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Issue area: Just transition; climate, racial, and economic justice
Regional Focus: Domestic
Vehicle: Chorus Foundation - sunsetting foundation
Years in philanthropy: 15
Time spent on philanthropy (weekly): Full time
Wealth story: Gifted wealth from parents
Recommended Resources: Resource Generation, Justice Funders, Solidaire
Recommended by: Stephanie Gillis, Director, Impact-Driven Philanthropy Initiative, Raikes Foundation
I was born into a wealthy family -- my father is a successful investor and entrepreneur. Both of my parents are refugees, my father from Iran and my mother from Cuba – places that were denied community self-determination, so much so that my parents had to flee to another country. So my political journey started right from childhood, learning about their stories and the foreign policies that shaped our lives. Colonialism and imperialism have always been deeply familiar and personal to me, even if I only learned that vocabulary later on.
When I was gifted a significant amount of wealth before I was even a teenager, I felt, intuitively, that it was not mine to begin with, and that it granted me an obscene amount of power that went against my deepest values. What I’ve learned from our grantees and other movement leaders since then has only reinforced that intuition.
In my late twenties, as I struggled to reconcile the project of philanthropy with my radical politics, I set up the Chorus Foundation. I made a commitment that I would move all the wealth I had been gifted to the foundation. Most of the advice [I received at the time] was framed around: "Pick an issue that you care about. And then find the organizations that can give you the biggest bang for your buck, and measure their work to death."
I picked the environment and climate based on its urgency. Very quickly, however, we shifted from a singular program area to a larger strategic frame around power. It was so clear, from each of the movement leaders I was listening to and learning from, that issue areas are all interconnected -- from climate to gender to migration to healthcare -- and, furthermore, that the challenge of the climate crisis wasn't that we didn't have the right scientific understanding or technology, but that we didn't have the power and political will needed to make change. And that's true for pretty much every issue we face today. At the foundation, we committed to funding work that builds and shifts power, politically, economically, and culturally.
On building power in communities
The Just Transition framework is what resonates most for us -- we truly believe that transition is inevitable, and that each sector has a responsibility to ensure that the process is just, including philanthropy. The world that we imagine is one where private philanthropy is no longer an acceptable mechanism for resource allocation. As a transitional form -- like a caterpillar that aspires to facilitate the creation of butterflies -- we are willing to engage in the practice of private philanthropy, but we are clear that everything we do must be about moving towards a world where resources are not extracted and hoarded in the first place, and where communities have self-determination. Where communities have the potential to create their own butterflies. All of this led to the decision to sunset our foundation -- representing an explicit political decision that, in a truly just an equitable society, we never would have existed in the first place. Family foundations as we understand them simply should not exist.
I'm under no illusion that one medium-sized family foundation spending down is going to disrupt the entire sector. But if individual institutions like ourselves can do so in a way that is coherent and charismatic, then we can create political space for others to do so as well. It's important to me to create space for others to start taking similar steps, and that's what's led also to our explicit focus on funder organizing, to facilitate a critical mass of people in the philanthropic sector who want to organize it out of existence.
On advancing racial justice
If we're not talking about changing the way capitalism works in this country, then we’re never going to get to racial justice. Real racial justice would require reparations at every level of our economy and society, and that would entail an explicit challenge to our capitalist economy. It's very clear to me that capitalism is explicitly racialized. For some, racial equity can be defined just purely in terms of outcomes, without an analysis of power. If we think about a three-legged stool of equity, power, and systems change, the tendency in philanthropy is to only talk about one or two of those, and act like we're talking about all three. Imagine a Venn diagram of all three -- we need to go to the center, otherwise we end up with a hyper-capitalist approach to racial equity that still allows for excessive power imbalance and obscene privilege.
I have always had deep cross-class relationships in my life. So when I think about accountability, I think of actual people whom I know -- friends across movement groups and across class identities, including people whom I have met through the foundation’s work. These are folks with whom I am completely transparent about my wealth, my relationship to money, and the work of the foundation, and they have taught me and even called me out when it was needed. I don’t really think philanthropy can have a concept of accountability without transparency and visibility, and without personal relationships across class and across identities. So often wealthy folks are only surrounded by other wealthy folks -- or the only cross-class relationships we have are with people who work for us. If we are really going to be part of a transformative ecosystem, our relationships must challenge traditional societal hierarchies and power dynamics as well.
Final Thoughts: Ultimately, I don’t think we want to live in a world where a select few can indulge their desires and needs at the expense of others’ -- whether it’s defined by white supremacy, patriarchy, or whatever else. A just transition acknowledges that our sector is embedded in power dynamics that simply must go. Where can someone like me go in an extractive, exploitative society? I came to philanthropy because it’s the best tool we currently have -- but let’s not conflate it with true justice and generosity. To me, it’s very clear that resource allocation doesn’t have to be done this way – and that it never should have been done this way to begin with.
Resource allocation is something that human beings operating collectively will always have to figure out how to do. But philanthropy is the act of a small number of decision-makers extracting and consolidating resources and then making the “benevolent dictator” decision to repatriate those resources back to the places and communities from which they were extracted. Why can’t people at the community level be able to make their own decisions, pre-extraction?
Read more about donors centering equity.
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