Meet Our ‘19-20 President, Nahed Zehr

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The Junior League of Nashville is all about empowering women to be able to learn, expand and lead. Every year the Junior League of Nashville passes the gavel/baton to another leader to expand our impact, skill sets as well as push the League to grow.

We are honored this year to be led by Nahed Artoul Zehr. Nahed earned her Ph.D. in Religious Studies at FSU.  Zehr was a professor at Western Kentucky University for 5 years, where she taught and researched in the areas of comparative religious ethics and just war theory.  She then served as the Executive Director of Faith and Culture Center (FCC) in Nashville, Tennessee, until May, 2019. During her tenure at FCC, Nahed sought to build bridges between diverse communities in our city, and specifically to help Nashvillians better know their Muslim neighbors.  

Zehr is the mother of two daughters, wife to her husband Joel, and the 2019-2020 Junior League of Nashville President.

We caught up with Nahed to understand more about her, her vision for her role as president, as well as learn a few more fun facts about her.

Q: What does being part of the Junior League of Nashville mean to you? 

A: I love being part of an all-women’s organization and especially one committed to developing the potential of women.  The League is a place where every woman is ordained a leader – a person capable of touching the life of another person –  as soon as she walks in the door. 

I’m also inspired by our legacy – our foremothers created this League to provide an outlet for the talents and gifts of women – and look at all they have been able to accomplish!  Our legacy is astounding. Moreover, I believe an all-women’s training organization remains as relevant today as it did in 1922 when the Junior League of Nashville was founded, as we continue to develop our members as catalysts of positive change in our city.

Q: Which JLN committees have you participated in and what did you learn from them?

A: I served two years on the Public Relations Committee.  I learned a whole new way of using my writing skills to deliver clear and effective messages about our mission and vision.

I served two years on the Transfer Member Committee.  I loved welcoming new members to our city, and helping them get to know the League. But what I really learned to do was organize and communicate effectively with a group (and also how not to).  Often times our failures are our biggest lessons.

I served on the Board of Directors and I learned a tremendous amount about nonprofit governance and fiscal responsibility.  I also learned about the importance of casting a vision and how to drive results in a large organization with a sophisticated organizational structure.  

Q: What does it mean to you to be a leader? 

A: I’m inspired by servant leadership, which is the notion that leaders exist to serve – whether that’s serving an organization’s mission or its members.  To my mind, leading is serving.  By and large, leaders serve an organization and its members by casting a vision.  In fact, I would say that the heart and soul of leadership is seeing the potential of something (whether it’s a person or an organization) and working to develop that potential (Brene Brown writes a lot about this).  

To put it a bit more plainly, leaders see the future.  They understand the direction we need to go and they lead us to it, and they present that vision in such a way that others can see it, too.  Just as important, leaders drive results by supporting others. They invest in people and in people’s ideas to move an organization’s mission forward. Leadership is not about forming followers – it’s about forming other leaders.

Q: What do you think makes a great leader?

A: Great leaders display two things.  First, they are interested in learning and developing. Most of us are not born great leaders – we have to work at it.  Great leaders indisputably know they have to be, and they desire to be, lifelong learners.  

Second, the great leaders that inspire me are people of integrity and character.  Leaders have to make hard decisions and have to be motivated by doing the right thing.  They must filter out the noise, and move the organization closer towards its vision – whether it’s membership experience, fund development, diversity and inclusion, or marketing and communications. It requires a person who is willing to do what’s best for the membership and its mission even if it’s unpopular or difficult.

Q: With the Junior League of Nashville’s Centennial fast approaching, what do you hope to accomplish on both a professional and league-wide nature this year?

A: Every goal that I have for this year is part of a multiyear plan and formed in partnership with our leadership on the Board and Management Team.  Our work started well before I was sitting in this position and it will continue well beyond. The things we hope to see include:

  1. Using the all-League survey we recently conducted to make the members experience as positive and meaningful as possible.  The League wants to understand the value of a JLN membership to our women and use that information to continue to meet them where they are, as well as to inform our next strategic plan.To continue to do the incredible community work our members do every day, whether they’re supporting the internal or external work of the League.  We are also becoming a convener of important conversations in our city. Importantly, the women of our League have always been visionaries – able to discern our city’s most pressing issues and how to use the resources of our League and our membership to drive change. Seeing this continue, and providing our members with the tools that are necessary for their continued success, is a primary goal.
  2. To have the League be a place that is welcoming to all women, and to understand what needs to change in terms of our culture and processes to ensure that this is the case.
  3. For Nashville to continue to embrace our League as a critical and relevant organization and to continue educating Nashville on our mission and vision.
  4. To have a clear line of sight for the next 100 years of our history.  Where do we want to be in the next 10, 20, 50 years? Certainly, I look forward to celebrating our centennial with our members and our community. My goal is that this year sets us up for a meaningful celebration and also a clear direction for where we are going in year 101 of the Junior League of Nashville.  

Q: In recent years, our League has made a focus on increasing inclusion and diversity within our League and how we engage with the community. What are some of the ways you’re focusing on bringing more inclusion and diversity to your leadership this year?

A: Making this a league that is welcoming to every woman in our city is the most important work we’re doing.  It is the heart and core of our membership work as our members always come first. Our diversity and inclusion work informs every conversation I have regarding the League.  It is always first and foremost on my mind. We have a very talented Diversity and Inclusion Committee that has put together a plan for operationalizing our commitment to a diverse and inclusive environment across the League.  As President, my primary responsibility is to support this work in whatever ways they need, and to be a part of driving it forward.  

Q: How do you suggest new members make the most of their League experience? 

A: Make a commitment to the League.  I guess I’m old fashioned in some sense, as I believe it’s necessary to prioritize and commit.  When I joined the JLN (after my provisional year at the JLRI) I did just this. I saw the potential and I was inspired by our membership and our legacy.  I wanted to know more, learn more, and give more. I showed up, asked questions, went the extra mile to learn and meet people. And my efforts were certainly rewarded by a whole new set of skills, friendships, connections, and really, just the opportunity to be a part of this place and all we’re doing. Certainly, I had other things in my life – this is healthy and necessary.  But I made a decision to show up and contribute – and it was paid back a thousandfold in all that the League has given me.  

Past, current, and future JLN presidents at the 2019 JLN Soiree.

Q: What is your favorite JLN memory? 

A: This question was the toughest for me to answer because I have a lot of great memories.  Honestly, my best memories are of watching our members soar. I remember when I attended my first Council meeting and was beyond impressed with the talent and dedication of our members.  I went home and told my husband that it was one of the most special places I’d ever been. Not everyone gets to spend this much time watching other women work, develop, fall, get back up again, and eventually soar.  But I get to do it every time I walk into the League. That’s pretty special.  

Another great memory is when I had a tour of Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital (as a Transfer) and learned about our League’s legacy there – and I get to see that Legacy continue AS our members continue to serve and to give there.  

I watched Meredith Eason receive the Rising Star award at the AJLI annual meeting – I felt so lucky to be there to witness that and to have her work recognized on a national level by our Association.   

I have sat at the Board table for the last two years and watched our leadership truly try to understand how to make this the best League experience for our members.  And I’ve seen our membership out in the community doing important work by serving our community partners and wanting to make Nashville a better place for everyone. I don’t know that it gets much better than that. 

Q: Your girls (dressed in the cutest red dresses) were at the passing of the gavel where past presidents pass along the gavel to the new regime back in May. As a mom and a leader of women, are there any words of wisdom or mantras you think every woman should incorporate into their life?

A: The gavel pass felt like a 3 ring circus! My girls were dancing on the stage and eating chocolate chip cookies while I was giving the gavel pass remarks.  Everyone was so gracious about it – and I was thankful for a place that allows me to be a leader and a mom. There is so much pressure put on women today to be everything and anything.  That’s hard. Especially as a mother because becoming a parent will totally change the trajectory of your life (I could write an entire book about that so I’ll stop here). I’ve had to learn how to drown out a lot of noise – especially the noises of society’s or other people’s expectations of me.  I’ve found that I needed to establish filters to help me sift through the noise and determine what I allow into my heart and mind and what I will allow to guide me. I am a person of deep faith and my mantras come from there. My favorite piece of scripture guides my life and it is from Micah 6:8. Love kindness.  Do Justice. And walk humbly with your God. Kindness. Justice. Humility. Those are the guiding mantras of my life. 

Nahed’s family at the Gavel Pass (Nurah (6), Nadeen (3), Joel).

Q: What are your favorite things to do outside of Junior League?

A: I love to be with the people who matter most to me – my husband, Joel, our two daughters, and my close friends.  I thrive off relationships and I prioritize them in my life. I am, though, intensely introverted. (I love to be with people but I can only recharge when I’m alone.)  I’ve learned, in order to give the people I love the most – especially my husband and my children – the best version of me, I have to carve out alone time. I guess for that reason, the other things that I enjoy doing are solitary.  I love to read – like, so much. And in the last few years, mostly for self (and mental health) care, I’ve learned to love exercise. It’s taken me a long time to get here but I’m now to the point where I look forward to, and often crave, a hard workout (Orange Theory is a favorite).  If I’m grumpy it’s time for a hard run. 

Q: What books are currently on your nightstand?

A: I have a habit of reading multiple things at once.  I wake up around 4:30 am every morning for my prayer time.  I also read then – mostly about theology. I’m currently working through a commentary on the Gospel of Mark.  Late at night, after my family falls asleep, I do other types of reading. Usually it’s related to an issue or a topic I want to learn more about, or a person that peaked my interest.  For example, I recently heard Anne Patchet speak at an Assistance League luncheon and was really intrigued by her story so I spent the last few months of spring working through her novels.  I read mostly non-fiction, though. Right now, the following titles are on my nightstand/Kindle: Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings (Dr. Laura Markham); Dare to Lead (Brene Brown); The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness (Michelle Alexander); and The Way Forward: Renewing the American Idea (Paul Ryan).

Nahed’s morning quiet time

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Author: Alexa L. Barnett, Publications Committee ‘19-20