Humans of TCGMC: David Fey
JOSH: I’M JOINED HERE BY DAVID FEY – A FELLOW CARLETON GRADUATE I’VE KNOWN SINCE I
FIRST JOINED THE CHORUS IN 2018 WHO OFTEN STANDS BY ME AT CONCERTS. DAVID, I UNDERSTAND THAT YOU HAVE A BACKGROUND IN ARCHITECTURE, AND OVER THE YEARS YOU’VE BEEN ABLE TO TRANSPOSE YOUR PROFESSIONAL SKILLS ONTO THE NONPROFIT WORLD. COULD YOU TELL ME A BIT ABOUT YOUR EXPERIENCES IN ARCHITECTURE?
David: I grew up in Wisconsin – in Frank Lloyd Wright territory – and I was always fascinated by the visual world. Wright was a brilliant architect who had lived and worked near my family’s hobby farm between Dodgeville and Spring Green. My interest in architecture really came into focus when I spent part of my freshman year as a college student in France. I was transfixed by the historic architecture there and the stories it told.
Carleton is a wonderful liberal arts school, but it had no specialization in architecture. After graduating, I found a historic-preservation firm called MacDonald and Mack that needed someone to do historic building research. After a couple years with them, I decided to go to the University of Minnesota for a graduate degree in architecture. The biggest project I worked on as an architect was theMinnesota History Center, in St. Paul.
Then, while working as an architect, I got involved with Seward Redesign, a neighborhood nonprofit that was building and preserving affordable housing. I quickly realized that the social-justice aspect of affordable housing connected with my heart in a way the general practice of architecture had not.
JOSH: COULD YOU HELP ME UNDERSTAND YOUR INVOLVEMENT WITH AFFORDABLE HOUSING? WHAT WORK DID YOU DO WITH SEWARD REDESIGN?
David: I’ll use a case study as an example. In the early 90s, while I was a volunteer on the Redesign board, we learned that the Seward Towers – two high-rises that housed close to 800 people, most of them seniors – were about to lose the federal subsidy that made them affordable. The subsidy program allowed the building owner to convert them to market rate after a certain number of years. If that happened, these folks would be out on the street.
So we worked with the residents and lobbied at the state, local, and federal levels to buy out the owner and preserve the subsidy. I vividly remember the day we walked into the community room filled with the residents to tell them we had succeeded. At that moment, I saw that I was really helping to change people’s lives, and that this was my calling.
JOSH: AND FROM THERE, HOW DID YOU CONTINUE THE NONPROFIT WORK?
David: After being on the Redesign board for about 10 years, the Executive Director left and they asked me to apply for the position. I was Executive Director for 7 years.
I became a visible housing advocate during that period, and when former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak was first running for office, we had coffee to discuss the affordable housing crisis. We realized we had a shared passion for the work, and also very complementary strengths. He’s an incredible idea generator, and I had a lot of experience implementing. When he was elected, he asked me to serve as Deputy Mayor (Chief of Staff) for his first term.
One of the biggest things we accomplished was merging the city’s planning and development departments, which had been at war with each other. I had worked as a nonprofit housing developer, so I knew the impact this had in the community. I stayed on for an additional 3 years after my term as Deputy Mayor to help manage the integration of the departments. Some said the merger was the biggest structural change in the city’s government in 30 years.
JOSH: I’LL BE HONEST: I HAD NO IDEA YOU WERE IN THE POLITICAL WORLD. THAT’S SOME NEXT LEVEL STUFF, DUDE. BUT YOU’RE NOT ANYMORE. WHY IS THAT?
David: My heart was really in community work. I admire those who can tolerate the political world, but I never really wanted to be a bureaucrat or a politician. I found it extremely stressful. I joke that working in City Hall drove me to yoga and meditation, but it’s actually true!
So, having worked in the private, public, and nonprofit sectors, I realized I could be a resource to nonprofit organizations of all types, and I began my work as a consultant.
Over the past decade, I’ve worked to help over 30 organizations turn important corners, from where they’ve been to where they’re trying to go. I’m currently focused on providing interim leadership for nonprofits that are between Executive Directors, most recently at JustUs Health, the recent merger of Minnesota AIDS Project and Rainbow Health Initiative.
You know, as I talk about this, I realize there’s a there’s a through-line of wanting to be of service, while staying flexible about exactly how that looks.
JOSH: WELL YOU’RE A WONDERFUL OF EXAMPLE TO ME OF SOMEONE WHO DEMONSTRATES THAT YOU DON’T HAVE TO STAY IN ONE PARTICULAR CAREER PATH PERMANENTLY TO BE OF SERVICE TO OTHERS. YOU’VE BUILT THE SCHEMA FOR YOUR WORK, NOW PLEASE SHOW ME THE PASSION THAT LIES WITHIN THAT.
David: It really goes back to my mom. I grew up in Madison, Wisconsin, a hotbed of anti-war and civil-rights protests in the late 60’s. My mom, who was trained as a psychologist, became so impassioned that she left that work to become a full-time civil rights activist.
She was a woman who recognized that the world had structures of profound injustice in place, and she believed it was our responsibility to change them. Until I began to work with affordable housing, I never really saw myself mirroring that spirit in my own life. Then one day I realized, “Oh my gosh, this is my mom’s spirit coming through in me.”
If we really see the world as it is, we can celebrate the wonderful things we do together, but we also have to fight the things that are wrong. That fight – along with the little victories we manage along the way – has been the most satisfying thing in my life.