Shifting Paradigms, Building Paths
Gretchen Beesing: A Visionary Leader
The tenure of Gretchen Beesing, who joined Catalyst Miami in 2007 and served as CEO from November 2013 through March 2023, will be remembered as an important time for many reasons, including rapid growth and a long string of organizational accomplishments. But Gretchen as CEO will be remembered for far more than a list of achievements.
Gretchen's leadership will be remembered for forging new paradigms of democratic economic systems that work for all people, and for having created an organizational culture that strengthened Catalyst internally and rippled outward, benefiting the nonprofit ecosystem, as well as community stakeholders of all sectors.
Gretchen’s feats involved as much creator-ship as leadership and an unrelenting, daily commitment to the promotion of equity, to moving entire ecosystems forward, and to a pursuit of innovation that, instead of merely iterating on existing models, created paths where none existed.
“Gretchen led and grew Catalyst Miami to become an influential power-building organization that’s well positioned to advance transformative systems change.”
Damian Daley, Catalyst Miami Board of Directors Chair, in a March 1, 2023 email to staff
Left to Right: Damian Daley, Daniella Levine Cava, Gretchen Beesing
In keeping with that statement, some of Gretchen’s most pioneering efforts as CEO centered around community wealth generation and the solidarity economy.
Intent on bridging the racial wealth divide by making wealth generation, asset ownership, and access to financial capital available to all, Gretchen shepherded the establishment of Future Bound Miami, Florida’s first universal children’s savings account program. In service of her vision, she leveraged Catalyst Miami’s and her own social/political capital to forge the relationships of trust required to create Future Bound Miami’s governing consortium, and for Miami-Dade County’s eventual investment of more than $2.5 million.
The result is game-changing: Now, every kindergarten student in the county has the opportunity to open a savings account, complete with a seed deposit of $50 to move them toward the possibility of a postsecondary education.
In a county where, according to 2022 statistics, only 26.55% of the adult population over age 25 has graduated high school and only 19.3% have a Bachelor’s degree, Future Bound Miami has the power to not only transform individual lives, but also move the entire region toward a better future.
At the same time as she was brokering the development of Future Bound Miami and overseeing its launch, Gretchen collaborated with other Catalyst Miami leaders to build an incubator for worker cooperatives (co-ops), with the goal of creating asset ownership in asset-poor communities, thus disrupting a key driver of intergenerational poverty—the lack of wealth to pass down. In incubating co-ops, she and the team also sought to nurture the growth of labor environments with more dignity, security, and benefits, as well as to maintain, generate, and circulate more capital in capital-depleted neighborhoods.
But Catalyst Miami's conception of a co-op incubator went far beyond providing training and support for those ready to launch new businesses—all functions that the Worker-Owned Business Program now does.
The dream that Gretchen and her team conceived also included partnering with entities to forge new financial products that would give those previously unable to access traditional financing the means to obtain not only seed capital, but also strategic growth capital at key points in the co-ops’ development. Under her leadership, the team also sought, cultivated, and won the ongoing and substantial private funding required to back these ambitious goals.
Gretchen continued her efforts to build paths to a solidarity economy by steering the launch of the North Miami Community Investment Cooperative (NM-CIC). In keeping with the work begun through the Worker-Owned Business Program, the NM-CIC’s shared ownership model for commercial real estate provides yet another structure for building the type of community ownership that can revolutionize asset ownership in low-wealth, capital-poor neighborhoods. Through the NM-CIC, local residents will be able to buy shares in a commercial real estate project, making property investment widely available.
At the same time, the commercial property will provide stable occupancy opportunities for minority-owned/managed small businesses, and give community residents—the property owners—more say over the direction of commercial economic development in their neighborhoods. Gretchen envisioned that the NM-CIC model would be replicated and scaled, creating a portfolio of real estate investment opportunities via shared ownership and paving the way for new models nationwide.
"Few organizations are bold enough to pursue prefigurative systems change. Yet Gretchen has fearlessly steered Catalyst as it moves into building models of economic democracy in Miami, demonstrating what a reimagined economy that's rooted in equity and cooperation could look like."
Ahmed Mori, Vice President of Community Economic Development, Catalyst Miami
Even as she furthered initiatives designed to dismantle structural inequities that prevent people—individually and collectively—from having agency over their futures, Gretchen never lost the pulse of day-to-day community needs.
As the bigger picture of climate change’s impact on Miami’s frontline communities began to unfold, Gretchen shifted significant organizational focus toward climate justice. Under her direction, Catalyst Miami also created a climate resilience leadership training program, both to educate community residents about the potential impact of climate change and its intersectionality with other issues, and to involve them in informing and developing sustainable solutions. The organization also co-founded the Miami Climate Alliance (MCA), now boasting over 140 member organizations.
Under Gretchen’s leadership, Catalyst also began participating in programs such as Resilient305 and other government initiatives to ensure that local plans to mitigate climate change and sea-level rise were just and community-centered. As part of a broad coalition, Catalyst led the advocacy to allocate funds toward climate resilience programs in the county budget, and continues to push for increased investments in mitigation and resilience efforts, as well as for more equitable disaster response and recovery plans. To enable these efforts, Gretchen helped establish participatory budgeting as a way for community members to have a say in the decisions made during annual municipal and county budgeting processes.
Immediately after Hurricane Irma hit South Florida in 2017, Gretchen pivoted Catalyst’s services and joined staff members as they worked to assist people in the most affected communities with applications for disaster assistance and with information, food, and needed supplies.
Even as Catalyst engaged in this recovery work, Gretchen was fundraising for a community pool to address low-wealth communities’ needs. She also made sure important data was collected that could later inform advocacy efforts and help formulate recommendations to local government officials, with the goal of ensuring more adequate and equitable allocation of resources for future disaster preparedness and recovery.
When COVID-19 hit, Gretchen helped establish a hotline and rapid response fund to help Catalyst Miami’s increasing number of clients meet basic needs. In response to the needs identified during hotline calls, Gretchen oversaw the provision of technical assistance for small and micro minority-led businesses, to give them the support they needed to stay afloat through the pandemic. Because the new initiative was so directly responsive to an unmet community need, participation quickly snowballed. The initiative, now known as the Small Business Support Program, was incorporated into Catalyst’s overall portfolio and is now a key part of Catalyst’s community economic development work.Gretchen also adapted and strengthened Catalyst’s long-running work to help individual households move toward greater health and financial well-being. She brokered a partnership with Homestead Hospital that brought Catalyst’s financial and health coaching directly to people at an anchor institution they were already accessing, rather than relying on clients to come to Catalyst. Gretchen also oversaw the build-out of new financial technology (FinTech) tools, including a new financial health check-up used by Catalyst coaches to support clients at every stage of their financial journey.
At the same time, she ensured Catalyst Miami’s continued thought leadership on related issues through the Your Mind, Your Money study, conducted in partnership with Florida International University (FIU), and through the hosting of Catalyst's annual Poverty Solutions Summit. The four Summits organized under her leadership brought together hundreds of civic, business, and community leaders, as well as national and international experts, to discuss and explore innovative strategies for supporting community engagement and community-driven economic development as solutions to Miami’s most pressing needs.
Gretchen and the Catalyst team’s conceptualization of a new solidarity economy, along with her vigilance around both emerging and long-running community needs, are part of her drive to ensure that members of the South Florida community and beyond have agency over their lives and futures, as well as the opportunity for meaningful participation at all levels of our democratic systems.
To that end, Gretchen went beyond maintaining Catalyst’s commitment to leadership development—she oversaw the significant expansion of Catalyst’s leadership programs, as well as their re-design to make them more responsive to community concerns.
During Gretchen’s tenure, Catalyst launched three new leadership development programs: CLEAR (Community Leadership on the Environment, Advocacy & Resilience), HEAL (Housing Equity, Advocacy & Leadership), and LIGHT (Leaders in Grassroots Health Transformation). In an effort to build pipelines between the leadership programs and actual opportunities for leadership and public service, Catalyst also added the Catalyst Candidate Institute (CCI) and initiatives such as the Neighbors-to-Leaders Fellowship, which allows leadership program graduates to apply for funding to support their own community-based initiatives.
In Gretchen's 10 years as CEO, Catalyst Miami’s leadership programs graduated over 650 individuals, many of whom have gone on to leadership roles in local government, nonprofit organizations, coalitions, and within Catalyst itself.
Leadership program graduates also played critical roles in some of Catalyst Miami’s biggest policy wins during Gretchen’s tenure, such as the approval in 2017 by Miami voters of the $400 million “Miami Forever” general obligation bond initiative, which allocated almost half the funds to address issues related to sea-level rise, and another $100 million toward affordable housing and economic development. In the lead-up to the vote, Catalyst Miami, Miami Climate Alliance, and other collaborating organizations worked together to ensure that equity guidelines designed to govern the Miami Forever oversight board were put in place.
In 2017, Catalyst helped defeat Florida House Bill 7117, which would have required Florida’s Agency for Health Care Administration to request federal approval to 1) force Medicaid recipients to prove employment, participation in job training, or search for work in order to receive benefits, and 2) require most Medicaid recipients to pay $10 or $15 per month, depending on their income. Other wins that year included passage of the Living Wage Health Amendment, which extended access to affordable health care to thousands of Miami-Dade workers, and the reversal of an estimated $13.6 million budget cut to Miami-Dade County’s transportation system.
In 2021, Catalyst and its partners successfully advocated for an amendment to Miami-Dade County’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program to include tenant protections; an increase of $1.02 million in the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, expected to help 22,979 residents pay electric bills; an allocation of $100,000 to fund a full-time Chief Heat Officer (thanks to a partnership with the Resilient305 Network); $1 million in Future Bound Miami incentives; $10 million in county funding of mental health services; and more.
These policy wins are just a sample of the many ways in which Catalyst Miami used policy and advocacy to improve the lives of countless individuals during Gretchen’s 10 years as CEO.Gretchen’s continuation and expansion of Catalyst’s commitment to fostering community leadership dovetailed with her untiring insistence on an ecosystem-driven approach to movement-building.
During Gretchen’s tenure, Catalyst provided backbone support to the Social Justice Table, a multi-sector, multi-issue network of organizations dedicated to creating equity for low-income, working, and minority communities in Miami-Dade, and continues to chair the South Florida Community Development Coalition. Gretchen herself co-founded the Public Land for Public Good Coalition. Through Miami Thrives, now Florida Thrives, she created a program through which Catalyst works to improve the ability of leaders of high-impact, community-based organizations to identify and solve key challenges, thus increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of the social justice ecosystem as a whole.
Notably, Gretchen took concrete steps to build a culture of continual learning within Catalyst, and to participate across stakeholder sectors, demographic communities, and geographic boundaries in sharing lessons learned with others. Thought leadership, cross-pollination of ideas, and professional development of the Catalyst team were formalized as organizational priorities.
Gretchen authored, co-authored, or contributed to numerous white papers and reports, including The Color of Wealth in Miami, a joint publication of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at The Ohio State University, the Samuel Dubois Cook Center on Social Equity at Duke University, and the Insight Center for Community Economic Development.
She also authored or co-authored numerous op-eds covering topics including public land use and affordable housing, healthy equity, worker cooperatives and their role in community economic development, universal children’s savings accounts (Future Bound Miami), and more.
In 2018, Gretchen took the mainstage at the National Interagency Community Reinvestment Conference of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco to share about best practices and emerging programming in community development.
Through the establishment of Imagine Miami, now recognized as Catalyst’s signature fundraising event, Gretchen also ensured that the work of key community leaders would be highlighted annually through the Community Catalyst Award.
All these accomplishments, amazing as they are, are not sufficient to capture the impact of Gretchen’s leadership. Gretchen’s relentless pursuit of equity in both Catalyst’s internal practices and external work have contributed to an organizational culture that, while always a work in progress, has set an example in the field.
For Catalyst Miami staff members, Gretchen invested heavily in racial justice and equity trainings, striving to equip the team with the knowledge and tools to address the many needs of the organization’s multicultural home.
Gretchen invested greatly in her staff’s professional development, allowing them the space and intellectual liberty to innovate and expand programs co-created with community to address systemic issues. She relished opportunities to collaborate with staff on shared aspirations, and would attribute much of the organization's success to the strength of its internal teams.
Recognizing the hard work involved in the pursuit of equity and innovation in addressing long-running injustices, Gretchen imbued staff trainings with lightheartedness and joy. She also regularly incorporated team-building activities and happy respites into the Catalyst staff schedule. With respect to Catalyst’s governance, Gretchen promoted more progressive personnel policies—extending maternal leave to parental leave, allowing staff to select which religious holidays to take off, and shifting towards remote work—all of which served to increase productivity and improve staff morale.
Gretchen’s journey at Catalyst impressed and surpassed the expectations of even Catalyst’s legendary founder, Daniella Levine Cava, now Miami-Dade County Mayor. Mayor Levine Cava hired Gretchen in 2007 as Community Engagement Specialist, and supported her as she led Catalyst’s leadership development programs and community outreach. When Mayor Levine Cava left the Catalyst Miami CEO post in 2013, Gretchen took the baton. Looking back over Gretchen’s 10 years at the helm, Mayor Levine Cava summed it up in this way:
"Gretchen leads with deep insight, endless compassion and contagious humor. She always finds ways to pursue innovative possibilities that ‘disrupt’ the status quo. Her humility and true facilitative style lead to the opening of doors where others would meet resistance. She has a magic touch."
Daniella Levine Cava, Miami-Dade County Mayor, Founder & First CEO of Catalyst Miami
Pictured: Daniella Levine Cava and Gretchen Beesing
In terms of the health of Catalyst Miami itself, Gretchen is leaving the organization in better shape than ever, and in good hands.
“I am truly grateful to be taking on the leadership of Catalyst at a time when the organization is financially strong, and well-positioned to move the needle even further on the systemic, structural inequities that have for too long limited opportunities for Miami-Dade’s frontline communities. Gretchen has improved the health of Catalyst Miami and helped me hone my own leadership skills in countless ways. Thank you, Gretchen, for all of your support.”
Zelalem Adefris, incoming CEO of Catalyst Miami
Pictured: Gretchen Beesing and Zelalem Adefris
Within the Catalyst community and far beyond, there is a groundswell of immense gratitude for Gretchen, for all of these and her many other unnamed contributions toward Catalyst Miami’s vision of a just society where everyone can lead healthy, prosperous, and self-determined lives.
As Catalyst Miami enters its next phase with Zelalem at the helm, we look back with wonder and forward with excitement. We're thrilled for all that Catalyst Miami now stands ready to accomplish, and to see the impact that Gretchen will have in her continued efforts to support shared ownership models that promote a solidarity economy—work she began at Catalyst Miami.
Thank you, Gretchen, for all you’ve done and continue to do to bring about a more just world for everyone.