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12 Rounds with Ashley Thomas


In our new weekly feature 12 Rounds, leaders will answer 12 questions — some light, some heavy — from our Publisher and CEO Henry Sanders to help the community understand them, what they do, and why. Today: Hope Street Ministry Executive Director Ashley Thomas.

Ashley Thomas leads an organization that provides housing and healing to about 50 men, women, and children in Milwaukee. She began at Hope Street as a volunteer in 2012 and joined the Hope Street team in December of 2013 as the Operations Director. Hope Street was named Nonprofit of the Year in the 2020 Wisconsin Leadership Community Choice Awards based on the vote of community members across Wisconsin. She played basketball for the Wisconsin Badgers from 2008 until 2012.

What advice would you give someone who is a person of color not from Wisconsin who is thinking about moving to Madison?

Come visit! I think Madison has some unique places that do celebrate diversity and people are more open to bumping shoulders with people who are “different”. At the same time, I would encourage someone to find a community that they can get plugged into. I loved my time in Madison.

Name three songs that accurately reflect how you’re feeling.

This is hard, because I am continually listening to music and love all genres of music too. However, currently the top three songs I am playing are: 

  1. Long Story Short – Taylor Swift 
  2. My World Needs You – Kirk Franklin 
  3. Life Rolls On – Florida Georgia Line 

If you could go back in time to any point of life to tell yourself something, what age would you go back to and what would you tell yourself?

I would go back to when I turned 30 (which was a year ago) and tell myself to CALM DOWN, there is still time. I have always done things “ahead of my time”. I set incredibly high standards for myself and always aim to succeed – this has worked out professionally. However, personally when I turned 30 for whatever reason it was my benchmark for some personal goals that I felt like I should have achieved at that point in my life: marriage, family, house etc. Goals are good, but not when you don’t allow yourself to enjoy what is now. You will miss out on the season you are in and what you have to be grateful for if you are too focused on what could be or what should be. Live in the present, it is literally a gift.

What did you learn about yourself in 2020?

I learned that even though I am pretty introverted, I need people time too. It was not too long into quarantine where I began to realize how much I missed “in person” time with people. I quickly was over seeing people through a screen, and was really struggling with not being able to just stop by to see my friends and family. 2020 taught me how important being in community is, that we need each other and we can’t thrive in isolation. 

The other thing 2020 taught me, is that I have to be more educated in terms of the stance I take on different issues. It is no longer OK to just go with the crowd, or look to others for their opinions. If I believe something to be true, why? 

At this point of your life do you feel you have found your purpose? If so, how did you figure out your purpose?

I believe I know my purpose for today. I think the lesson I have had to learn is that God prepares and equips us for different seasons. So what He is asking me to do today may be different tomorrow. However, He gives me the grace I need in order to do what He is asking of me now – so I choose to focus on that. So right now my purpose is to love and walk with people at Hope Street. That practically means I get to be the Executive Director of a really awesome organization. Can I picture myself anywhere else? No. But more than 7 years ago, I never imagined I would be here. So I choose to trust the process and trust that my purpose will be revealed each step of the way and it is OK if and when that looks different.

There is a lot of division around the issues of race in politics. What can we do to lessen those divisions?

Be curious. I don’t think people are willing to take the time to ask questions. We assume we know the answers, or people’s stance. We can’t know what motivates each person and we have to trust that everyone has their own process as well as life experience that has led them to the position that they are in. If we could be more committed to being learners instead of “argument winners” I think we would begin to have a greater appreciation for all the different viewpoints and perspectives that people have. Lastly, and this is hard – in my opinion harder than it should be but, choose to see people. No matter what side people are on, they are human beings made in God’s likeness and image and therefore have tremendous value and worth no matter what they believe. We all aren’t going to always agree, but we can come together on the common ground of valuing life.

You used to play basketball for the University of Wisconsin. How did sports prepare you for the work you’re doing now?

Discipline and mental toughness. Being a collegiate athlete requires you to put A LOT of work in. Often quite a bit beyond the required practices, film sessions, games etc. I had to learn pretty quickly how to be disciplined when it came to my “free time”. It was important to balance school, relationships, ministry, basketball and just overall well-being. Without the skill of discipline I wouldn’t be able to do anything very well, let alone enjoy the process along the way. In addition, basketball taught me mental toughness. It taught me to push through pain, through uncomfortable situations, how to receive criticism and to always put the team first. These are things that have been so instrumental as I walk with broken men, women and children – we all come from different backgrounds, many with traumatic and difficult experiences. I have to daily be mentally prepared to meet people where they are at and not take things personally, even and especially when what I am met with is not “easy”.

Your faith seems to be a big part of your life. Why is it so important for you?

It is central to my being. All that I am and all that I have is because of my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. It is important to me because He gives me purpose, He reminds me of my worth and He is consistent. Life can be really hard, and even when it isn’t hard it can just be a lot. If you don’t know why you are doing what you are doing or for what reason it can all feel pretty hopeless. My Hope is secure and my driving force for getting me up in the morning. I am grateful I don’t have to carry the burden of being “perfect” – but I can do life with the perfect savior.

What are three things you can’t go without?

I am going to take this literally, and list “things” and therefore not include people in this answer: 

  • My Bible: in a world with SO much information, it is helpful for me to go back to a source of truth.  
  • My phone: allows me to stay connected to my people, has my calendar to keep me on track and captures photos of special moments throughout the day.
  • Dark chocolate: It is my favorite, I always have a stash and I consume it daily.

Favorite season of the year and why?

Fall. I LOVE the crisp cool air, the changing of the leaves, bonfires, apple picking and hiking. It is my favorite time of year to be outdoors, and there is so much to do!

Netflix or Amazon Prime, and why?

Netflix. It has most of the old shows that I love to re-watch! I also tend to love many of the Netflix Original Shows too.

You’re a Taylor Swift fan. Why?

In many ways I feel like I have “grown up” with Taylor. I am convinced we would be best friends if we ever met – but maybe that is mostly just wishful thinking. I appreciate her creative process. I think she is a phenomenal artist who is not afraid to share her heart, speak her mind and invite people into the whole process. She speaks up for things that matter, even and especially if it will cost her. People don’t always agree and don’t always like what she has to say – but she is not afraid. I think women and young girls everywhere need to know it is OK to be ambitious, strong and bold. 

All in all, I love her music – and know every lyric of every song. So yes, I think that makes me a certified “Swiftie” and I am not ashamed.