Executive Director/CEO 1981-2017
For nearly 40 years, Rusty Kennedy served as an inspiring, valued leader who brought together hundreds of thousands of people in Orange County to create a safer, more inclusive community where everyone can live free of discrimination and violence, be treated with respect and have a voice in decision-making processes that affect them.
Growing up in Fullerton in the 1960’s, Rusty’s parents were deeply involved in efforts to care for the poor and those in need. Rusty’s dad took him door-to-door to talk with voters about the importance of Fair Housing laws that outlaw discrimination. Inspired by this justice-minded childhood orientation, he naturally grew into a servant-leader as staff to the Orange County Human Relations Commission, starting his employment in 1977.
Responding to the need for proactive approaches to the intolerance, discrimination, and intergroup conflict the Commission regularly addressed, Rusty built a wide collaborative of key stakeholders in business, education, faith, law enforcement and neighborhood communities, creating the nonprofit “OC Human Relations Council” in 1991. He developed an inclusive, multigenerational, multiethnic, skilled board and staff to support this nonprofit’s mission, crafted in his vision to unite and empower communities and promote positive change in Orange County.
With Orange County’s rapidly changing demographics and political and economic divisions, Rusty’s expertise helped to prevent, educate and respond to serious, volatile conflicts. Rusty developed a unique and skilled team to address critical issues such as school-based bullying, community racial/ethnic bias, religious intolerance, gender inequality, hate crimes and violence.
As CEO, Rusty built the nonprofit’s annual budget to over $1.5 million and prioritized transparency, strong fiscal reserves, strategic development, program evaluation and improvement. A cornerstone of the nonprofit’s financial stability is sustained through a unique donor group he formed a number of years ago, the Community Partners Advisory Board, made up of prominent, philanthropic business, community and education leaders who have helped raise over $10 million dollars to enable OC Human Relations’ community impact.
Rusty’s focus on a diverse array of supporters and clientele served as a strength that enabled OC Human Relations to build safe, inclusive schools and communities. During his tenure, the nonprofit annually engaged more than 50,000 residents in win-win approaches to deeply-seated human relations challenges.
Rusty developed a responsive nonprofit that personifies his bridge-building character. It has become an invaluable resource to Orange County and a model organization, admired and valued across the state. He invested years in building relationships and collaboratives across diverse sectors. His ability to deescalate conflict and uplift equity exemplified his invaluable gift for bridging divides. For example, Rusty and the staff were key in addressing numerous local high-profile, hot-button issues. When the LA Riots occurred in 1992, Rusty guided OC Human Relations to convene “Orange County Together”, a group of business leaders, educators and nonprofits that examined causes underlying the riots and determined strategies to prevent community disintegration in Orange County. He and OC Human Relations were also called on to help respond to crisis situations such as the 9/11 bombings, the Rodney King riots, strained police/community relations, local hate crimes and issues of discrimination. Under Rusty’s leadership, OC Human Relations has become THE trusted, respected local organization that helps facilitate a just and civil approach to problem solving, even in the face of divisive conflicts.
Rusty mentored nonprofit CEO’s through the Fieldstone Foundation program and beyond, helping leaders of local nonprofits to create equitable and respectful work environments. Further, he was regularly called upon by community and political leaders, police chiefs, business leaders, religious leaders, representatives from various racial or ethnic groups, educators and universities to address intergroup conflicts or share his expertise on human relations issues and strategies that bring people together.
Today, thanks to Rusty’s legacy and the leadership of its current CEO, Alison Edwards, OC Human Relations’ BRIDGES Safe and Respectful Schools Program, youth conferences, summer camps and parent leadership trainings impact over 27,000 students, educators and families in partnership with local schools each year. In addition, following Rusty’s inclusive, collaborative approach, OC Human Relations also leads Listening Sessions, a Dispute Resolution Program, Police/Community Reconciliation, Police/Community Dialogues, community building initiatives plus hate crime education, reporting and victim support.
Thank you Rusty, you, and your work, has had a lasting impact on Orange County and beyond.