David McGhee has an interesting way of looking at the world. In talking with the Chief Executive Officer of the Steve Fund, it is clear he strives to see beyond popular narratives and predetermined judgements. In his new role, he hopes to bring together “unlikely allies and unusual suspects” to continue to address the issues to which he has dedicated his career – poverty, equity, and the flourishing of young people. 

The Steve Fund is the nation’s leading organization focused on supporting the mental health and emotional wellbeing of young people of color. McGhee believes his previous work in government, community service, and philanthropy prepared him well for this work which he calls “the crisis of our time.” Since its founding in 2014, The Steve Fund has been a major influencer in higher education’s ability to understand better the determinants of mental health issues in young people of color and their unique help-seeking behaviors, with research and recommendations such as the Equity in Mental Health Framework, which they created with the Jed Foundation. 

McGhee plans to strengthen the organization’s commitment to transformational change by focusing on outcomes as opposed to outputs, the former being the more sustainable result. To get there, he wants to expand the Steve Fund’s partnerships with people and organizations that he says need to be part of the conversation but may not have been invited in. He talks of enabling a set of conditions that make any strategy possible. It is an approach that McGhee learned early on as a young black man navigating poverty on his way to achieving his own personal outcomes.  

David McGhee

Marjorie Malpiede: What was your career trajectory before coming to the Steve Fund? 

David McGhee: My background is primarily in philanthropy. It really set the direction for the course of my career. After earning my undergraduate degree in public administration and public policy, I set out to work in the nonprofit and government sectors focusing on child wellbeing and also influencing public policy. Having come from concentrated poverty myself, I bring to this work a commitment to transformational change so that opportunity becomes systemic, not random or transactional. This is where my passion lies. 

Early on, I was an intern in the executive office of Michigan's first female governor, Jennifer Granholm. I had an opportunity to meet the governor, and we were in her office, and I remembered something she had on her wall. It was a receipt from a lawn care service she had employed when she was running for Governor and the lawn care provider had written on it, "Don't forget the little people" and she framed it. I was just an intern, but I actually believed I had the most important job in the executive office. From 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM every single day my job was to open every piece of mail addressed to the governor, read it, either route it to their proper department or craft a response on behalf of the governor. That job helped me develop an understanding of rural poverty as opposed to urban poverty. I knew what urban poverty was. That was my lived experience. But this helped me understand residents’ concerns throughout the entire state, which in many ways is applicable across the country. Those things really stuck with me. 

Following my internship, I was offered a job with the governor which I respectfully declined. Many people thought that I was crazy but I came back to my local community in Detroit to work at Big Brothers Big Sisters and I did that for seven years. In the neighborhood I grew up in, if you wanted out, you either played sports or you sold drugs. I had had the opportunity to go to college and it was important for young kids in my neighborhood to see that. From there I had an opportunity to work for a member of Congress and I learned a lot. I knew the amount of money that sat in the federal government and how hard it was to trickle down. I knew what nonprofits needed. And then I found my sweet spot in philanthropy. I worked seven and a half years in private foundations, and spent about a year and a half in family foundations, working for a high net-worth family in Seattle, Washington.

MM: Now that you are at the Steve Fund, what are your main priorities?

DM: The Steve Fund exists to promote the mental health and emotional wellbeing for our young people, and, in our case, young people of color. I've also layered in not only promoting, but really protecting the mental health and emotional wellbeing of this population. And we do so in three ways. One is by transforming environments. We know young people will occupy environments, whether it's college campuses, or employer partners, or the community. How do we make sure that we can support the transformation of environments so young people feel as if they belong? Two, we provide resources and skill-building to ensure that families, caregivers, and young people themselves actually have the tools and resources to navigate this life at this moment. And then lastly, we shape the field by normalizing the conversation around mental health. How are we removing the stigma around it? 

My job is to strengthen these assets by creating a set of enabling conditions that are really ensuring that there's organizational efficiency and effectiveness. We are one organization in this entire ecosystem contributing to the overall mental health and emotional wellbeing. So how do I make sure that we can manage every aspect of our organization towards a unified whole and achieve the results through performance efforts? How do we commit to organizational learning and agility? We need to be flexible. We need to be nimble and responsive in this moment. 

I think the term diversity has become so politicized that we need to ask the question in a different way: Is there any population that faces a disadvantage in achieving what this institution sets out to achieve?

And then importantly, how are we catalyzing and supporting strategic partnerships? How are we bringing together unusual suspects and unlikely allies? How do we establish, encourage, and engage in partnerships that build continuity, otherwise unattainable on our own? And this to me means being willing to go into places other organizations may not be willing to go, to have conversations other organizations may not be willing to have, and to have those conversations with different audiences that some people may shy away from. 

MM: What, in your opinion, are some of the things young people of color need in order to thrive in these environments? 

DM: What do I believe young people need? If there was a magic wand that I had, then I could identify a handful of things that would contribute to better outcomes – but I might start with agency, readiness and connection. I think young people would benefit from agency to be able to make decisions on their own to feel empowered. I think they need to be prepared to take advantage of opportunities presented to them, and I also think that the environments they go into need to be ready. I fundamentally believe that when we want to work towards the power of achieving outcomes, they're achieved in one of five ways. Either change behavior, shift attitudes, create better conditions, improve knowledge, or equip people with more skills. If a young person enters an environment that has prioritized these things, at least some of these things, I think that they are set up for success.

To really understand this better, we are continuing to rely on one of our strengths – and that is to use survey research to examine the attitudes of both students and families. We think it's an important time to ask these questions coming out of the pandemic and the post affirmative action decision. It also allows us to explore different issues within different population groups that maybe we hadn’t thought of before. For example, I've become fascinated by the lack of data – or at least what I’ve been exposed to – around student athletes. Have we thought through what it might mean for a young person whose skills and gifts and talents have earned them a college scholarship, but they now find themselves in a campus environment that's totally different from the environment that they were reared in? What does it mean for an inner city Chicago student to now be at the University of North Dakota? Just using that as an example, or vice versa. What does it mean for a standout high school student in Iowa to find themselves in New York City? Some of it is different by race for sure, but some of it is also situational.

Another area that’s rarely explored is the different generational issues among students of color. There's some first-generation college students whose families see this as such a phenomenal opportunity that a lot of the skills and the resources and support they have are beyond measure, right? However, depending on your environment, there’s a level of stress and anxiety for non-first generation college students. What if I’m a fifth generation college student and everyone in my family had a history of performing at Yale and then I’m here and my experience is not quite the same? 

I think this notion of “unusual suspects and unlikely allies” can start with identifying the person you think is less likely to contribute to this conversation and creating a reason why they can contribute to the conversation.

MM: You strike me as someone who looks beyond the obvious or the commonly accepted. Would you say that’s true?

DM: Yes, though it is not to suggest that I'm right, but I actually think it comes from my experience: one, having to navigate poverty, because I always had to find another way. I just naturally had to find another way. But then it also came from my decade or so in philanthropy. Many philanthropic organizations throughout history were complicit or had simply gone along with current conditions. But many of our nation's wealthiest foundations and their respective namesakes built their wealth by defying the odds -- by not going with the status quo. Henry Ford said, "Many, many moons ago, if I would've asked the people what they wanted, they would've told me a faster horse." 

How do we strike the right balance between, “yep, this is what's presented. This is the status quo” to have we thought about, have we considered, there's also a layer beneath that? If we don't dig, we run the risk of not getting the full story. I think this notion of “unusual suspects and unlikely allies” can start with identifying the person you think is less likely to contribute to this conversation and creating a reason why they can contribute to the conversation. 

MM: Are you hopeful we can bring different viewpoints together in these polarizing times?

DM: One of the best leaders that I've ever known and worked for, a woman by the name of Tanya Allen, would often give this analogy around 70, 20, 10, especially when it came to coalition building and alliances. It was this notion of 70% of the things that we want for children, even if we're on a different perspective or different side of the aisle, we can agree on. There may be 20%, depending on the day or the context, that we'll never agree on, right? And there may be 10% that's negotiable depending on what the conditions are. The problem is – oftentimes we start at the 20% as opposed to starting at the 70%.

MM: Issues related to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) obviously impact the mental health of young people of color. What is your opinion on the way this is being debated in higher ed today? 

DM: I actually don't think it's a diversity issue that we need to solve. I actually think it's a disparities issue, because the minority today could be the new majority tomorrow. I think the term diversity has become so politicized that we need to ask the question in a different way: Is there any population that faces a disadvantage in achieving what this institution sets out to achieve? In a college environment that exists to provide a high quality education, is there any population here that suffers from some type of disparity in their ability to receive that? And can we get to a place where we agree on minimizing those conditions?

To learn more about the Steve Fund, visit stevefund.org