Profiles in Leadership

Fighting to end the cycle of generational poverty

Shawn Pearson, Co-Founder & CEO, Zion Institute

Growing up in Indianapolis, Indiana was tough for Zion Institute co-founder and CEO Shawn Pearson. At that time, the city was not ready to embrace the idea of desegregation. It was a difficult environment for Shawn and her brothers to navigate.

Life at home wasn’t any easier. Pearson’s parents were divorced and both struggled with mental illness. There were nights with no food and winters with no heat. 

Thankfully, there were teachers in Pearson’s life that saw her potential. They mentored her and helped lead her out of her difficult childhood and away from a life of poverty. 

Pearson’s mentors taught her the necessary skills to get to the position she is in today as the co-founder and CEO of Zion Institute where the goal is to end the cycle of generational poverty.

“When I’m looking for a collaborative partner, I am looking for the heart behind the person. What is their commitment to change? What’s their why for the work they are doing?”

Shawn Pearson, Co-Founder & CEO, Zion Institute

Shawn Pearson discusses the importance of mentorship when it comes to ending the cycle of generational poverty. She also dives into why it is so important for nonprofits to focus on solving the cycle of poverty instead of working to maintain the status quo.

This article has been edited from the original interview for content, length and clarity.


Where are you from and what was growing up like for you?

Shawn Pearson:

I was born in Indianapolis, Indiana. Growing up there was a bit challenging because even though the rest of the world was desegrated, Indianapolis did not welcome the change as quickly as other parts of the country did. As a result, my childhood was plagued with the challenges of trying to blend a community that was not ready to be integrated yet.

Unfortunately, our home life was not much easier for my siblings and me. My parents were very hard-working people but they struggled with mental illness. They were divorced and we lived with my mother most of the time.  My dad was present at times, but not very often. My family consisted of me and my brothers, we were very close and we worked together to raise each other as our parents battled their mental illnesses.


Talk about some of those struggles that you and your family had to deal with as you were trying to raise each other all while dealing with two parents who were battling mental illness.


There were a lot of missed meals. Winters with no heat. Some nights we were not sure if everyone in the house was safe. There were some instances when my mom probably should have been hospitalized and not at home with us. My siblings and I bonded together to make sure we all stayed safe.

Thankfully we also had a lot of neighborhood friends. Our house seemed to attract all the kids on the block. I guess you could say that we had the “Fun” house. We had some really great neighbors and friends that were close enough to us to realize what was going on at home. Sometimes they would literally bring us food in the middle of the night to make sure we were all eating. 

It was a journey. However, at the same time, it instilled in me a sense of determination and a will to prove that we could make it. What made the biggest difference was the relationships I made with people while I was growing up. It is something I have carried with me into my professional career at Zion.


What inspires you to keep moving forward? What is your reason for doing the work that you do every day at Zion Institute?


I am inspired to keep pushing forward because I know there are many other people out there right now suffering worse than I did as a child. There were resources available for my family to access, but those resources were not available to the people living in the community where I grew up. 

The care I needed as a child and even into adulthood when I attempted suicide was not made available in my neighborhood. At the time we had no idea what was available for us because we had never been exposed to that type of medical care. 

As I continue the work we do at Zion one of our main goals is to bring everything to the community that I was not available for my family and me. The determination for me rests on the fact that if I stop doing our work in the community, who will pick up where I left off and do all of the work that I know is necessary?


How do you inspire growth in other people and push them to move forward?


I try to inspire growth in other people by helping them recognize that they have something to offer. All of us have a purpose for being on the planet. Helping them recognize their purpose and their passion can translate into a solution for someone wherever they live, whether for their family or the community they live in. 

Teaching them how to monetize their mission helps them to build a family legacy and it allows us to address systemic poverty from within their family. I want people to recognize we all have something to offer our community.

Breaking the cycles of generational poverty is a big part of Zion’s work. It starts with the individual but it also extends into the organization as well. It should be the organization’s responsibility to help transform the cycles of generational poverty, instead of creating a system that maintains poverty. Unfortunately, I think there are some nonprofits that have become accustomed to maintaining generational poverty instead of changing.


How did you develop your passion for social transformation? Is there something specific that drives the passion for the work you do at Zion Institute?


My passion for social transformation stems from my own personal experience. I had teachers that recognized my potential, they took me by the hand and literally walked me out of poverty. They gave me access to things that I would not have otherwise had access to because of the neighborhood I grew up in and the color of my skin.

I try to take the same approach my teachers had with me all those years ago into my work at Zion. Taking people by the hand and walking them through the process of how to start a business. Or, it could be helping a family get access to whatever type of healthcare resources they may need. It is a fire that keeps getting re-fueled every time I get to see the impact we are making in people’s lives.


What do you look for when it comes to collaborating with other leaders or nonprofits in the community?


When I’m looking for a collaborative partner, I am looking for the heart behind the person. What is their commitment to change? What’s their why for the work they are doing? How invested are they in the community that we’re being called to serve? 

Given where our organization is located, most people might think that I’m looking for the check. I’m typically turned off by the person that shows up at the door with a check. I want to be in a relationship and that means getting to know the individual; getting to know their organization or their business because integrity matters more than any other asset they might bring to the table.

For more information on Zion Institute or to find out how you can get involved visit their website

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