We Are Not Alone: Reflections on EPIP's PCN Gathering

This post was authored by Surabhi Pandit, Public Policy Fellow at the Council of Michigan Foundations, who shares with us her experiences at EPIP's People of Color Network Gathering held in November 2013.

Surabhi Pandit

I always thought that the cliché phrase ‘you are not alone’ was often overused and never fully applicable to situations when I heard someone say it. When I participated in the EPIP People of Color Network’s gathering last month, I experienced a hodgepodge of unique and unusual feelings from start to finish—those of complete affirmation, solidarity, and camaraderie among complete strangers...and for the first time in a long time, I didn’t feel alone.

I started my life in philanthropy as a high school student, serving on my city’s community foundation board as well as on our Youth Advisory Committee. At that time, I was so engrossed in the work itself—grantmaking, volunteering in the community, and board meetings—that I didn’t pay much attention to anything else­; I wasn’t even slightly aware of the multiple layers of power, privilege, and often oppression that reside so deeply in the philanthropic sector.

I think the challenge in pointing out these “evils” of our work is that, overall, we do great work. At the root of it all, philanthropy exists to help others in some capacity. I’m proud of the grant dollars that support our communities and most vulnerable populations, the investments that have spurred economic development and growth in the cities that many had given up on, and the role that foundations play in community and coalition building.

My interest in this work brought me back to the sector after graduate school, and when I returned I began with the same level of energy as my high school days—I felt like this is where I could make the greatest impact, and that I could truly be a change agent in the larger community. A leader in the field once asked me what issues I was passionate about, and wanted to discuss how we could work together to share the importance of those concepts to our broader community. While he agreed with my emphasis on the importance of equity & inclusion in philanthropy, he said that those topics that I wanted to address would make people uncomfortable, and so we should steer clear of any potentially controversial conversations. I politely smiled and nodded, but then spent months thereafter thinking about how my work over the last few years has taken me to communities throughout the state hundreds miles away from my home, or comfort zone in all senses. I thought about how often I was giving presentations to organizations that had little understanding of the importance of diversity (in any way) until I mentioned it. I thought about how I regularly sat in boardrooms of the wealthiest organizations in the state’s poorest cities—all situations that made me feel quite uncomfortable...but I remembered that no one was really asking me about my comfort level. I am not attempting to point any fingers, but I started to realize that it wasn’t just about me and my discomfort, but that this lack of intentional outreach to and support of people of color (especially emerging leaders) is a systemic issue at large.

While we have made significant progress in increasing the number of people of color in the field, what has been done to keep us here? We have data on minority representation on nonprofit and foundation boards, on the amount of diverse representation in leadership roles, and even on the impact of our grants to underserved communities, but are we proud of it? The answer may be yes, but my answer is that whatever we’re doing, it isn’t enough.

I am generally an optimistic person, but as I began to uncover the layers of institutional and structural racism, sexism, and ageism that exist within our organizations, communities, and society at large, I realized that my firsthand experience with all of these ‘isms’ are often parallel to the experiences of my colleagues in the field—and it was so defeating. It saddened me to learn that at the age of five some of my peers were made aware of race. It was disheartening to hear about the oppressive behavior that we still face as professionals in our respective realms of work, which requires us to consistently navigate the complex world of learning how to often be the ‘other’ without being ‘othered.’ So, what’s the solution?

In the last two years, I have participated in several conferences and learning opportunities to enhance my professional development, but other than EPIP related events, very few, if any, have focused on intentionally including emerging leaders, people of color, or a combination of the two. Perhaps it may seem discouraging that not all professional networks offer this level of support, but the optimist in me thinks that it’s a great start. It was rejuvenating to sit with my peers and feel understood before even speaking. It was assuring to know that when I shared my story, the nods of affirmation were sincere. It felt comforting to hear my peers say ‘I’ve been there before,’ and know that each word was filled with genuine empathy. I’m extremely thankful for the space that the EPIP PCN provided so that we could engage in thought-provoking, energizing, and, finally, comfortable conversations. After leaving Boston, all I could think was ‘That needs to happen more often!’ To my colleagues in the field—this is just the beginning.


About the Author

Surabhi Pandit serves as Public Policy Fellow in Government Affairs & Philanthropy at the Council of Michigan Foundations. Her work is primarily focused on developing programs for member foundations in respective funding areas of interest through a policy lens, as well as creating spaces for meaningful conversations between the foundation community and state government. She previously served as the Community Foundation Youth Project Coordinator for the Council of Michigan Foundations.

Surabhi’s passion for community building, philanthropy, and youth participation began with her involvement with the Southfield Community Foundation as a trustee and youth grantmaker. After her time on the Southfield Youth Advisory Committee, she served on the Council of Michigan Foundations’ statewide youth advisory board (Michigan Community Foundations’ Youth Project), and later served as the Mawby intern, a position dedicated to planning and coordinating the annual summer youth grantmakers leadership conference. Throughout her experiences in the philanthropy, she has developed a greater interest for combining work on diversity and inclusion with the nonprofit sector, which led to her involvement as an advisory board member for the Transforming Michigan Philanthropy initiative.

Surabhi is a graduate from the University of Michigan, with a BA in Sociology and South Asian Studies, and a Master of Social Work degree focused on social policy and evaluation in community and social systems. In her time in graduate school, she served as the president of the School of Social Work Student Union, as well as a co-founder of the Making Race Heard group, a student-led initiative created to promote conversations about the impacts of race and other social identities on our personal and professional lives.