Tributaries: September 1, 2020
Being the president of this 36-year-old institution is the honor of my lifetime. But, like so many leaders, I often suffer from imposter syndrome. Who am I to lead this amazing foundation? Why do I think I am qualified to be the President? Am I really the right person to make big bold asks for financial resources? What do I know about philanthropy?
When I was growing up, I never heard the word philanthropy. But as I reflect on my life, there are so many ways that my family and I received charity.
We went to the food shelf. This was an important safety net for my family and me. My mother would pack up my sister and me to go grocery shopping. We took the bus or rode in our unreliable car to “shop” in church basements or community centers. My mother picked out nonperishable items, like rice and potato flakes. I was 10 years old when I realized that my mom wasn’t paying for the food. The nice ladies simply loaded our groceries into a box, and we’d be on our way.
One afternoon my family and I arrived home to find that a mystery person had left a Christmas tree on our front porch because we couldn’t afford one. Christmas was an important holiday in our family, and my mother often struggled to figure out how to keep the magic alive. I grappled with mixed emotions that particular year. On the one hand, the surprise tree felt like a harsh symbol of the struggles my family experienced. On the other hand, the giver’s generosity was just what we needed to re-infuse a sense of joy and warmth in our home.
As I grew to understand my family’s circumstances, I felt a lot of shame. Not only did we live in a predominately white community, but my family’s class status also set us apart.
In 1994 I was a freshman in high school. I lived with my family in a two-bedroom duplex. One Friday night, I knew that a group of friends were hanging out without me.
At one point, our home phone rang. I answered.
Beck’s Loser blared through the phone. His lyrics came through loud and clear: “Soy un perdedor. I’m a loser baby so why don’t you kill me?”
The people on the other end of the phone, people I grew up with and considered friends, saw right through who I was trying to be. I was a loser because I lived in a rental unit. I was a loser because my access to phone service depended on my mom’s ability to pay the bill. I was a loser because I couldn’t relate to their lives.
In 2009 I met my best friend. We were both adults attending law school as non-traditional students. She had grown up working class. She was brown. She was queer. She was a mother. Rebecca was exactly who I needed to meet.
Rebecca is one of those unexpected friends, a pleasant surprise. Most people form their social circles early in life. With Rebecca, I felt like I finally found the friend I wished for that lonely Friday night in 1994.
With Rebecca, I didn’t have to hide or code switch or impress. In fact, she could see right to my core. Still can.
My best friend’s gift to me has helped me to find the strength to be exactly who I am meant to be. Because of her, I’m more secure in where I come from and who my people are.
My people are Mexican. My people are Oneida.
They are drug addicts and alcoholics. My people work in fields and factories and domestic violence shelters. They have served tables and they have served time.
My people’s land has been stolen. My people have been displaced. They have been treated like an infestation and an inconvenience. They are survivors.
My people are strong and resilient. They fight and pray and drink and heal. My people laugh and love harder than anyone I know.
My journey to Headwaters has been a long and windy path. I went to school to become a lawyer, and, instead, I became a philanthropist.
In my work, I ask people to invest in the power, self-determination, and optimism of Black people, Indigenous people, and people of color. I invite them to acknowledge and celebrate—not just tolerate—the lived experiences and agency of immigrants and refugees and queer and trans folks and people with disabilities. When I ask people for money, I ask them to give without strings, without restrictions. I ask our donors to give up some of their power.
Of money, Edgar Villanueva, author of Decolonizing Wealth, wrote:
“I’m not saying there aren’t problems with money when it’s hoarded, controlled, used to divide people, to oppress and dominate. But that’s not the money’s fault. Inherently it’s value-neutral. Humans have used money wrongfully. We’ve made money more important than human life. We’ve allowed it to divide us. That is a sin. We forget that we humans made money up out of thin air, as a concept, a tool for a complex society, a placeholder for aspects of human relations. We forget that we gave money its meaning and its power.
Money is like water. Water can be a precious life-giving resource. But what happens when water is dammed, when a water cannon is fired on protestors in subzero temperatures? Money should be a tool of love, to facilitate relationships, to help us thrive, rather than to hurt and divide us. If it’s used for sacred, life-giving, restorative purposes, it can be medicine.”
I remember one of the first donor meetings I had when I started working as the Development Director at Headwaters. This was the first time in my fundraising career where my boss encouraged me to go deeper than traditional fundraising practices teach. Up until then, I usually started meetings by asking questions about the donor’s giving goals and donor history.
Elizabeth was a longtime donor to Headwaters and a community advocate. We met at a taco joint near my office, and we sat across from each other at a small table. I researched her giving history and knew a little bit about her from talking with my executive director. No amount of research, however, could calm the butterflies in my stomach. After all, society teaches us not to talk about money and our experiences with it.
We chatted easily as we settled into our seats and looked at the menu. Elizabeth asked me how I liked my new role at Headwaters, and I asked her about her consulting work. Once we ordered lunch, I knew it was time to ask the questions I prepared for our meeting. Every seed of self-doubt that had been sown during my childhood crept into my mind.
I took a deep breath and said: “Tell me about your wealth and privilege. Where did it come from? How do you feel about it?”
For the next two hours, Elizabeth and I engaged in one of the most meaningful conversations I have ever experienced with a donor. She talked about her family and how she came into her wealth. Elizabeth told me about her decade long struggle to come to terms with having money that she never earned and the fact that she was growing richer every year. She talked about her vision for using her wealth for good, and the responsibility she felt to steward her dollars for racial justice. I told her about my family and upbringing. I talked about the fact that I had honed the code-switching skills I learned as a child to become a successful fundraiser—sometimes to the detriment of my mental health.
What I came to realize was that even though our class backgrounds were so divergent, we both experienced shame about money and class. The honesty of our conversation surprised me.
By breaking one of society’s rules with Elizabeth, I decided I couldn’t turn back to my old fundraising practices. I committed to change the ways that I would work with donors, and how I would relate to money in my own life. It was time to heal.
When I ask donors to give, I’m asking them to give their money new meaning and power. Financially investing in the people most affected by injustice and oppression is a radical act of liberation. It frees money from the shackles of judgement and shame. Giving without strings or restrictions shifts the power dynamic and relationship between the donor and the receiver. It acknowledges the inherent dignity and humanity of the receiver. It connects the giver to something bigger than oneself. Philanthropy—the love of humankind—means that we are all connected.
My call to action is this: give now and give generously. Give to Headwaters or directly to any of the organizations our grants support. Operate from a place of abundance and do what you can—giving of your time, talent, and treasure. Give your trust and hold on to hope. Resist respectability politics. Imagine and embrace a different model of community safety. Fight like your life depends on it. Because it does.