In 2014, McArthur "Mac" Hoang was released from prison and determined to rebuild his life. Hoang, the youngest of 10, is the only child born in America from a Vietnamese refugee family. The Vietnam War had devastating effects on the Hoang family, and Hoang faced a childhood of adverse experiences, including disability, addiction, foster care, and carcerality. Today, Hoang sits on the board of the New Breath Foundation (NBF), which focuses on mobilizing resources to support Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders (AANHPIs) harmed by the unjust immigration and criminal justice systems. In the following interview, you'll read about his perspective on traditional philanthropy practices and his experience in an organization shifting the paradigm by centering those with lived experience. 

Q: NBF believes in the transformative power of lived experience and centers those with lived experience. In addition to NBF's president and founder, Eddy Zheng, who's formerly incarcerated and directly impacted, how do you see NBF embodying this belief at the organization?

I see this taking place in several ways. NBF recruits board members who are formerly incarcerated. We give space for persons with lived experience to play a role as a Community Advisory Committee (CAC) member and grant reviewer. We make decisions and changes based on grantee feedback. And we don't stand in the way. Our job is to help fund grantees but also to help build a network of support for them.

Q: In a recent NBF blog post, you touched on your experience participating in New Breath Foundation's grant review process. How did your lived experience inform your feedback during the discussion?

 The traditional grant review process inadvertently excludes the most grassroots organizations with the expertise to help their communities. During the review, I realized that some reviewers were more accustomed to a traditional process and evaluation method. This approach looks for the highest probability of success from a grant application; reviewers make decisions purely on the application. Through this lens, grassroots organizations more often don't get selected because they don't have the funding and infrastructure to employ a professional grant writer who can write a polished proposal. 

Reviewers with lived experience look at the intended outcomes from candidates' applications. Applicants with a passion for the mission will be able to achieve what they want to do for an organization, and we have a nuance for understanding what's necessary for the passion to succeed. I pushed the group to do more due diligence by contacting our networks to learn more about the applicants or calling them directly to learn more about their work. To find the stars (those with the greatest potential), you need to put in the leg work to look for the ones who will push forward and who will make a transformative difference or impact. 

Q: Can you share some of the opportunities you received that helped you heal and thrive and guided your assessment of potential New Breath Foundation grantees? 

A: I'm privileged to be part of the foster youth community, and I saw 1-2 outstanding organizations in how they conducted their work. One example is Pivotal (formerly Silicon Valley Children's Fund), based in San Jose, CA. They give without questions and offer trust-based support instead of waiting to be asked. They are one of the first and few to tear down age limits on foster support—knowing foster care support doesn't end at a number. Once, they wanted to start an after-school program but didn't think to consider providing food. I suggested they provide food, snacks, and to-go containers that the foster youth could eat at the events and easily take home. Those with lived experience can identify the blind spots and recognize the essential, necessary items that need to be in place. Pivotal took my feedback, fosters showed up, and the program was successful. Pivotal is also intentional about hiring former Alumni into leadership roles. Organizations need to be ready to pivot, which is what NBF does. That's how they can succeed.

Offer instead of ask. Funders should create a space for grantees to thrive - fund like you want them to win. An example is when I was still at a critical point. I needed money to cover my rent. I was attending a church in San Jose, and when my pastor heard about my situation, I asked him for the needed rent for one month. Instead, the church covered five months' rent, and he told me to reach out to him again if I needed more money for rent. The pastor didn't just give what I needed at that moment; he gave extra. Funders should fund in anticipation of the hills in the future and help support capacity building. "Just enough" doesn't make critical change; it doesn't just  SHIFT the paradigm. 

Q: You have helped thousands of people change their life trajectories. Can you tell us more about some of the ways you do that because you have the experience of knowing what is helpful?

A: A few examples include speaking to University of California (UC) Regents, asking them to add funding for resource programs serving former foster youth at UCs, which resulted in Gov. Gavin Newsom (Calif.) announcing $6 million in ongoing funding in the state's budget line item, advocating for older fosters, changing the age restriction of fosters at community college, and championing increasing access and opportunity for UC Berkeley students with disabilities to receive the services and accommodations they need to succeed in classes and graduate. By increasing student access by 100x, 10,000 students could get the necessary services for a college degree.

Q: NBF recently launched the We Got Us Fund, which has several goals, including increasing the leadership pipelines for survivors of systemic violence and those formerly incarcerated. Can you explain the importance of this focus and why donors should invest in this type of initiative?

A: If donors want to have a transformational impact and make real change, centering directly impacted individuals is key. The current "solutions" aren't working because they are made mostly by people without lived experience. These practices are not only costing the U.S. government $84.6 billion a year (public and private prisons and jails), but there are major social costs of incarceration to incarcerated persons, families, children, and communities. When donors support increasing the leadership pathways for people with lived experience, they are helping the field and sector develop solutions that work, increase safety, decrease violence, and enable people to thrive.

Q: Besides the great takeaways you mentioned in the interview, can you share some ways donors can take action?

If you want genuinely transformative solutions, center those most impacted in the solutions by engaging people with the lived experience and thriving in their healing journey.

  • Unlearn the lens of traditional philanthropy. Great ideas can come through imperfect grammar. Don't look for the perfect, well-written application. Go the extra mile to speak with the prospective grantee.
  • Fund community-led collective funds that center lived experience.
  • Reach out to NBF. We welcome and are willing to do presentations to help educate donors and funders. Feel free to contact us to help you learn more about centering those with lived experience in your grantmaking.

McArthur Hoang graduated with honors from the Sociology Department at UC Berkeley in 2020 and is currently a Reentry Manager at the Asian Prisoner Support Committee, supporting those reentering society from institutions. Because of his past experiences, he feels called to serve the community. His passions lie in supporting formerly incarcerated, foster youth, and disabled persons to find meaningful employment and improved life outcomes. 

 New Breath Foundation mobilizes resources to support Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders (AANHPIs) harmed by the unjust immigration and criminal justice systems to heal, keep families together, and build movements that shift narratives and policies.