Luminary Leader: An Interview with Karen Hoffman, Founder of Gateway to Dreams
by Deborah LeeAnn Morley
Today we are welcoming Karen Hoffman, Chief Dream Champion and Founder of Gateway to Dreams as one of the Luminary Leaders in our community. Besides her amazing background of making a difference here in town, I really want to focus on what's going on at Gateway to Dreams as it meets its five year anniversary. Welcome Karen!
Please tell a bit about the history of Gateway to Dreams. How did it come about?
Wow. It’s a long story, but in short, I had an idea of a nonprofit for our city. A place where we can bring the community together in ways to dream. To create a safe space for people to feel supported. We invited community leaders and entrepreneurs to brainstorm with us between July and October of 2013 - then we launched in January, 2014!
Yes! Can you share a couple of stories of what has happened as a result of women coming together and giving each other permission to dream and making it a reality?
One of the very early stories and one of my favorites is of Marian Brickner. She was 77 years young when she shared her dream with me. She's an animal photographer and had been following a story about a family of bonobo apes. Lucy, one of the baby apes, had grown up and was going to have a baby of her own. And Marian wanted to go to France to photograph her, but felt it was financially out of her reach.
Now, I have a series of quotes that I believe God has given me. I shared one of those quotes with her: “When you know your dreams and when you share your dreams, people will help you reach your dreams.”
At first Marian wasn't very comfortable sharing. It would have meant receiving from others and admitting, “I don't have money.” However, I challenged her and asked her how badly did she want to go? So, she started sharing her dream!
I don't remember the exact number but it was somewhere around 48 people who gave her from $10 to $400 toward her dream. Marian went to France and took pictures of this family of bonobo apes! When she came back she was already planning another trip to return to see the baby as it grew older. A few months later she returned to France.
In the meantime, the Vallee des Singes had used her photography in their brochure and on billboards on the highway. So now this photographer got to see her art, her work, her life's passion on display.
When she returned from France the second time I asked her how she was. She said, “You know what? Even my hair is happy!”
What I love about that story is she became vulnerable and shared her dream. She told me when she was in New York, she shared her dream with someone sitting next to her on the subway. He sent her $400! So you don't know how someone might respond to a dream that you have.
There are so many others. Another one that has warmed my heart was Margo Sutter who has a horse rescue farm. Sometimes things align so beautifully. You see, Margo happened to read a story about Gateway to Dreams in a newspaper while ordering take-out next door to a laundromat because her washer had broken. She called our office. I rarely answer the phone due to meetings or whatnot, but I answered the phone that day. We had a delightful conversation and I invited her to one of our events to introduce her to some people. When she arrived at registration, she stood next to the person I was going to introduce her to! They arrived at the same time.
You see, Margo was concerned because she felt she was going to have to file bankruptcy and lose the horses she had rescued from slaughter. She began to speak to the dream counselors that are part of our community. They helped her, re-inspired her, and she persevered. Now Margo has bought the land and the horses are saved. I love that. I love that the people in our community that love the animals stood up and said “We want to help you.”
There is something magical that happens in that space - the Gateway to Dreams and Joy of Goals space. You create a safe place for women to think beyond what they normally think they deserve. I'm just as guilty of holding my expectations down as to what's realistic.
Those of you at Gateway to Dreams even help me to dream bigger! One of those quotes that I believe was given to me is, “Judge less, love more.”
I think that the personal dream I have is what we share in that space. Dreams such as, I want our world to be more expansive. I want our world to be less judging of others. I want our world to be more about what's possible rather than what's not possible. Many times people have told me when they walk into our space they feel love.
In the course of building anything, especially a dream, you're holding a collective dream... it's not just for you, it's for the community of St. Louis, isn’t it?
I feel like it's for the whole region for me.
Yeah and it's a big dream. And what happens is we tend to get in our own way. Can you share what would be an area where you felt like you were up against a wall? Where you asked if you’re still supposed to be doing this?
Well I think one of the things I have learned is, in creating a judgment-free, loving community, judgment will still occur.
There were times that I have felt like giving up. When people that I love have basically said that I wasn't enough and questioned my credibility. I wanted to take my marbles and go home.
I thought that if credibility was a problem then I wanted to find another person to be the leader. This was my dream, but in the moment of having my credibility questioned I looked at myself and considered leaving the organization I had built.
I'm spiritual. I believe that there is a God. And I believe that my lesson was not what other people think and their judgment of me, but renewing my commitment in a passion that was given to me. My faith in God has always and will always allow for things to work out. I can’t give up because someone is judging me. I must continue moving forward.
And, it came up again. Each time it shook my confidence, but each time I persevered. You see, I also believe that “We teach that which we most want to learn.”
I judge myself harshly every day because there's so much we want to do. And I don't always know how to get it all done. There are so many ways that we can do it because I live in the land of positive possibilities. Together we can overcome anything. And so I get up every day excited to make something happen.
But I will say the times I’ve been most challenged there has been a lesson and a gift in the challenge that I needed. So I tell myself, “OK things are really bad, and it means something good is going to happen!”
Well you know, “there's always a silver lining.”
Let’s take a look at your shadow of perfectionism: This is a shadow I deal with as well. When listening to that inner critic, which I believe every one has to some level, knowing you’re never going to get it all done, or get it done perfectly, and there is judgment surrounding you, how can you find a gift that inner critic is giving you? What is the gift of wanting more than you can get done in one day?
The gift is that I know that the first time I do anything is going to be the worst time. So, for me, I'll try new things because I know I'm going to learn and grow. Trying new things allows me to get more things done. This is how I'm going to make a difference.
If I was someone who wouldn't even try. If I keep saying it has to be perfect before I can even start, I would never get it done. I believe that there's this duality going on. On one had you think: You can make a difference. Just keep going. And then on the other hand: You didn't get that all done but you just gotta keep going.
Yes, the bigger the dream, the bigger the vision. The more complexity you are going to need to step up into, handle and manage. And there is a wisdom, I call, the polarities of the inner critic and the dreamer. Those two get to live side by side and we get to play with both of them.
I glad to hear your journey, because I believe that when most people with a big dream run into a wall, they stop. You have not stopped. You are the Chief Dreaming Officer of the organization because if you lose your dream all the energy that's holding the structure into place falls apart.
The times I've doubted who I am and what I am, I come back to my source which is God, it fills me back up.
Another huge lesson for me is finding the balance of letting go but still holding on to the dream. This, coupled with finding my own voice and speaking up.
I give away my power too easily when I feel someone else can handle a project or others tell me they can do something better than I can. I’m persuaded to allow others to do for me. So I let it go. Yet I don’t always agree I should. But, not to make waves I relinquish what I feel I should be doing. However, I’m then reminded of the part of me that's tied to God and the dream. Our board is comprised of such strong women who have created a safe place that I have been allowed to be very vulnerable. As has our board in sharing our vulnerabilities.
It's a beautiful example, because we are each pioneers with our visions. Sometimes we do need to be the ones that help to pave the way for those coming behind to be able to have an easier go of it. That is my dream. So, it does mean that we get to carry some of that on our own shoulders.
I have one more thing I want to ask you. What’s next? What's next for you Karen, and what’s next for Gateway to Dreams?
Well it's really interesting because one of our board members has started asking, what makes your heart sing? Now to me there's a difference between what's your dream and what makes your heart sing. And, the dream that I have for St. Louis doesn't always make my heart sing. It's a lot of work. Sometimes it's a lot of hours. And so what I want to do for our 2019 is work more on combining what makes my heart sing and what my dreams are.
And I do know that surrounding ourselves with people who get our dream and that want to help carry pieces of the dream are lessons for me. We have individuals bringing new programs or events to benefit Gateway to Dreams that are owning those events because they believe in our organization and the community. In the past we have always had people that helped, but now people are stepping up and owning pieces of the dream. That is making my heart sing! Being more out there and helping make those connections makes my heart sing.So to me when I am singing best is when I'm helping others and not necessarily doing the day to day operations, although, of course, I'm willing to do whatever is needed because the dream is bigger right now than my heart singing.
It sounds like you're holding both.
There’s room for your heart to sing and there's room for Gateway to Dreams to grow. You’re allowing and receiving support. That wasn’t necessarily that way in the past.
That’s true. I have been someone more protective of other people than myself. As an example, we knew of a member that would be wonderful to spearhead the Impact Awards, yet I couldn’t bring myself to ask her because I knew she was busy. I got in the way energetically. I got in the way of asking for help and receiving help. But, when I finally called to ask her, she agreed immediately and said she was so honored to do so! My head was spinning because here I am trying to protect people and they didn't need my protection. And, they want to help Gateway to Dreams. I learned that just because I feel overwhelmed sometimes, doesn’t mean they are. That was a great lesson for me.
Isn’t it wonderful to find that when you become less externally focused and you turn that energy back towards yourself, you have more power and your voice gets stronger? We can all hear you and support you even more!
It's such a pleasure to work with you when you are willing to let us work with you.
And these are big lessons for me because I think a lot of us women are in a role of caregiving. I’m not always good with my boundaries when I love people. I carry what’s going on with them within me. When I love someone I sometimes take on more than maybe that person needs me to.
Yes. And so as you continue to love yourself more you can even love others more. Your capacity needs to be bigger as you step into a bigger vision and a bigger place for both you and for Gateway to Dreams in the coming year.
One more quick thing. What do you think Gateway to Dreams could do to change things here in St. Louis?
Oh my gosh. I think we can be a catalyst in working with other organizations. It’s bigger than a Gateway to Dreams thing, it's a people thing. We want to take a page from the book, Pay It Forward, about an 11 year old boy who changes the world by doing three significant things in his lifetime to help others. He asks each person he helped to help three other people. And asks that those people ask three more people each to pay kindness forward. It's math and it's doing something significant. And, you only need to do it three times in your lifetime. Simple.
My dream is for St. Louis to become a Pay it Forward community. That we become a random act of kindness community. That we become a kinder, more loving community. Then, Gateway to Dreams has not only impacted St. Louis but will impact the world.
That’s what we do in our small community. As you know, we already invite all kinds of different nonprofits to share what they're up to so we can all help them.
And I've got a cultural shift that I'm working on and that is that we stop the whole term of “non-profit.” And say that we are a community agency. We're creating community change.
What about community change agents?
I love that because I feel that when we say “non-profit” it's like, we can't have any money. We need to flip that so that we're constantly resource-generating. It’s frustrating because then we hold back where we most could be growing and expanding because we feel limited.
For example, at the last board meeting I was challenged to go and start asking for more money this month and to raise ten thousand dollars. We are sharing the story of Gateway to Dreams. We are filming a video a day to help the community understand who we are and what we are doing.
I’m getting to know many organizations through this. Whether we use the term non-profit or change agent, they are doing great work! It’s almost an oxymoron that we have a reputation for racial division or high crime statistics because philanthropically, we are one of the top 10 giving communities in the country. It’s time to be integrated because we have separation of color, economic status. So it's a model that needs to break down barriers.
I invite and want my friends of color to come to everything I do and I'm going to things and neighborhoods that perhaps I might not have gone to in the past.
Breaking down barriers! That’s exactly why I moved from a gated community in to my beautiful integrated neighborhood.
So I want to close this interview with you today just by saying thank you for all that you're doing and for being a shining beacon for many of us here who have been afraid to dream big.
I'd like to also ask you to put out a call to action. What would you like to ask? If you could ask for something from whoever listens to this now who has moved in any way. How can they be supportive of Gateway?
I think in order for us to really make a bigger difference we need to be playing with bigger companies. So, what I would love to ask is, if you work for a company that is maybe one of the best companies in St. Louis to work for and you want to impact our community, reach out to me. We have a lot of things that we can actually do together.
And, Joy of Goals is a magical day of dreaming and playing and creating with a collaborative spirit. Going into different companies and letting them see the model I believe can help St. Louis. We’re getting the ground work started and will be working toward a program in 2019. We have so many people stepping up and saying they want to volunteer that it is going to free me up next year to be able to go out there more. Companies that can contribute resources - money, time, ideas, technological resource.
We’ll also be looking looking at metrics. We’ll capture some of these beautiful stories. Those will go a long way to support us in finding additional funding streams and corporate sponsors. Please let people know how to get a hold of you.
First of all, I've been blessed that you're our board president. You've been involved first as a member and then as a volunteer and then as a board member and now as a leader of our board.
The people on our board, we know we're not perfect and we're working on it and I love that. And, a big Thank You to Our Community Listens, a program that helped our board members understand the importance of communicating effectively with one another.
Another shout out to American Family Insurance. Deborah, you got to experience their Dream Bank in Madison, Wisconsin. They are providing speakers and programs to help people dream!
Thank you so much for your time. I really love everything you're doing and I wish you all the best in 2019.