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From Christa: Reflections on 20 Years at FLY

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The following is the text of Christa Gannon’s last speech as FLY’s CEO, as she passed the title to Ali Knight and stepped into her formal role as Founder. Words cannot express our love for Christa and gratitude for all she has done for youth, for FLY, and for justice.

When my tears come as I talk, they are not tears of sadness but tears of joy and gratitude. Many people spend their whole life searching for something that they are passionate about doing that makes a difference. I know it is a huge privilege that a passion found me. In 1995, the boys I met in Juvenile Hall’s B-1 unit believed I was capable, even when I didn’t. It is a gift that they trusted me with their ideas, convinced that if I would just go for it, others would join and make it possible. And they were right. Here we are!

Please know this ceremony, this celebration is about much more than Ali and I. It is a celebration that honors the young men of B-1 who were the first true leaders of FLY, a celebration for every young person we have had the privilege to serve and learn from since, and a celebration that honors the hard work you, our staff, volunteers, government leaders, investors, friends, and family members do to make FLY possible. THANK YOU!

Supporting someone you love on a 22-year journey filled with many ups and downs, isn’t easy. My family’s has been there for me every step of the way.

  • Thank you, Mom and Boompa, Dad and Yvonne, Uncle Hap, my second mom Linda, my sister Amanda and Uncle John, Lucy, Henry, and Harvey, my in-laws Pat and Michael, and my husband’s family.
  • A special thank you and shout out to the women who helped my husband and I raise our children: Sarah, Loran, Nicole, who are all on this call, and Sandy, who with us in spirit, may she rest in peace. Ladies, I couldn’t have sustained myself at this intensity, and Scott and I wouldn’t have survived the last 17 years as parents and spouses without you. Thank you for understanding that, “Sorry I’m late. I’ll be home just a few minutes” might be more than a few minutes. And thank you most of all for your nonjudgmental, nurturing love.
  • And speaking of nurturing love: my husband Scott, who gave up a very promising career when it was just beginning to leave LA and come support me and my obsession to start FLY. He has never once, all these years, doubted, questioned, or resented my choice. And he has always, always been FLY’s and my biggest fan. THANK YOU!
  • And to my kids, Hailey and Luke. Thank you for sharing me so unselfishly, for being so forgiving and understanding. Thank you for not rolling your eyes every time when I say, “Not now, I have work to do, that’s a weekend conversation.” Thank you for loving FLY’s work and FLY youth so deeply. I am so proud to be your mom.

Today my job is to help honor our FLY past and to do that I want to reflect some of the “firsts” that are on this zoom call with us:

  • My first college professor Bill Felstiner who introduced me to the concept of the prison industrial complex in the early 90’s and challenged me to question my own beliefs and think outside the box.
  • My first Law School Professor turned first FLY board member: Randee Fenner. When I was a law student that she hardly knew, she willingly went along as my faculty sponsor so I could get the student group off the ground, the precursor to FLY.
  • My first criminal justice mentor/supervisor who sponsored FLY from Day 1: Bridgette Jones Ortega. She taught that it was a good use of my law degree to design and provide programs and services to help our kids. That lawyers can and should do so much more than represent people in court. And she taught me if you haven’t pissed someone off sometimes it means you haven’t done your job.
  • Our first board members: Assembly Member Ash Kalra, who used to DJ our camping retreats with youth. And Kelli, Azar, Nehrke, and Kim, who at my bachelorette camping trip signed on to join FLY’s board around the campfire.
  • One of our very first Probation officers, Sharon Grennan: she loved and believed in our kids and in our model. Taking a chance and sending us referrals back when working with CBOs was far from the norm.
  • The very first politician to provide government funding for FLY in June of 2000: we call him our FLY Godfather, Supervisor Joe Simitian.
  • And one of my first FLY youth, Robert, who started a petition (which I still have), signed by 176 students at Lincoln High School, to get FLY on his campus. Robert called me after 9/11 happened and told me youth needed a safe place to gather and I should still hold class that afternoon, which with his help I did.

Robert professed that one day our events would be big enough we would have to be at a convention center, which seemed ridiculous at the time but proved to be true. And Robert taught me you don’t have to be perfect to be a mentor. If you haven’t heard this infamous story . . . on the way to recruit mentors at San Jose State, I ran a stop sign with him in the car. During his part of the recruiting pitch he put me on blast telling hundreds of students what I did and that I was living proof you don’t have perfect to be a mentor. Classic. Thanks, Avalos.

And the list goes on and on. And there are stories with each of you. All of you played an important role in bringing us to this auspicious moment in time!

I hope you feel proud of what you have helped make happen. From a staff of one, serving a few volunteers, reaching a handful of kids in East San Jose with a budget of $32,500, to a staff of 70 with 200+ volunteers, reaching over 2,500 kids in 49 cities across three counties with a budget of $7.6 million. Together we have created waves of change for our kids, our communities, and our justice systems.

And it’s time. I’m ready, FLY’s ready, Ali is ready to launch FLY into our next era. The past six years partnering with Ali has been so fun, impactful, and educational. He brings to FLY lessons he learned from years of work in criminal policy, direct service, and justice-focused organizations.

He led our efforts to launch and build FLY in Alameda County. He put the infrastructure in place to help us grow by nearly 80%. He’s helped recruit, build, and nurture an incredibly strong team of staff and volunteers. Together they will implement our new Strategic Plan, Imagine 2030, to help dismantle California’s pipeline to prison, equip 30,000 juvenile-justice and at-risk youth to transform their lives, and strengthen services for marginalized youth in California and beyond.

I have the honor and privilege to move into a meaningful role as Founder, doubling down on what I do best. I’ll help with our fundraising, investor relations, and systems change work. I’ll be an ambassador and help explore taking FLY to other jurisdictions, and I’ll help out with special projects to advance Imagine 2030. I’ll be a utility player, the wind at Ali’s back.

Ali’s experience and passion for justice, equity, service, and system reform, and willingness to step up as President and CEO, are exactly what FLY and our country needs at this critical juncture in history.

Now, Ali loves metaphors especially if they involve sports. So to close I want to share with Ali and with all of you part of a speech I found as I was cleaning out my office. It’s one of the very first speeches I did as a CEO back in the early 2000’s at a law school graduation. It says in part:

“You are entering into a relay race. You are called to carry the baton of justice. Perhaps the most important part of your journey around the track is going to be the hand off. For those of you that have watched the best of the best run relay races you know that a hand off is very precise and beautifully choreographed. The runner receiving the hand off takes off at a sprint, and without looking behind, at exactly the right moment, she or he reaches a hand back where a teammate, sprinting all out, places the baton.”

So Ali as you run this race and you reach your hand back, remember this is exactly the right moment. You must press ahead and trust what you feel. Trust your senses that tell you to take off, trust the compulsion you have to reach out and grab that baton, and then run, run with all your might.

It’s my great honor and privilege to share this beautiful soul-imprinting hand off with you. To pass to you the CEO baton that was passed to me, by the boys in B-1. You have the gifts, the abilities, the work ethic, the calling to lead FLY into the future.

Today is truly one to celebrate. FLY’s new team captain has taken the baton of justice.

May you run strong, fast, and long . . . . . . . . . . . . . Congratulations, Ali!