Metro United Way’s Director of United Community, DeWana Hadder, is driven to improve social safety nets to better serve everyone. That’s because she’s experienced the system from several sides.
“I’ve needed social services as a child and as an adult,” she said. “There’s no reason why that carried over into my adult life. I really have the aspiration to disrupt multigenerational need.”
Growing up in a single-parent household in west Louisville, DeWana and her five younger siblings had to rely on social services to meet their needs. They lived in subsidized housing and even though her mother worked several jobs at a time, it was impossible for the family to make ends meet.
DeWana was identified as a gifted student and went to affluent middle and high schools in east Louisville, where she learned about systemic racism by experience. It was all around her.
“Why do houses look different? Why do the apartments look different? Why do they have such nicely paved streets and we have potholes? Why is there a difference?” she remembered thinking. “And so I was learning about structural and institutional racism before I ever understood what those terms actually meant, because I was literally seeing it with my own eyes.”
Watching her mother struggle to bring in enough money led DeWana, the oldest child, to become gang involved as a teenager.
“Not because I wanted to be or because I thought it was cool – it was literally a fast track to money,” she said. “I was just really tired of watching my mom break her back and work two to three jobs to try to take care of us, to still have to rely on all these services.”
It wasn’t until DeWana connected with organizations like No More Red Dots and the Baxter Community Center that she learned about college and what opportunities were available to her.
“I did what I knew was wrong until I was able to do what I knew was right,” she explained.
Her first college visit shifted the trajectory of her future, but being accepted and going to Spalding University didn’t end her need.
“It wasn’t until I graduated from college and started making some decent money that I was able to pull myself and lift myself out of poverty,” she explained.
DeWana works in social services now because she is driven to be the person that she needed in her life as a teen. She wants to set an example for kids who grow up in poverty and have limited access to opportunities to find a way out of the system.
“I feel incredible to know that my past didn’t determine my future,” she reflected after recently passing a milestone on her journey to a Doctorate degree. “I cannot wait to use my voice and research to disrupt the system I survived.”