girl with illness besides dog

This is the last of a 3-part series with Dorri McWhorter, CEO of YWCA of Metropolitan Chicago and long-time pet parent.  Last time, Dorri and I talked through ways to incorporate pets into everyday spaces, and explored how, by treating them as family members, we might make tremendous social progress. You can catch up with Part 2 here. –Courtney Wennerstrom, aapp Content Director

Dorri is an avid reader, and we continued to chat about books for a few minutes. At the time of her interview, she was in the middle of reading Caste: The Origins of Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson (2020), which has been on my list too. Our conversation quickly turned back to dogs, which led us right back to books about dogs!

D: I do feel like dogs are so in tune. We can learn so much from them about how life’s supposed to be just by observing them.

C: I just did a book review on the Last Howlelujah by William B. Miller. He’s an episcopal Priest, bar owner, and music aficionado, and he’s really good friends with my sister, Ashley, who lives in New Orleans. He had this dog named Wil who got terminal cancer, but he lived much longer than he was supposed to. So he decided to take Wili on a bucket list tour, and they drove like 5,000 zigzagged miles–from New Orleans to Las Vegas–to taste delicious food and make new friends. In any case, Miller’s whole philosophy is that dogs are God because God is love embodied, so dogs are the closest we can get to the Divine. So the book describes this beautiful kind of whimsical, spiritual journey that William and Wili take. Together, they raise about $14,000 for shelters and rescues. Anyway, like you, I really appreciated that perspective: you know, the idea that dogs truly do get us closer to the things that really matter in life.

D: Oh Courtney! I totally appreciate that story because I was thinking, yeah, I could totally go there because I totally believe that. It’s ironic because my dad’s name was Willie–he passed of cancer five years ago–but he was my introduction to dog-loving. We never had less than two dogs my entire childhood that I can remember. Our first dog was a German shepherd-husky mix. So, I love Miller’s sentiment because I do think that dogs are the embodiment of love…and that’s why I try to emulate them, like “what would dogs do” because they are so close to, as you said, to the divine. They are about as close to pure love energy as you can find, and that is why I need their presence. I need that vibration dogs bring to you. I need the fluff in my life (giggling irresistibly).

C: I love that you need the fluff–so many successful women do!

D: Yeah, I credit both my husband and my dad, and different times in my life, for helping me have dogs, because you need someone to watch them while you’re traveling or to help you co-parent. Without having a co-parent like my husband, I probably wouldn’t be able to have a dog at all.

C: (Nodding in agreement, since my husband and our teenagers help me balance my career and pet parenthood too!) I think it’s an uncanny coincidence that I brought up a book with a dog who shares your dad’s name, and that your dad is the one who encouraged your love for dogs in the first place, which is so beautiful–how he is still living through you through your love of dogs–I love that!

D: Oh!!! You should know this too! When my dad passed, we had donations go to the police K-9 unit because in Wisconsin, in the police jurisdiction in our community, they didn’t have a K-9 unit and they were trying to get their first dogs. Growing up, as I mentioned, my dad had german shepherds and he loved them. And in another coincidence, the woman police officer who first responded when my dad was experiencing, whatever was happening to him…she was the same woman who was trying to get a K-9 unit in place! So it felt really appropriate to donate to her and she even came to his service and everything. It was like…the most beautiful thing ever! And my daddy would be so happy! He loved German Shepherds so much. I need to reach back out to her because I want to help her get another dog named Willie.

C: I love that. I hope you can-yes! You know, I think my parents instilled in me a love for animals too because they were always by my side as a child, and I could never imagine a world without them in it!

The Takeaway: Dog lovers tend to agree that canines are innately in tune with things that truly matter, and are therefore spiritual beings–present, engaged, and alive–who teach us how to live more fully and openly. They also connect us to one another, and by supporting special projects or filling community needs, we can honor fellow animal lovers who we have lost. Animals help us celebrate a kind of immortal love that binds us together.

I love the way Dorri’s mind works, and wanted to find out more about how she thinks through problems and challenges to find meaningful solutions.

C: As a former academic, I am really in awe of your skillset. You have your toes in so many pools, which gives you such a well-rounded perspective, and you are truly doing a lot of interdisciplinary work. For me, I think someone like you, who is both a visionary AND has the practical wherewithal to bring that vision into reality, is really rare. So we could learn a lot from you by thinking about your models of innovation. How do you do it? What are some of the key strategies you use when you look at a problem?

D: I like to break things down. First of all, I like to ask about the origin of issues because sometimes understanding the origin, first of all, gives people permission to change them, right? So many times, as we discussed with capitalism, so many times people are like we do this and I’m like ok but why– and when they see why something is done, they are able to say, oh! we should totally change that! I feel like once you unlock the permission to change something, then you see a better environment for innovation to occur. Then you start asking different questions. For example, we created a worksheet that we call our Stakeholder Value Chain, and what we do is ask a series of questions: What’s the service? Who receives value? Who is served by the service? How do they benefit from the service? Who cares that they benefit? And why do they care? So working through that model allows you to see different opportunities and understand how value is more holistically created. So you may think you are just signing people up to become members of the American Association of Pet Parents, for example, but the benefits, for me at least, are that you are creating a community. But who cares now that the community exists? Then you’ll create another avenue of the world that cares now that this community exists, and you’ll have companies who care… so you could do that all day long. Keep asking who cares, who cares, who cares, and that’s what we work with our teams on, to help them think about the total value that is being created instead of the 1-to-1 exchange. What is the comprehensive value?

C: That is so smart. It reminds me of something I would do in my Composition and Literature courses by teaching my students how to answer the “so-what” clause in their papers. So, like, if they are making an argument in a paper, I ask, well, so what?–what is the meaning or value or the purpose of what you are saying and why do we care? And it pushes them to go deeper and deeper into their thought process. I like the way you have made it practical so if we are trying to get to the heart of a systemic issue, we have to unpack all of the layers not to just fix it, but to rebuild a new structure. Does that sound right to you?

D: Yes, that’s exactly what it is. One of my favorite quotes is my Buckminster Fuller: “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” And so to me, it’s about understanding why something exists. So rather than looking at a chair and saying, we need to fix this chair, you could perhaps say, we need a place to sit, and you may not come up with a chair again. If you say we need to fix the chair, you have sort of relegated yourself to that strategy that the chair was created by–instead of thinking more broadly about where else can we sit.

C: And there may be more than one person who needs to sit and a chair is not the right answer at all!

D: Exactly! I believe that there are two kinds of thinkers in the world: expansive thinkers and limited thinkers. So I like to ask questions that allow people to expand their thinking process more. Just because if we don’t know what’s in there, we don’t know what we are going to get.

C: This must be one of the reasons you are such an incredible mentor!

The Takeaway: Innovation happens when you grant permission and even encourage yourself and others to question trite ways of doing things–and dare to get to the bottom of a problem without bringing outdated models of thinking  about that problem with you into your process of reinvention. Expansive thinkers like Dorri get things done by taking old ideologies to task and inventing new approaches.

Dorri and I spent our last few minutes laughing about how many crazy dog lady t-shirts and other kinds of dog-mom swag we have; how excited Dorri had been in choosing her outfit for our interview; the fact that we could have chatted all day because I am clearly part of her tribe and she is clearly my people; and discussing possible future partnerships between aapp and the YWCA Metropolitan Chicago. We hope a partnership comes to fruition, because Dorri is an incredible dog-mom, business leader, champion for women and girls, and powerful human out there making the world a kinder, more beautiful place. We appreciate her time–and look forward to seeing what she is up to in the future, including (fingers crossed) adding a Willie to that special K-9 unit made possible by an entire community honoring her dog-loving dad.  Cheers!

Postscript: Dorri asked for more information about The Last Howlelujah, so I reached out to William and had him send her a signed copy as a token of my appreciation for her time. I meant to ask if she’s the kind of person, like I am, who reads multiple books at once–and I hope she is enjoying it as much as I did.–Courtney