Dodge Q&A: Chris Daggett

October 7, 2014


The Dodge Q&A series is designed to introduce you to Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation staff and hear what they’re learning and thinking about as they visit with nonprofits around the state. They’ll also reveal a few things about themselves you might not have known.

Today we talk to Chris Daggett, President and CEO 


We have a lot to catch up on since your last appearance in the Dodge Blog Q&A series in April. The Dodge Poetry Festival is coming up this month, on Oct. 23 – 26 in Newark. Let’s start there. This is your third Poetry Festival since becoming Dodge’s president and CEO, what’s something you look forward to each year?

What I like most about the Dodge Poetry Festival is the dynamic between the poets and their audiences. When I first came to Dodge, I kidded that my exposure to poetry for the previous 40 years was trying to get through a New Yorker poem successfully — and to understand it.

I did not appreciate poetry until I first heard people recite their own works, because you get a completely different sense of  a poem by hearing the poet’s tone, cadence, meaning, emotions — all the different parts of poetry that engage and move people. To experience that on my own was a wonderful experience — and to then watch it in other people as an observer, to see the interaction between the poet and the audience, changed my whole view of poetry.

How can you tell someone is moved by poetry?

Imagine watching 2,500 or 3,000 high school students and realizing that, despite all the energy teenagers have, the room is silent. On their faces, you can see the rapt attentiveness. You also see changes in their facial expressions as they connect with the poets and respond to what is being said or read. It is a very special experience.

I’ve heard a popular day among staff is Student Day, why do you think that is?

It’s not only a favorite experience for staff, but everyone engaged in the poetry program feels student day is almost the core of the Poetry Festival. And that isn’t to say there aren’t many other wonderful things that occur — they do. But the best part of the Festival is to see those kids and the level of excitement they bring to poetry.

Do you think more high school students should be interested in poetry?

I think there are already more high school students interested in poetry than you would imagine.

What should visitors new to Newark check out while they are there?

The revamped and renewed Military Park. It’s a terrific green area within the heart of city. Be sure to stop by the statues in the park and read their inscriptions.

The restaurants. Just walk through the Ironbound and see how alive that area of the city is with its many different nationalities represented. The art. Take a look at Aljira, Newark Museum, the Paul Robeson Gallery, and Glassroots.

Dodge’s list of grantees includes many that are based in Newark or do their work in the City, from Gallery Aferro, the New Jersey Tree Foundation and Rutgers Future Scholars. What do you want people to know about Dodge’s investment in Newark? 

All of our work, in Newark and throughout New Jersey, is increasingly directed toward citizen engagement and getting people to participate in their community and in public life. When that happens, you start to see a change that goes deeper than any one grant we could make to an organization.

What does civic engagement mean to you?

Civic engagement is getting people to understand that there is more to life than their own self interests. People have to think about themselves — getting a job, making some money, raising a family and doing all the sorts of things they do to have a fulfilling life. Civic engagement is the give-back part — asking yourself, “How can I contribute to the larger community” and “How can we, together, make it a place that people want to come, whether it is to live, work or play?”

Do you have any advice for residents who want to become more active in their community?

Find out if your town is registered with Sustainable Jersey. Chances are, it is — 416 of New Jersey’s 565 municipalities are registered. Sustainable Jersey is so innovative because of its approach — its focal point is bringing people together in their communities and asking them, “what do you want your community to look like in the future?” — then making it so through collaboration.

You should also keep an eye on Creative New Jersey to see if any of the organization’s Call to Collaboration meetings are coming to your community. If so, please participate. To be part of an open space format meeting and to see the energy and ideas people have to make their towns better is inspirational.

Besides the Poetry Festival, is there anything else exciting on your radar?

Dodge continues to work to engage citizens through media as we build and strengthen the news ecosystem in New Jersey. We work with a variety of small and large news organizations across the state, encouraging collaboration, resource sharing, and community engagement as we explore what sustainability looks like for local journalism. If you are interested in these issues, you should read the Local News Lab blog, which documents our media program work.

On the environment front, we are supporting the work of New Jersey Future to bring attention to and improve the state’s outdated stormwater and wastewater infrastructure. Twenty-one New Jersey cities have combined sewer and stormwater systems whose capacity is exceeded during high water events like a heavy rain. In these situations, sewer/stormwater lines (pipes) overflow, resulting in a discharge of raw sewage and stormwater into our rivers, streams and bays. It is one of the largest remaining pollution sources plaguing our waterways throughout the state. Addressing this problem will dramatically improve water quality in Newark Bay, as well as in the Hudson, Passaic and Hackensack Rivers, among others.

In our education docket, the first cohort of students in the Woodrow Wilson Teaching Fellowship program is well into its one-year training. The program uses a clinically based approach to education, not unlike medical school, where future educators are placed in a classroom from the outset of their training. Participating universities are Montclair State, William Paterson, The College of New Jersey, and Rowan/Rutgers Camden. Participating school districts include Trenton, Hamilton, Newark, Paterson, Camden, and Bridgeton. Students will spend three years in these district schools following the year of training, and will be matched with mentors who will work with them during that entire time. Our ultimate goal is to have all schools of education in New Jersey adopt this approach, and we expect you will see an improvement in the quality of teaching as a result.