CINCINNATI -- Greater Cincinnati would be wise not to underestimate Karen Bankston.
Bankston grew up in Youngstown, the oldest of four children raised by a single mom who had “nothing.” As a girl, her dark skin made her feel like an outsider, and she got pregnant in high school after seeking love in the wrong places.
But Bankston persevered, graduating from high school, then nursing school, then graduate school and then graduate school again.
She went from being a trauma nurse to a manager and moved to Cincinnati in 1990 with her husband, her son and her stepson for a job as the assistant administrator for patient services at what was then known as University of Cincinnati Hospital. She has held leadership positions at the Health Alliance of Greater Cincinnati, the Drake Center and most recently at the University of Cincinnati’s College of Nursing during her nearly 30 years here.
Now she is taking on one of the region’s most complex challenges as executive director of the Child Poverty Collaborative. And Bankston, 62, said she’s ready to shake things up to get the job done.
“It will have to get uncomfortable,” she said. “Because if we continue to do what we’ve always done, we continue to get what we’ve always gotten.”
What we’ve got is a crisis.
U.S. Census data released in December showed nearly half of all children in the city of Cincinnati live below the federal poverty level. For the region as a whole, 98,824 children -- or nearly one in five Tri-State kids -- live in households considered poor by federal standards.
The Child Poverty Collaborative formed in 2015 with a goal of helping 5,000 families lift themselves and their 10,000 children out of poverty within five years.
Bankston knows what it’s like to grow up poor, surrounded by judgment and disapproval. She feels driven to help local families get the support they need to thrive. Those involved with the Child Poverty Collaborative say her personal and professional experience -- combined with her passion for the work -- make her the right person to get results.
“She brings the rigor of an academic, the touch of a nurse, the leadership of a very accomplished executive and an incredible set of relationships across our community,” said Michael Fisher, CEO of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center and one of the Child Poverty Collaborative’s nine co-chairs.
Steering committee member Sean Rugless put it this way: “She is one of the few people in the region that can transcend the C suite, the state house, city hall and Avondale.”
‘A very sad kid’
Part of the reason Bankston can navigate all those different places is that she is clearly confident and comfortable with herself. But she hasn't always been.
As a child, she and her mom and other siblings lived with her mother’s parents. Her maternal grandmother was not pleased that Bankston’s mother had children outside of marriage and that the children had different fathers.
“My grandmother was quite embarrassed, and she was very vocal about that,” Bankston said. “My mother had nothing. And my grandmother made it known that we had nothing.”
That sense of shame, along with her dark complexion, rattled Bankston’s confidence. But she was smart and excelled in school, and her mother’s sister was a teacher who encouraged Bankston.
“My way of overcoming some of my sadness was through education and books,” Bankston said. “Because I was a very sad kid.”
She got pregnant her senior year of high school. Her mother was “beside herself” because she worried Bankston was risking her college scholarship and her future. She lied about the pregnancy so her daughter could finish school and graduate.
“I graduated in June, had my son two weeks later and started college on time,” she said.
Bankston married the father of her son, but he turned out to be abusive. They divorced after five years.
She got pregnant again and had her second son before having a tubal ligation procedure when she was in her 20s to make sure she wouldn’t get pregnant again.
“Every time I would get depressed, I would go to school because the one thing I was good at was going to school,” she said. “So I just kept going to school to get degrees.”
Bankston got married and divorced again before marrying her third husband, who also had a son. When she got the job offer to move to Cincinnati, her husband encouraged her. Bankston's oldest son had graduated from high school and stayed in Youngstown. The rest of the family moved.
The overt racism in Cincinnati was far worse than anything Bankston had experienced in Youngstown, she said.
“When I first got here, people would say, ‘I would like to introduce you to Karen Bankston, our African-American administrator.’ That’s what they would say,” she said. “I’m like, why are you saying that?”
Bankston took the job soon after the hospital had transitioned from being Cincinnati General to the university hospital, and she was drawn to its mission of working with people in poverty.
“Because of my family background, I was thinking I really wanted to help to make a difference,” she said. “What I didn’t expect was to have this light shining on me because I was black.”
Aiming to level the playing field
Bankston felt like an outsider at work and didn’t feel embraced by other black professionals in the community either because many of them felt there were local people who should have gotten the job she did.
“I was like -- these people are crazy,” she said. “But I’m a fighter. And we did stay. And I did fight.”
She flourished professionally and in her volunteer work.
Bankston volunteered with the YWCA’s domestic violence initiatives because of her own experience as a battered wife. She’s been working in various ways ever since to help young women recognize their strengths.
She has mentored more young people than she can count, including Rugless’s daughter, who was a student at UC’s College of Nursing when Bankston was a professor and administrator there.
“My daughter calls (Karen) her ‘nurse mom,’” Rugless said.
Bankston's sons and stepson have taken different paths.
They are all good men who work hard to support themselves and their families, she said. None of them graduated from college, though, and their lives aren't easy.
Bankston struggled to understand how that happened. She and her husband had their sons involved in sports and had them learn how to play musical instruments. They took the kids on vacations and gave them enriching experiences.
“We did all the things that the literature and the research and society says if you do these things, this is what the outcome is supposed to be,” she said. “We did all these things, and that didn’t happen.”
Bankston has come to realize she and her husband weren’t the only influences in their sons’ lives. They made different choices.
That understanding informs the way Bankston thinks about her new role, too. She doesn’t believe it should be the job of the Child Poverty Collaborative -- or any other local organization -- to define success and then force a particular set of values on the families they are trying to help.
“In my mind, our role should be to help level the playing field,” she said. “We should be that voice, that structure to make sure there’s equity. But there is no silver bullet. And we have to be willing as a community to be tenacious and stand firm and stick with people over time.”
Having the courage to pause
Knowing everything that she does, and having lived everything that she has lived, Bankston is as anxious as anyone for the Child Poverty Collaborative to start showing results.
During her first meeting at the helm of the organization on Feb. 6, she told steering committee members that there is some work that needs to be done first.
Funders and people in the community are confused about the difference between the Child Poverty Collaborative and United Way of Greater Cincinnati, which has helped manage the organization, Rugless said.
Bankston plans to pause the group’s work to better define what makes it different and to get a clearer sense of its goals and how to measure them.
As frustrating as that might be for everyone who wants results more quickly, it’s the right thing to do, said Meghan Cummings, executive director of The Women’s Fund of the Greater Cincinnati Foundation and a member of the collaborative’s steering committee.
“These big community initiatives, by definition they’re messy, and they’re difficult,” Cummings said. “That’s the nature of the work. So it’s really important you have a leader that’s strong enough and courageous enough to hit the pause button and say, ‘are we on the right path?’”
The collaborative also needs time to figure out what common measurements the region’s many social service organizations should use to figure out what strategies are working and what aren’t, said Lynn Marmer, the Child Poverty Collaborative’s first executive director.
“Data’s not sexy, but it’s really important to be able to tell where we should be investing more and where we really are experiencing longer term success,” Marmer said. “I think Karen will bring that kind of rigor and experience and discipline, which I think we are beginning to be ready for.”
The key is for social service providers to put the needs of the families they serve ahead of anything else, said Johnmark Oudersluys, the executive director of CityLink Center and a member of the collaborative’s steering committee.
“All of us can either try to build an empire or try to work ourselves out of a job,” he wrote in an email to WCPO. “We need everyone in this field to focus on the latter.”
The collaborative has done a good job over the past two years of educating the community, said Donna Jones Baker, CEO of the Urban League of Greater Southwestern Ohio and one of the collaborative’s nine co-chairs. More people across the region now understand that most of their neighbors living in poverty have jobs, and there is community consensus surrounding the need for change, she said.
But now it’s time to incorporate more research and grassroots knowledge into the work to get things moving, Jones Baker said, adding that Bankston is the right person to lead those efforts.
“She recognizes that every year that we don’t do something, there is another whole group of people who will fall into this pit of lack of opportunity to thrive,” she said. “And that drives her.”
Bankston said she wants to make sure the collaborative is driving in the right direction, deliberately and with purpose.
“I believe that God has said to me, ‘if not you, who? If not now, when?’ And that’s why I’m here. I believe I’m supposed to be here right now,” she said. “This is huge, what we’re talking about here. And we’ve got one time to get this right.”
You can learn more about the Child Poverty Collaborative online.
Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region -- to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. Childhood poverty is an important focus for her and for WCPO. To read more stories about childhood poverty, go to www.wcpo.com/poverty.
To read more stories by Lucy, go to www.wcpo.com/may. To reach her, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.