice on paper. But, you know, just to what you’re saying, what we know so often is it’s actually really used as tools to suppress and steal and surveil.
And really harm communities, and overwhelmingly, it’s certain communities. It’s not always, I’m a white, cis, hetero woman, and it’s not always my community, although sometimes it is, um, and so what we do is we really seek to support the individuals and organizations that are Pushing back on the narrative that we have that it’s already done, right?
Like, That this is already the way we’re going and that there’s nothing we can do because that’s how we all sign away all of our rights and find ourselves in this place where, you know, we have less and less control. And if it actually does become kind of a foregone conclusion. Um, and so a lot of our work right now is actually focused on narrative change and thinking about.
Just tech futures and what it actually could like look like instead of just assuming everything has to be this way. What might it look like? And we find so much that inspires us from science fiction actually, and the movies and just really thinking about what just futures might look like and how technology could actually.
Be used to support them when you and I are speaking, both the writers and the actors are on strike right now. And 1 of the hot flash points of confrontation really is. About a I and it is heartbreaking to hear about people who don’t know how they’re going to feed their families because of having to being forced to go on strike right now.
And also, it really lifts up that is theft and helps us understand and helps it expand to people’s understanding to really. See that side of things that here is this algorithm that is really feeding on other people’s work, but also other people’s even likeness in being and to be able to dream something different and then help get that out, I think, is, you know, incredibly valuable.
And again, we have been so privileged that we get to support a really unique group of organizations, but individual leaders. There’s a tremendous amount of black women who are actually, I, we always talk about the black women saving the internet. There is this field of women who are individually putting themselves out there and really risking a lot and going toe to toe with the billionaires that have control.
And are pushing back on it. And it is inspiring to see then what is possible and to think differently about what could look like. And I know we will be successful in pushing more of that forward.
Eric: So AI is the Napster of the 2020s.
Jen: That’s right.
Eric: So I won’t ask you to choose among all of your fabulous clients, but what is one exciting thing on your plate right now that is, that gets you up in the morning with a spring in your step?
Jen: I really, I do. I’m so privileged that I get to work with a lot of really, um, incredible individuals and organizations. I see potential in a way I don’t always. So you mentioned that I have a very long background in policing and it’s hard to ever. See moments of opportunity there. There’s so many reasons why things always fall apart.
And I see a genuine moment of opportunity on rethinking public safety that is really catching on in cities and communities across the country as. More and more individuals and communities are looking into alternative first response programs. So into sending individuals out when somebody calls. For help to their government.
So they call 911 for help and communities always just responded by sending police. They didn’t call for the police. They called for help and watching the potential for a new kind of help to come out, which I think will ultimately make people’s lives better by getting their needs actually met. And also save lives more and more when we are not just sending, you know, armed officers, kind of trained to suppress out.
I’m excited that this is moving forward. And frankly, like not everybody knows yet. And so that’s part of our work is thinking about how and when to tell this story. And maybe sometimes when to let it happen in the background a little bit before things get away from us. I’m very inspired by seeing that movement progress.
And the potential that it comes with it.
Eric: Well, that will be a fabulous day. And I, I see it, I see it in my mind’s eye and I, I understand that the, the shifting of the narrative about what is the purpose of service or public service and public safety is a part of it. And I know a lot of the work that you’re doing and the folks that you work with are advancing those narratives, which is.
Fabulous. And it always makes me happy that there are so many people out there who are working so hard to make things better and that you’re in the middle of it. And it’s so fun to meet you. I’m delighted. I can’t wait to meet you in person, maybe at Frank or somewhere. Yes, please. Our communications network.
Uh, it’s, it’s delightful. Thank you so much for what you’re doing. And, and congratulations.
Jen: I’m so honored that you wanted to take the time to talk. So just thank you for your generosity. And, uh, I can’t wait to meet you in person
Eric: too. Well, Jen Carnig, the brand spanking new president of Spitfire Strategies.
Kirk: And we’re back, Jen, welcome in. Glad you grabbed your seat. And I have to say, you know, this is a challenging thing that somebody is being asked to do because Jen is assuming the mantle of leadership from an organization that has a seminal leader in Kristen Grimm. And you see the work though that’s gone into turning this organization Spitfire into something that is greater than any one person.
And this instinct, this sensibility Kristen had about, you know, building the field and Jen commenting on that, like that was Kristen’s genius insight, is that there is a whole field here that need to be built. To see Spitfire kind of treating itself as part of that field. It’s its own entity that has to be developed.
I mean, Eric, you’ve been around this for such a long time. So two questions. One, what was it like the first time you hired Spitfire? And two, you know, you’ve had to do this too with institutions, a bunch of institutions, right? You’re trying to create institutions that extend well beyond the legacy of any individual.
And we’re actually seeing this play out in real time here, right? With Kristen and the transition to Jen.
Eric: For sure. And again, as I mentioned to Jen, back when Kristen started Spitfire, there were very few organizations that were working on social change communications. There’s just not that many. And now there are lots.
And I think that that legacy, it derives from the, that original moment. And like I said, Fenton was doing it and Spitfire was doing it. And there were a few others. There were some, I’m not, I’m not saying there were none, but now we see lots and lots of folks that you can turn to if you need communication support and strategy and other things and arms and legs when you’re working on your campaign or when you’re trying to think about some extremely long term.
opportunity in a particular field. And that’s, that’s really amazing. And it’s such a benefit to the field. And I’m so grateful to Spitfire for what they have done. And there are others. I mean, like I said, there are others in the field that are doing this work and they’re great, but this is great. And it’s, it’s good for everybody.
And I think that foundations are benefiting from it. I think that the grantee organizations have learned a ton from folks like Spitfire. That is, is making it everyone’s job better. And that’s, that’s really great.
Kirk: So did you ever work with Arlie Schardt? Did you cross paths with Arlie Schardt?
Eric: I met him a few times.
Our dear friend, Chris De Cardy, who is now the president, the Lord Fancy Pants at the Heinz Endowments. He used to work with Arlie Schardt when Chris ran Environmental Media Services in, in DC. I met him a bunch of times, but I never worked with him.
Kirk: So I always feel like whenever you have these conversations about, you know, building the capacity of the field and the history, I just want to do a nod to Arlie Schardt and be like, you know, this is, this is, you know, Arlie and David get together, they form EMS, you know, Kristen’s coming out of Spitfire at the same time.
Like there’s just, just that sort of.
Eric: Well Chris was at Fenton. It was kind of a partner, uh, agency for environmental media services. So they were working in tandem then. And that was an incredibly interesting model. And then Kristen, when she left Fenton started, started Spitfire after a cooling off period in which I think it, she must’ve, she.
Banged her head into a different shape because you couldn’t,
Kirk: Oh, she, she did some writing. She did some writing. Actually. She created the smart chart, I think, through that period. But, um, 21 years of relationships. Jen talks about, we’ve been in the field for 21 years. You talked about, you know, what does it take to actually succeed in this field?
And you know, I think that tenure of an organization and that sort of dual purpose that she did, Jen described, they’re trying to build this field, strengthen everybody together, but then also have this substantial reservoir of relationships they can draw on. So this is the crux of all of this is you get to do this work if people will hire you.
And so Spitfire to be out here for 21 years to have this team that they’ve developed all over the country to be at this work for such a long time. And I think that that’s a piece of the work that actually doesn’t get called out enough because as you know, given we occupy this consulting space, you know, together in our own, in different ways,
it’s not easy, right? It’s not easy to get hired. I mean, that’s a really important process. And now, and now to become integrated into the fabric of the field. I feel like that’s another, another just cool success story for this whole Spitfire story.
Eric: Absolutely. And let’s talk a little bit about Jen and how she was able to kind of be that bridge to the next era of Spitfire.
I mean, here’s someone who comes from the American Civil Liberties Union’s New York. So dealing with a lot of stuff and you’re like, New York, I’m a New Yorker. I know civil liberties, maybe, maybe not. I mean, that is really tough work and, and then to come into Spitfire and, and, and to be able to take that step back and to help organizations over time, look at the strategies, figure out how to, how to address these challenges using communications.
I mean, you can tell already that she has such a kind of a generous, careful, I would almost say like loving touch. That is not what you think of when you think about your comms consultant, right? It’s
Kirk: well, and you can see the leadership chops, her ability to bring people together. And you know, the fact that Jen’s been there for nine years is actually a really important part of this story too, isn’t it?
Because. She did that big shift. She actually, I loved how she talked about, um, you know, she’s seen people try to make that career shift and get into the consulting space and how challenging that can be for people. But she was used to it. She could work on a lot of issues at once, but then she’s at it for nine years.
So how would you, how many years is a consulting year? Is it five years? Is it dog years? Is it seven years? That’s a lot of years. And especially the nine years in particular, the Jen has been at Spitfire because it’s been a topsy turvy nine years in terms of all the issues we care about.
Eric: Yeah, I don’t know.
Uh, it depends on the, it depends on the client or the clients. I used to say when I was on the hill that it was, it was like dog years. It was like seven years. You learn seven years of stuff and it was seven years of wear and tear on your liver. Uh, but it was, time had no meaning. I think in the consulting world, sometimes if a day feels like a lifetime and sometimes a year feels like a second.
So Uh, I, I think times has a tendency to expand and contract when you’re a consultant.
Kirk: Well, there’s some interesting nuggets about what it takes to evolve and become a bigger organization. Jen talked about being able to come back together again. You know, COVID hits and we have to do all this work virtually and, and I don’t know how that was in your world, but we certainly saw it in ours.
That inability to be in person, it, it felt existential actually at times. Like it felt like the whole world was stopping because so much of our work involves actually being directly in touch with people. But then she describes bringing the whole Spitfire team, and she talks about 50 or more people in Tahoe.
So first of all, that’s great. Second of all, sorry, I didn’t get an invitation. Third of all, let’s hear it. Should have been on site, right? We should have done like a week of interviews up there with their entire team. But, um, but what do you think about the organization building that has to go on? Because clearly Jen is bringing that sensitivity and that nuance.
It’s not just field facing, but it’s also organization facing. So this institution can be a thriving institution and continue to keep doing. Great work.
Eric: No, I, I mean, I couldn’t build diddly. That’s why I’m a one person show. So I am the last person to talk to about organization building other than, and you’ve, and you’ve built organizations, Kirk.
So you know this way better than I do. Maybe I should turn the question around to you. I am in awe of being able to build an organization and let me just tell you, and this is not like Spitfire gushing for its own sake, it’s true, that every single person I’ve ever met who’s worked with Spitfire and I’ve met with, I’ve met a lot of them, each and every one to a person is soulful, caring, kind, and deeply committed and, and, and working towards something bigger.
And I mean, that is just the truth. And to be able to continue to cultivate and craft talent. And Kristen often said that it was her goal for people to graduate from Spitfire. So they would go off and propagate out into the world. And so there are a whole lot of former Spitfires out there in the world who are doing good things, kind of using that same ethos and, and building that kind of bigger community around issues that matter.
And I think that that building an institution like that is not easy. And not everybody can do it. And in one way or another, they’ve managed that. And so to all the Spitfires out there, I say, hi, uh, remember me? Uh, I, I thank you for, for what you’ve taught me. How do you kind of create an organization that makes you feel that sense of connection?
And the kind of almost emotional connection that, that endures, I don’t know, because I haven’t built anything, but I I’m incredibly impressed. And I’ve always, always been so impressed with the, just the real quality of human being that, that.
Kirk: Well, we get two nuggets from Jen in terms of Jen’s approach that landed very well for me.
And, and, you know, actually this onboarding process that Jen described where Kristen has been so involved in actually helping set Jen up for success. Again, I just, I don’t know that people understand. How much of your ego you have to check out on how much of the field you have to commit into, how much aspiration hope for the future you have to really believe to actually have that kind of relationship work.
It makes me, I don’t, you know, it’s funny, it’s always the classic example of like the president of the United States, the vice president of the United States is that relationship times fraught with peril, you know, for good reason, like, like the, you know, this, this notion of leadership. But, but two things that, um, that, that Jen talked about that I’ve seen in my own experience to be so important.
First is this notion. That Jen said she’s trying to be quiet most often. Jen wants to listen, right? And this is, this is this thing. I’ve always thought we can’t be effective communicators if we’re not willing to listen, right? It’s not what they’re hearing. It’s actually how we’re listening and what we’re learning from that.
And then that was the other piece of it that Jen talked about is she loved coming to this organization. Where she had an opportunity to learn and she said, by the way, that in her old field and she tried to be selfless facing about it, that she was often the smartest person in the room. Guess what, Jen, you were, it’s clear.
It’s clear. You know, your chops are clear. But now she’s in an environment where she’s saying, man, there’s a ton of expertise here and I want to learn from it. So to me, those two things, it’s, it almost, it feels like to me, Eric, and I’d be curious to get your take. Like, if you’re not interested in learning and if you’re not interested in listening, this may not be the field for you.
Eric: Good point. Well, that was so funny. She was sheepish about talking so much. You’re the guest. Talk, please. Don’t feel bad. It’s totally fine.
Kirk: We value servant leadership. But right now, just talk. Right now, the spotlight’s on you.
Eric: You’re totally right, though, about listening. The room is always smarter than you are.
The collective wisdom of the room is actually 10 times smarter than you are. No matter who you are or where you are. And the ability, now the ability to capture what that room knows, that’s a talent. And if you have that talent, boy oh boy, that’s a wonderful thing. And it sounds to me like she does have that talent.
She clearly is a listener. She is watching and listening and putting all that stuff together. Synthesizing. I guess that’s the word I was looking for to be, to be a synthesizer, although I hate synthesizing in, in most foundations speak. It makes me crazy. So I don’t know, maybe, maybe I should have said that, but still to be a listener is the greatest gift of all.
I mean, there’s, there are some people I know when I look in the mirror who are think that they have the gift for gab.
Kirk: I can’t help, but as we wrap up, go here and I’m sorry, it’s a little bit of a downer, but so Spitfire been around for 20 years under Jen’s leadership. I have no doubt that’s going to be around for the next couple of decades. As you pointed out, Eric, the field has grown considerably during this time, partly indirect as a direct result of the work that Spitfires was doing to build capacity.
We have these organizations now that are kind of growing and getting to scale. And yet we hear. The conversation that when Spitfire comes to Tahoe, there’s 50 people. And then we hear about the conversation, which I agree with, you know, that Jen is like, this is our moment. There’s so much work that has to be done.
Like we’re watching affirmative action be rolled back the day we can’t even do an event because there’s too much smoke from like horrific wildfires hovering over New York. So this feeling we all have that things are getting worse and the stakes are getting higher, even as our communications field around social purpose change is growing and getting, its capacity is getting deeper, there’s a disconnect there for me that I can’t quite reconcile and, and, but part of me goes back to that 50 people gathering in Tahoe because managing one person, a team of three people, um, It’s really hard and you keep growing and scaling and there’s all this step change stuff around growth that, you know, Jen and Kristen have gone through and actually Jen alludes to some of the things they do to, you know, keep people connected, like the different topical areas they gather people around, which is awesome to hear about at Spitfire.
But I hear that conversation about the 50 people in Tahoe and I think, you know what? Is it, is 50 people the right number? Shouldn’t there be 500? Shouldn’t there be 5, 000? Like, like what does scale look like? What, what does, what’s it actually going to take for us when we say narrative change, what are we going to have to do to change the narrative?
You know, because, cause we’ve been doing this for a couple of decades and, and we keep getting better at it. The circumstances feel like they keep getting worse and. That is something that I’m having problems reconciling in my own head. What do you think about that?
Eric: Well, thanks for that cheerful analysis, Kirk.
Kirk: Well, okay, start with it. Am I wrong? Am I wrong? Is my assessment wrong?
Eric: Ish. Yes. I, well, I’m an optimist. So, there’s that. And, yes, there are affirmative action is rolled back, Roe vs. Wade is rolled back, there are all sorts of things that we will always have to continue to fight, I hate using that word also, but to engage and to move forward on and to push.
We’ll always have to do that. You always have to defend the win. You always, always, always have to do that. And if you thought you didn’t, that’s, you let your guard down and that’s what happens. So yes, there will always be challenges. As we said in the last episode, uh, there will always be differences and we’ll always have to find ways to bridge across those differences.
I am encouraged by the fact that there’s Spitfire and there’s a whole, I can list 10 more. Yeah. Little spitfires that are cropping up around this country and doing this work. And those are people who are smart and engaged and dedicated and creative. And so maybe there are 500 or 5, 000 out there, they just don’t all have to work for the same place.
And frankly, there’s a good 100 or 150 Spitfires who are, are propagating out into the world. Right. Yeah. So, uh, so in that sense, I am encouraged by the talent. And the, the genuineness and the care and I, I don’t know, the willingness to put in the time to do that kind of work. So that part makes me happy.
Yes, I’m sad. I, I, it’s always, always deeply depressing when some big stupid thing happens and you think to yourself, we could have avoided this. This didn’t have to happen like this. And we let our eye off the ball or whatever. And that just is just a reminder that you need to be patient. You need to invest in people.
You have to work over the long term and you have to not get comfortable that you’ve won your victory because you need to continue to win your victories every single day. Oh, by the way, since we are one or two foundation people out there listening to this show. Don’t forget to keep funding the thing that you want.
Yeah. Because just when you think you won, you didn’t won. There are people out there who are attempting to undo, erode, cut at the knees the thing that you just won. And that’s, that’s just the nature of how ideas and politics And power. So in that sense, I think sometimes, yes, it’s true. We might’ve gotten comfortable or we might’ve felt like something was one is always one and that’s not true, but I am deeply grateful for Spitfire and Jen Carnage and the folks that she is helping to train and this next generation of great communications, change people.
And the work that they do, and thank you, thank you.
Kirk: Thank you. Thank you. Well, and, and let’s put a plug in here too, for places where some of that growing capacity gets put on full display. Like for instance, with the communications network and it’s growing conference and it’s growing network of folks all around the country and, and Kristen and Spitfire have been very involved with that over the years to help build that capacity.
So I think there’s a lot of places where you can see the evidence of that growing capacity around the world, around the country, and you can see its impact, but, but at times. There’s this humility around the scale of the challenge that’s really in front of us and actually recognizing. Wow. You know, there’s a lot that we’re trying to do here.
There’s a lot we’re trying to make happen.
Eric: Well, you were, you know, optimistic enough to want to do this stupid podcast. So you’ve obviously must think there’s something worth living for Kirk.
Kirk: Hey, we keep going. We keep going and this, we keep doing big things and Jen. Jen, oh my gosh, so excited for you. So happy for you and your tenure.
I will say there is this one thread I was thinking about, you know, Jen was kind of talking about occupying her Jen ness in this role of leading Spitfire. And it does seem really true. It’s like, Jen is not going to be doing this in relationship to Kristen. She’s not even going to be doing this in relationship to Spitfire.
She’s not even going to be doing this in relationship to the problems that Spitfire is trying to solve. She’s actually going to be doing this related to the solutions that she helps identify and find as we move forward. And that’s going to take all of that that Jen’s bringing to it. The listening, the learning, the empathy, and the excellence that she brings.
And it’s, it’s just, it’s super exciting to hear her talk about her process around that.
Eric: I completely agree. You know, thank you, Jen. Thanks folks. Everybody out there who’s listening, tell a friend, please. We’d love to continue to build this audience. We have these incredibly great sponsors who are investing in us and who are, who care about you.
I mean, I really, this is about you and, and to be able to have these kinds of conversations and, and introduce you to folks like, like Jen Carnig, so tell a friend, rate us on Apple, whatever, go just, whatever, just send us a note, let us know if you’re listening. Thanks so much for listening and to, for being our friend, we’ll see you next time on Let’s Hear It.
Kirk: Okay, everybody. That’s it for this episode. Please let us know if you have any thoughts about what you heard today or people we should have on this show. And that definitely includes yourself. And we’d like to thank…
Eric: Our indefatigable producer, Harper Brown.
Kirk: John Allee, the tuneful and inspiring composer of our theme music.
Eric: Our sponsor, the Lumina foundation.
Kirk: And please check out luminous terrific podcast. Today’s students, tomorrow’s talent. And you can find that at lumina foundation.org.
Eric: We certainly thank today’s guests. And of course, all of you.
Kirk: And most importantly, thank you, Mr. Brown.
Eric: Oh, no, no, no, no. Thank you, Mr. Brown.
Kirk: Okay, everybody, until next time.