At the age of 7, I remember the sheer terror of my family of five fleeing Vietnam to find political asylum. Branded “alien” and “outsider,” I found it hard to speak about the trauma of my experience as a refugee. Coming to America did not end the pain, violence, or oppression we endured. In the “Land of Opportunity,” we experienced the vicissitudes of discrimination, poverty, unsafe neighborhoods, and sub-standard inner-city schools. I remember the cramped living quarters of our one-bedroom apartment in South LA where gun shots and sirens erupted with regularity. To survive and succeed, I worked hard to assimilate, to perfect my English, and to rarely speak of my early experience or native culture. But all the while, I felt incomplete and a sense of disconnection from my community.
In graduate school, the carefully constructed walls separating my private and public selves began to crack open. As I was considering a topic for my doctoral thesis, I finally chose to focus on the experiences of second wave Vietnamese immigrant students. This not only informed educators on the lived experiences of the children of the “Boat People,” it also helped me to reflect on my own experience of navigating the distinct worlds of family, peers, and schools and the need to constantly “code switch” to fit in and succeed.
Looking for post-graduation opportunities, I never imagined a career in philanthropy. However, I was intrigued by the goal of the Multicultural Fellowship at The San Francisco Foundation (TSFF) to introduce young professionals of color to institutional philanthropy and to increase the pipeline of leaders of color interested in making a difference in their communities through positions in philanthropy, the nonprofit, public, and private sectors.
“Transparency is often thought of in institutional contexts, but here I am also reflecting on how philanthropy can be improved if more of us “outsiders” who find a seat at the philanthropy table can share the power of our personal stories to influence, inform, and ultimately, to humanize the work.”
As a fellow, I was introduced to what it meant to have access to power and wealth. I sat in board of trustee meetings and supported the development and implementation of multi-funder initiatives. This program gave me keen insights into the inner workings of foundations and the role of philanthropy. It taught me humility as a steward of charitable resources. More than anything, the fellowship gave me poise and fearlessness to open up for the first time to share my intensely personal history because I realized my new colleagues could learn about the historically excluded communities they were serving through my experiences. Transparency is often thought of in institutional contexts, but here I am also reflecting on how philanthropy can be improved if more of us “outsiders” who find a seat at the philanthropy table can share the power of our personal stories to influence, inform, and ultimately, to humanize the work.
I was encouraged to explore why community-led solutions mattered to me. Countering the dominant behavioral expectations around race, class, and culture, this fellowship provided a nurturing, supportive environment. I thrived under the tutelage of a powerful, Black-Filipino female mentor and the support of a peer cohort of accomplished women of color.
I re-entered philanthropy two decades later to fulfill the promise and a great debt of gratitude for the TSFF Fellowship. Joining The California Endowment (TCE) allowed me the opportunity to serve as a member of the executive team and to contribute to one of the most racially diverse foundations in the U.S. Through strategic recruiting efforts, TCE has intentionally established a deep and strong pipeline of diverse staff and leaders—supporting and drawing from high-quality fellowship programs such as TSFF Multicultural Fellowship, Greenlining Equity Fellowship, and National Urban Institute Fellowship.
At TCE, we push ourselves, as grantmakers and change leaders, to learn and adapt to the shifting socio-political environment to create an equity-focused organization and improve our work as a result of having a number of staff who are representative of the diverse communities we serve. This entails:
- Creating the space and time for healing and difficult internal conversations on race: Although TCE is renowned for its work to advance health equity and social justice, our staff continues to ensure we take the time to openly discuss the effects of current events on our well-being, and build an “authorizing environment” to support a shared understanding and analysis of racial equity to inform our work with communities.
- Using the foundation’s platform to influence and collaborate: TCE staff is engaged from the inside to transform philanthropic practice and to have difficult internal conversations about our role as a health foundation in taking a stance against state sanctioned violence and exclusionary practices. Most recently, our President & CEO used his voice and TCE joined forces with numerous foundations and advocates and grantee partners in a joint statement to express outrage at the policy of separating children from families at the border and how this affects TCE’s mission and our work as a foundation. And earlier this year, following the mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, given the implications to public health, our Board committed to scrubbing our stock holdings of any investments in gun manufacturing.
- Ensuring that power is built and sustained in marginalized communities. In the long-run, TCE has identified our North Star as “Building voice and power for a health and inclusive California.” Our work is not done until historically excluded adults and youth residents have voice, agency and power in public and private decision making to create an inclusive democracy and close health equity gaps, so we prioritize supporting youth movements and governing for racial equity.
By all measures, the work of TCE is better and more attuned to communities because the foundation opened up its work to those who have traditionally been on the outside of philanthropy. As the first Vietnamese Chief Learning Officer, I am proud of my branded outsider, refugee status. This gives me the strength, inspiration, and empathy to do my best work in philanthropy and to re-envision the land of opportunity for my community and all Californians.
This blog originally ran in the Foundation Center’s Transparency Talk. Click here to read it there.