The Road to Equity

Over the past few months — as I’ve immersed myself in the Walter & Elise Haas Fund, our grantees, and their work — I’ve gotten to speak with many of you. And while I know I’ve been formally presented as the Fund’s new executive director, I want to take a step closer and introduce myself more personally.

How I came to be at the Fund is a story that’s tied to the origins of my commitment to equity — something for which the Fund is rightly known. This is a story worth sharing so that more of you might know more of who I am.

I am here — both in the Bay Area and at the Fund — in no small part because of the importance of equity.

Back in 2001, I worked as a program manager for Chattanooga’s Lyndhurst Foundation. We had just launched a comprehensive community initiative focused on revitalizing under-resourced neighborhoods when I received a phone call. The National Community Building Network — of which Lyndhurst Foundation was a member — was holding a conference in Boca Raton.

And I got successfully pitched on attending.

It was at this conference that I heard Angela Blackwell speak for the first time. I attribute much of what has followed for me to the ideas she impressed upon the audience then.

For those not familiar, Angela is the founder of PolicyLink, a nonprofit that helps cities and organizations use an equity lens to make decisions. She is fiercely intelligent and an excellent orator who both makes complex subjects accessible and bold ideas incontrovertible. She is the most dynamic, graceful, passionate, and forthright speaker I’ve ever heard.

As the founder of the then-relatively-new PolicyLink, Angela spoke about the importance of equity — an idea that had not yet gained widespread traction. She woke us to this goal, directing those lucky enough to be present to ask of any new policy, “Who benefits?” If the answer to that question is “everyone,” and more importantly “the most marginalized among us,” then we know we’re on the right track.

Angela Blackwell (photo by Riverview Photography)

Unless equity is deeply held as a value and elevated as the primary driver of policy, it does not happen… People of all colors, nationalities, faiths, and incomes will share space, bump against one another, and rise or fall together. This heightens the need for all to join, as equal partners, in building equitable cities. The equity imperative illuminates the path to a stronger city—a thriving, resilient, just metropolis that works for all.

In the audience that day, I had never before heard of Angela Blackwell or PolicyLink. But by the time I finished processing the weight of her words, I knew that to accomplish anything of meaning, I’d need to reframe my life. I had to follow Angela Blackwell and her example, both figuratively and literally.

I decided to move to the Bay Area the following month, where PolicyLink is based. Within another few months, I’d accepted a position at the Stuart Foundation in San Francisco and started down the road of my Bay Area career in philanthropy.

And while I didn’t work for Angela Blackwell or PolicyLink, I spent so much of my time around their offices trying to soak up wisdom that I joked she probably mistook me for an employee.

I earned a master’s degree from the Goldman School of Public Policy at Cal. I worked on issues of affordable housing, family economic success and youth development. In my second year of graduate school, I got offered two jobs: one with Deloitte as a public sector consultant and another at the S. H. Cowell Foundation.

Choosing the path of philanthropy was right for me. I went with Cowell. That’s the road I’ve set out on and it’s the road on which I’ll stay to contribute — with all of you — to creating opportunity and access for everyone.

This year, 17 years after that life-changing conference in Boca Raton, I attended the PolicyLink Summit in Chicago. Angela Blackwell was speaking and I was excited to go and to hear her again.

This time, no one had to call me to pitch me on attending. The Summit was oversubscribed, with both hotels booked out and 4,000 people in from around the country. I got to the conference hall an hour early to stake out a seat in the front row. Even after all this time, and even as an Executive Director myself, I didn’t want to miss a single word.

Hearing Angela Blackwell speak in 2018 was as inspiring as in 2001. I left the PolicyLink Summit thinking about how far we’ve come in pursuit of equity, how far we have to go, and how we might close the distance.

Angela insisted that we stop fighting for the consolation prize and instead step into bold imagination, ever striving for the bigger, bolder goal. One example discussed at the Summit concerns the fight for a $15/hr minimum wage. That sounds like an improvement, but we know that it’s still not enough to lift a family out of poverty in the Bay Area. It’s helpful, but it’s not equity.

We need to put more energy into audacious goals that, when achieved, will make a real difference. These are perfect thoughts to elevate as I join with the staff and board of the Walter & Elise Haas Fund — an organization that has never shied from big thinking, broad coalitions, or fostering a more healthy, just, vibrant, and equitable society.

I look forward to speaking with you about these ideas, collaborating on the work ahead of us all, and being — together — the inspiration we need to continue to lift each other up.

Blog, Reflection

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