The following excerpt is from the forthcoming book “Reinvent the Wheel: How Top Leaders Leverage Well-Being for Success,” authored by Megan McNealy and published by Nicholas Brealey/Hachette Book Group. It is available for pre-order now and will be released on Oct. 22.
"Speak Your Truth"
Judy Belk, President and CEO, The California Wellness Foundation
Judy Belk has had a stressful year. She explains, “I lost three really important people in my life. My grandmother used to say that people always die in threes, and I thought, here you go.”
As a go‑to strategy for dealing with this type of toll-taking stress, Judy turns to her writing. For more than 30 years, the underlying power source of Judy’s career trajectory has been her consistently clear voice and her communication talent, which she finds most easily accessed through her craft of writing. To access her deepest truths, she says, “I have to write about it to work through it.”
In a world where many curate a perfect picture of their lives on social media, Judy says she feels that dealing successfully with grief and tragedy is “an important part of awareness” that has given her “a lens in terms of viewing things.” Having experienced sexual abuse as a child, and later, going through the heartbreaking loss of her older sister, Vickie, who was murdered by gun violence at age 28, Judy garnered not only an appreciation for therapy (“It was critical in a very positive way”) but also a deep respect for the power that comes with being real. Judy, who is African American, uses her ability to access the truth of situations to garner power beyond herself and to speak out as a fearless voice in conversations around race, family, community, and social change.
Judy Belk is President and CEO of The California Wellness Foundation (Cal Wellness), a private $1 billion-plus foundation that focuses on improving the quality of health, employment, and safety of underserved people in the state. The foundation has a long history of taking on the most challenging issues of our time, such as gun violence prevention and access to health care.
Before Cal Wellness, she spent 12 years as Senior Vice President of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, which she helped build into one of the world’s largest independent nonprofit advisory firms, advising on more than $300 million annually in 30 countries. Before that, she did a decade-long corporate stint as VP of Global Affairs at Levi Strauss & Co, with a worldwide staff, and as a direct report to the CEO. She led efforts in the company’s fight against AIDS, women’s economic development, and a national anti-racism initiative, and the company was honored with President Bill Clinton’s first Ron Brown Award for Corporate Leadership. Her past board appointments include The Berkeley Repertory Theater, the Ms. Foundation for Women, and the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, and each offers direct insight into what she cares about.
Interestingly, as much as she is in the public eye with her work, she found her unique voice and confidence in her truth during an awarded residency at a quiet, remote women writer’s retreat called Hedgebrook, which is on Whidbey Island in Washington. (Gloria Steinem is a past alum.) At Hedgebrook, she had extra time to think because she had just left Levi Strauss. Secluded with just a handful of other famous and emerging writers, she cemented her vision for using her truth to help others. She says that the transformative weeks “changed my life.”
Back home in Los Angeles today, Judy maintains that Hedgebrook spirit with a unique commitment to getting her voice heard, and she attains the essential comradery by participating in a writing group. Writing takes practice, and she’s committed to honing her skills. Every other Saturday, she drives from Hollywood to Santa Monica (and if you have experienced L.A. traffic, then you will sense the commitment here) to sit with five other writers at their writing coach’s home. Some are working on memoirs and some on sci‑fi; Judy is working on personal essays.
In her writing, Judy uses her immensely powerful platform and well-known talent for brilliant expression to execute her top core value, which is “the greater common good.” Her essays have been featured in USA Today, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, National Public Radio, The Wall St. Journal, and many other publications.
For instance, in an essay titled “Memories of a Thirsty Childhood,” Judy sheds light on current day water poverty, the desperate need for impoverished people to access clean water; she poignantly reveals that through age 12, although she lived only 10 miles from the White House in Alexandria, Virginia, in her black community, her family didn’t have running water or indoor plumbing. She furthers the message that access to clean water is a human right.
In an op‑ed spotlighting the experience of racism and being a black man in America, Judy talks about her husband, a physician, and the story of her then 23‑year-old son (who now has a PhD in History) and his strategies to make others on BART, the subway system in the Bay Area, comfortable in his, a black man’s, presence.
In stories about Vickie, her beloved sister who died just two weeks after being Judy’s maid of honor, she humanizes the devastating effect of gun violence. Between Judy’s voice and the California Wellness Foundation’s stance, gun violence, like all community violence, is presented as a public health issue.
Her ability to speak her truth has inspired her grown children as well. After four years of teaching kindergarten, including a stint for Teach for America, her daughter wants to make a difference with a career in public service; she just earned a Masters in Educational Policy at Harvard University.
Judy manages to keep things down to earth while being one of the only African American women running a foundation of this size. Every day when she arrives at work, she makes the rounds, speaking to each of her staff, who, she proudly declares, are a very diverse group. If she needs some personal support, she calls on her “kitchen cabinet” of women friends she has known for decades, and whom she treasures for knowing her beyond her title. Judy knows these women can be counted on to give her a swift kick to do things that frighten her, like convincing her to apply for her current CEO position.
She explains, “There’s a lot of flattery that comes your way when you’re in a position of power, influence, and money. If I let it, it could change me in ways that wouldn’t be good for me or my work. But if I use that influence wisely, I could marshal it to open closed doors, shine a spotlight on unmet needs, and speak out on issues that might otherwise go unheard.”
In 2013, this powerhouse—who used to carry buckets of water for her family’s needs, who read second-hand Nancy Drew novels from the white family her grandmother worked for, and who graduated from Northwestern University—was inducted into the Alexandria African American Hall of Fame in recognition of her writing and commitment to social change.
Judy says that her journey to “where I can be who I am and where I can bring those values together” has been a critical, conscious choice all along. She takes speaking your truth to a whole new level, and says, “I tell folks that you take who you are with you through life.” And we are certainly all the better for being invited to journey with her.