Vigilant Philanthropy

If you don't stand for something, you'll fall for anything. ~Anonymous

Last week, I participated in an emotional and inspirational vigil to advocate for compassion and unity after the San Bernardino shootings. I joined the Japanese-American community in Los Angeles, along with Muslim, Jewish, Sikh, and many other denominations gathered in a showing of support to condemn the violence, remember the victims and rally against Islamophobia.

As a Japanese-American, I am particularly inflamed by some of the rhetoric being used against American Muslims. My parents and all of their families were illegally rounded up and put into concentration camps during WWII solely because of their appearance and national origin. Fear and ignorance created hysteria and 120,000 Americans were stripped of their status and belongings by their own country. Hate for the enemy was imposed on the American citizens who looked like them.

I remember with pride when the Japanese American community stood with Muslim Americans right after 9/11 to condemn the terrorism and to call for sanity and compassion amidst the outbreaks of hateful speech and actions.

Here we go again.

These are especially difficult, tense and challenging times. The volatile issues of race, religion, globalization, immigration, inequality, power, transparency, gun violence and terrorism are all around us. As foundations what do we do? We have to stop and look within. What is our role as a community leader? Who are our partners? Are we connected to the realities of the issues we are addressing? What can we do in addition to giving money? What is our philanthropic vigilance?

We have a responsibility to build institutions that focus on change, impact the long arc of social justice. And we have to build institutions that can adapt to the ever changing world. At each of our foundations we have hardware and software. The human part is the software and this is what makes us adaptable, creative and relevant. It is our people who make us smart and connected to reality. We believe that one person, that one foundation can make a difference.

The California Community Foundation (CCF) privately prides itself on having one of the most diverse foundation boards and staffs in the United States. It's not a competition that we're trying to win. We believe in our DNA that diversity of perspectives -- a true multi-cultural, multi-religious, multi-geographic conversation -- is a stronger, much more strategic, much more responsive conversation than one that is mono-cultural, mono-ethnic and mono-religious.

Non-diverse boards and staffs assume certain things about others when they aren't represented to add value with some reality and truth to the discussion. You just can't talk about people when they're not in the room. I believe it is bad business and, in philanthropy, it's just ignorant.

So there are fundamental structural challenges that we have to make as a sector, to become more grounded to the issues and communities that are served by our missions. It is work that is never quite done, it takes persistence and vigilance.

At CCF we have had our own ignorant blind spots. We felt really good about the United Nations like team we had built. But self-satisfaction comes with a cost of complacency. We took on an initiative a few years ago called One Los Angeles, One Nation to support increased civic and philanthropic engagement of American Muslim communities in Los Angeles County. The initiative addressed misperceptions of the American Muslim community post 9/11 by partnering with and supporting non-profits serving American Muslims and integrating this work across CCF's portfolio through collaborations.

We hired Elica Vafaie, an Iranian-American woman of Muslim heritage with a stellar background in social justice and civic engagement of Arab, Middle Eastern, Muslim and South Asian (AMEMSA) communities to run this program. She became our first and only ambassador to the Muslim community at CCF. Luckily Elica was no wallflower, we usually screen for that. Elica pushed us, educated all of us on AMEMSA culture, religion, food and the state of the Muslim community in LA. Our ignorance was laid bare and all of CCF was introduced to another significant facet of the prism of diversity that is Los Angeles.

The hundreds of thousands of Arab, South Asian, Middle Eastern, Asian Pacific Islander and African American Muslim American families that reside in our region have been a vital part of our communities, invisible to us because of our own sheer ignorance.

It changed the way we hire staff, recruit board members, and our grant making strategies. But more important, it redefined and expanded how we think of community. They are us and we are them.

There is a big difference between being "tolerant" of a community and engaging communities. There is a huge difference between inclusivity or hiring a representative from a particular community and becoming part of that community. Standing with them as allies and colleagues. Until we confront our ignorance we cannot change. The American Muslim community has become part of CCF and our mission. Through the efforts of Elica and our foundation's willingness to adapt, we have evolved. But our work is not done.

So I stood there at the vigil, at the very spot where my parents' generation of Americans of Japanese descent were loaded onto buses to be incarcerated against their wills and their rights. I stood with other Americans with different skin colors, cultural attire, and religious beliefs and we became one. We became just human beings seeing our destinies tied to one another, all wanting the same thing, peace and compassion to prevent another embarrassing chapter in American history from occurring again.