I am CEO

Executive Director Inspires Change Through History

Full Episode from I AM CEO Podcast - IAM1976

In this episode, we have the privilege of diving into an insightful conversation with Robert Kesten, the Executive Director of Stonewall National Museum Archives and Library in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Robert emphasizes the unique role that the Stonewall National Museum Archives and Library plays in preserving LGBTQ history. The organization's national collection provides a comprehensive perspective that goes beyond local narratives, enabling a better understanding of the LGBTQ experience.


Our conversation with Robert Kesten leaves us inspired and enlightened. His dedication to preserving LGBTQ history and advocating for the rights and equality of the community is truly admirable. Robert's leadership style, rooted in respect, transparency, and inclusivity, serves as a powerful model for individuals in positions of influence.

Website: stonewall_museum.org

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Full Interview:


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Robert Kesten Teaser 00:00

We are looking for how we can learn from those mistakes. I don't believe that we necessarily repeat them. I think that subterranean level of prejudice and hate is always there.

It's just when there's complacency above it, it sticks up its ugly head and tries to pull everything back to a place that never really existed.

Intro 00:23

Are you ready to hear business stories and learn effective ways to build relationships, generate sales, and level up your business from awesome CEOs, entrepreneurs, and founders without listening to a long, long, long interview?

If so, you've come to the right place. Gresh values your time and is ready to share with you the valuable info you're in search of.

This is the I AM CEO podcast.

Gresham Harkless 00:51

Hello. Hello. Hello. This is Gresh from the I AM CEO podcast and I have a very special guest on the show today. I have Robert Kesten.

Robert, excited to have you on the show.

Robert Kesten 00:58

Thank you very much.

Gresham Harkless 00:59

Yes. Super excited to have you on and talk about all the awesome things that you're doing. But of course, before we jump into the great conversation, I want to read a little bit more about Robert, so you can hear about some of those awesome things.

Robert is the Executive Director of Stonewall National Museum Archives and Library in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. It is possibly the only national LGBTQ+ headquartered in Florida. Prior to this, Robert traveled globally, working to integrate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights into daily life. Robert conceived of the United Nations, decade of human rights education approved unanimously by the UN General Assembly running from 1995 to 2004.

His documentary film on the Holocaust won the jury prize as a Moscow film festival. He has worked on projects from global agriculture to producing concerts and events from Kyiv to Madison Square Garden. Robert is definitely a man of many talents as I touched on some of them too, including directing an award-winning documentary to a career in music and working with presidents and prime ministers as well too, I think.

But I think one of the really cool things that I found out about Robert when reading a little bit more about him is that I appreciate more than anything else that he's definitely a change agent. I believe I read or heard a little bit that he also might have a pair of casts of shoes of Eleanor Roosevelt if I'm right.

Is that right, Robert?

Robert Kesten 02:17

I got them.

Gresham Harkless 02:18

Yeah, I thought so. So Robert, are you ready to speak to the I AM CEO community?

Robert Kesten 02:22


[restrict paid=”true”]

Gresham Harkless 02:23

Awesome. So a man of many talents, definitely a change agent, what I wanted to do to kick everything off was rewind the clock a little bit, hear a little bit more on how you got started, what I call your CEO story.

Robert Kesten 02:32

How I got started? I really got started a long time ago when I was in elementary school and Martin Luther King was assassinated and it was something that I really didn't understand. My mother took me to this organization that was located in the next town over and there was this woman by the name of Ruth ransom, who was the executive there. And she said to me, an elementary school student, you could help us a lot if you could raise a little bit of money and send some kids to summer camp so they get out of this place that they live in, where they feel that there's no hope. With what's going on politically and socially, that would be the best thing to get them out of here for a couple of weeks during the summer.

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So I went back and I organized elementary school kids, and we put together a hobby fair and I went from store to store to collect things that we could auction. In doing that, I got kicked out of stores because I was trying to get things to raise money for this organization that was based in that community. That was a realization that things were not what I had thought they were living in the bubble that I lived in. From there, we raised enough money to send dozens of kids to camp that summer, and for a little kid, that seemed amazing that we were able to directly help people that lived next door to us who we didn't even know were there.

Then in college, I took time off and organized tenant associations in New York City, in buildings that were primarily occupied by widows and they were afraid to complain. They thought that they could get evicted. And so the quality of care of the buildings was something that really needed upgrading. Lights were often hallways, things were missing on stairs and these were all older women that were living in these buildings and the buildings weren't clean. We changed that and every month there would be a meeting and they would cook and they would get dressed up and it really gave them a purpose.

Then we produced a one-night-only vaudeville show at a major institution in New York and raised money for that project, so that we could do more things for all these people in these buildings. Fom there, it just continued. I set up a program for the chancellor of schools of the city of New York, the nation's largest school district with over a Million Public school students, and we decided to work with the one group of kids where there was no extra programming. That was the most at risk student population, so most of the girls were mothers and almost all the boys had been in jail and that was my population.

Within the first year, we had kids that were getting college scholarships and training programs and the chancellor himself at the time said, please do not expect any positive results because these kids have failed in every single opportunity that was afforded them. And yet there they were one kid who got a full scholarship to the culinary Institute of America to become a chef. That wasn't supposed to happen. So, it really taught me, all the way through this process that you can never count anybody out. You never know what will inspire people to succeed other than showing them that you care about them and that you believe in them.

Gresham Harkless 06:15

Yeah, I absolutely love that. So I wanted to drill down a little bit more hear a little bit more on the organization you champion and leading. Could you take us through a little bit more on how you're making that impact in creating that change there?

Robert Kesten 06:27

Sure. Stonewall is the largest LGBTQ library in the world. It's also one of the few archives that collects nationally. Not just locally, many, many archives exist across all fields, but they usually collect local. We have a national collection, which gives a completely different contextual feel and then something that just collects in the Bay area, or just collects in Chicago or something like that. Not that those archives aren't important. They certainly are but this perspective is different and the perspective I think is extraordinarily important.

Then we have a small museum where we display the items that are in the archives and in the library and tell people stories and our mission here is really to make sure that everybody's story is told. We look at history as a fabric, and in that fabric, the denser the threads, the more accurate the history. When you start removing threads, you're really distorting and changing and altering the facts of history. So if we get everybody's story told, then we actually understand what happened and why it happened and have a contextual relationship between the truth and history.

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So, we collect, protect and share the LGBTQ history and culture to the best of our ability. We have a program called SNEP, Stonewall National Educational Project, and the objective there is to see how everything else that we do, and everything that we collect, becomes part of a historic educational record.

Gresham Harkless 08:19

Nice. Absolutely love that.

Robert Kesten 08:21

It's also important to recognize that this is one of the only communities, maybe the only community that you find in every other community. There's not a race, religion, color, nationality, profession that doesn't have somebody somewhere from the LGBTQ community. It crosses all boundaries, all borders, and by doing that, everybody has multiple flags that they live under.

They live under national flags. They live under a rainbow flag. They live under a religious flag, whatever it is. They're there. So this is in essence, a natural bridge between peoples. I think that because of that, very often there's tremendous pushback because people are not necessarily interested in giving in what they feel is giving something up in order to accept something else.

Gresham Harkless 09:19

Yeah, absolutely. I appreciate you sharing that. Of course, you know everything that you all do. But do you feel like that's part of what I like to call your secret sauce? It could be for you, the organization or a combination of both. The thing you feel sets you apart.

Do you think it's that I want to say realization, but the awareness of the work that you do and how impactful it is? Do you think that is part of what kind of sets you in the organization apart or the organization?

Robert Kesten 09:43

Absolutely. The fact that we understand by looking at that historic record, what we have learned and what we haven't learned is something that definitely sets us apart because we are looking for how we can learn from those mistakes. I don't believe that we necessarily repeat them. I think that subterranean level of prejudice and hate is always there. It's just when there's complacency above it that it sticks up its ugly head and tries to pull everything back to a place that never really existed.

These fantasies about what life was like before are never real. They're never real because they're based on false history.But when you base the history of a nation on a falsehood, then everything is based on clay feet. And how do you build solid ground when the feet are made of clay?

Gresham Harkless 10:43

Yeah. That's why I appreciate, so much of everything that you do. I wanted to switch gears a little bit, and ask you for what I call a CEO hack. This could be like an app, a book or a habit that you have, but what's something that makes you more effective and efficient?

Robert Kesten 10:56

What do I wish I knew because I never feel as efficient or effective as I feel that I should be. I think that the most important thing is leaving the door open and letting anybody come in and trying my hardest to make people feel that they can say whatever they want about ways to make things better, whether it's their specific job or the organization as a whole.

I think that transparency and openness as difficult as it sometimes is and as challenging as it sometimes can be, is really the way to keep your own humanity and humility, but also to give other people ownership. When people feel that they're invested in, when they feel that they are respected, that they have dignity they're more likely to make sure that organization succeeds. They're willing to go that next step beyond what is just required of them to becoming a believer. That makes a huge difference, and I think that's what I tried to do in order to be more efficient and more effective.

Gresham Harkless 12:00

Yeah, I think that's absolutely huge so I truly appreciate that hack. I wanted to ask you now for what I call a CEO nugget. This is a little bit more word of wisdom or a piece of advice. It might be something you would tell your younger business self if you were to hop into a time machine.

Robert Kesten 12:14

If I was talking to my younger self, I would say focus, even though I've gotten to do a lot of very interesting things and being at lots of interesting places at interesting times. I worked Ukraine's independence from the USSR. I worked in Egypt and Tunisia during the Arab spring. I was on the West Bank and in Israel during the intifadas and the Gulf War. I worked on the redrafting of the Ghanaian constitution. So I've gotten to do a lot of amazing things. I produced concerts at Madison Square Garden and it's just a lot of different things.

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But I think that if you focus a little bit more than that, you are able to maintain a certain level of connection with people, and that can carry you forward in ways that spreading yourself too thin over too many divergent topics and issues and activities, so that by the time you go back to what you did the last time, those people are already gone and you never have the Rolodex, although we don't have all the decks is anymore that you need in order to move comfortably going forward.

So there's a lot of lateral movement, but not always moving forward, moving up. So I would remind myself to be a little stricter with myself and focus more on developing those contacts and developing the skills necessary to move forward and up rather than just side to side because something is a little bit more sparkly than the next thing.

Gresham Harkless 13:55

Yeah, I think you can definitely tell my younger business stuff at that as well, too. Absolutely love that. Now I want to ask you my absolute favorite question, which is the definition of what it means to be a CEO. We're hoping to have different quote and quote CEOs on this show.

So Robert, what does being a CEO mean to you?

Robert Kesten 14:08

It means making everyone feel like a leader and trying diligently to respect the dignity of everybody that works with you, because I firmly believe that nobody does it by themselves. That even if you start something, it's unlikely that you will succeed if you try to do it alone.

It's easier to try to do things by yourself because it's sometimes draining to try and train people to do what you can already do, but finding the forbearance to do that always makes for a better leader. Because if everybody thinks that they have a vested interest, then they want you to succeed. If they don't, and that works for a political campaign, it works for a business, it works for everything.

The more people who are working with you feel that they have ownership, that they have responsibility, that they're trusted with, the more likely they're going to make you a success.

Gresham Harkless 15:07

Yeah, that's extremely powerful. Absolutely appreciate that. Of course, I appreciate your time even more.

So what I want to do now is pass you the mic, so to speak, just to see if there's anything additional that you can let our readers and listeners know, and of course, how best people can get ahold of you and find about all the awesome things you and your team are working on.

Robert Kesten 15:22

They can get to us by going to stonewall/museum.org. That's one way anybody who comes through Fort Lauderdale should come visit us, get a tour of our facility. So, anyone who wants to come and have that conversation, you're more than welcome.

We like to engage in conversations, we like to do programs that inform and educate and give all side of the issues so that people can comfortably with the information they need, make intelligent decisions for them and their families.

Gresham Harkless 15:55

Yeah, absolutely. We definitely appreciate you for keeping that door open for those conversations and that change to happen. We will of course have the links and information in the show notes as well too, so that everybody can find out more about the organization, all the awesome things that you all are working on.

So thank you so much for doing that as well. I hope you have a phenomenal day.

Robert Kesten 16:13

Thank you very much.

Outro 16:13

Thank you for listening to the I AM CEO podcast, powered by CB Nation and Blue 16 Media. Tune in next time and visit us at iamceo.co. I AM CEO is not just a phrase, it's a community.

Want to level up your business even more? Read blogs, listen to podcasts, and watch videos at cbnation.com. Also check out our I AM CEO Facebook group. This has been the I AM CEO podcast with Gresham Harkless, Jr.

Thank you for listening.


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