Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Elizabeth Cushing of Playworks Is Helping To Change Our World

Posted on

When things get hard, pause, take a breath, and ask for advice. You may very well do more harm by trying to fix a tough situation quickly, than by taking some time and getting other perspectives. I used to think it best to move quickly toward a solution because I thought that was what leadership looked like. But when that determination and speed resulted in decisions being ill-informed and even causing harm, because I didn’t stop to ask others what their perspective was, it became clear to me that slowing down is a more effective strategy.

As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Elizabeth Cushing.

Elizabeth Cushing is the CEO of Playworks, a national organization headquartered in Oakland that helps schools and school districts make the most of recess through on-site staffing, consultative support, professional development, and free resources. She has spearheaded Playworks’ growth plan, leading the organization through a scaling strategy that took it from partnering with 61 schools in 2004 to 1,300+ schools and community partners today. Elizabeth has more than 30 years of nonprofit management experience with youth development and youth-serving organizations.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I have fond memories of playing while I was a student in the public school system in rural Oregon, and I’ve always worked in roles where I can use my energy and skills for positive social change. When I became a mother, I saw first-hand how critical it is that every child experiences safe, healthy, and inclusive play — not only for their physical health, but also so they can make friends and learn to be kind to others. As adults, I see it as our responsibility and that of the system of education to ensure that joyful play is a part of every kid’s day at school.

That’s why I have been with Playworks for 19 years, becoming president in 2011, and CEO in 2020. I’ve been proud to lead our team as we’ve grown from partnering with 61 schools in 2004 to over 1,300 schools and community organizations today. Every day I get to contribute to other people’s children getting to play, and that is an amazing way to spend a career.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

As kids began returning to the classroom after the school shutdowns in 2020, Playworks was there to help. We were also in a difficult moment of rebuilding our organization and figuring out how to provide our services to schools in new ways, which needed to shift during the pandemic. Many kids nationwide — and the adults who support them — were dealing with so much stress, trauma, and anxiety. The continued uncertainty in the world and the overwhelming number of emails and calls Playworks was receiving urgently requesting our support, put us in a tough position. We wanted to help every school who asked, but our bandwidth and resources were limited. In that moment, Playworks was honored to receive a gift from MacKenzie Scott (December 2021). It was a signal of trust and support for our proven impact and our future potential. That gift helped us focus our efforts simultaneously on meeting the need at hand (which has continued to be high since then) AND consider how we might sustainably increase our impact for millions more kids in the years to come.

It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

It definitely wasn’t funny when it happened, but I can laugh about it now. The first time I ever had the opportunity to submit a grant request for more than $1M, I was responsible for creating the budget spreadsheet that was the basis for the ask amount. I love math and spreadsheets, so I dove right it. It was complicated — multi-year, multi-region, with new staff structures. I had never created something that complex. After the funder said yes to our request, their grants management team pointed out an error in the math formulas in the spreadsheet. The error was pretty significant. Once corrected, it required the funder to increase their grant amount (which they did). I was mortified about the mistake. I learned that I need other people to be part of complex projects like this, so we can check each other’s work and offer additional perspectives, so the end product is as good as it can possibly be.

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

Creating access for more kids to play improves their physical health and mental well-being, which sets the foundation for academic success. As our founder Jill Vialet says, “Big changes start small.” What the pandemic experience of social isolation made clear is that children need to be together so they can learn together. Their social development depends on getting to play and those social skills will ultimately become the basis for a healthy and inclusive community. We all benefit when kids get to play. Our approach goes deep and impacts individuals in ways that can help shape them for the rest of their lives. Playworks is also influencing systems at scale, through support for entire school districts and even states that are committing to and valuing play as a result.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

There are multiple Playworks Coaches who — a decade or more ago — were elementary school kids in our programs. Now they’re working alongside the people who positively influenced them and “paying it forward” to kids who came into Playworks’ programs after them. For example, Alaina Rodriguez joined our team in New England this year. She was once a shy elementary school student looking up to her Playworks Coach, Dana Harris. Years ago, he helped her practice using her voice to lead younger students on the playground. This year, Dana and Alaina reconnected when she applied to join our team, and she was reminded of how much Dana helped build her confidence as a child. Alaina now leads her own young students on the playground. This is one of many stories of how kids and adults become part of Playworks’ community and go on to contribute their own talents toward our mission and children’s well-being generally. Relationships have power and we’re already seeing intergenerational impact of Playworkers’ relationships all across the country.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

There is a role for everyone to play to ensure every kid benefits from playing every day. Although playing is a natural, foundational behavior and a child’s right, not all kids have equitable access to it. School is one place where kids can access play equitably. However, many kids are not afforded a safe, healthy, and inclusive playing experience. So, the first thing anyone can do to address the lack of play equity is to create opportunities for every kid in a school or community to play every day.

Children with varying abilities, for example, typically engage less in physical activity including playtime with their peers. School staff and leadership can ensure that kids with differing abilities are included by being intentional about ensuring there are games available for every student to play, leveraging modifications as needed to ensure games are inclusive.

Data on racial disparities in schools shows more Black children are disciplined in schools, negatively impacting playtime, academic performance, and their sense of belonging. One of Playworks’ six principles of play is that playtime should not be treated as a reward to be revoked. A great example of something that legislators in California recently did to address this particular inequity was to set a baseline for minutes of recess, and to couple with it a regulation that playtime cannot be revoked for disciplinary reasons.

There is also a critical role for philanthropy. $190 billion in COVID-19 pandemic relief is expiring soon and schools are right now starting to determine which programs they can keep and prioritize. Philanthropy is needed to support children’s opportunity to play at school.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

I have learned that leadership is about three things:

  1. Enabling other people to do their best work — that is a big part of my job, to understand what the strengths and needs of our team are, what we’re trying to accomplish together and how to clear barriers so they can do what they do best.
  2. Discovering the next “right” step with others — Leadership is not knowing what to do in every situation, it is gathering people who have ideas, experience, and perspective to offer and helping the group find the best next step from collective wisdom and diversity of thought.
  3. Being a learner — Despite decades of experience, I know now how much I don’t know. The world is changing quickly and all the time, the biases created by my previous experience may make me blind to important signs in our ecosystem, and as one person I can’t know everything that Playworks might need me to know. Learning comes from engaging people (both inside and outside Playworks), reading, asking questions, and inviting experts to share their opinions. It’s a big part of how I spend my workdays.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

1 . It’s okay to make mistakes because that is how you learn. I grew up believing mistakes were bad things. Early in my career, I worked for two women who had a lot of experience in political organizing and fundraising. They were very accepting of mistakes — both their own and their teams’. As I watched them move through the consequences of mistakes without drama, I realized that my negative value judgment on making mistakes was getting in the way of learning from those same mistakes.

2 . Authentic relationships matter more to your success than having great ideas. I have had the benefit of working with funding partners who have embraced my choice to be vulnerable about our organization’s challenges and my own struggles in times of stress. These experiences have enabled me to honestly share when I’m unsure of the “best next step,” which most often results in shared work with our partners to figure it out.

3 . The sooner you learn about white privilege and how to address it in your leadership, the better leader you will be. Playworks began equity work in a serious way in 2018. While I was both eager and afraid to face into it as a white woman, getting support from outside experts (specifically the Center for Equity and Inclusion) was critical for me to personally make any real progress on my understanding and my behavior. Asking for help was a powerful move for me and for our organization.

4 . People want to feel included, that their work is meaningful, and that they are valued, more than achieving status. Playworks has created a playful culture that invites all team members to bring their whole selves to work, to play with each other, and to care about each other. We spend time appreciating each other’s efforts and energy — both in-person and via remote communication on Slack. The time spent connecting with each other is as important for us as adults as it is for kids on the playground.

5 . When things get hard, pause, take a breath, and ask for advice. You may very well do more harm by trying to fix a tough situation quickly, than by taking some time and getting other perspectives. I used to think it best to move quickly toward a solution because I thought that was what leadership looked like. But when that determination and speed resulted in decisions being ill-informed and even causing harm, because I didn’t stop to ask others what their perspective was, it became clear to me that slowing down is a more effective strategy.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

While we’ve been striving to ensure every kid has the opportunity to play every day, I believe this movement could go faster if every adult would play every day too. This way, they’d be reminded of the joy, kindness, teamwork, and other aspects of positive relationship building that we all want kids to feel and experience, not just through understanding the value of play, but from benefiting from it directly as well.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Mary Oliver’s poem The Summer Day ends with this:

“Tell, me what is it you plan to do

With your one wild and precious life?”

These lines invoke several things for me. The first is that it is a gift to have a life. I try to keep gratitude very present in my life — at work and personally. Second, the idea that I can choose what do to with my life is a privilege, one many people in the world don’t have. So that makes me realize I have a responsibility to make something of it. And third, I love the idea that life can be simultaneously “wild” and “precious.” Play is very much like that so I feel especially lucky to be able to spend my time both playing and making sure others get to play too.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

U.S. Surgeon General Vice Admiral Dr. Vivek H. Murthy has been talking about the impact of isolation on Americans’ mental health. I’d love to learn more from him about what he hopes our communities will do to reconnect with each other, especially for children, and to discuss how play fits in.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Visit and follow me on social media.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Elizabeth Cushing of Playworks Is Helping To Change Our World was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.