By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]
Brian Hooks wants to change the country – but not by himself.
An Alexandria resident, Hooks was named one of Time Magazine’s next 100 most influential people in the world in February for his work as the chief executive officer of nonprofit Stand Together.
The name of his organization is apt. Stand Together aims to address some of the country’s biggest challenges – everything from poverty to criminal justice reform – by collaborating with and providing resources to community-based organizations and entrepreneurs across the country.
Founded by Charles Koch, the Kansas billionaire behind conglomerate Koch Industries, and helmed by Hooks, Stand Together has resources to spare. But, according to Hooks, the real strength of his organization is a “deep belief in people.”
“Everyone in our society has a gift and the more that we can do to come alongside people to help them to discover their gift and find ways to apply their gift to help themselves by helping others, not only will those people be better off, but so will everyone else,” Hooks said. “If you start with that conviction, that the opportunity in society is to help everyone succeed, then you start to see there’s no single solution that’s going to solve problems. You need to bring multiple different approaches, multiple different ways to support people.”
Born in Detroit in 1978, Hooks moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan when he was about 4 years old. Although Hooks ended up moving to Washington D.C. after college, the city left a first and lasting impression on him during a school trip when he was only 14 years old.
Walking through Union Station and hearing people speak in 10 different languages, Hooks was smitten with a city that was so different from Grand Rapids.
“At that moment, I just had this feeling that this is where I want to be,” Hooks said.
After graduating from the University of Michigan with a degree in political science and a focus in philosophy, Hooks moved to Capitol Hill with his then-girlfriend, now-wife, without a job.
However, that was not the case for long.
As he was hauling his suitcases up the stairs to the apartment he was subletting, the phone rang. It was the president of George Mason University’s Mercatus Center offering Hooks a job that he had interviewed for weeks earlier.
“I was very lucky and very fortunate that a place like Mercatus would ask me on because I ended up spending 14 years there,” Hooks said.
A research center at George Mason University, Mercatus’ mission is “to bring a lot of very smart people together who think differently about challenges in the country,” according to Hooks.
“It’s through that combination of those different perspectives that you come up with better ways to address problems,” Hooks said.
Hooks started as a program assistant at Mercatus and was asked to serve as executive director after four years.
The Mercatus Center’s collaborative approach to problem solving proved valuable for Hooks, who has since brought the same mindset to Stand Together. He said his time at Mercatus working with “some of the most creative thinkers in the country” helped him learn that success is not based on being the smartest person in the room.
Hooks recalled a scholars’ workshop that he had organized to help Doug North, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, improve a manuscript he had been working on for 10 years.
“Doug said, ‘My goal is to be the dumbest guy in the room.’ If you think about that, that’s a pretty profound thing for a Nobel Prize winner to say,” Hooks said. “It left a huge impression on me. Even in his early 80s, Doug was a lifelong learner. As well as he had done for himself, he always wanted to do better.”
It was at Mercatus that Hooks met Koch, a controversial figure who has contributed money to conservative causes and candidates. Joining Koch at the Charles Koch Foundation and, eventually Stand Together, Hooks brought a similar, collaborative approach to his work.
Starting in 2014, Hooks served as the foundation’s president, a role he still occupies in addition to his role at Stand Together. In 2019, he helped shepherd Stand Together into existence alongside Koch as the nonprofit’s founding CEO.
From the start, the goal of Stand Together was to find solutions to a wide range of issues facing the country by working with people in four key areas: education, local communities, business and public policy.
Stand Together has invested in about 300 universities and tens of thousands of K-12 teachers; partnered with about 700 business leaders; worked with public policy makers across the country and established relationships with about 200 different community-based organizations to tackle poverty, criminal justice reform and racial justice, among other things.
As vast as Stand Together’s ambition may seem, Hooks said he and his team always focus on the people who are most affected, and keenly aware, of the issues in question.
“A lot of what we do is we think about it as the people who are closest to the problems that we’re working to solve, they tend to be the ones in the best position to solve them,” Hooks said.
Stand Together’s partnership with the Oakland-based nonprofit Family Independence Initiative, which provides financial resources and information to people facing poverty, is a successful example of this approach.
“They’re run by people who have experienced poverty. And there’s magic in that because Jesus Gerena, the guy who runs Family Independence Initiative now, has seen firsthand what it means to struggle with poverty, and he’s also seen firsthand that those in poverty are people who can be trusted with resources and people that can come up with new and better ways to help people escape poverty,” Hooks said.
Stand Together partnered with FII to work on a program called Give Together Now at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Through the program, donors from across the country were able to contribute money via FII’s website which went directly to families in need.
Over the course of a few months, Stand Together and FII raised more than $120 million and helped about 240,000 families across the country during the pandemic.
According to Amy Pelletier, chief operating officer at Stand Together, Hooks’ success as a leader within Stand Together is also a testament to his people-first approach.
“Brian is really exceptional at creating that environment and encouraging people to be creative, to be innovative, to think outside the box and to bring their unique gifts to their role,” Pelletier said.
A major part of Stand Together’s mission has also been to address criminal justice reform and the deep inequities that exist in the criminal justice system.
Hooks’ multi-pronged approach to tackling the issue has involved working with public policy makers to change laws at the state and federal level to address the country’s high recidivism rate; investing in community-based organizations that help incarcerated people reenter society; and partnering with H.R. departments in various businesses to find ways to hire people with a criminal record.
Johnny Taylor, the president and CEO of Alexandria-based nonprofit Society for Human Resource Management, has worked with Hooks on criminal justice reform and racial justice issues in the past.
As a leader and CEO himself, Taylor said his work with Hooks has been rewarding and, in some cases, instructional.
“He has this very thoughtful, methodical, data-based, evidence-based decision making,” Taylor said. “The data has to inform where you go; you just can’t make a decision without it.”
While Taylor and Hooks occasionally differ on ways to approach specific issues, Taylor said Hooks’ ability to listen and respectfully disagree with others is “remarkable” at times.
“I’ve sat in meetings with him when people are saying things that were just short of preposterous – they were just objectively wrong. … I used to reduce it to just patience, but I think really, at [his] core, there’s a curiosity, an unusual curiosity, a true desire to try to understand,” Taylor said. “… He really spends time trying to figure out how has this person, despite all of the evidence, how did they end up here?”
In talking about his recognition by Time, Hooks repeatedly turned the focus back toward his team and the organizations in the Stand Together network. Relentlessly humble, Hooks said he lives by a mantra coined by abolitionist Frederick Douglass: “I will unite with anyone to do right and with no one to do wrong.”
That mantra has inspired Hooks time and again, he said. Despite the scale and immensity of the challenges Hooks is taking on, he said he never loses hope because he is confident there are others who are willing to stand with him.
“We know we can’t do it on our own, but we’re also confident that when we can find people who have different perspectives and have different capabilities, when we combine our efforts, we can accomplish a whole lot,” Hooks said. “So, I don’t get discouraged by the challenges. I see them as an opportunity to do something that nobody’s ever done before and to help others realize their potential in a way that benefits everyone.”