TulsaPeople Q&A: Nancy Day
The president and CEO of the Oklahoma Center for Community and Justice will retire this month after 32 years championing diversity and tolerance.
After 32 years with NCCJ/OCCJ, Nancy Day retires at the end of this month. Wanting a job in which she could make a difference, Day has led the state’s organization dedicated to promoting respect and understanding.
It was the call that changed everything for Nancy Day, then the executive director of Oklahoma’s chapter of the National Conference for Community and Justice (NCCJ), an organization dedicated to promoting respect and understanding among all races, religions and cultures.
In late 2004, an administrator from the NCCJ national headquarters in New York called to tell Day the organization was broke and closing its doors. Without warning, Day had a decision to make: forsake the mission for which she had devoted two decades of her life, or fight for it. She and the Tulsa NCCJ decided to fight.
In the process, Day and a team of dedicated board leaders raised $600,000 in three months and severed ties with the NCCJ. They formed the Oklahoma Center for Community and Justice (OCCJ) in 2005, the only organization of its kind in the state and one of 25 that survived out of more than 60 nationally.
In January, after 32 years at the helm of OCCJ, Day will retire and pass the torch to the next generation of human relations crusaders to empower and educate our community. TulsaPeople took some time to reflect with Day on her unparalleled career.
How did you become involved with OCCJ, formerly NCCJ?
I moved back to Tulsa in 1981 after living away for about 10 years, and I was looking for a job in which I could make a difference. Upon the encouragement of a friend, I applied for an open position at the Tulsa NCCJ (then named the National Conference of Christians and Jews), and my life was changed forever. I will always be grateful to the search committee who took a chance on me.
What program within OCCJ are you particularly proud of initiating?
There are many, but I’m particularly proud of Anytown, Oklahoma, our weeklong leadership, diversity and citizenship camp for Oklahoma high school students. For most, if not all, of the Anytown delegates over the past 19 years, it is a life-changing experience.
Was there a program you hoped to launch that was never fully realized?
I would love to have launched a program for college students. We have programs for almost all other ages, and it’s my hope that in the not-too-distant future, OCCJ will be able to fill that gap.
How did the break with NCCJ strengthen OCCJ?
Eight years ago, when we were fighting for our very existence as the national NCCJ organization imploded, Tulsans stepped up in a huge way to say, “We want and need NCCJ in our city.” Under the courageous leadership and vision of our board, and with unprecedented financial support from the corporate community and our foundation allies, we fought back, and on May 1, 2005, we successfully separated from National and stepped into a bright new future as an independent 501(c)(3), known as the Oklahoma Center for Community and Justice.
What challenges emerged as you transitioned into an independent organization?
We had the choice of closing our doors or trying to raise enough money to stay in existence as an independent local organization, so the biggest challenge was financial. A lead gift of $100,000 from the Williams Cos. jumpstarted a campaign that raised more than $600,000 in three months, enough to save the local organization and almost twice what we normally raised in a year.
Having worked with a multitude of community leaders, whom do you admire locally for their extraordinary work in human relations and equality?
I’ve had the great privilege to work with so many extraordinary community leaders. One longtime civic leader whom I especially admire is Robert J. LaFortune. Mayor LaFortune has maintained a significant community presence, always finding ways to work with Tulsans of all races, religions, backgrounds and politics, and treating everyone with respect.
Looking back on your long, successful career, what are you most proud of?
I count my part in the survival of the Tulsa NCCJ as one of my greatest accomplishments. I’m also proud of the myriad programs sponsored by NCCJ/OCCJ over the past 32 years, now reaching over 16,000 Oklahomans a year on an annual budget of less than half a million dollars.
Are there any cities that serve as a model for OCCJ’s vision for Tulsa?
Tulsa is unique in so many ways that we haven’t really modeled our vision after other cities. However, we have taken advantage of the opportunity to learn program ideas from other cities, both when we were a chapter of NCCJ and now as an affiliate of the National Federation for Just Communities (NFJC), a loose federation of about 15 former NCCJ chapters.
Do you keep in touch with any former students who have been mentored through OCCJ’s programs?
Absolutely. In fact, some of the young people who came through our programs are now adults and are on our program staff, bringing an energy and creativity that is refreshing. Another one of them, who attended our first Camp Anytown in 1994, is our board vice chair of programs, and is immediate past board chair of the NFJC. She and others are also members of our young professionals’ organization, New Leadership Roundtable. Next year, when we celebrate Anytown’s 20th anniversary, we hope to reconnect with many more former delegates.
Did the World Trade Center bombings change your curriculum?
Fortunately, years before 2001, we were working to ensure that Tulsa Muslims were included in established civic forums to promote understanding of this minority faith and were included in all areas of our work. In the aftermath of 9/11, no major changes were made in our curriculum as we were able to draw on an already strong foundation.
Are there words of wisdom you would like to leave your successors? I would say that along with passion for our work needs to come patience. The work we do at OCCJ is not easy, there are no quick fixes, and it is often difficult to measure. As the NCCJ founders said over 85 years ago, “What is required is a long, educational pull, and this is the thing to which we have bent our strength.”
What will you do on your first day of retirement?
My first day of retirement is scheduled to be New Year’s Day — a great day to start the next chapter in my life, which is yet to be written.
How will you remain involwved with OCCJ?
That remains to be seen, but a big piece of my heart will always belong to OCCJ and to the work we do.
In today’s business world, a three-decade-long career at the same organization is fairly rare. Why did you remain at OCCJ for 32 years?
I considered this an opportunity of a lifetime — an opportunity to go to work every day knowing that the work we do matters. I’m convinced there’s no more important mission than helping people learn to live together with their deepest differences.
Have you seen Tulsans as a whole become more tolerant or understanding of those of different races, religions or cultures in the past 32 years?
I think that young people today are more accepting of differences than young people were 30, or even 20, years ago. I’m not sure I can say that about Tulsans as a whole, which makes our work all the more important.