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An Interview with Lateefah Simon, President, Akonadi Foundation…On the Power of Openness, Listening, and Connecting to Improve Equity, Diversity, & Inclusion
June 21, 2018

Leteefah SimonLateefah Simon is a nationally recognized advocate for civil rights and racial justice, and brings more than 20 years of executive experience in advancing opportunities for communities of color and low-income communities in the Bay Area. Prior to joining Akonadi, which seeks to eliminate structural racism that leads to inequity in the United States, Simon served as program director for the San Francisco-based Rosenberg Foundation, a statewide grantmaker focusing on systemic barriers to full access to equity and opportunity for Californians. She managed the Foundation’s portfolio of grants supporting groundbreaking advocacy in criminal justice reform, immigrant rights, low-wage workers’ rights, and civic engagement.

Before joining Rosenberg, Simon was executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, where she revamped the 40-year-old organization’s structure and launched successful community-based initiatives, including the Second Chance Legal Services Clinic. Her passion for supporting low-income young women and girls, and her advocacy for juvenile and criminal justice reform began at San Francisco’s Center for Young Women’s Development (CYWD), now called the Young Women’s Freedom Center. Simon became executive director of that grassroots organization, run for and by young women who come through and are affected by these systems, at age 19; she remained in that role for 11 years.

In January, our PhilanTopic colleagues interviewed Simons to discuss her work on racial equity in this 5Qs post. Recently, Glasspockets caught up with Simons for a follow-up interview about her career arc from grassroots activist to foundation leader, her observations about how openness can help to mitigate the grantee/grantmaker power imbalance, and how her current grantmaking practices are informed by important lessons she learned about philanthropy, equity, diversity, and inclusion from the other side of the grantmaking table. 

GlassPockets: As the field of philanthropy is turning its attention to racial equity, I think there is a lot we might be able to learn from your story of how you started out in philanthropy when you led a small, grassroots organization, knowing no one in the field, and now have navigated your career to becoming a philanthropy insider. Can you start by describing your career path, the challenges you faced as a young woman of color, and how you broke into philanthropy? What were some of the key breakthroughs for you that made it possible?

Lateefah Simon: I started my career in the in the 1990’s - in the midst of the AIDS crisis, the war on drugs and the out migration and displacement of black people. Sill in high school, I began working as an organizer at the Young Women’s Freedom Center in San Francisco. The girl-led organization was founded to build advocacy and power with systems involving young women through political education, organizing, and building economic stability.

“I remember thinking, 'If I’m ever a funder, I am going to listen.'”

Three years after joining the organization, I became its executive director. I was a single mother, living in low-income housing – but, despite these struggles, I was an excellent organizer. As a young executive director of color, I faced daily challenges in engaging with folks in philanthropy because I was not part of their usual networks.  One encounter during these early days still haunts me. It was 1998, and we’d just launched a political education program in juvenile hall and in SRO hotels. We were building a membership base to mount a campaign to oust the homophobic ombudsman at the detention center. A program officer from a well-known advocacy funder came to visit and learn more about our work.  We’d assembled about 15 staff and organization members - all homeless and system-involved girls. Rather than trying to understand our programmatic approach, she immediately dismissed the work as not aligned with the foundation’s definition of organizing, in effect telling us “we were not organizing.” It was at that moment that I realized that the power dynamics of race and class manifested in the funder and organizer relationship, even among well intentioned funders, were dangerous. She came into a space run by, and for, women of color and told us what she thought was best for our community. She set up the dynamic: We couldn’t engage in honest conversations, we couldn’t push back, and if we wanted resources from her group, we’d have to fall in line. I felt so clear at that moment about the purpose of our work with these young women, and I remember thinking, “If I’m ever a funder, I am going to listen.”

Another challenging instance I remember is that I had to fill out a diversity report about our organization for a foundation that had no people of color on its leadership team and might have benefited more from the exercise than we did. We had to report statistics such as how many people of color and how many women we had on staff and were serving through our programs. We had to comply with the data points to get the funding that we needed. I remember thinking about the contradiction inherent to a process like this one in which the funders themselves didn’t have to disclose their own diversity data. That’s why the fact that GlassPockets encourages foundations to publicly share their own diversity data as part of their commitment to transparency is so important. I think foundations have more to learn than community-based groups from such an exercise.

In contrast, one of the first funders to believe in me was Quinn Delaney, founder of the Akonadi Foundation. She and an advisor came to a site visit and took the time to listen to me for two hours, using it as an opportunity to learn rather than demonstrate what she already knew. She listened, asked questions, believed in us, and supported us. Another transformational experience was when I was newly hired at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area. I was pitching funders about our work, and I was lucky enough to land a meeting with Dr. Ross, CEO of The California Endowment. He was one of the most gracious people I’ve ever met. I told him what we were doing and he declined our programmatic grant request. But he also said, “I believe in you, so I’m going to give you some money. It’s important that we invest in young people of color.” He invested in me as a leader, and in so doing, demonstrated to me the importance of foundations having flexibility even when programs don’t align.

Maya Harris, when she was at the Ford Foundation, is another positive example of a funder who worked to make philanthropy more inclusive by making time to provide one-on-one assistance. Instead of saying “no” to my grant application, she actually personally called to walk me through the grant application step-by-step, and told me what I needed to correct about the proposal to make it stronger.

Those individuals continue to be mentors in my life to this day, and they’ve worked like that with scores of young people. Building strong relationships between grantees and grantseekers is invaluable. These types of investments of time and resources and mentorship are vital to building mutual trust for real social change to occur.

GP: How do those breaks you received inform how you now structure your own grantmaking policies and procedures to ensure those not connected and well-resourced have a chance?

LS: In philanthropy, we should look at prospective grantees as our educators. I’ve been in philanthropy for seven years, and I’m very clear about what I don’t know. It is a privilege to be in this sector, and important to approach the work as a student, not an expert, and ask the questions without having the answers. We are students of the movements that we seek to support. Now, being in the sector, I’d like to be the kind of professional funder who continues to “do the least harm and do the most good.”

“We are students of the movements that we seek to support.”

I always tell my staff that you should be working the hardest that you’ve ever worked. And they are. Our Akonadi team continues to work hard at creating intentionality in our grantmaking by taking the time to answer the phone and respond to grantees, to walk people through the application process, and to answer questions. We do public information sessions in communities that may not have heard of Akonadi and wouldn’t know how to apply for a grant. We attend grantee community events and plan learning convenings to engage our community of grantees to find out how we can sharpen our process. It’s a privilege to support groups that are doing the most difficult work on the front lines, fighting racism and oppression, particularly in the current political environment in which so many of the communities we serve are under attack. The bottom line is that we try to hold a high standard of excellence while also making the process accessible and making ourselves as available as possible.

GP: As more industry conferences and foundation portfolios are focusing on racial equity, what advice would you give them on practices that can help the field improve its record and better serve and reflect its communities?

LS: Through our Beloved Community Fund, we supported an annual event at Oakland’s Lake Merritt called 510Day, which is organized by youth in the community to bring to light issues like gentrification, over-policing and mass incarceration. 510 Day happened on the heels of #BBQBecky, the story that went viral about the white woman who called the cops on black folks having a barbecue at Lake Merritt in Oakland. The event gained national attention because of the community response to the incident, and put a spotlight on the economic pressures that communities of color are facing in the city. I spoke to a young man at the event, and he said, “If you’re a police officer or a firefighter, you get a four-gun salute when you die. We, the community, are out here organizing and doing the work on the streets. We are the first responders in our neighborhoods to crime and violence.”

“We have to find ways to connect with those groups who are not on 'the radar,' but are doing the heavy work of healing and organizing communities that are hit hardest by racism and oppression.”

I sat with that as a funder. There is a heavy weight on us in philanthropy. We have to stay aware of what’s happening in our communities, and what’s happening at the margins of those communities that we serve. We have to find ways to connect with those groups who are not on “the radar,” but are doing the heavy work of healing and organizing communities that are hit hardest by racism and oppression. That means getting out of our offices and into the streets. Not just carrying protest signs and bullhorns, but to set up and clean up after rallies, and to show up for the movement and get involved, to meet and learn from the people who are most affected. Additionally, when thinking about equity, it’s important that foundations realize that we shouldn’t talk about equity without being explicit about advancing racial equity. That means addressing and fighting racism on every level from the ground up.  At the same time, we have to continually think about how to do the most good and the least harm.

In a perfect world, philanthropy would be focused on working ourselves out of business. What would it be like if real money was re-invested in struggling communities so folks would not get pushed out and our communities lived up to the promise of possibility? Philanthropy is filling gaps around the world that are extremely important. We can’t wait for government to catch up, or fill gaps left by cuts in government support. But we have to think very carefully about power and who gets to distribute resources, or we are part of the problem.

GP: Since you have worked on both sides of the philanthropic table, what advice would you give to grantseekers and grantmakers about strengthening their relationship, particularly in ways that can mitigate the power dynamic and pave the way for racial equity, diversity, and inclusion?

LS: It’s hard being a funder and being asked this question. Every foundation is different, and every leader is different. My advice to grantseekers would be: Don’t compromise your vision and values for resources. Stay true to your vision, and follow that. I know this is a struggle because I’ve been there and know that often you don’t have that luxury because you have to make payroll and launch a campaign. But as much as possible, stay true to the work and the people.

And, in a perfect world, grantseekers could speak to their funding partners with complete honesty and integrity and wouldn’t have to fold or bend their ideas. I wish I could go to a site visit and have an honest conversation about what’s not working. We know how amazing people are, and the incredible work they are doing, wouldn’t it be powerful to engage in a conversation about what would make things better? That should go for funders too. Find ways to hold funders more accountable. This is so tricky because of the power dynamics, but there are tools, like GrantAdvisor, where grantseekers can review foundations and provide information about the process and what the experience applying for funding is truly like.

Also, neither side should consider a decline letter as the end of the story. Instead, grantseekers should use declines as an opportunity to engage funders and learn about ways to strengthen your application. These kinds of conversations allow the program officer to explain why they chose to decline the request, whether it is worth your time to re-apply at a later date, and how you can write a stronger proposal. And funders should be willing to engage in such conversations and use them as a tool for learning as well, because these post-proposal dialogues can also be a time to get feedback from grantees on your process as well, so both of you can learn from the experience.

Akonadi FoundationGP: Since Akonadi has been doing racial equity work for nearly 20 years, and you are now two years into your administration there, what new directions are ahead for it under your leadership? Are there changes you have already made because of your experience being a grantee, nonprofit executive director, or philanthropy outsider?

LS: I came into a foundation where the principles of racial equity were built into the brick and mortar of this institution. I don’t know if everyone comes into a foundation like that. We deeply value building relationships with our grantees, and think of ourselves as partners in the work. As funders, we try to be thoughtful about the demands that we place on our grantees, and are available for them to provide feedback, answer questions, or just be here as thought partners. Our staff actively engages with our grant partners, out in the field at events, or through convenings. I was lucky I landed in a foundation that mirrors my values and pushes me to think about the sector and our work even more.

Since I have come to Akonadi, I am actively thinking through what power building looks like in the context of the work that is happening here in Oakland. We’ve seen in philanthropy that a lot of funders are cautious and stay away from electoral work. This year, we are leaning in around integrated voter engagement, and are confident in the leadership of our grant partners to find ways to build power and make sure Oakland is engaging fully in the work to bring voters to the table to build political power. Additionally, we are thinking about the best ways that Akonadi can support cohorts of organizations to work and learn together. We are learning important lessons around how to engage our grant partners in collective learning, and we are actively trying to understand the best use of our positioning as a funder and what our role is in bringing folks together in a way that is not burdensome, and leads to shared momentum.

Comments

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This is a fantastic piece. So true!!! I also invite you to think about putting the D of disability into diversity. Fully 1-in-5 people have a disability. A disability can be physical, mental health, cognitive or another barrier. But people with disabilities can be very talented too. Here are some tools to help. I hope you will look at the super short video. Thanks to CalEndow/Dr. Ross for making this possible as well! http://glasspockets.org/glasspockets-gallery/who-has-glass-pockets

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About Transparency Talk

  • Transparency Talk, the Glasspockets blog, is a platform for candid and constructive conversation about foundation transparency and accountability. In this space, Foundation Center highlights strategies, findings, and best practices on the web and in foundations–illuminating the importance of having "glass pockets."

    The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of the Foundation Center.

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