Jesse Zager

Jesse with his wife, Aria, and their dog Shaka.
Photo by Nance Musinguzi

I learned about Headwaters through a close friend who was a participant in the very first Giving Project cohort.

He asked me for a meaningful gift – a donation that was an amount that felt truly significant to me and stretched how much I had considered giving up until that point. It was the first time anyone had asked me for a financial gift like that. He also invited me to the Giving Project’s Grantee panel where I got to hear from organizations who had been selected as grantees and it helped me connect to the “circle of the work” done by Headwaters.

Hearing from community organizers gave me a clear picture of what it means to invest in social justice movements and how impactful it is to receive funding from Headwaters. Organizers themselves are the best advocates for their work.

At that time in my life, I was hungry for a way I could make an impact on social justice issues, but I didn’t see a clear avenue for me to do that. However, when I learned about Headwaters and heard from the grantees, I thought to myself, “Wow, this feels really good. It feels really… honest.” It felt like truly effective organizing work. Giving to my friend’s Giving Project cohort was the first time I made any significant financial gift.

When I made that first gift, I still hadn't deeply explored my identity as a cisgender white male from a privileged background.

I was aware of how my identity as someone with white privilege played into the overall structure of privilege and white supremacy, but I didn't have a good way to talk about it.

My first gift to Headwaters offered me a way to address some of my privilege and distribute some of my wealth - not that I would have used those words to describe it that way at the time. But now I do have that language, thanks especially to going on to participate in a Giving Project myself and doing workshops on race and class in the Giving Project where I had discussions that I hadn't openly had before.

While I was in the Giving Project, there were many small moments that added up to my larger personal transformation.

One instance I remember vividly was when our Giving Project cohort was talking about economic class. The participants in our cohort came from diverse ethnic backgrounds, personal identities, and ages. In one exercise everyone lined up based on where we saw ourselves on the class spectrum from high wealth and privilege to low wealth. Most of the people of color were grouped on the low wealth end of that privilege and wealth spectrum.

Before doing that exercise, I read statistics and knew that people of color were historically marginalized and kept from wealth. I also knew that my privilege as a white male in this society resulted in more wealth for me and many other white people. I knew all those things in my head, but doing that activity with a cohort of people who I knew and cared about, I saw my privilege directly. It gave me a deeper level of understanding.

Doing race and class workshops and exploring privilege made a lasting impact on me. I think that’s one of the reasons why I'm still so committed to being a part of this work that brings together a community of givers and organizations building power with those most impacted by injustice. It made injustice even more real to me, even though I knew it was true, but this time deeper inside me in a way that I hadn't explored until my time with Headwaters.

Photo by Nance Musinguzi

The big reason why I continue to give, and why I continue to increase my gift size year after year, is that I see the work that Headwaters does as deconstructing the white supremacist structure of society that I'm a beneficiary of.

I want to do my part to dismantle that system of white supremacy. Donating money and raising funds from people in my networks to support organizers is one way that I now see myself, a white male, making an impact on dismantling the system.

I trust Headwaters and have faith in their giving model. And I have faith in the donor and volunteer community that creates Headwaters. I know it's not just one person making a funding decision. It's not me dictating, “MY money is going to this specific organization.” It's me offering, “Here is some of my wealth. I have faith that the Headwaters community and all of its volunteer grant makers will grant it to a movement organization that will use as they need to do their work fighting for justice.”


We extend our thanks and appreciation to Karla Arredondo-Payan, the Headwaters volunteer that conducted the initial interview.