Chantal Stevens is the Executive Director for the ACLU of North Carolina. This nonprofit affiliate focuses on racial justice, transforming the criminal-legal system, reproductive justice, LGBTQIA rights, immigrant rights and voting rights. Chantal has been in this role since February 2020 but it wasn’t a position she initially saw on her career path.
Chantal left her home country of Antigua for college at age 17 to study political science. “The goal was to go back to Antigua and be the first female prime minister,” Chantal says.
But after a college internship with a New York City governmental agency, she realized she didn’t want to work in that type of bureaucracy.
Coming from a family of educators, Chantal asked herself, “What else could I do, what else would change the world? What else is responsible for changing the trajectory of lives?” Ultimately, she landed on education.
Using Her Strengths to Help Others
Once Chantal decided to pursue a career in education, she reflected on a college job she once held with the Student Academic Consulting Center at Baruch College and recognized she was especially passionate about higher education. So after college, she took a position at the Research Foundation of CUNY.
In this role, Chantal worked on a project to help women with high school diplomas or GEDs get back into the classroom. Her team connected the women with the resources, like childcare and transportation, that actually made it possible for them to continue their educational careers.
“That really opened my eyes to the idea that talent is everywhere, it’s opportunity that isn’t,” Chantal says.
Throughout her career, Chantal has worked in many other educational spaces including serving as Assistant Director for Recruitment with CUNY, National Director of Programs for A Better Chance and Interim CEO of the Oliver Scholars Program.
While she was working with the Oliver Scholars Program, Chantal’s mother passed away suddenly. Chantal was lucky to have the ability to step away from the workforce and took time to reflect and decide what she wanted to do next.
“I just needed a moment,” Chantal says. “And so I felt like I had to step back and recalibrate and just kind of figure out, where am I going? Is this what I really want to be doing?”
“Coming Home” With Her Work
During this time Chantal became a Certified Interim Leader. As she was starting to get back into the workforce she got an unexpected call from the Board President of the ACLU of North Carolina asking her to consider serving as the Interim Executive Director. She was surprised by the opportunity but decided to pursue the role because she felt it would be an interesting position.
After relocating to North Carolina in February 2020, Chantal got to work. But a few short weeks later the pandemic shut everything down and Chantal had to shift her team to remote work.
“We were just all trying to figure this thing out together. It was especially intense because I was new to the team,” Chantal says. “Shortly after being remote, in the wake of the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, people were rising up in cities and towns across the country including in North Carolina against white supremacy and calling for racial justice. The work of organizations like the ACLU just exploded. I’m trying to build and fly the plane at the same time. And then within about three months of being here, I have staff and board members asking me if I would consider staying and officially throwing my hat in the ring for the role.”
Chantal expressed that this position didn’t exactly align with her background. In speaking with mentors, they told her she already had the essential organizational management pieces they needed and she could learn the rest.
Ultimately Chantal loved the work and decided to go through the search process for the permanent position and was appointed in September 2020. “It felt like coming home. I was being reconnected right back to the beginning when I decided to do a political science degree.”
Her Advice? Build Your Network and Keep Learning
Chantal wants future leaders to work on building a strong network. “Reach out, ask questions and surround yourself with people who genuinely care about you,” she says.
She also encourages up-and-comers to bring their whole self to every situation. “It’s hard,” she recognizes, “especially when you’re in spaces where you’re the only person of color. But I think it’s really important to be who you are and be genuine.”
Ultimately, the ACLU was a perfect fit for Chantal. “It connects all the pieces of my life together in a way that I didn’t see coming,” she says. But she knows it wouldn’t have been possible without taking her time, continuing to learn and surrounding herself with people who have different strengths.
“Be willing to always learn, always grow and do the hard work,” she says.