Alum helps nonprofits find their voice

By Karen A. Grava, CLAS Today

Kimberly St. John-Stevenson (CLAS ’86) is used to being the “only.” The only African-American, the only mom, the only woman.

She was even one of the only students in the journalism program when she was a student at UConn in the 1980s, who boldly admitted she wanted a corporate, rather than a media, career.

Being the only, in fact, taught her to crusade against stereotypes and to follow the advice she got from her grandmothers, great-grandmother and her mother. “They were all very strong women,” she says. “They told me: ‘You are smart. You can be anything you want to be’ and ‘don’t be afraid to speak up.'”

She has taken the advice to heart. Recently named 2010 Communicator of the Year by the Cleveland Chapter of the International Association of Business Communicators, St. John-Stevenson leads communications efforts at the Saint Luke’s Foundation, founded in 1997 to improve the health and well being of people in Northeast Ohio.

There, she uses her voice to help non-profits enhance their communications efforts.

She also uses it in her personal life, where she serves as a volunteer on the boards of the Cleveland Play House and the Nature Center at Shaker Lakes.

St. John-Stevenson lives in a diverse community and finds that she, her husband and young daughters “are blessed with an extensive, diverse network of family and friends – a network that enhances every aspect of my life here in Greater Cleveland.

“Being the ‘only’ has informed every aspect of my life, in particular how I’m raising my children,” she says. “Now, I strongly encourage organizations and people to not have any onlys.”

As the first communications officer hired by the Saint Luke’s Foundation, St. John-Stevenson also uses her voice – and her writing skills — to prepare annual reports, social media content, website content, and to ferret out and write stories that will, as she puts it, “stick.”

“The quest for the great and touching story began early in my career and played out in most if not all of the jobs, I’ve held, “she says. “There is an art to storytelling and an art to making those stories stick in the minds of donors and volunteers — and that’s the art I work every day to master because there are so many stories to tell from so very many amazing nonprofits.”

Her storytelling began as a UConn student when she was selected for a full scholarship program for future executives funded by the Southern New England Telephone (formerly SNET; now AT&T). The program provided her not only with a full scholarship but also with four summers of summer internships and work during college breaks.

One of the first stories she recalls, written for the SNET newsletter, was about an operator who had worked for the company for 40 years without taking a single sick day. “She lived and breathed being an operator. She was the best trainer they had because she loved that work. I feel privileged that I could tell her story.”

Since then, St-John-Stevenson has told many stories in a career that includes working at the Travelers Insurance Companies, Hartford Stage Company, and National City Corporation in Cleveland. She has also worked for Great Lakes Theatre Festival in Cleveland and for a public relations agency, BrownFlynn Communications, in Highland Heights, Ohio.

“Before I came to the Saint Luke’s Foundation, I was privileged with many great work experiences, from the hallowed halls of corporate America to the wild and unpredictable world of nonprofit theater, to agency life and now the world of philanthropy. Each step of the way, I’ve worked hard to leave my mark and prepare fertile ground for the next person,” she says.

“At times I’ve been the “only.” The only woman, the only person of color, the only mom, the only communicator with a blended set of for profit and nonprofit career experiences. I am who I am largely because I have been that ONLY and because those experiences enhance my ability to view the world from different perspectives.”

But one perspective she wasn’t anticipating was that of a Midwesterner. St John-Stevenson left the Hartford area in 1995 to follow her husband to Cleveland, where he attended law school. She anticipated returning quickly to Hartford. After all, she spent much of her life in Connecticut, where on her father’s side of the family, she traces her Native American roots in Connecticut back to the 1600s.

But returning wasn’t necessarily in her husband’s’ plan. “He had the audacity to suggest that we might consider staying in Cleveland,” she says. “Oddly enough, I agreed, and we haven’t looked back since.”

She keeps UConn close with her Ohio license plate that proclaims UCONN86. And, although she still gets teary-eyed when she flies into Bradley Airport on a crisp fall day, she is committed to Saint Luke’s and to Cleveland.


Last year, she was tasked with managing a philanthropic grant cycle at the Foundation, which decided to award marketing and public relations grants to Cleveland area nonprofits. The need was clear — more than 161 organizations applied for more than $7 million. The Foundation ultimately awarded 10 grants totaling $513,000.

Now she is working with the organizations to get the most for their money. “To be able to support nonprofits in this way is my dream come true,” she says.

Her commitment to the Foundation, and to Greater Cleveland, is strong, she says because she has the ability to really have an impact on a large group of nonprofits that are working hard to help Cleveland’s most vulnerable citizens. And she loves the work. “Life is too short to not have a very good time – love it and be passionate about it and fight to make a difference. My work here is not done, and I am ready to write the next chapter of my story.”

Kim St. John Stevenson was an intern for Karen A. Grava (CLAS’73) in the UConn public relations office in the fall of 1986.

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