Reflections on Fenton Forward

By Chris Compton
Senior Writer

New Orleans is where the waters come together. By the time it passes under the Huey P. Long Bridge in Jefferson Parish, the Mississippi River is the sum total of 7,000 different streams stretching across North America, from Idaho to New York.

I felt that sense of different streams coming together when I landed in New Orleans for Fenton Forward, a four-day retreat bringing our full staff together for the first time since 2020. That morning, we left our homes in New York and California, Washington, D.C. and Washington State and communities in between. Now here we were, more than 120 strong, coming together to connect, celebrate Fenton’s first 40 years and prepare for the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead.

“I don’t know about you, but I’m here to change the world.”
Valarie De La Garza, CEO, Fenton Communications

Even now, three years into the COVID-19 pandemic, real, in-person connection feels new. Over and over, I heard the same thing: “It’s so weird seeing everyone in person. Not in little Zoom boxes, but actual people.”

What made it even more novel was that, for many of us, this was the first time we’d ever really met. Teams who’ve worked together every day for years, fighting to protect reproductive freedom, preserve democracy, expand health care access and support racial justice were able to gather around a table, celebrate the impact they’ve created and plan for what comes next.  

To reconnect, recommit and recharge, together, was something gloriously new. It was so normal. How strange.

“I want to know your superpower.”
Mary Moran, Executive Director & Co-founder, Our Voice Nuestra Voz

A lifetime of organizing, teaching and grassroots action taught keynote speaker Mary Moran the power of knowing your story and strengths. As she spoke about her own advocacy journey, Mary challenged staff to share their superpowers. All of us were hesitant at first, but by the end, we shouted them out. 

Over the course of four days, some of the nation’s best social change communicators shared their superpowers with the rest of the team. Nationally-recognized figures like James Marcus and Valarie De La Garza led discussions on values-driven leadership. Meredith Fenton coached staff on how to speak from the heart and present with purpose.

Best of all was the knowledge we shared with each other. Senior staff taught crash courses on strategy, branding, messaging, media, crisis communications and digital engagement. I and others helped team members to hone their writing skills and use storytelling to change minds.

All of these skills will be critical as we look to the challenges ahead.

“We may need a bigger boat.”
Joe Wagner, Managing Director, Fenton Communications

Fenton has served as a progressive social change agency for 40 years. In that time, we’ve led major campaigns and achieved major victories in the U.S. and around the world. But we’ve never been more needed than we are today.

We’re facing a unique moment in history. Progressive movements are expanding, yet at the same time, our fundamental freedoms are under threat. Threats to our civil rights and democracy that once seemed unthinkable are now real — and terrifying.

Fenton has grown to meet these expanding needs. In just two years, the agency has doubled in size, bringing on dozens of talented, committed communicators. It wasn’t until I saw everyone together in one room that the scale and diversity of our team became real to me. 

That diversity, in both staff and leadership, is something that sets Fenton apart from others in this industry, and it’s not an accident. As our CEO said in her state of the agency address, “It is our responsibility to represent the diverse people and communities we serve.”

“Keep telling stories. Keep the light on.”
New Orleans Tour Guide

At the end of Fenton Forward, staff fanned out across the city for a morning of volunteer service with local nonprofits, then flew our separate ways. But even separated by distance, we are more united in our work. The connections forged are still growing; the knowledge shared and insights gleaned are driving new efforts and impact. New Orleans is where the waters come together, and once they do, they can’t be separated.