By Tom Reardon, December 2019 issue.
The spirit of giving is just stronger in some people than others.
This is not good or bad, it’s just true. As a relative of mine used to say, “Some people in life are hosts and some people are guests.” She would usually add, “and I’m a guest,” which said a lot about her, but it is safe to say that most people who are “hosts” are probably more naturally inclined to be givers.
If it is in our nature to be “guests” or “hosts” then it is also in our nature to be givers and takers. One might argue, and rightfully so, that some people are both givers and takers, but often those folks’ act of taking is also going to ultimately benefit others, as well.
This is starting to sound like some strange IQ test question, but in an extremely roundabout way, it really boils down to this:
Brian Spicker is a giver who is also extremely good at going out and getting what people need.
If you aren’t familiar with his name, it’s probably because Spicker, 63, has been working in the non-profit world in Arizona since the early 1970s and for every one person who likes the limelight part of the charitable world, there is probably 200 who work hard to make our community better and don’t care if anyone knows their name or what they have done. Spicker is one of these guys.
Tall, handsome, and armed with a smile and laugh that could win over anyone, Spicker has been quietly putting together the type of career that most givers dream about. He began his first non-profit work and public activism while still in high school and literally never looked back.
A Tucson-native who grew up in an upper-middle class family, Spicker is not afraid to roll up his sleeves and work to help anyone who needs it, building the type of career that allows you to become the current interim President and Chief Executive Officer for the Maricopa County Community Colleges District Foundation after spending the previous 19 years with Valley of the Sun United Way.
Spicker is also a husband (to personal stylist Omor Okagbare), father, and grandfather who loves spending time with his family. To hear him speak about them is a truly wonderful thing. On the day of our interview, Spicker was looking forward to having the grandkids over for the night and as he spoke about this, there was a definite twinkle in his voice. It feels as if life has come full circle for Spicker, but there is still work to be done.
We spoke to Spicker about his career and what it means to give. This is what he had to say:
Echo: You must be a very busy guy.
Spicker: (Laughs) You know, it is just an honor and privilege to be asked to have impact.
We are excited to have you be part of our Giving issue.
I appreciate that and it’s an honor. All my success has been because I stand on the shoulders of others. It’s always been a group or team of passionate people who really want to make a difference. That makes all the difference in the world.
How did you get into working in the non-profit world?
As a junior in high school, the goal was to spend as little time in class as possible, so I raised my hand to provide exercise and dance as a volunteer at the Arizona training program in Tucson for the developmentally disabled. I would get out of school, go to the institution with a group of other students from high school and we would get these severely disabled individuals to move with scarves and colors and I saw the conditions they lived in and thought, “This isn’t right.”
I could go even further back to when I, and it was all personal, had the benefit of working in Parker and Blythe for a summer picking cantaloupe between freshman and sophomore year. I made, I think, $1.50 an hour. I was doing the irrigating and the farm laborers who were in the fields, which was back-breaking work, were living in tents along the canal. This is where I first saw what I would say is a great disparity.
I had a trailer, I was 14, we had swamp cooling. We all worked 12-hour days, six days a week. They were paid even less than I was paid. I came back and I organized the grape and lettuce boycotts from my high school of A.J. Bayless and what (grocery stores) would have been prior to Safeway and raised my first nickel to bring up about $3,000 dollars’ worth of food to Cesar Chavez up here in Tolleson. That’s where I cut my teeth around social impact, righting wrong in society, and fundraising.
When I saw the horrific living conditions of the developmentally disabled in the institutions, these were all human rights issues for me. So, I got to open the first group homes for the developmentally disabled, getting people out of the institutions when I was 19.
Wow. That’s a lot to take on while still in high school. What was next?
I was a CEO of a nonprofit at 21 in Yuma, Arizona that was building group homes and moving people out of the institutions. So that was the goal to get folks out of these horrid conditions and back into the community. That’s where I got my start.
Was your family supportive?
Oh yeah. My father was a dentist and he worked every Wednesday for free at the Saint Elizabeth of the Hungry clinic doing dental work. We had this strong idea of being committed to the community and committed to those who were disenfranchised. Now I use those words, but that wasn’t talked about in those words (then).
Is this something you thought you would be doing for your whole professional life?
I had good teachers (at Salpointe) high school. They were activists. We would go down to Hughes Aircraft on Thanksgiving with signs saying, “It’s a sin to make a bomb” and just piss everyone off. I was a little bit of an activist, I would say, which really helped me though, get neighborhoods to be okay with having developmentally disabled individuals live in their street. It was that kind of activism that led me to be able to have the kinds of conversations with homeowners that would not throw up barriers to getting people out of institutions. Because that’s what we needed to do.
Hughes Aircraft, huh? Those were some big feathers to ruffle in Tucson in those days.
Well, and I was with the nuns, you know, there were a group of us and having a high school where my buddies and others who really cared about the farm workers, for example, we could literally go after school to a grocery store and get people not to walk into it was substantial. To have a narrative to help people understand the social issues that were happening around the folks that put food on our table and what the teamster union was doing to thwart any kind of increase in pay.
And of course, all that has changed to some degree, but you know, one of my highlights was to be able to come up at night and see Cesar Chavez sitting at a fire with the United Farm Worker Union leadership and taking the pounds of rice and beans and stuff that we bought to be able to feed the strikers. They were striking up here and that was a highlight to be able to have that kind of impact at a very granular level in 1973 or 74.
When did you move to Phoenix?
I moved to Phoenix in 1984 from Yuma. In 1991, I got involved with the Maricopa County Community AIDS partnership as a volunteer and then met Kirk Baxter in 1992. In 1993 I got on the board of (Phoenix) Body Positive. I became CEO in 96 and did that through 2002. But all of it, you know, again, my theme was human rights and changing paradigms or systems. So, the reason people were being institutionalized is they wanted to take people who are different and put them out of sight, out of mind.
I came out in 1987, quickly, and went back in the closet and moved back home with my children’s mom and then in 1989 I decided I can’t stand on my head and that’s when I really came out. By 1990, I was getting engaged in the HIV arena. I was board chair from 1993 to 1996 of Body Positive and became CEO in 1996 when Kirk decided that (Body Positive) needed someone who wasn’t dealing (with AIDS) … I was healthy and unfortunately Kirk was dealing with stuff. He continues to be the miracle that he is.
What does giving mean to you?
There are very few things more sacred than that. It’s such a high form of expression to take a piece of paper or a concept of wealth or excess capacity, which somebody has, a resource, and then direct it in a way to help others. That’s just amazing. It really is. You know, to be able to harness that, to create the aspirations for the community to address wicked problems in that way. And so, you know, after being at Body Positive and feeling like we got the clinical trials, the (HIV) drugs were moving through the community as well as internationally, that’s when I decided to take on larger and different societal issues that were broader like homelessness, early childhood development, poverty and hunger, that’s when I went to the United Way.
What are you doing for Maricopa Community Colleges Foundation?
In February, I was asked to come and help build the community colleges foundation. Everybody should have access to affordable post-secondary education, so that’s what we do. We raise dollars to help individuals have access. It could be a barrier with transportation or a utility bill or a health and we provide scholarships so individuals who wouldn’t normally have access to an accredited degree to have access. I work with all 10 of the colleges in the district to raise critical resources to help change the educational disparity that exists in Maricopa County.
Anything you would like to add, Brian? It’s been awesome to talk to you.
You don’t have to be wealthy to give. I mean, for me, it was always a question of what’s more important, an extra martini this week or providing enough money for a food box for a family, you know? Everyone goes at it differently and that’s the beauty of it. It’s very individual specific. You can’t force any of this. It’s meeting people where they’re at, capturing their imagination and guiding them through an opportunity to make a difference.