Fred Blackwell, CEO, The San Francisco Foundation: Community Foundations and Racial Equity

February 2, 2018
Fred Blackwell, CEO, The San Francisco Foundation: Community Foundations and Racial Equity

Fred Blackwell joined , one of the largest community foundations in the United States, as CEO in 2014. An Oakland native, he previously had served as interim administrator and assistant administrator for the city, led the San Francisco  and the ; and directed the s Making Connections Initiative in Oakland.

In June 2016, TSFF announced a new  to racial and economic equity in the Bay Area. PND spoke with Blackwell about the foundation's racial equity lens, movement building in the wake of the 2016 elections and Charlottesville, and what it means for philanthropic organizations to speak out, step up, and actually try to achieve racial equity.

Philanthropy News Digest: How do you define "racial equity"?

Fred Blackwell: I define it as just and fair inclusion in a society where everyone can participate, prosper, and thrive, regardless of their race or where they live or their family's economic status or any other defining characteristic. Obviously, the way we think about equity is colored by our particular focus on the Bay Area — a place where there is tremendous opportunity and prosperity being generated, but also where access to those opportunities is limited for many people. So from an institutional point of view, we need to answer the question: How do we make sure that the region prospers in a way that the rising tide lifts all boats?

PND: When you stepped into the top job at TSFF in 2014, the foundation already had a lengthy history of social justice work. How did the decision to focus the foundation's grantmaking on racial and economic equity come about?

FB: Shortly after I came to the foundation, we conducted a listening tour of the Bay Area. As part of that listening tour, we held what we called our  sessions — a series of large public meetings in seven diverse low-income communities across the region. In addition, we held consultative sessions, half-day meetings with practitioners, policy people, and thought leaders to talk about trends, both positive and negative, they were seeing in the region and how those trends were affecting people. We did a lot of data collection and analysis. And the data all pointed in the same direction: the need for greater levels of inclusion here in the Bay Area. The fact that race and economic status and geography had predictive power over where people were headed and what they could accomplish concerned us, and it was important to try to respond to that.

There are two pieces of the foundation's history that we wanted to build on: one is the social justice orientation of our work, and the other is our regional footprint....

There are two pieces of the foundation's history that we wanted to build on: one is the social justice orientation of our work, and the other is our regional footprint. We serve Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, San Francisco, and San Mateo counties. So in focusing on the equity issue, we're also thinking about it from a regional point of view. What makes the Bay Area unique is its diversity and prosperity, and yet we are a prime real-time example of the kinds of inequalities and inequities that you see on multiple levels across the country. It's important to us as a unit of analysis because equity and the issues that emanate from it — whether it's economic opportunity or housing or education or criminal justice or civic participation — none of those issues conform neatly to the boundaries of the various jurisdictions in the region. People may live in Oakland or San Francisco or Berkeley or Richmond, but they experience the Bay Area as a region.

What I think I brought to the foundation is a laser-like focus on the dimensions of social justice work with respect to racial and economic inclusion and equity — making sure that that "North Star" is something that is modeled at the top and cascades down through all levels of the organization. I would say that we are more explicit than we've been in the past about making equity the focus — not just in our grantmaking but also in how we work with donors, how we provide civic leadership in the region, and how we bring our voice to the table and those of our partners in order to make a difference. We view that North Star as guiding not only our programmatic work but everything we do here at the foundation.

PND: The equity agenda you announced in 2016 is structured around three interrelated " — , , and . What is the thinking behind that framework, and what are some of the highlights to date within each of those pathways?

FB: "People, place, and power" emerged for us as we thought about what we needed to focus on in order to achieve equity and what some of the challenges were. Each pathway is associated with what we call a center of work, or grantmaking area. For "people," it's "Expanding Access to Opportunity" — thinking through what people need to reach their full potential and how we can help eliminate systemic or physical barriers they may face, and in particular how we can help people of color and low-income folks gain access to high-income, high-growth segments of the economy.

The "place" work — "Anchoring Communities" — aims to address the fact that where you live can either be a springboard to opportunity or a fence around the lack thereof and ensure that everyone in the region lives in a community that allows them to reach their full potential. And the "power" element — "Nurturing Equity Movements" — recognizes that you could have all the great programs and services and policies in the arenas of people and place, but if they're not connected to a constituency that is demanding the kinds of changes we're seeking, none of those solutions will reach the level of scale they need to, nor will they be sustainable over the long term, which is essential if we're to achieve the kind of impact we're trying to achieve. All of this work needs to be grounded in efforts to amplify and strengthen the civic voice of communities of color and low-income communities.

So, here are a few highlights of that work.

We've been deeply involved in issues around affordable housing and preventing displacement on multiple levels, in part by supporting policy and advocacy, and in part by adding our voice to the conversation, as well as thinking about areas where our leadership can help bring together stakeholders from different sectors. We've also been deeply involved in work at the intersection of criminal justice reform and immigration issues; those systems increasingly intersect and impact communities in profound ways. And we've really been trying to boost voter participation and civic engagement — and help strengthen the capacity of organizations led by people of color to be more involved in civic engagement and advocacy.

For example, with a group of other foundations, we've been supporting  and Anthony Thigpenn, who are working with a , both in the region and statewide, to strengthen the political voice of African-American communities. We've also been making grants to community organizations and organizers working to increase funding for affordable housing and strengthen protections for tenants. And we've been working with grassroots organizations in the area of criminal justice reform.

Obviously, we look for grantmaking opportunities that fit our pathways of people, place, and power, but the most powerful strategies are the ones that cut across all three. One of the things we're doing differently in our grantmaking is that we're not asking applicants to designate the area where they think they fit. We're asking them, instead, to describe their work, to tell us what they're doing to address equity issues, and then we go through a process internally with a cross-disciplinary team to determine where they best fit. That way, we get a sense of what is out there and coming through the door rather than putting organizations into siloes.

PND: Do you think that, as a country, racial equity can be achieved without economic equity — and vice versa?

FB: I think there are instances where the inequity manifests itself purely in the form of race, and instances where the challenge has to do with economic status, and instances where both are in play. The criminal justice system is a perfect example: there are aspects that are clearly about race — racial profiling, stop-and-frisk, the biases within the system, the mass incarceration of black and brown folks regardless of economic status. At the same time, there are aspects, such as bail reform or adequate representation, that are clearly about economic status. But we feel we have to approach both racial and economic equity together.

[W]e've been very deliberate about leading with race, because we feel that the conversation about race is one that is too often brushed aside, and the economic piece is often used as a proxy for race....

I should also make clear that we've been very deliberate about leading with race, because we feel that the conversation about race is one that is too often brushed aside, and the economic piece is often used as a proxy for race. Adopting an equity agenda here, making racial and economic equity our North Star, and organizing our work around people, place, and power — all that was done well before the 2016 election. But the election and what has happened since, the divisiveness, the actual policies articulated by the administration, have illuminated for us that we were indeed focusing on the right issue. While it has required us to make adjustments on the margins, it just affirmed that we're working in the right space.

PND: How have your donors responded to the new focus? Did you see an uptick in contributions after you made the announcement? And what about since the election in November?

FB: We'd started engaging donors in the process of refining our focus as early as 2015, holding focus groups, inviting them to learn more about what we were focusing on and why, and getting their feedback — and the response has been tremendous. It's hard to determine whether it's our focus on equity or the larger political climate or the booming economy, but we've had a number of record-breaking fundraising years.

We're judging our impact with donors in a couple of ways: one is the amount of money that comes through the door, and the other is the kinds of issues donors are supporting. We're measuring the extent to which we are seeing more alignment between donor activity and what we're doing programmatically — and that's moving in a positive direction. Are donors funding the same organizations as we are? Are we supporting the same kinds of issues? To what extent are donors looking for advice from us about where they should be making grants, and to what extent are they taking that advice?   

We have a very explicit point of view about this: If we're clear about how we're trying to impact the community, and we're doing that with our grantmaking and our civic leadership, and we're able to catch the attention of our existing donors, new donors will be attracted to the foundation, and those donors will be the kinds of donors who are interested in being a part of what we're trying to do. And even though it's hard to attribute it to any one thing, we've seen an uptick in contributions.

PND: In November 2016, TSFF launched a  with the aim of providing resources quickly to frontline social justice organizations. Other foundations have since created rapid response grant programs and/or 501(c)(4) sister organizations of their own, while a number of new funds have emerged to support grassroots social justice work. Do you see that kind of funding as a short-term remedy to an urgent need, or are you hoping it represents a longer-term strategic shift in the way progressive foundations do grantmaking?

FB: The Rapid Response Fund was something we designed as part of the work we were doing around our "Nurturing Equity Movements" pathway, but we launched it in November 2016 instead of in early 2017 as anticipated. The election had the effect of moving up the launch, but we view the Rapid Response Fund less as a response to the election and more as a response to a need we saw in the field. In that sense, we absolutely view it as a long-term strategy rather than a short-term fix. We also view it as an opportunity to invite donors to invest with us. Even though it was launched as a grantmaking program, with funds from our endowment, we've had donors and even other philanthropic institutions contribute to it. It appears there's a demand for it, which also argues for it becoming something more permanent.

PND: After the violence in Charlottesville last summer, you  that we were witnessing a "resurgence of bigotry and white supremacy" in the country, and that "this is not the time for silence." In the wake of Charlottesville and recent actions and rhetoric from the administration on immigration, do you think the philanthropic sector has spoken up loudly enough?

FB: The rhetoric that we've heard during and since the 2016 election is reflective of a certain segment of this country that has been around for a long time — I would say since the country's founding. These are people who associate with hate, intimidation, violence, bigotry, oppression, and division. And I think we've heard more from that segment of late and have seen a resurgence of that kind of rhetoric. But it's important for philanthropy and all of us to make sure that we use our voices, our power, our grantmaking, and our relationships to make sure this resurgence of hate and bigotry is a last gasp. And in that spirit, none of us has said enough. There's room for all of us to use all the tools at our disposal a little more and a little more effectively.

That said, I am pleased with the number of foundations I've heard speaking up and speaking out against that rhetoric. I think, as a group, we're headed in the right direction, particularly given the tradition of philanthropy — we think of ourselves as behind-the-scenes players when it comes to these kinds of issues. I think folks are realizing that this is not the time for behind-the-scenes action. There's a long list of foundations that are stepping up, and it's really heartening to see.

My mother, Angela Glover Blackwell, who leads , says, "What's the use of having a reputation if you're not willing to use it?" I think that statement is particularly appropriate for philanthropy. We spend a lot of time developing a reputation around our rigor, our contribution to the intellectual discourse, the kinds of activities we support; reputation in philanthropy means a lot. And being willing to step out and risk that reputation at a time like this is the absolute right thing to do.

PND: Having worked in both local government and philanthropy, what do you see as the greatest challenge philanthropic organizations face in working to advance racial equity?

FB: The biggest challenge for government or philanthropy is getting past the notion that one community's gain has to be another community's setback. That notion permeates every aspect of society. We have to be able to talk about racial equity and execute on a racial equity agenda and communicate what we're doing in a way that lifts up the fact that by meeting the needs of the most vulnerable among us, we all benefit. This not a zero-sum game. Equity is about understanding what it takes to make sure that everybody is able to reach their full potential, and committing to it, rather than viewing it as one group reaching their full potential to the detriment of another group. We need to understand that sometimes it requires disproportionate investment of resources — whether money, time, or energy — in a particular group in order for us all to benefit from it.

PND: What lessons or recommendations would you share with foundations that are thinking about or taking their first steps to integrate racial equity into their grantmaking?

There is a difference between working on racial equity and actually trying to achieve racial equity. I think it's important for institutions that are engaged in this work to deeply understand which one of those pathways they are on....

FB: There is a difference between working on racial equity and actually trying to achieve racial equity. I think it's important for institutions that are engaged in this work to deeply understand which one of those pathways they are on. If you're just working on racial equity, it's okay to have an equity grantmaking program and some staff members focused on racial equity and make a few grants focused on racial equity. But actually trying to achieve equity is a very different endeavor, and it requires a top-to bottom examination of your institution and how you approach your work. It requires you to speak truth to power in a different way, to look at the governance of your organization and what it contributes to what you're trying to do, to look at the diversity of your workforce and who is in leadership positions actually making decisions. It requires you to examine how equity permeates your organization and everything you do — how you use your voice, how you do your grantmaking, how you manage your hiring process, who you hire, how you buy your products, which consultants you use, how you talk to partners and potential partners about what you're working on and how they can join you. It's okay to just work on equity, but it's not okay to think you're trying to achieve equity when you're just working on it.

In other words, it's important to be aware of where you fit in the ecosystem and not to mischaracterize the work. You need to understand what you're doing and what you're not doing, and why, and not take up space in the field if you're not serious about it. You have to set the right expectations. If you're not ready to partner with community groups that are working on this in a serious way, and be bold in supporting them, and defend that work when others question it, it's important for the communities that you're working in and the organizations that you're working with to know that. It's important for them to know how deep your involvement is in that work, so they don't have an expectation of a partnership with you that exceeds what you're willing to do.

I would also suggest we think about the fact that the role of grantmaker is important but not enough to achieve what we're trying to achieve, which goes back to: Are we using our voice? Are we engaging our donors? How should we think about civic leadership? I would encourage folks to examine all of that when they're thinking about racial equity work.

— Kyoko Uchida