Thinking Systemic and Specific: a Conversation with Beth Brockland (Emerson ’01)


Poverty is a root cause of hunger. For people in financially vulnerable positions, an unexpected expense or an ill-timed emergency can make the difference between having enough grocery money left over after the bills are paid, and having to cut back or skip meals.

Financial Health Network is a national nonprofit organization that partners with financial services leaders, employers, policymakers, and innovators to design solutions that equitably advance financial health for all. Beth Brockland (Emerson ’01) is Financial Health Network’s VP of Client Success, leading the team that helps the organization’s members and clients identify strategies to strengthen their customers, employees’, and communities’ financial health. With Financial Health Network’s assistance, for example, its members and clients have developed new tools for helping customers manage debt or redesigned employee benefits offerings so that their workers can more easily save for emergencies.

“Our network is made up of a very diverse group of institutions,” she explains: “Banks, credit unions, nonprofits, fintechs, consumer advocacy organizations. We have some retailers, telecommunications companies, and manufacturers. They see the connection between the success of their businesses and the how their customers or their employees are doing financially.”

While Financial Health Network has a large nationwide footprint—in their two decades of operation they have touched the lives of over 200 million Americans—the benefits and strategies they deliver play out at a local level. “To be successful, we need to think both systemic and specific,” Beth explains. “We operate at the national level; we don’t do direct service, we’re about changing systems. But if we can’t get specific about the problems we’re trying to solve, or if we can’t line up specific examples of what change looks like, it remains at the 10,000-foot level. It doesn’t move people to action.” She traces that connection between systemic and specific to her experience with the Hunger Center. “Had I not had the fellowship experience, would I have taken this path?” she wonders. “Probably not.”

Following graduation from the University of Wisconsin in 2000, Beth was searching for social impact jobs when she came across the Hunger Fellowship1. She was intrigued by the combination of direct service and systems-level thinking. “It was the whole package, and that really appealed to me.”

She was selected for the 7th Class of Emerson Fellows starting in August 2000, but the learning began even before she arrived in Washington, D.C., for orientation, when a package arrived in the mail.

“We were required to read Sweet Charity by Janet Poppendieck about the system of emergency food delivery in the U.S., and about food banks and how they’re funded. The book really grappled with the economics of it, and the pros and cons of that system, which is not solving the root causes of hunger, and yet at the same time, it’s really helpful. I remember I was thrilled—it was challenging me, getting me thinking about systemic issues, even before I got to the orientation.”

Beth was one of two fellows placed with the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts in Hatfield. “We got to work on meaningful projects, even though we were there for a short time, and both of us were just out of college,” she recalls. Beth’s projects included developing a curriculum about hunger and food insecurity for the local schools and building the public profile of the Food Bank. “I got to help them with their marketing, contact local TV stations and pitch to the local media. In a really short time, my field partner and I got embedded into that community and built strong relationships.”

For the second half of her fellowship, she worked with Center for Community Change (CCC, since renamed as Community Change). Her placement coincided with the six-year reauthorization of PRWORA, the act that in 1996 replaced the AFDC welfare program with the block-granted TANF. Her work included compiling fact sheets on the issue to distribute to CCC’s organizing network. “It felt really important to be in D.C. at that moment, working on that topic,” she recalls.

Her placement at CCC also introduced her to a new passion: “It was my first exposure to community organizing as a theory of change, and I was really compelled by it,” she recounts. She stayed on at CCC for several years after the completion of her fellowship, supporting their communications strategy and other initiatives. After several more years learning Spanish by immersion and doing grassroots development work in Central America and working as a community organizer in New York City, she decided to head to graduate school to pursue a Master of Business Administration at the Yale School of Management.

Why business? She explains: “When I was working in Guatemala and as a community organizer, these were very small, under-resourced nonprofit organizations. I wanted to learn management skills and have a better understanding of the role the private sector can play. I recognized at some fundamental level that nonprofits can’t solve societal issues by themselves—we need nonprofits and we need policy and we need business. So, if I was going to invest in graduate school, rather than a public policy degree, an international development degree, or even nonprofit management—which all would have been similar to what I’d done before—I wanted to do something really different and complementary.”

Following grad school, Beth joined Financial Health Network, where she’s worked for the past decade. “I like the mission because it relates to this lifelong passion I’ve had for economic and community development. Our theory of change, our focus on helping companies become financial health businesses, it’s very aligned with the focus I gained from business school and leveraging the private sector for social change.”

Looking back, Beth appreciates the sense of community that was fostered among her fellow fellows. “I really appreciated just how diverse the group of people was,” she explains. “Their backgrounds were so different—different interests, different experiences. I remember learning a lot from the discussions we had, both during orientation and when we came back to D.C. for the policy placement.”

As the years pass, that sense of community has expanded from close personal and professional friendships among her classmates to the broader community of Hunger Center alums. “I really do feel like I’m part of a community,” she explains. “Occasionally I’ll have someone reach out, an alum or current fellow, and I’m always happy to talk to them, I’m always happy to take the call. And I know others feel similarly.” She has also stayed connected by joining the first class of Legacy Leaders, the Hunger Center’s first program designed specifically for continued professional development for our alum community. Her cohort of 12 alums from across different programs and class years has focused on nonprofit board service as a method for social change.

When asked what recommendations she has for people considering the applying for the Hunger Fellowship, she’s unequivocal: do it. “My experience with the Hunger Center back then, and in the Legacy Leaders program now, is that these are thoughtful, well done, high quality learning experiences for any professional, regardless of the stage at which you are in your career.

“And it’s not only about the fellowship experience yourself; it’s about the community you become a part of. You’ll have a rich experience in the fellowship, but you’ll also then become part of this lifelong community of who are committed to similar issues, and that’s invaluable.”


  1. At the time the fellowship was named the “Leland-Emerson National Hunger Fellowship” []

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