February 19, 2020
Being a data-driven leader requires operating at the highest standards of excellence, regardless of the industry. At United Way, telling our stories wouldn’t be possible without the team of dedicated researchers and analysts who constantly reassess where to concentrate our efforts. In fact, in community impact work, data can be the difference between a family receiving rental assistance to supporting a program that places a child in a quality pre-k facility.
United Way of Central Indiana doesn’t just have a vice president of strategic information leading this critical work, it has a warrior – an unapologetic, fearless, compassionate warrior – whose voice and contributions to the equity space makes us truly proud to recognize her for a special Black History Month edition of our employee spotlight.
Denise Luster didn’t set out to join United Way at first, and it didn’t surprise us at all to learn she was originally on track to become a lawyer. After an internship at a law firm, she realized that while she knew she wanted to make impact at scale, the decision to go back to school and receive her MBA from Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis eventually led her to a role on United Way’s research team.
Luster found that data holds the organization accountable to the donors, stakeholders, and people of a network spanning over 80 accredited community-based organizations across the region.
“Research is a guiding force to decision making,” she shared with us. “The decisions we make based on the data we collect reveals the successes, gaps, trends, and other areas that ultimately determine the course of our future work.”
With the development and advancement of technology, specifically artificial intelligence (AI), the demand for more robust, visual representations of data is increasing. AI’s influence on outcomes and measurement in research is requiring current and future generations of researchers to not only be analytical, but creative in their approaches as well.
This outlook makes Luster hopeful for the future of her team, and that optimism has fueled other aspects of her life – especially as a female woman of color in a leadership role.
“I remain optimistic because black women are the most entrepreneurial, educated people in our society,” Luster expressed. “I may be a senior leader, but many roles are missing our voices, and barriers like bias and racism can play a huge role for women of color to achieve in those areas, especially black women.”
Luster wasted no time contributing to the organization’s official equity, diversity, and inclusion taskforce, Inclusion Diversity Equity Advancement Leaders, or IDEAL for short, as the innovator for the team’s name. She attributed the idea for it to her attendance at last month’s Champions of Diversity Awards Dinner hosted by Indianapolis Minority Business Magazine, which she claimed was her inspiration.
“Hearing others’ stories at dinner made me realize how perfect that setting was and that this was how things should be,” she explained. “Put simply, it was the ideal environment – and it got me thinking, ‘Can IDEAL stand for something?’”
While it was evident that IDEAL would stand for something iconic as the first team of its kind at United Way, Luster herself stands for something legendary, with a personal “why” that has deeply rooted itself within her spirit.
“My why dates to my grandparents who were sharecroppers and a mother who picked cotton in the delta of Mississippi,” Luster began. “My why stems from my mother, only one generation away, who grew up without the right to vote and basic human rights. Who was forced to walk on opposite sides of the street and could only attend movie theaters for “colored” people. Who only had a 6th grade education because as the oldest she had to quit school to work the hot cotton fields in Mississippi to help support the family, witnessed lynching’s and felt the sting of the ‘n’ word time and time again. While this deeply saddens me, this story is the biggest motivator of all – and if my family can endure that kind of hate, violence and systematic oppression, this is nothing. And anything is possible.”
Citing two generations of women who paved the path to allow Luster and those who follow her true opportunities – Luster continues to fuel her passion with equity work at United Way.
“In terms of equity, diversity, and inclusion, we almost are behind,” she warned. “Coastal areas and some Midwestern cities are taking big stances on this issue, and my fear is that organizations will be too cautious with this work. It’s critical to balance caution with realism, though. People of color are living stories of hate and violence every day – and we don’t get to be cautious about being black.”
In her spare time, Luster finds joy in traveling with her family, something she didn’t get the opportunity to experience much as a child. But perhaps the most intriguing fact we took from Luster was how she gives back to her community, bringing her rich background full circle.
“I love working with seniors,” she warmly revealed. “My next iteration of life is being a senior companion and volunteering with Palliative Care. Their stories give you the energy to keep on fighting. There is a blessing in being by someone’s side in their final days.”
A blessing, she adds, that drives a lot of her purpose and power.
“I am who I am, and my truth is my truth,” she concluded. “I love being a black woman and I love all that it encompasses.”
United Way is made up of exceptionally talented individuals, but the love we share for our fighting spirit – both for the families we serve and for the common good – is what makes us unique. Denise Luster’s infectious, warrior mentality is one we can all learn from, and one we can never be fearful of if we know it is right. *