Leading Together: A Conversation with LIFT’s New Board Co-Chairs Will Darman and Emilio Diez Barroso

Starting in the new year, Gina Coburn stepped down as LIFT’s National Board Chair to make way for some new voices and perspectives on our leadership team. Since LIFT’s inception, the National Board has always been led by a singular board chair, but this transition marks a shift as we adopt a co-chair model, welcoming Will Darman and Emilio Diez Barroso as the new co-chairs.  

Will and Emilio are both long-term LIFT board members and dedicated LIFT supporters, having been introduced to LIFT’s work many years ago through Co-Founder Kirsten Lodal.  We recently sat down with Will and Emilio to discuss their new co-chair roles, how they work together to make the organization stronger, and their vision for the future of LIFT.   

What first led you to LIFT?  

Emilio: I met Kirsten [Lodal] maybe 15 years ago or so and we would have these intimate conversations where we shared vulnerably and passionately, and I got to hear about LIFT and got really curious; I started learning more and getting more exposed. 

Will: I met Kirsten when I was in high school. She was smart, talented, and sort of a visionary, even back then, and she has obviously continued to be as an adult.  I had the benefit of watching LIFT’s creation from afar through alumni communications. It’s cool to see someone I know who I went to school with tackling a big problem in a sensible way. And so, long story short, I was kind of bouncing up and down the East Coast in various jobs in my 20s, then I moved back to DC and caught up with Kirsten. She told me all about the amazing progress she and Brian [Kreiter] had orchestrated and the impact it was having, and I was blown away, I was inspired to say “hey, is there any use for someone like me in that?” 

And then a little over a decade ago, LIFT was wrestling with some organizational growing questions. And I thought, “This actually might be a place I, as a Board member, could actually contribute something.” Because I’d worked with a lot of organizations as they were growing and helped them wrestle with the question of scale. I was lucky to have a very practical reason to come in to support my enthusiasm and passion for what LIFT was doing.  

It seems that relationships were key in bringing you in, but it was LIFT’s core values that made you stick around for the long term, which segues nicely into the next question, what keeps you here and engaged with LIFT’s work? 

Will: Well, certainly, relationships are a huge part of it. Every time I see Gabe, Michelle, or Emilio, it’s such a treat. Anything LIFT related I look forward so much to seeing the people. LIFT has an amazing ability to bring smart, caring, committed people who do amazing work for the world together 
And underneath everything, the primary thing that keeps me engaged is that the LIFT model works against a really  a big problem, and each year, the work that LIFT does has helped make it better, which is a huge source of pride.  I think with each passing year LIFT grows and there are challenges which, as a board member, l try to be helpful in wrestling with that growth.  

I guess it boils down to simple love, I love LIFT 

Emilio: I love that. That’s very inspiring Will, thank you for that. When I read the question just half an hour ago, I created a whole list, but deep down it really is, because there’s a filter already in my system for what I get involved with and I don’t typically get involved with anything that doesn’t meet those criteria in terms of impact.  
But really what it is, is this moment. This moment is very representative of what LIFT is for me and what keeps me engaged with LIFT. It’s about these interactions and our intentions. And you said it beautifully Will, it really is the people, the staff, the board, and the members that we serve.  

That’s what keeps me most enlivened and interested, because there are a lot of organizations that are very focused on what they’re doing, but the way they go about trying to achieve what they’re doing is not always aligned with what they are intending to transform. And I think the DNA of LIFT and the type of people that it attracts is very consistent with the ethos of the work. LIFT has a certain level of agility, self-awareness and self-reflection where it can reinvent itself and course correct frequently, that’s very attractive to me as a decision maker.  

Will: In the spirit of kind of calling out Hope, Money and Love, I think that the world is full of organizations that have sort of, and I don’t mean this term too cynically, baseless hope. Hope that is just hope for hope’s sake. LIFT does an amazing job of giving a grounded cause for hope. And as we think about where LIFT is going in the future, of what’s coming next and expanding the organization, that hope is grounded in the work that the organization does for its members today and the work that it does for its TA partners, the work that it does on policy. Its hope grounded in practice, which is so important. It’s a huge privilege to be part of something that is effective and figuring out where that efficacy should go next. 

Anything else on the pride of being a board member?  

Emilio: It’s hearing from one of our members, the parents that we interact with, hearing those stories. It’s just one individual, one family, and connecting the human element of what we’re doing to someone’s life story is incredibly powerful. 

What are you most excited about for the future of LIFT? 

Will: LIFT is to me an amazing place where I think it has figured out what works well, in  
one of the historically most tractable problems people have come across. I don’t think LIFT is in a moment right now where we need to do something meaningfully different. I think what we need to do is deepen our commitment to what we do so well and do more of it. Like providing more direct service which then extends into more TA and then more policy advocacy. From my perspective, I think that’s what I’m most excited about because of what all that translates into, the individual-level impact which is ultimately all that really matters. If we’re helping our families, that’s what matters. 

Emilio: That’s phenomenal. For me, I like being the voice of our families in the context of policy and being able to represent their interests is exciting to me. It’s exciting as an intermediary step to what Will was sharing. It boils down to whether we are doing our part to help all these families.  And I think if we can increase our footprint in all these different verticals while maintaining that which I think differentiates us, which is being good listeners, I think that’s extraordinary. 

So, both LIFT in the past, and lots of other places, have a singular Board Chair. That’s not what we’re doing here, we’ve made the choice to have co-chairs. What is appealing about that and why do you think it makes sense?  

Emilio: I so admire you Will and the way that you show up in the world, and I our meetings. How you interact with people and the incredible mind that you have that can structure things and take sort of very linear processes and engage with them in a way that feels very held. To me, there are many skills that Will has that I don’t necessarily possess or don’t have the necessarily the muscles developed, so the fact that I can focus on the skills that I have developed makes a lot of sense for us to do this together. Particularly for me, it gives me a little more space to navigate the interpersonal dynamics with LIFT’s CEO Michelle. When I can be more focused on what is going on beneath the surface of tasks, which is where I think I find myself most comfortable, I think I can add value there. 

Will: I leave every conversation with Emilio inspired to be a better person. The way that you carry yourself, the way that you speak, the way that you think, is nothing short of inspiring. Every perspective that you bring has such depth, so much emotional connectivity, and such practical application that it’s dazzling. So, when the opportunity to be co-chair with you came up, I leapt at it.  I also think you said it well in that what you bring to the table allows me to focus on the things that I do better. Focus on the linear things, focus on the practical questions, and you bring that emotional depth and that perspective, which is key.  What I’ve found is in organizations where you don’t have that, you lose the soul and the heart of the organization. I think the co-chair role was brilliant construction and I feel so fortunate to have Emilio as my co-chair partner. 

Emilio: I feel the same. Thank you, that’s beautiful. And it’s funny that you say that you lack emotional depth and use the words love and soul and heart in the same sentence. 

Will: I mean, you have an amazing mind, but it comes across with so much more depth than a purely cerebral perspective which is extraordinary. I literally leave with every conversation thinking “how can how do I do that?” 

For what it’s worth, I will mirror and echo back the respective strengths you bring, and I appreciate the balance you’re speaking to, and I think your complimentary nature is true and I can’t wait to see what the future holds for LIFT. Thank so much for taking the time!