When I first met Whitney Parnell, CEO & Co-founder of the rising nonprofit, Service Never Sleeps (SNS), it was about three in the morning and I’d lost most of the feeling in my toes from the great polar vortex that had overtaken Washington, D.C.
Whitney offered me a ride home after I’d participated in the city’s annual census of people experiencing homelessness. At the time, she was working at a homeless services nonprofit charged with coordinating some of the survey volunteers that night. Before getting in the car, she warned me that she liked to listen to some pretty depressing music.
“It’s true!” she’d recall in our interview, “Oh, ‘Bust Your Windows’ by Jazmine Sullivan—it was on repeat for like two weeks!”
Two years later, I’ve had the joy of learning just how ironic that warning was. Whitney is an energetic, inspiring, contagiously cheerful woman who has since used her direct service experiences to jump into the world of social entrepreneurship, co-founding an organization looking to combat social injustice through mass civic engagement.
When I met with her to chat about what this past start-up year has been like, she was waiting at the café with her big Whitney smile that can quickly restore all faith in humanity. By the end of our interview, the insights she shared about her motivations, navigating the start-up world while female, and engaging young professionals to give back left me with chills. The world is going to be ok, I thought, Whitney Parnell is on it!
So, SNS! Sounds like it has been quite the year for you. Can you tell us a little about what SNS is, and how it relates to this “8-hour dream” I’ve heard you mention?
Yeah, sure! So, SNS aligns very much with my own life’s trajectory. I was a Foreign Service brat and grew up between Latin America and West Africa. Living in developing countries, I saw first-hand my privilege compared to other people’s lack thereof, and how this was through nothing that was a result of something either of us deserved. Simultaneously, I had the experience of being an African-American woman in these places and what comes with that identity.
I was exposed to social injustice throughout my life, and in college is when I realized I was meant to be a professional humanitarian. It was my sophomore year, actually, when I developed the 8-hour dream concept. I was in class learning Shakespeare, which, you know, is wonderful, but with knowing that just outside the window so many people were suffering, I felt an urgency. So, the 8-hour dream concept came along as a result of people saying, constantly, “Whitney, calm down, it takes time to change the world.”
That frustrated me because it finally hit me that it wasn’t true. If I went to bed right now and a fraction of the privileged society decided to do something little to make a difference, I’d wake up after a full night’s sleep and see huge social change. A full night’s sleep being 8 hours, I developed the 8-hour dream concept of civic engagement being the key to change not only at a tremendous level, but at an expedited pace.
I put it on hold for two years while I finished up college, then came to D.C. six years ago to do an AmeriCorps program called City Year where I did two years of service and saw the value of investing in my community through service as a young professional. From there, I went into homeless services and felt the frustration of working for organizations that had the solutions to pressing issues, but just lacked the capacity to execute them as fully as they could. Meanwhile, I was talking to my millennial colleagues who were in more corporate worlds saying, “Whit, I would kill to be able to have some sort of impact like that, but I still love the work I do now and want to be able to grow in my career.”
Fellows listen to panel of nonprofit providers
So, SNS is an explosion of my life’s experiences. I wanted to see what it would look like to create a sort of cousin to AmeriCorps that was an opportunity of part-time service for working young professionals—this millennial generation that so badly wants to make a difference in the community, and still achieve their career goals.
Long story brought together—SNS transforms communities by mobilizing young professionals to combat urgent social justice issues through service and civic engagement. Through our inaugural, signature program, we have placed millennial young professionals with local nonprofits to complete a fellowship year of part-time, skills-based service to help these nonprofits grow in capacity and further their impact. We also provide a leadership development curriculum they can take back to their careers, which is a great value proposition for corporations looking to invest in their employees.
And we owe the Aspen Institute so much. I had a previous relationship with them as an ambassador for their Franklin Project, and through that learned about their inaugural Urban Innovation Accelerator program. We worked hard to apply for it, and were so grateful to be awarded a spot and given fiscal sponsorship for our first year. Without Aspen, we wouldn’t have been able to get started so quickly.
And so, this is the first fellowship year—how many fellows are you starting with, and what are their placements like?
Inaugural Class of fellows speed networking to get to know each other
I love to say that when I think about the spectrum of people, you have on one end the people causing the problems, but on the other end you have the people who are like, “Give me the pitchforks, give me the signs, I’m ready!” And then in the middle you have all these “influenceable” people. Ultimately, SNS, in order to have a major impact, seeks to influence the “influenceable”—but for year one we had to get all pitchfork people!
So, we have 12 fellows placed at 7 different nonprofits that focus on the issue areas of homelessness, violence against women, women’s empowerment, Veterans and military families, youth empowerment, and mental health and mental illness. They’re placed all over the D.C. area, and doing all types of skills-based service like communications, program development, strategy and operations, grant writing, event planning, and more.
Fellow Jenn Brann (right) participates in an activity through her placement at Collective Action for Safe Spaces
You’re an entrepreneur! A lot of the talk around women in the workforce tends to be within existing corporate structures. It seems scary to jump out of that and start something totally new. What have been some of the challenges you’ve faced in doing so, and what are some things that have helped you navigate those?
It has been tough. Social entrepreneurship is lonely, and you really have to deal with your own inner demons when you’re up at 3am trying to figure out how to make all this work when all the chips seem stacked against you. It really messes with your mind!
I got some really great advice from people, like Fagan Harris, who is co-founder and CEO of Baltimore Corps, and Eric Lavin, who co-founded Whetstone Education and has mentored me through the Aspen Institute’s Accelerator program. Advice like theirs about startup life challenges acknowledges that you can go from one moment of feeling like, Yes, this is amazing! Everything is wonderful! To literally an hour later—Everything is going down! You’re going down right now!
I’ve felt that way with Wild Wilderness Women!
Yes! And, you know, that is oddly the most affirming thing to me because I just thought I was losing my mind. But that’s just normal startup life. So, bringing it back to the whole lonely thing. It was oddly affirming to hear that this is just the normal process. It says nothing about how badly I am doing, or how unqualified I am. Rather, my surviving it every day is a testament to my work!
I will say, though, that it’s such a barrier as a social entrepreneur being that triple stack—being young, being a woman, and being Black.
That sounds like a lot to navigate. I did want to touch on some of that. As a woman, and a woman of color, what are some challenges you’ve faced in starting this?
Whitney speaks to crowd of supporters at a benefit event
The fact is it just looks different being in this identity than for your average white male. There are often barriers before I even get in the door. I’ve had to ask board members to come with me to meetings where I knew it could be a challenging audience in that regard.
There have been conversations in business settings that have been absolutely inappropriate. In five seconds, I’ve had to process, Did they just say that? Yeah, they did. That was messed up. Ok, how are you going to react? Let it go because it’s an important partner, or, no, say something because in principle that’s wrong? But, since it’s a microaggression, they don’t realize they’re doing it, and I’ll just come off as the angry Black woman, and they’ll be defensive, so should I really say something?
All of this processing that you have to do! And, knowing that it happens, all of this extra energy that has to go into preparing for every possibility of that happening in a meeting! Many men have told me, “You can’t put too much energy into thinking about that.” No, you don’t have to put too much energy into thinking about that. I do!
What would you say to a fellow woman who might be feeling stuck in the constraints they feel based on these identities?
First, be diligent about monitoring your “sorrys.” It’s so engrained in women to apologize for everything—especially in the workplace. Apologizing for speaking, having an opinion, being present—we don’t need to apologize for that! We must train ourselves out of that. I’m deliberate about NOT saying sorry in many situations! I’m one of four girls, and my sisters are tired of that rant. I’m always lecturing them about not saying sorry.
Beyond that, for the first six months, I really struggled with, ok, who am I supposed to be? How am I supposed to adapt? How am I supposed to take the patronizing and be ever so adorable enough, but also firm?
Fellows Present on topics of interest at monthly leadership classes
Adorable, but firm, ha!
Right! Adorable enough to not be threatening, but firm and strong enough to show you that you can invest in me and what I’m going to do. I was struggling so much with how to navigate all of that, and essentially trying to change myself. But at the six-month mark, I thought, you know what, nooo! I feel very validated in the fact that how I feel is how I feel. How I react is valid because what was coming my way wasn’t right.
So now, if one day I decide to let it go, I don’t have the energy, or it’s not worth it—that’s fine. If the next day, I decide—absolutely not, sir! That’s fine, too. It’s circumstantial, and all of it is valid because I don’t owe altering myself for someone else’s mistake. I struggled with—am I supposed to make myself more uncomfortable to make a person who made me uncomfortable more comfortable?
Quite frankly, if we want to see this world change, it has to come through allies because oppression is the result of someone in a position of power being able to use that position to keep another group down. That oppressed group can fight and mobilize and make a difference, but ultimately if there’s still this power dynamic, you’ve got to influence the people in that group to do something and influence their own people to do something too.
So, my other advice to women is to speak openly about your experiences with your own people to get validated, but also don’t be hesitant to speak to the issues at hand to the people who could be part of the demographic causing the problem.
Embracing the experiences I have that are unique to my own identity shows me that I’m not crazy, I’m not sensitive, this stuff is out there, it shouldn’t be out there, and so I should be loud about it because, in principle, that’s what SNS is about! I actually feel empowered to speak about it more now than ever, and that’s been so liberating.
I think it’s really important to share these experiences because there are so many women who are just starting to navigate this professional world, and may not really understand that, oh, this is what’s happening, and it’s ok that I don’t think it’s ok.
Yes! I’m also seeing now in listening to my own story that the biggest testimony I have is that anybody can do this! Looking at my resume, two years ago, there would’ve been no reason to think that I would’ve had the background to start and run an organization. But here we are! I’m still learning and growing, but we shouldn’t let this world and how it can sometimes treat us, or how we can be in our own heads, make us feel limited in what our potential looks like. If we have an idea or dream for something, go for it. Go for it!
Gosh, I’m fired up now to get my pitchfork out and make some noise! So, what should all the young professionals who, after reading this, think, “How do I get my company involved?” What would you suggest for readers living in regions outside of D.C. who want to get this type of opportunity offered at their companies?
What SNS does is use corporations to connect people to the right nonprofit fits for them. Anybody can serve consistently when they find the right fit. If someone feels passionate about this movement in Houston, or wherever we’re not right now, I don’t want them to feel like they can’t do something to be a part of it now. There are so many local communities aching for help. It’s about being diligent in finding that work.
And we absolutely plan to scale. We’re excited about opening up the model to get more people involved in making a difference. First, we want to get things right and have really solid programming and operations in D.C. to gain momentum and sustainability. But, we absolutely plan on taking this model and implementing it elsewhere.
So, if you’re a young professional in D.C. who wants to get involved, contact me and let’s talk, but even if you’re not, but you’d really like to see this in your community, I’d say, still get in touch because—yes! Our model works to partner with corporations to expand volunteer opportunities for working young professionals. Our three-year plan is to get it right here, but also think about what it will look like to grow our plan somewhere else. We can mobilize where we know the energy is.
Alright, so, final question—what’s this I hear about you looking to acquire a kayak?
Oh! Haha. Oh my gosh, I fell in love with kayaking June of 2011 after my first City Year. Our team went kayaking on the Potomac off Fletcher’s Cove and it was just eye-opening. I think there’s something so liberating about being out in the open and seeing the wonder that is the world, being in your own little space that you’re controlling, and really just taking that in. Being on the water and out in the open is my sanctuary, and after this first year, I will purchase that kayak as my SNS congratulatory gift to myself!
Well, I’ll have to meet you out on the water then!