Facing Race Reflection

As a mixed Asian American woman, I've grappled with white privilege from an early age. My experience as a multiracial person influenced how I've conceptualized and constructed race and identity, and it is what first politicized me as a teen, and led me to Race Forward's Colorlines blog over eight years ago. As one of my go-to resources on racial justice, I’ve valued how they view it through an intersectional and interdisciplinary lens. Facing Race was a rare opportunity for leaders across a variety of sectors to converge around racial justice and smashing the silos that often exist in social justice work.

A frustration I have with conversations around Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) within philanthropy is the focus on power dynamics, but little on power structures (racism, colonialism, sexism, classism, homo/transphobia, ableism) and structural violence. If the personal is political, then we must look at how our institutions and systems are influencing those interpersonal dynamics we speak so much of and our grantmaking. This is why I found the Inclusive Democracy track at Facing Race significant, as it spurred numerous discussions on how “community and government must work together to dismantle structural racism.” But to get to that point, race needs to be named. Foundation leaders have noted this challenge of moving beyond diversity and addressing race in explicit terms—see White Fragility—and during the closing plenary, Glenn Harris of the Center for Social Inclusion reiterated how during this election, “liberals didn’t name race, the other side did in ways that are detrimental to our community.”

After we name race, though, we come to another hurdle: this supposed incompatibility between community organizing and government, and the conflict between what’s perceived as assimilation and selling out versus more radical narratives and direct action outside the public sector system. These approaches to social justice aren’t mutually exclusive! It was refreshing to hear a critique of this contention from several women of color leaders who were community organizers-turned-funders-or-public servants.

Washington State Senator Pramila Jayapal shared how she “got into politics because I believe we need to organize on the inside; we need good people on the inside pushing organizing, building the movement, building different kinds of structures.” Marisa Franco of Not1More Deportation Campaign & Mijente noted how both electoral organizing and direct action are what led to Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s re-election loss, and although different progressive groups and movements historically haven’t had a shared agenda, now we all have a shared political fate to respond to collectively. This was echoed by Glenn Harris, “We don't always have to be in agreement about strategies, but we need to be clear about destination and vision.”

Linda Sarsour of the Arab American Association of New York critiqued how social movements spend too much time criticizing one another, calling people sell-outs for working with the opposition—see social justice elitism—and that movements benefit when “you get people who are champions on the inside.” Keynote speaker and writer, Roxane Gay, encouraged us to “infiltrate the system,” running for public office at multiple levels, to change the system from within. Racial justice is key to democracy reform, and it starts with a multi-pronged approach.

I often ask myself: How do you practice philanthropy without upholding the nonprofit industrial complex? How do we reconcile being what scholar activist Andrea Smith calls “controllers of social justice struggles” while supporting social justice? How do we practice social justice philanthropy while collaborating with other sectors that aren’t as social justice-oriented? Is this even possible?

I would like to think I’m part of this movement of emerging practitioners in philanthropy who are striving to reform the sector. Although my foundation focuses on youth mental health, we have been intentional in applying a racial equity lens to our grantmaking. As a startup foundation, my coworker and I—both of us being women of color—came into philanthropy with an understanding of the trauma of racism and other systems of oppression, which guided our strategy development. (This is how philanthropy can benefit from having people with lived experience in leadership roles!) When we did site visits and informational interviews with nonprofits, we gleaned that many of the smaller community-based organizations who worked with underserved communities were struggling for funding, particularly around advocacy and community organizing efforts.

When we met these organizations, we were upfront about our inexperience in philanthropy and situated nonprofits as the experts. We asked them, “What are your challenges when working with funders? What would you like to see funders support?” We elicited feedback from these under-resourced groups to identify their barriers and needs to overcome them, and we integrated priorities from nonprofit leaders into our strategy. We decided that as a small foundation, we could have a greater impact on grassroots groups, rather than concentrating on scaling programs; therefore, our grantmaking has prioritized general operating support and youth organizing for groups who are explicit about their commitment to social justice and racial justice in particular.

Additionally, we see the value in funding across issue areas, and in mental health, we can’t fund in a vacuum; mental health intersects with multiple systems, including child welfare and juvenile justice, as well as multiple areas, including youth homelessness, historical trauma, immigration, and LGBTQ issues, among others. In hindsight, our grantmaking approach includes many elements of Arabella Advisors’ Incorporating DEI in Your Grantmaking checklist.

All this to say, my coworker and I are still growing into our roles and striving to be better social justice funders. Our peers are craving more discussions around racial justice and opportunities to challenge the status quo in their institutions and philanthropy. EPIP has been key in creating spaces for that; for example, the Bay Area chapter organized a successful article discussion on Rodney D. Foxworth, Jr.’s The Need for Black Rage in Philanthropy, and soon, we’ll have a debate on whether big philanthropy undermines democracy. So my question is: What can philanthropy do to strengthen inclusive democracy efforts without undermining those efforts and upholding oppressive power structures?


Cassandra Zawilski
Program Associate, McKenzie Foundation of San Francisco
Co-Chair, EPIP Bay Area Chapter Steering Committee