Kristan Pitts is the kind of leader who capitalizes on her ability to hold conversations with people across sectors. Her manifestation of greatness has always dwelled within her. Sustaining Way created a landscape for her to understand her voice in nonprofit work and develop her connection to the environmental and social justice movement.
Kristan’s life began in Nicholtown, the community where Sustaining Way currently serves. Raised by her mother, maternal grandparents, and great aunt and uncle, Kristan’s childhood was versatile and collaborative. Sometimes she was with her mother in Nicholtown and other times she helped out in her grandmother’s flower shop at another spot in Greenville.
“I always like to tell people that my upbringing was a collaborative effort. My mom was a single mom when I was younger. So I was also raised by my maternal grandparents and great aunt and uncle, all of whom lived in Nicholtown. I grew up on Alameda Street [in Nicholtown], which is very close to Sustaining Way. Growing up was interesting because I was around black middle class folks and around those in poverty as well.”
Kristan continued to grow and seek out different opportunities. For her undergraduate studies, she moved to Spartanburg and lost touch with the Greenville community. She worked as a store manager and noticed the lack of advocacy and mistreatment towards hourly employees. She found herself confiding to friends about the injustices she saw at work.
“I told my friends how I felt about hourly employees being treated poorly at my work. And they said, if I care so much about justice issues maybe I should look into nonprofit work. So I started applying for all of these jobs, but didn’t find anything immediately until I stumbled upon Sustaining Way. I was intrigued by Sustaining Way because it was located in Nicholtown where I grew up.”
In the fall of 2014, Kristan stumbled upon Sustaining Way’s coordinator job position. She hesitated at first, but eventually applied. Although already well into the interview process with other candidates, Sustaining Way founder and executive director Rick Joye, was quick to let Kristan know that they would be creating an assistant coordinator position. Appealing to both Kristan’s history of being raised in Nicholtown and her fire for social justice, she took the position. She was impressed with Rick’s passion and interest in sustainability within the community. She was also curious to learn more about the environmental justice movement and how she could get involved.
“There were a lot of growing edges that I found myself being pushed against during that time. In my first year at Sustaining Way, we got more involved with the United States Climate Action Network (USCAN). It was then that I saw the need for a smoother way of getting people on board about having a greener and more just ecosystem and economy.”
Kristan’s introduction to Sustaining Way came at a pivotal time in the organization’s growth. Sustaining Way had begun to expand and specialize coordinator roles while building an infrastructure for the Steward Fellow program. There was much to learn and much to do, and Kristan was quickly promoted to a full-time coordinator position. She experienced a strong partnership between Sustaining Way and First Baptist Greenville, which led to a new relationship with organized religion. Growing up black, struggling to come out as queer, and being a progressively vibrant woman in the South, it is not an easy task to obtain acceptance. Yet, Kristan felt affirmed and welcomed in her work place.
“Sustaining Way’s connection to First Baptist was my means to navigate and decide how I would interact with a faith community that was open and affirming. I wasn’t out as a queer person at the time so it was exciting to see a newfound openness for the acceptance of all people. I felt a lot of harm growing up in some Christian communities due to my sexuality, so I braced myself for working within a faith based job. I was able to re-engage with the Christian community in a positive way during my time at Sustaining Way.”
Kristan worked hard to connect to the environmental and social justice movement. Sustaining Way pushed her to realize her passions about social justice, racism, and anti-black racism. She felt purpose and joy in social justice work. Her interests focused on how sustainability connects to social justice, and more so, how these conversations deserve a space in church.
“Being poor and struggling, growing up in Nicholtown, you don’t know any opportunities other than what you can see. So coming back to the community after graduating college…I felt that in order for people like me to get ahead, I’d have to adhere to the communities that were succeeding, which typically are going to be primarily white communities.”
“My goal now is to challenge religious work in the public square by incorporating conversations about diversity and underlying racism.”
Perhaps the most profound quality about Kristan is how she learned to lead during her time at Sustaining Way. She felt strongly that the youth she worked with taught her so much more than she expected. She wanted to be the kind of leader that walked alongside them to learn what they wanted to engage in. She wanted to empower her community and help them recognize that they already had the resources they needed. Her job was simply to provide the stepping stones to get to that realization. Kristan’s ability to work collaboratively with her community makes her all the more special.
“When I had the opportunity to work with the youth, I realized I was learning more from the youth than I knew was possible. They often hailed the solutions to the problems of the community themselves.”
“I didn’t want to feel like a gatekeeper for resources. I never wanted my community to feel like in order to get the resources they needed, they’d have to come through me. The youth I got to work with could see that. So I took it upon myself to walk alongside them to learn what ideas they wanted to be exposed to and how they wanted to engage.”
Inspired by the faith leaders she met during and after her time at Sustaining Way, Kristan is now enrolled in divinity school with plans to graduate in May 2021. Kristan decided to embark on this path because she has followed the budding expansion of theological education into a new focus on preparing religious leaders for the public sphere.
“Sustaining Way has propelled me in the right direction. After Sustaining Way, I’ve been able to work with more organizations who focus on anti-black racism and with queer organizations such as Song. I was also still working with other environmental groups such as the Dogwood Alliance, which eventually led me to applying to divinity school.”
Kristan has the propensity to grow and learn in one space and emerge with a hunger to do bigger, greater work. This tenacity is present in her leadership, eagerness to form inclusivity among all spaces, and desire for social justice inspired by her life experiences. It will ensure her success in her theological education and support her continued growth as a strong leader in any community she joins.
“I want to be a person who is consciously congruent and showing up in a way that is ethically congruent with what I care about and believe in. I believe in collective liberation. If there is one person that is oppressed, then we’re all oppressed. So connecting to a set of ethics that leads to the collective liberation of all people is important to me.”
For emerging professionals or people pivoting in their careers, Kristan believes that serving and connecting with Sustaining Way will help a person to learn more about sustainability, and more importantly, provide them the space and opportunity to learn more about themselves.
“Sustaining Way invited me to be the best person I could be during my time there within my development. If I didn’t have the opportunity to work with Sustaining Way, then I wouldn’t have manifested my compassion for myself and others the way I have.”
-Story captured by Kali Llano