Emma Olson

Photo by Nance Musinguzi

Healing around my racial identity has been a meaningful part of my Headwaters experience. That identity is something I felt really disconnected from for a long time, and it was something I was given the space to think about more deeply as a Giving Project participant. One of the program facilitators gave me an article about being a person of color mixed with white. When I read it, I felt like I could breathe in a way I hadn't before – breathing in who I am and breathing out tension, along with layers of despair and sadness. I still have the article.  

I identify as a person who is mixed-race, read-as-white, with Korean and Norwegian heritage. I navigate the world sitting at the intersections of these two similar, yet very different places. 

Part of my history, not just my personal history, but the history of read-as-white mixed people in the U.S. is that I have a choice to actively ascribe to white supremacy and white privilege while cutting my non-whiteness out of myself. But I choose to be my complicated self. It’s the less easy choice, but it’s the place where I can step into who I really am in a way that honors my countries of heritage, and my family, by allowing me to be all of me. 

When I think about my investment in movement work, I always go back to an organizational site visit I did in the Giving Project. A site visit is a step in the Giving Project process that helps inform decisions about where to grant the money we raise as a cohort. I visited the Greater Minnesota Worker Center based in Saint Cloud, Minnesota. They were applying for a Giving Project grant so they could hire an interpreter to better include undocumented workers who primarily spoke Spanish in their organizing. One of the stories they shared was about the traumas community members experience working in factory settings. I remember being struck by the importance of the work the organization was doing and wanting to scream, “Why don't they have more money?” 

It was an important example for me of how systems have been designed to keep social change and social movement organizations working with the bare minimum of resources. The organizations that Headwaters funds deserve not just to exist; they deserve to have abundance and to thrive with their communities. 

I'm grateful that my parents instilled a fire in me to be an advocate for change and to be involved in community. One important issue for me is addressing and unmasking white supremacy, given my ethnic background and career in the public sector. White supremacy culture, according to artist activist Tema Okun and other thinkers, has characteristics like power hoarding, perfectionism, urgency, and “either/or” thinking, among others. It embeds itself in everything from our dress and behaviors to policies and procedures. But it can only thrive if it is unknown or unacknowledged.  

The first step to eliminating white supremacy culture is unmasking it, especially in ourselves. I aim to be a champion in fostering creativity and uncovering white supremacy culture in my work. At the center of that is creating opportunities to build genuine connections and trust and making space for creativity to flourish.  

Another role I hold in movement work is as a donor organizer--which I learned through my experience in the Giving Project and practice through my involvement on the Headwaters’ Development Committee. Being a part of Headwaters’ volunteer community gives me space to tap into my sphere of control--I have control over how much I choose to give. My participation on the Development Committee empowers me to expand my sphere of influence by having meaningful conversations about money and power with others in my network. 

Photo by Nance Musinguzi

One of the many beautiful things about my Headwaters experience is knowing that what I bring to this community is always enough. That’s something I learned over the years. When I participated in the Giving Project six years ago, I was in AmeriCorps and made around $1,000 a month. The meaningful gift I was able to contribute at the time didn’t feel like “enough”. I felt like I was disappointing myself and the people around me. In retrospect, I see that what I was able to give then was enough because it was meaningful to me. As I continue to be in community and contribute in new ways, I’m growing with Headwaters. 

Whether in AmeriCorps or working in a public sector job, I now know that am always an asset to the Headwaters community. I’m more than just an asset – I am part of the community and was from the start. 

I encourage anyone interested in Headwaters to begin with a conversation. Headwaters is an organization that values relationships. Reach out to other folks who are part of the Headwaters community, whether that’s staff or volunteers. Every time I connect with a Headwaters person, we talk about things that matter.  

What I appreciate about Headwaters is that it shifts away from the transactional and into relational community. I continue to receive so much abundance from this community. It’s what I’m trying to pay forward. 

My hope is that as a part of this community I have a ripple effect on others. Headwaters has impacted how I think about money, how I talk about money, and how I see myself in the world, and how I approach conversations around race and class. I often ask myself, “How do I, as someone who wants to be a steward of this community, create the space for others that Headwaters created for me?” 

Photo by Nance Musinguzi